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Owner in doghouse

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Pearson gives her collie, Siri, the run of the fenced-in yard. She says she always keeps watch from the window. At night, the dog sleeps in her bedroom.

But in the eyes of Anne Arundel County's Animal Control, Pearson was a menace to her pet. And they threatened to take the dog away - unless she agreed to buy Siri a doghouse.

"Siri is very upset, and it will take weeks, if not months, to retrain Siri so that he is calm when visitors come to see us," Pearson said yesterday.

Now, she has taken her fight to the County Council, saying that a law requiring dog owners to provide shelter for any unsupervised pet goes too far. At least one lawmaker agrees that animal control should be leashed, and he has introduced a bill designed to do just that.

"It just does not make any common sense to me," Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks said at a council meeting Monday night. "I don't want to see dogs left outside without shelter in the heat. But at the same time I think there has to be a balance, so that's why I put the bill in."

County animal control officials say the law allows them to target animal abusers. Although they went to Pearson's house three times, they eventually dropped the charges, and now say that her case is a rare example of the law being misapplied.

At the council meeting, they testified against Middlebrooks' proposed change, which would require a shelter only if the dog is left outside when the owner is not home. The animal control officers said that changing the law will make it harder to determine which dogs are habitually left outside.

"I think it's a mistake to change a law that has worked for so many years" with no previous complaints, said Capt. Pam Davis, head of the county police department division that oversees the animal control department. "The main concern here is for the dogs. They deserve protection from neglectful and abusive homeowners, or owners who allow their dogs outdoors without shelter."

The officers came to council chambers with an oversized picture showing the body of a rottweiler named Bogus, who they said died of heat exhaustion last summer when left outside without water or shelter on a 98-degree day.

Several other dog lovers and animal rights activists showed up at the meeting, mostly siding with animal control officials.

"A number of people treat their animals like they are things instead of family members," said Carolyn Kilborn of Annapolis for Animals, an animal rights group. "Animals have no voice; they can't go to the County Council meeting to tell us how they are being treated."

Under state law, an owner has to provide shelter for a dog only if it is necessary, according to Deputy County Attorney David A. Plymyer, who said if a dog were outside on a nice day, it would not be a violation of that law. Anne Arundel, he added, takes the matter a step further, and requires that if a dog is confined outdoors, it must have a shelter.

Anne Arundel officials said that since 2005 they have issued 70 citations, which carry a $50 penalty for a first offense and up to $500 for three violations or more. They added that citations are only issued after several warnings and that officers determine appropriate penalties on a case-by-case basis.

In Baltimore County, animal control regulations say that "the owner of an animal that is not kept within a home or building shall provide the animal with a suitable shelter to protect it from the wind, snow, rain, cold, and sunlight."

Harford County requires a shelter if a dog is outside for more than an hour. In Howard County, dog owners are required to provide an outdoor shelter if their animals spend a significant amount of time outdoors, said Deborah Baracco, administrator of the Howard County Animal Control Division.

In Carroll County, dogs can't be chained outside for more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period, said Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the county's Humane Society. County law also details which way a doghouse must face - south or east in the winter, and requires shade in the summer.

Baltimore City rules require that dogs that are kept outside have adequate shelter from the weather. Between Nov. 1 and March 31 - or any time the temperature dips below 40 degrees - dogs kept outside must have a dog house with a windproof door and bedding.

Adam Goldfarb, an issues specialist with the Humane Society in Washington, said, "Any time a dog is going to be outside for more than a minute or two to go to the bathroom ... it probably should have some kind of shelter, even if the owner is home."

In Anne Arundel County, the challenge to the law began in April. An Anne Arundel County animal control officer on the lookout for strays, noticed Siri alone in Pearson's yard, which is enclosed by a white picket fence. The officer knocked on Pearson's door, demanded that she purchase a shelter within 24 hours and threatened to take the animal away, Pearson said, adding that the officers returned two times within a week.

Pearson refused to sign the citations and instead appealed to Middlebrooks.

Middlebrooks, who owns two small dogs, and does not have a doghouse, argues that the doghouse provision is not the right way to target those who abuse animals. "If you don't feed a dog, you don't take care of a dog, a shelter isn't going to save that," he said.

Middlebrooks said he hopes to settle the issue by a June 16 meeting, after an informal committee has a chance to mull the issue further. He said he will look for a way to keep the "teeth" in the law while looking for a compromise.

Pearson, a 76-year-old environmental activist, said that she would never do anything to hurt her dog.

She said she brushes the dog twice daily and cooks food for him. She walks him twice a day and only lets him in the yard of her Edgewater home to play for limited amounts of time.

She says that in her pet's case, a doghouse wouldn't make much sense.

steven.stanek@baltsun.com

Sun reporters John Fritze, Arin Gencer, Mary Gail Hare and John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

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