Sacramento judge's decision fails to satisfy dog's original owner

Miss Tilly the Pomeranian got her day in court Friday.

She pranced into the Carol Miller Justice Center wearing a colorful bandana and entered Judge Donald Currier's courtroom, where her fate would be decided.

Would Tilly, a fluffy former doggie model, be reunited with Donna Schwontkowski, a herbalist and nutritionist who had been searching for her for five years since she went missing? Or would she return home with Nedra Langin, a retired telephone technician who got Tilly from a friend in 2005, not knowing that she belonged to someone else?

Both women testified that they considered Tilly, who sat quietly throughout the hourlong hearing in the lap of Langin's husband, Rick, to be a beloved member of the family.

But in the end, Currier put emotional bonds aside.

He pointed out that pets are considered property in California and said Schwontkowski was the rightful owner. However, he said he had the authority only to assign a monetary value to the pup – not to order Tilly returned to Schwontkowski.

Currier told Langin to either pay $5,000 to Schwontkowski or give Tilly back to her.

Langin opted to cut a check.

A key piece of evidence, a microchip embedded under Tilly's skin, turned out to be less relevant than expected, because each woman carried paperwork showing that the chip was registered to her.

"We lost, but we get to keep our dog," a smiling Rick Langin said after the hearing. His wife, sobbing, declined comment.

But Schwontkowski hinted that the saga of Miss Tilly is far from over.

"The judge said several times that Miss Tilly is mine, so this is a win," she said, adding that she will pursue other legal options.

"She's coming back to me. I don't know how, but I believe it will happen."

Schwontkowski had been trying to find Tilly since handing her over to a friend, Laura Bond, five years ago. Bond had agreed to care for Tilly after she was injured by other dogs at the home of a friend with whom Schwontkowski was temporarily living.

When Schwontkowski asked Bond when she could pick up Tilly, Bond told her the dog had escaped and had possibly been killed.

Last year, Bond confessed on the TV program "Judge Alex" that she had given Tilly away. She said she regretted the decision but that Nedra Langin had fallen in love with the dog and wanted to keep her.

In court Friday, Langin told the judge that Tilly is 13 years old and considered "our baby." The prospect of the dog being removed from her home had taken a physical and emotional toll, she said.

"She has been a member of our family for about six years now," said Langin. "She watches TV with us, sleeps with us," and accompanies them on vacation to Monterey and other beach locations, said Langin.

She suggested that Schwontkowski's bond with Tilly was largely financial. She pointed out that Tilly had posed for magazine covers and helped hawk pet products, and that Schwontkowski featured her in a book she wrote about the bond between humans and animals.

Currier scolded Schwontkowski for suggesting in online posts that Langin was a dog thief. But he called Bond the true villain in the case. "Ms. Bond made a terrible mistake," he said.

Bond, now living in South Carolina, was not in court.

Currier took judicial notice of the fact that pets have become de facto family members in modern society. "In this case, that goes to both sides," he said, looking at Schwontkowski and Langin.

"I will accept as true that Tilly has become an integral part of your lives and that you have developed a strong emotional bond with her."

But the law looks at animals as property, he said. "Otherwise you would be in family court right now."

He assessed Tilly's value at $1,500 and set her earning potential at $4,200, based on previous photo shoots in which she had been featured.

He set the final award at $5,000, the maximum allowed in small claims court.

"I am making a factual finding that the dog belongs to Ms. Schwontkowski," said Currier. He added that Langin "is not a thief. She wrongly kept the dog," but didn't know she had obtained Tilly under false pretenses, he said.

"Ms. Langin, you can either return the dog or pay $5,000."

Langin never flinched.

"I'll get out my checkbook right now," she said.