What do you do when your neighbor’s unhinged German shepherd barks at phantom rivals for 16 hours straight?
Or tries to make a meal of your adorable Shih Tzu?
Answer: Dog Court is in session.
Yes, the City of Los Angeles actually holds trials with legal consequences where exasperated residents are allowed to bring to heel dog owners who can’t—or, more frequently, won’t—control their pets.
From excessive barking to physical assaults on animals and humans, these cases have been handled since 1987 by L.A. Animal Services in a process known officially as an administrative hearing but colloquially simply as Dog Court. As in human court, each party airs its grievances and presents evidence; two Animal Services officers, serving as judge and jury, take notes and render a verdict. Let it be said that no dog—or more accurately, no dog owner—is above Dog Court: one complainant recalled attending a hearing in the aughts during which the officer bragged that he’d recently presided over a nuisance case involving William Shatner’s famous brood of Doberman pinschers.
As on Judge Judy, emotions run high. Occasionally, lawyers are present. Defendant dogs are seen in mug shots shown to the court multiple times for identification and are frequently heard, fortissimo, in audio and videotapes that record their misdeeds. For dog owners, the stakes can be severe, a progression that starts with warnings escalating to fines, and, in extreme cases, the forfeiture of one’s beloved Spike or Princess altogether.
If it all seems slightly absurd—Lassie meets Law & Order—Dog Court is often the final stop on a monthslong odyssey to end the lifestyle-destroying presence of relentlessly vocalizing or otherwise reprobate canines on the other side of the ficus hedge.
The process begins with a letter sent to Animal Services, which triggers an official complaint issued to the offending dog’s owner. If after 120 days the nuisance persists—and Dog Court veterans vouchsafe that it almost always does—only then is an official hearing scheduled, which in practice, due to a permanent backlog of cases, can take up to a year.
Since the pandemic, Dog Court has gone remote; what once was a meeting in a building downtown is now a Zoom with witnesses testifying from kitchens, offices, and, in one recent case, from behind the wheel of a car—sometimes, in a meta-commentary on the process, with the offending dog barking in the background throughout.
The proceedings commence with a swearing-in of the court, as all parties raise their hands—and, figuratively, their paws—before their computer screens. What follows are two hours in which the formalities of a traditional trial are strictly observed, with the glaring exception that the defendants, being dogs, never take the stand; when their alleged transgressions are entered into the record and their mug shots displayed, complainants are apt to blurt: “That’s her! That’s Lola!” Followed by an Animal Services officer intoning with perfect seriousness: “The court recognizes Lola.”
Witnesses in Dog Court testify on Zoom, sometimes as the offending dog barks in the background throughout.
After a monthslong campaign with Animal Services for permission to observe a hearing, I sat in on my first case. Lola, a three-year-old, white-and-brown pit bull mix, was charged with attacking her neighbor’s terrier, Sashe, after she hopped the fence dividing their owners’ properties. Lola and her coconspirator, Lefty, a black-and-white retriever, were off-leash when the incident occurred—something they’re allegedly notorious for in their Eastside L.A. neighborhood. Like any roving gang, Lefty and Lola had acquired a list of enemies, four of whom were present at their trial.
“It was a racket!” Carol Delgado, Sashe’s owner, exclaims, trying to describe to the court the awful noise that drew her to the backyard crime scene. “The first thing I seen, the pit bull had my dog in her mouth!”
Supporting Delgado as witnesses are her son Brian Roesler, daughter Jamie Jimenez, and, a neighbor, identified only as Mrs. Schmidt. On the respondent side sits Lefty and Lola’s owner,
Ms. Makor; Animal Services Officer Treadway and Captain Rodriguez record the testimony stoically.
“She suffers having witnessed that,” Jimenez cries over her webcam, recalling her mother’s trauma at seeing Sashe in Lola’s jaws. “It could have been my kids that it happened to!”
Officer Treadway displays a photo of Lola for Delgado to identify. “That’s him—I mean her,” she corrects herself. This kicks off a roundelay of confusion as witnesses, mid-testimony, repeatedly mix up Lefty and Lola, prompting Treadway to pause the proceedings and pull up mug shots of the dogs as precious minutes on the two-hour hearing tick away.
The fourth scheduled witness, Mrs. Schmidt—called instead to speak third because Roesler, Delgado’s son, has somehow locked himself out of the Zoom—testifies that she had to visit the hospital as a result of a previous encounter with Lefty and Lola. After getting her headphones to work, Lola’s owner dismisses the allegation: “I would just like to let it be,” she informs the court, “because that case has too many holes in it.”
Makor doesn’t get far with this line of testimony before being cut off by the judge, Captain Rodriguez, who is then cut off by Mrs. Schmidt, after which the hearing descends into a frenzied argument among all three. Meanwhile, Delgado’s son, now back on the Zoom, silently observes the melee with a family dog on his lap—not Sashe, who had by then expired from her wounds—which calmly watches as the humans on the screen go at it like, well, like a pack of dogs.
What spawns such acrimony in Dog Court is not hard to apprehend. The complainants, who have endured letters, meetings, rescheduled meetings, and, finally, an online hearing, are not there for forgiveness—they’re there for retribution and, cathartically, a chance to let loose the scream they’ve suppressed for months. For those who have beaten back against the waves of Dog Court and found themselves at last upon its shore, this is their last, best chance for justice—their turn to make “excessive” noise. The irony, of course, is that a legal process meant to settle disputes civilly can end up turning complainants and defendants alike into barking, snarling adversaries. (In the end, Makor surrendered Lola to Animal Services at the behest of the officers, and her dog license was revoked.)
Is there a better way? Trying to stop dogs from acting out with forms, mediations, and trials is as effective as trying to get humans to abide by laws with shock collars, whistles, and Gravy Train. But those who have endured a schnauzer repeatedly waking them at 3 a.m. or crawling under their fence to wreak havoc are desperate enough to try anything. In that context, Dog Court is probably worth the administrative nightmare for the possibility of relief, if only because, at that point, arguing against an animal in a courtroom is preferable to letting bad dogs have their day.
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