- Associated Press - Sunday, August 17, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A Pennsylvania woman’s fight to get her dog back from a central Ohio rescue group has turned into a full-fledged legal battle and Internet war.

Veronica Covatch, 53, of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, has been trying to get her 5-year-old sheltie back since April, when she said the dog escaped from her friend’s back yard in Columbus, Ohio.

Covatch said her dog, Piper, was picked up by Franklin County Animal Control and then turned over to Central Ohio Sheltie Rescue in Columbus in April, even though Covatch said a microchip in her dog would have shown she was the owner.

The sheltie rescue group and its director, Penny Sanderbeck, argue that the dog rightfully belongs to them and is accepting applications from anyone interested in adopting her.

Covatch filed a complaint against Sanderbeck and the rescue group last month in Franklin County Municipal Court. This week, Judge David Tyack ordered Piper returned to Covatch as the case works its way through the court, but Sanderbeck was able to keep the dog after posting a $10,000 bond, according to The Dispatch.

Covatch said she’s not giving up on Piper, a champion show dog worth tens of thousands of dollars.

“She’s a companion, she’s a lap dog, and my bed buddy above everything else,” Covatch told WCMH-TV. “I love her to death. I wouldn’t be fighting to get her back if I didn’t.”

Sanderbeck has declined to comment on the case.

Her attorney, John Bell, said “once the dog comes out of the shelter to the rescue, it’s the rescue’s dog and that’s the end of it.”

In a letter Bell wrote and posted on the rescue group’s website in May, he said there’s no concrete proof that Covatch is Piper’s owner, saying “the only evidence that was submitted consisted of pedigree documents … that could pertain to hundreds if not thousands of dogs, and vet records and photos from an alleged co-owner.”

It was unclear whether he was referring to Covatch, and said six people claiming to be Piper’s owner have contacted the rescue.

Bell said the shelter has been inundated with “Internet posts, letters, and emails, and even whole new websites” about Piper.

“Instead of attempting to resolve these competing claims to the ownership or possession of ‘Piper’ in a civilized and orderly manner, a campaign of Internet bullying and threats was started, and several criminal acts were committed against Ms. Sanderbeck, including a burglary of her home,” Bell wrote.

Bell did not release specifics of the alleged burglary but said it was “directly related” to Piper.

He said Piper would not be placed in any home, including Covatch’s, “until those responsible for the burglary and the Internet bullying have at least been identified.”

Covatch’s Columbus attorney, Lloyd Cohen, dismissed the rescue group’s claims of being Piper’s rightful owner, and said a microchip implanted in Piper establishes that Covatch is the owner.

“We can’t understand why a nonprofit organization that claims on its website to be devoted to animal welfare and reuniting lost animals with their owners would rather put time, money and energy into fighting this than let Veronica and Piper be reunited,” he told the Dispatch.

The National Sheltie Rescue Network, based in Utah, attempted to intervene in the case but said that Sanderbeck was uncooperative.

A coordinator for the group told WCMH-TV that Sanderbeck and her group have been removed from the network, saying they “don’t support this kind of behavior.”

Meanwhile Covatch has started an Internet fundraising campaign to help her pay for the legal fight to get Piper back. Through Sunday, the page had garnered more than $4,100 of its $8,000 goal.

A court date has not yet been set in the case.

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