If you believe his owner, Rocky could be the most misunderstood dog in South Jersey, an anxiety-ridden Rhodesian Ridgeback from posh Haddonfield who only scratches and "makes contact with its mouth" because a handful of people young and old have "provoked" him in the last decade.
Some of the people who've come in contact with Rocky's mouth have scars, though, and don't believe they provoked him.
"He's on anxiety meds. He's taking St. John's Wort," Mario Iavicoli, an attorney for the borough of Haddonfield, said in state appellate court yesterday.
Haddonfield took Rocky's owner, Robert Taffet, to appellate court in Trenton after a Superior Court judge in Camden reversed a lower-court ruling last year that had labeled the dog "potentially dangerous" because of two attacks that drew blood.
Haddonfield wants the label to stick so that Taffet, an orthopedic surgeon, would have to muzzle Rocky when in public.
In 2002, Michael Harkins, also of Haddonfield, said that Rocky and another Ridgeback owned by Taffet pinned down his golden retriever in a Haddonfield park. Harkins said that when he tried to intervene, he was bitten so badly that he required 30 stitches. In 2004 Rocky allegedly left puncture wounds in the shoulder of a 14-year-old girl who had been in the Taffet home.
There were also reports that Rocky had bitten a boy at a Haddonfield Little League game in 2003 and one of the Taffets' sons.
In November, Duke, another of Taffet's Ridgebacks, allegedly bit off the ear of a little girl visiting the family's new goat farm in rural Salem County. Taffet was charged with owning a "vicious dog" in that case and is awaiting a hearing.
Last year, Camden County Superior Court Judge John T. McNeil claimed that Harkins could have overreacted during the 2002 incident and provoked the dogs. In court yesterday Taffet's attorney, William O'Kane, stressed that Harkins' dog had been uninjured.
Appellate Judges Victor Ashrafi and Anthony Parrillo both said they were struggling to come up with a clear definition of provocation under the dangerous-dog law. Ashrafi wondered what options Harkins had when he believed his dog was being attacked.
"What if he had grabbed the dog to save a child?" Ashrafi asked. "Would that have been provocation?"
Haddonfield resident Susanne LaFrankie Principato, who claims her family was "terrorized" by the Taffets' Ridgebacks in 2007, said the dogs aren't the real issue.
"It's time to stop focusing on the dogs but focus on the real problem, their owners" she said outside the court yesterday. "Rocky isn't the only dangerous dog."
Iavicoli said he expects a decision from the judges within 60 days. The Taffets and O'Kane declined to comment.