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Has Tide Turned against Dogs?

In its June 2000 issue, Southern Living magazine devoted an entire page to the subject of Alexandria’s being one of the nation's most friendly cities for dogs. That was then. This is now.

Their opening paragraph for that article was, "Lucky dogs. They live in Old Town Alexandria, Va." It was followed by the comment, "There may not be another city in America that treats pooches more royally."

That might be a hard sell to Mary Ann Walker of South Pitt Street, who had to go to court recently to prove that her two Irish setters were properly restrained while exercising at Jones Point Park.

On May 7, chief judge of the General District Court, E. Robert Giammittorio, agreed with Walker and her attorney, Yvonne DeBruyn Weight, and dismissed the ticket she had been given.

It all started last winter when Walker had her dogs in the park at approximately 1 p.m. on a day when no one else was present except one other dog walker, she said. One of her dogs was on a leash and the other was under the control of an electronic collar. It was the use of the latter that brought about the disagreement between Walker and the animal control officer who issued the ticket.

"When I tried to explain that Dealer, my 4-year-old setter, had on an electronic collar and that qualified as a restraint, the officer took the attitude I was arguing with him," Walker explained. "He didn't know about electronic collars."

He also said, "Lady, if you're going to give me a hard time, I'm going to give you a ticket for both dogs." Her other setter, 9-year-old Maggie, was on a leash when he made that statement, according to Walker, who is also an attorney specializing in energy law.

WHEN THESE circumstances were brought out in court, Weight stated, "The judge found that the city employee had given the ticket in a fit of pique and that in his (the judge's) opinion the electronic collar did fall within the definition of proper restraint under the law."

Weight further explained that "under the Alexandria statute a dog must be under a leash or lead or other form of restraint when outside the property where they live. The electronic collar fits the interpretation of ‘other.’"

According to Walker, "When the control officer admitted that Maggie was 100 percent on her leash and he had threatened to give her two tickets because he was annoyed with her, the judge said that was totally unacceptable behavior for a city employee."

To buttress the argument in favor of using electronic collars, Weight entered testimony from Carlos Mejias, owner of the Old Town School for Dogs. He verified that such collars are considered restraining mechanisms.

In discussing the matter since the case was dismissed, Mejias said, "Electronic collars, although not advocated for every dog or problem, are very effective if the dog is properly taught to wear the collar. It is very similar to the invisible fence. It works on a minor shock principle."

MEJIAS NOTED that such collars are widely used for hunting dogs in order to keep them under control. He compared them with transistor radios that work on electronic wave principles.

Mary Phelan, director, Alexandria Animal Shelter, under whose direction the control officers operate, took exception to the judge's interpretation of the word "other" as used in the Alexandria statute. "The intent of the law, as far as we are concerned, is to have the person and the animal physically tied together," Phelan insisted.

"Dogs can override the electronic collar or an invisible fence if they choose not to be bothered by the slight shock those things administer," Phelan argued. "We are going to ask Council to amend the law to specifically outlaw electronic collars. We want the animal and person connected at all times unless they are in a dog exercise area."

It is this attitude that has raised questions in Walker's and others' minds about "just how dog-friendly is Alexandria. It seems city officials have become increasingly unfriendly to dogs in contrast to businesses and others," she said. "And it seems to have occurred only in the last couple of years."

In a letter to the editor — published in the May 30 issue of the Gazette Packet, co-signed by Phelan and Sandra Whitmore, director, Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities — they spelled out the basic rules governing dog walking in the city. They also noted that the penalties had been stiffened by Council, along with enforcement, last December.

In that letter they emphasized, "Police officers, animal control officers and uniformed park department employees are all empowered to enforce these rules. Any violation ... can result in a $100 civil penalty. While some may think this penalty too harsh, it is in line with similar violations which reflect inconsiderate use of public space or resources."

They then went on to note, "Unfortunately, the old $50 penalty was viewed by some pet owners as an acceptable risk for noncompliance. Outside the parks, the penalty for off-leash dogs is $50."