San Francisco Dog Court

Due process, under the law, for every canine

"I don't like it at all," says Kenneth Phillips, the Los Angeles-based attorney for Shawn Jones, a Richmond boy who lost his ears in a pit bull attack in 2001. "What safeguards are there for privacy?"

Phillips practices dog law in counties all over the country. He's seen how much procedures vary, if they exist at all. The regulation of dangerous dogs doesn't happen on a federal level. But, Phillips says, there has been a noticeable and general change in attitude about dog attacks. "People and governments and industry have become less tolerant of bad dogs and irresponsible owners," he says. He attributes it to progress made by the animal rights movement. Strangely enough, the shift toward viewing dogs as something more than property may actually be the same as an increased emphasis on owner responsibility, the conservative maxim Herndon holds dear. "Dog owners just have to be more responsible," Phillips says, sounding familiar.

Herndon's concern with Laurie More and Sweet Pea, naturally, focuses on what steps More, who has two small children at home, will now take to make her dog safe for the community. Since the attack happened on federal parkland, Dog Court's legal authority over More is tenuous. But More, if a bad comedian, is a responsible owner. She showed up at the hearing. She showed up tonight. She agreed to abide by Herndon's decision, and she's willing to put Sweet Pea on a leash in off-leash areas. She's even willing to cede the park to Potsticker and walk her dog somewhere else.

Sgt. Bill Herndon keeps man's best friend on leash 
and in line at the city shelter.
Nicki Ishmael
Sgt. Bill Herndon keeps man's best friend on leash and in line at the city shelter.
Officer John Denny, Herndon, and Capt. Vicky 
Guldbech discuss a hearing at City Hall.
Nicki Ishmael
Officer John Denny, Herndon, and Capt. Vicky Guldbech discuss a hearing at City Hall.

In the end, Herndon decides that Sweet Pea, while aggressive and high-strung, is not vicious and dangerous. He hopes More will seek out a dog trainer to modify Sweet Pea's behavior.

"I just hope we got through to her," Herndon says. "I hope it makes sense."

Case 4: Poppa Gets Mad

Jan. 20; 12:35 p.m. The city shelter. Every animal that comes through here has a past. Not all of them have a future. A woman shows up for a behavior assessment on her dogs. Her name's Telsee. She's trying not to cry.

Lisa Telsee drives a Muni bus all day. She sits with perfect posture on the bench in the shelter lobby. In her right hand, she clutches a y-lead, a leash designed for walking two dogs at the same time. Telsee owns pit bulls -- Tag, an intact male who goes by "Poppa," and Sheera, a spayed female.

In December, Telsee was walking her dogs on the y-lead near her house in the Bayview when a neighbor's 124-pound Malamute mix approached. The Malamute was off leash, and a fight broke out. Tag and Sheera got the better of it. Although Telsee didn't break any laws, the incident has alerted Herndon to a public safety issue. He has ordered behavior assessments for all three dogs.

Telsee is upset. She didn't go looking for a fight. The Malamute was off leash, not her dogs. "If I had two poodles, I wouldn't even be here," she says. "The whole situation has got me so stressed out." She's scared Herndon will order her pits euthanized. "I love my dogs," she says. "That's all I have. Normally, I'm a pretty tough person, but this is getting to me." Her posture goes. The tears begin to flow.

More than half of the cases Herndon hears involve pit bulls. Their tough-guy cachet makes them popular in San Francisco. The thug wants them for fighting. The animal lover wants them because they're misunderstood. The hipster wants them because they're, well, hip. And some people just really like pit bulls.

But the wrong pit in the wrong hands can be a disaster. Pits were bred for fighting other dogs, and they usually have a high prey drive. For many, it's a genetic inevitability. The dogs are known for both their powerful jaws and their obstinacy in letting quarry go once they "lock on." Animal Control officers trade countless tales about the different items they've seen applied to pit bulls' heads to force the dogs to release -- hot water, two-by-fours, tire irons.

"People have broken furniture over pit bulls' heads," Guldbech says.

In the scuffle with Telsee's pits, Norma Hotaling, the owner of the Malamute, used her fist. She beat Tag so hard on the head, she broke her hand.

"I started screaming," Hotaling says in court. "I saw both dogs go for my dog's neck, and they were just viciously, viciously attacking my dog's neck. He was wailing and crying." Hotaling starts crying, too.

Emotions run high in Dog Court. Dogs are like family members to many owners. In the hearings, people talk about their Shih Tzu taking them for a walk, or their Rottweiler having dinner with them. When Herndon asks Telsee if she has any children who might be at home with Tag and Sheera, one of Telsee's friends answers for her. "Those are her children," the friend says.

No wonder Telsee is so worried about the behavior assessment. She brings her dogs into Duford's office. The muzzles come off. Telsee answers Duford's questions. Yes, she knows her dogs are poorly socialized. They both had parvo, a potentially fatal and highly contagious virus, as puppies. They missed out on playing with other dogs. Telsee admits that Tag is aggressive with other dogs. She can't take him to the pet store, and she wants to get help. Duford nods and takes notes, explaining about breeding and aggression and training techniques. She talks about testosterone and suggests neutering. She wants to bring a few dogs with different personalities into the room to meet Telsee's pits.

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