TRENTON - New Jersey lawmakers are looking to save a condemned dog who was sentenced to death after attacking a gardener from Honduras.

Congo the German shepherd would get a reprieve under legislation quickly shoved toward law yesterday by Assembly lawmakers that would make it more difficult to put dogs down.

But as lawmakers unanimously passed the bill out of committee and toward a full Assembly vote, the health officer from the township where the attack occurred told lawmakers the proposed changes could hurt public safety.

Congo's case has sparked widespread protests from animal lovers and Congo's owners who contend the dog was simply protecting his family and their Princeton property when he attacked the gardener in June.

The case has also created heated debate about immigration issues in the state because the victim, Giovanni Rivera, was an immigrant from Latin America.

Prosecutors contend the attack in June was unprovoked and a Municipal Court judge ruled the dog had to be put down.

But legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Neil Cohen, a self-avowed animal lover, would change the state's vicious dog law. Cohen's bill would require a judge to find a dog vicious beyond a reasonable doubt, the same standard used for humans.

It would also define striking, grabbing, poking and prodding as threatening actions and behaviors that could legally incite a dog.

Cohen said he hopes his legislation will quickly make it into law and save Congo's life.

"This is not a vicious dog," said Cohen, D-Union. "This is not a potentially dangerous dog, and certainly this dog does not deserve to be put to sleep."

The dog's owner, Guy James, was hopeful the bill would quickly make it into law.

"He was there to protect my family, and we need to protect him," James said.

David Henry, Princeton Township's health officer, expressed concern about the bill. He showed lawmakers photos of Rivera who Henry said was bitten 96 times and needed 65 rabies shots.

"The sweeping change to the vicious dog law, we feel, are not as protective to the public health and safety as they could be," Henry said. Rivera was attacked by Congo at the Princeton home where he did landscaping.

Charges were filed against the James family, and Rivera received a $250,000 settlement from the family's insurance.

James said Congo attacked Rivera after the panicked gardener grabbed his wife from behind and pulled her down, causing her to scream. Rivera's lawyer and the prosecutor have said that isn't true; they say Rivera never pulled her down and that James' wife couldn't control the animal. Rivera was in the hospital five days.

The judge's decision has been stayed, pending an appeal by the family. A state Superior Court judge has allowed Congo to return to his home in the meantime under numerous safety precautions.

Lilo Stainton, spokeswoman for Gov. Jon Corzine, said the governor's office has received 10,000 phone calls, e-mails, letters and faxes about Congo, more than any other issue since the governor took office.

Corzine says he'll leave the matter to the courts. *