by Dan Richardson

It's terrible, a woman mauled to death in the hallway outside her San Francisco apartment by two killer dogs. How could that happen?

How? See those dogs running loose? The ones set out by some irresponsible neighbor or, worse, abandoned by city people in the country, allowed to turn feral? That's how.

They're the dogs, say animal control officials, that kill other peoples' pets, that bite people walking down sidewalks and tear livestock apart. Or, every so often, the ones that maul people, like the four Saint Bernards that chewed up an 11-year-old girl in Otis, Wash., three years ago.

"There are some brutal cases," says John Roskelley.

He's seen it all. A Spokane County commissioner who acts as the county's animal control hearing examiner, Roskelley is the man who recommends whether to label a dog as dangerous, requiring its owner to keep it penned or muzzled, covered by liability insurance and implanted with a microchip. He hears a case about once a month. (There's a parallel process for dangerous dogs within the city.)

Mean dogs are no joke, says Bob Hammerstad. With 12 years as a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier, Hammerstad knows all about dog attacks. Some 110 dog-bitten mail carriers from Eastern Washington and Idaho had to visit a hospital for treatment last year alone -- usually because of a dog that, according to the owner, is friendly as a kitten, says Hammerstad, now the customer relations coordinator for the USPS Spokane district. "Every time, the first thing out of their mouths is, 'He's never bitten anyone before.' "

"That's exactly what I hear," agrees Roskelley. People whose free-running dogs kill deer or bite children often get emotional, he says. "Their pooch couldn't possibly do this."

But dogs can, and do. Those 110 are just the ones that went postal on mail carriers. In Spokane County, man's best friend nipped, chomped and lacerated at least 544 people last year, according to the Spokane Regional Health District, which collects numbers from hospitals and animal agencies.

Nationally, more than 300,000 people limp into emergency rooms in a given year, reports the American Veterinary Medical Association.

In rural Pend Oreille County, some people say, one can hardly take a stroll without being harassed by some thoughtless person's dog running loose. Last June, both an 8-year-old girl and a grown woman, the owner of a local bed-and-breakfast, were seriously injured by roaming dogs in separate attacks on the same day. Packs of feral dogs are increasingly hunting wildlife, attacking people on quiet country lanes, even charging motorcyclists, officials report.

Now Pend Oreille County is a good ol' American frontier, far from the madding cities. It's live-free-or-die country. In his seven years on the county commission, Chairman Joel Jacobsen and his fellow commissioners have passed just three ordinances, regulating boating, zoning and billboards. But on Monday, the commission is expected to pass a law fining owners of loose dogs up to $250 for a repeat offense, says Jacobsen. People will face a misdemeanor criminal charge if they're caught setting loose unwanted dogs. (Spokane County already has a leash law.)

"We're pretty independent up here. We like to think we can get along without a lot of laws," says Jacobsen. "But sometimes, when you have a problem, you have to do something."

Dangerous dogs are usually un-neutered males either running loose or chained up, says Gail Mackie at SpokAnimal. Chained dogs get frustrated, defensive and hyper-territorial, explains Mackie, the group's executive director. SpokAnimal handles dangerous dogs within the city.

Reducing dog problems, like attacks on people, really amounts to using some sense, according to Mackie. It means, especially with large dogs, like Rottweilers and Chows, getting to know the breeder, the dog's lineage -- some blood lines are more aggressive than others -- and getting some training for both dog and owner.

"Every dog can and will bite, depending on the circumstances. Some dogs are more serious than others," says Mackie.

She and other dog control people say dog training and socialization are more important factors in dog attacks than specific breeds. Mackie herself has had three Rottweilers, for example, without problems, she says. But some people think that massively muscled Rottweilers or the various pit bull strains are cool. All too often, these owners fail to adequately train their "macho dogs," says Mackie.

It's these larger animals that SpokAnimal handlers often confront when police call them to remove dogs from meth houses. SpokAnimal gets called out to handle meth dogs sometimes twice a week, says Mackie.

The American Kennel Club's motto when it comes to dog bites is, "deeds, not breeds." The AKC is opposed to blacklisting specific types of dogs, simply because they are assumed to be more dangerous. When it comes to biting, says the AKC, all canines are created equal.

Except that a 20-pound poodle just can't tear someone's throat out the way a pair of 100-pound presa canario dogs did to Diane Whipple, the San Francisco victim, in January 2001. A jury convicted the dogs' owner last week of second-degree murder.

Regardless of the cause, soon 'tis the season for dog bites: Spring and early summer -- when schools get out - is the worst for dog attacks, says Hammerstad, the postal spokesman. That's when the USPS spends about $6,000 to send post cards to 131,000 addresses around Spokane, asking people to restrain their animals. It's when animal control officers get used to the sound of their telephones ringing - though always for that other person's dog.

"Everybody who comes in here says it's not their dog," causing trouble, says Pend Oreille county commissioner Jacobsen, "It's everybody else's dogs."

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