San Francisco Dog Court

Due process, under the law, for every canine

Tag seems friendly enough with people. He jumps on Duford and licks her face. He likes petting and scratching. "He loves love," Telsee says.

But he's also a pushy dog and, when he jumps on the SF Weeklyphotographer shooting the scene, she tries to get him off. She puts her arm in his chest to move him away. He doesn't budge. I'm sitting next to her. Gently, I tap my thigh with my hand and say, "Come here," to the dog.

Suddenly, I'm 12 inches away from the snarling mouth of an angry pit. His jaws are huge. His teeth are bared. He could bite my face off. Something made him mad and started a rumble in his throat that turned into explosive barking. Was it a noise in the hall? The movement I made with my hand? It doesn't matter. Right now, all that matters is that I stay still. No eye contact. No running for the closest indoor tree. Stay calm and try not to think about filling out paperwork for Dog Court without a face.

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.

Telsee springs to her feet. "Poppa! Come here! Get over here!" Tag obeys and calms down. He looks ashamed of what he's done.

I've always wondered if I'm afraid of dogs. When I was 2 years old, my mother's springer spaniel tried to attack me. I wasn't hurt. I don't remember anything. My parents gave the dog away. But the story they told me when I was older stayed with me. We moved to a new city. Our neighbor had a springer spaniel. I would eye the dog warily over a bush and wonder if he was dangerous.

I imagine Herndon wonders, too. When he was 3, a dog belonging to his parents' friends bit him in the face underneath his left eye. The unprovoked attack ripped open a tear duct. He still has the scar. Herndon is reluctant to share the story. He worries that people will view him as biased because of it. But Herndon has been an animal lover and a dog owner most of his life. He was also the victim of a serious dog attack. He understands both the dog owner's and the victim's perspectives in an intimate way.

"There are two sides to every story," he says. That's Herndon's catchphrase. He uses it at every hearing, and he means it.

In the case of the Telsee dogs, Herndon makes use of the new flexibility afforded him under the code.

A decade ago, it wouldn't have mattered that Telsee is a responsible and concerned pet owner. Her dogs -- her babies -- would have been destroyed. Now, Herndon can, in a sense, reward her for being responsible. She gets to keep her dogs, but she must muzzle them outside and take them to obedience school, which could cost her $1,000. "They tell me to be happy that my dogs weren't put to sleep," she says. "But that's a lot of money. Abiding by the law, I got kicked in the butt."

Me? I'm just glad her dogs are pit bulls, not springer spaniels.

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