Dog Court: How Lewis County Dogs Came to Have a Quasi-Justice System


Editor’s Note: A two-part series titled “Dog Court” will detail the history and proceedings of Lewis County’s Dangerous Animal Designation Board.

In the summer of 2021, Roselie Gus, 67, of Chehalis, met a man online.

The two went to a car show, had lunch and enjoyed a nice afternoon together. On their way to his home in Packwood, on the unincorporated eastern end of Lewis County, Brian Wulbern, 69, warned that his two great danes were “unsocialized.”

About an hour passed as they played pool. Gus’ dog, a small dachshund-yorkie mix, indicated to her he needed to be let outside to relieve himself. She opened the door to Wulbern’s garage. There, two male great danes, without provocation from either Gus or her dog, lunged forward to attack the smaller animal. She grabbed her pet and tried to protect it. The dogs knocked her to the floor, where she attempted to curl up around her dog in order to hide him.

The dogs bit her and pulled at her limbs. Once he was finally able to get his dogs to cease, Wulbern took Gus to the hospital, where she was treated for severe damage to her muscles.

Weeks later, testifying in front of the Lewis County Dangerous Animal Designation (DAD) Board, she told a panel of appointed citizen judges, “I’ve not been well since. The first two weeks, all I could do was just sit around on the couch. I had bad dreams. I’d wake up screaming. I wake up crying. I woke up crying again this morning.”

After testimony from both Gus and Wulbern, the DAD board ruled that both of Wulbern’s great danes were dangerous. One of the two dogs recently passed away, while the other currently maintains its registered status.

“That was a perfect case for the DAD board,” said Lewis County Public Health & Social Services Humane Officer Alishia Hornburg. “I don’t want to make that decision. I could be either heavily swayed by the victim — which, I had all her photos (of injuries), I talked to her on the phone — or, the dog owner. This is why we have the dog board. And I think in that case, everyone felt like they got to have their say.”

To understand the origins of the DAD board, one has to begin somewhere between the first time a wolf was called a “dog” and the first time a dog was tucked in a purse and brought to a grocery store. But the best place to start is a bit before Washington became a state, according to Eric Eisenberg, who served as the first legal adviser to the board when it was established.


Old Yeller

Though it has since seen revisions, the original common law — or “law of the West,” as Eisenberg called it — for a “marauding dog” found killing any domestic animal, stated the owner had a duty to kill their dog. Anyone who didn’t do so would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

But, because dogs held a special place in American culture and were generally thought to be good, Eisenberg said people felt the rule was unfair. How could an owner know their dog was going to act out?

Over time, the code evolved to the “one bite rule.” After a dog bit someone, Eisenberg said, owners were put on notice that a dog might be dangerous. If it bit someone again, owners were liable.

But some time ago, the state Legislature decided this wasn’t strict enough. The victim of the dog’s second bite could get damages paid for in court, but the law didn’t proactively prevent the bite from occurring, Eisenberg described. Washington then instituted a system where counties and cities must register dangerous dogs. That’s the system Lewis County is operating under now.

When a dog is registered as dangerous in Lewis County, the owner has to either euthanize the dog or follow a strict set of rules. The former can be by the owner’s chosen veterinarian or by the county. The code to keep the dog includes housing the pet in a six-sided enclosure with posted signs warning of the dog’s status and annually paying $50 and providing proof of homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. If the dangerous dog is to be walked or transported at any time, it must wear a muzzle and be under the care of a competent person.

“We have been given the bad job. If you’re lucky, you tell someone that their dog is dangerous and then they comply … (and pay) $50 to register the dog,” Eisenberg said, later adding, “People of limited means who either can’t or choose not to comply, it ends up being something that means we have to put their dog down, something that’s very unpleasant for all concerned.”

In 2009, when Hornburg began working for Lewis County, the process for determining whether a dog was dangerous was up to her and Bill Teitzel, the code enforcement director for public health at the time. The two would review a case and make their decision, then the owner would have the chance to appeal the decision in front of the Lewis County Hearings Examiner.

“Making that determination, that’s a heavy weight on the shoulders of one person,” Hornburg said.

A dangerous animal, as defined by Lewis County code, is any animal that inflicts severe injury or death on a human, domestic animal or livestock without provocation; or, an animal that has previously been found to be potentially dangerous that again aggressively bites, attacks or endangers the safety of humans or animals. If a dog were caught menacingly chasing someone down a sidewalk, for example, the owner could receive notice their pet was “potentially dangerous” and while no action would be required at that time, further misbehavior might be cause for a dangerous designation.

