ALICE, Texas - Politicians have been known to pull some doggone dirty tricks, but can it get more low-down than puppy theft?

That's the question people in this Texas brush country town are asking now that their mayor has admitted - without a smidgen of remorse - that for months she has been harboring Puddles, her neighbors' cuddly shih tzu.

At first, Mayor Grace Saenz-Lopez lied to the neighbors, telling them that the dog had died while they were vacationing. Now she refuses to return the dog she calls Panchito.

She argues that the dog's owners have forsaken the right to keep the animal because they failed to shower him with loving care when he was ill and needed them most. That has triggered a bizarre custody battle that has both sides howling for sympathy.

"I'll tell you what: Let's drop that dog in the middle of the courtroom and see who it goes to first," the mayor's lawyer, Homero Canales, barked in a fit of bravado. "You want a dog? Take care of it. These people were more interested in going on vacation than caring for a dog that looked like it was about to die."

The Puddles-Panchito feud started in the summer, when Rudy Gutierrez and Shelly Cavazos asked Saenz-Lopez to dog-sit their sickly black-and-white pup while they took their four children to an amusement park. Puddles had gotten trapped under their home weeks earlier, and by the time he emerged he had been ravaged by fleas. He was deathly ill when the family decided to go away, Gutierrez and Cavazos admit.

After one day, the mayor called the family with terrible news: Puddles was dead.

It was easy to believe, given the dog's condition - but by small-town happenstance they learned it was a lie.

The news that the mayor had faked a dog's death and then secreted it away set tongues wagging in this town of 19,000 people, about 45 minutes west of Corpus Christi.

This month Gutierrez and Cavazos sued the mayor, not only demanding the return of Puddles but also seeking attorneys' fees and unspecified financial compensation for the emotional trauma they claim to have endured.

While police and prosecutors discussed what to do, the dog remained at Linda's Grooming & Rooming for weeks, placing Linda Brandt in the middle of an uncomfortable spat between families she has known for years. Eventually, she gave the dog to Saenz-Lopez, who is well known for rescuing stray pets and finding them good homes.