Obedience School

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Errant pet owners serve time in doggie defensive driving
At 10 a.m. on the first Saturday of August, a glum group of people gathered at the Skyline branch of the Dallas Public Library, as a different group does each month. They are the rogues, the rapscallions, the "dog-at-large" violators. You can think of these sessions as doggie defensive driving.

Dallas rabies investigator Federico Chavez stands in front of the group and in English launches into an explanation of the new Dallas animal ordinances that went into effect July 1. Chavez alternates his talk with Spanish for the handful of Hispanics in the room.

Chavez goes over the ordinances regarding registration, rabies inoculations and the leash laws, "what most of you have received your citation for." By attending the class, a first-time violator gets a certificate to give the judge, avoiding the $175 fine. (They may still have to pay court costs.) Repeat offenders can be fined $200 to $500.

Several of the attendees express irritation at animal control officers who they felt were rude or unsympathetic or shouldn't have been on their property. Some didn't even own the dogs that got them ticketed. Anyone in the house over 18 can receive the citation. Alex Cardenas lives in Louisiana. While visiting his mother in Dallas, her dog got out. The only one at home, Cardenas received the ticket and had to drive eight hours back to Dallas to attend the session.

Johanna Smith slouches in her chair looking pretty peeved. A student at Richland College, Smith moved into a house near White Rock Lake in 2003. A few months later, she heard a knock on her front door and opened it to find Chavez, who informed Smith that someone had reported a "dog at large" to the city. There, he pointed, was the offending beast. Sure enough, Smith peered around him and there was Bella, her medium-size "mixed-breed" mutt .

Smith admits it wasn't the first time Bella had gotten out. Smith had just moved in, and Bella was finding wiggle spots under the fence faster than Smith could plug them. She guessed an elderly neighbor snitched Bella out by calling 311.

Chavez gave Smith a citation for a violation of the Dallas animal ordinances. Smith says she took care of the ticket, photocopying Bella's tags to prove she was registered and had up-to-date rabies shots and mailing them to the address on the citation. Smith says she heard nothing further from the city and assumed the matter had been handled.

Last month, Smith got a letter from a city lawyer saying that there was a warrant out for her arrest. Thinking there was some mistake, Smith called the attorney who informed her that she had to post a bond or risk being taken to jail after a traffic stop.

After getting the citation in 2003, Smith had failed to turn in a certificate earned by taking the Saturday class and then missed a court date.

"I was pretty surprised," Smith says. "I thought it was taken care of." Smith says she had attended the class in 2003 but was given no certificate and never heard from the city about going to court. That didn't satisfy the wheels of justice. Smith had to post a $305 cash bond. Her date in municipal court is August 31.

But first Smith has to attend another doggie defensive driving class to get a certificate, taught by the guy who busted Bella in the first place.

The new city ordinances aren't much different from the old ones, mainly substituting the word "animal" for dog or cat. But most of the calls that animal control gets are about stray canines or "dogs at large," Chavez says. Cats don't seem to upset people until someone has too many of them. Angela White, a woman whose young son sits with her, pipes up. "When people call the city to pick up stray dogs, nobody ever comes," White insists. "I can never, never get someone to pick up the stray dogs. Never. You just pick up dogs you know someone will pay to get back."

Chavez, who does "pet education" because he's bilingual, responds by saying she may think that's the case, but the department will pick up strays or set traps for homeless dogs. It's basic prevention.

He hauls out some shocking statistics. Two stray un-neutered dogs and their offspring can produce 67,000 dogs in six years. Two stray cats and their descendants can produce 420,000 cats in seven years. While Chavez describes several spay and neuter programs available to those who can't afford to have the procedure done by a veterinarian, everybody in the room contemplates the planet being overrun by vigorously copulating animals.

A dog-at-large call to 311 can rack up some major fines for the pet owner if he or she has violated other city animal ordinances by: not getting yearly rabies vaccinations ($100 to $2,000 per day); not registering the pet and renewing the registration each year ($100 to $2,000 per day); not restraining the pet on a leash or in a fenced yard at all times (maximum $2,000 per violation); and not scooping poop on public or private property owned by someone else ($50).

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