“No one wants their dog to be at risk of euthanasia by being declared dangerous and also the person who got hurt or whose animal got hurt is usually not pleased either,” Eisenberg said. “That’s why I wanted to bring up that marauding dog statute. Part of the reason that the dangerous dog hearings are so emotionally heightened is that. This is the background rule, it’s like out of Old Yeller. … And the county is given no option but to comply with the set of statutes.”

Few would say the American justice system (for people) is perfect. The same is true for dog court. The difference is Lewis County’s process for designating dangerous dogs is in its infancy, whereas Superior Court can look back on decades of precedent.

Like in all justice systems, the wrong individual might be accused. The evidence might fall short of convicting a wrongdoer. A dog may or may not have been provoked.

A similar system to Lewis County’s standard in 2009 was found to be unconstitutional in Pierce County in the 2010s due to a lack of safeguards for the person whose dog was being accused of acting dangerously.

Proactively trying to avoid such a suit, Lewis County tried a few different methods.

In 2015, it fell to at-the-time Public Health & Social Services Director Danette York to make the determination on the record in a more formal hearing. Teitzel and Hornburg would gather the information and the director would act as an independent decision-maker.

However, Eisenberg noted, that would leave the unpopular decision of possibly putting down a dog up to the director. For a time, the county contracted the Thurston County Humane Officer to preside over the hearings, but that practice was ended after a year or two, Hornburg said, possibly because of cost.

So, the job fell back to York, who, Eisenberg said, was sometimes “intentionally skirting” her responsibility to preside over the dangerous dog hearings.

Then, there was Hank.

The Hank/Tank Situation

As previously reported by The Chronicle in a 2017 story that drew national media attention, York declared “Tank,” a pit bull terrier, dangerous after he allegedly killed livestock with another dog. But, believing he was “rehabilitated,” court documents stated, York and the animal shelter manager at the time conspired to circumvent Lewis County Code for dangerous dogs. The two reportedly changed the dog’s name to “Hank” and put him back in the shelter, where he was adopted out without warning of his background.

Once the information came to light, the dog was seized from the new owner by no fault of their own. After considerable controversy, Hank was released back to his owner. The county employees faced misdemeanor charges.

About a year later, Chuck Snipes, of Chehalis, who has many rescue animals, received a letter from Teitzel. The county was calling for volunteers for the soon-to-be-formed DAD Board, hoping animal lovers would get involved in the process and become unpaid, unbiased judges in dangerous dog hearings. The board would hear cases that were essentially Lewis County Humane Officer v. dog owner.

“I think that the reason it’s done here in Lewis County is because of the terrible screwup they had with the whole Hank thing,” Snipes told The Chronicle. “And they needed a way out. They needed to look like they were doing something about the problem.”

Hornburg didn’t totally agree with that. She felt the Hank situation may have been a catalyst for change, but more so that the board was a next step on the trial-and-error path for dog law. Further, she felt all along that the weight of dangerous animal designations was too much for one person.

Either way, Snipes and Hornburg agree that the DAD Board is a step forward.

“The people on the board are very concerned animal lovers who are there to help the animal defendant. Not the people that own the animal, not the county. We’re not there to help the county or enforce the county’s rules,” Snipes said of the DAD Board. “We’re there to make sure that, in accordance with county regulations, this is all done right. The dog is handled properly and everything goes the way it’s supposed to.”

In many cases that appear before the board, Snipes said there are questions and doubts. Often, dogs are determined not dangerous. Others, such as the case of Roselie Gus and the great danes, he said, are pretty cut and dry. With the board, it’s not up to the potentially-biased humane officer, whose duty is in part to protect public health from dangerous animals.

But, again, it isn’t perfect. Dogs are often thought of as family members — nobody wants theirs to be killed. At the same time, for someone like Gus, the only thing she gets from the DAD Board is affirmation that it was the dogs’ fault and a promise to prevent it from happening again.

Earlier this month, she told The Chronicle she's still seeking retribution for the event.

“I still have not finished dealing with it and I’ve been searching for an attorney (to take the case),” she said. “It’s not worth a lot of money, so it’s hard to find one.”


Part two of “Dog Court” will detail records from the DAD Board, including data on dogs that were euthanized, spared or registered after hearings.