For dog groomer Patti Alexander, things started getting ruff a few months ago. That's when a woman walked into Alexander's store, the Pampered Pooch in Stockton, Calif., and asked to have her cockapoo's teeth cleaned. Alexander performed the task, as many dog groomers do—only, she was charged minutes later with a misdemeanor. The customer and her canine, it turns out, were part of a sting operation staged by the state's Department of Consumer Affairs. By cleaning the cockapoo's teeth, Alexander had violated a California law that, claim veterinarians, allows only members of their profession to do doggie dental work.

By choosing to make an example of this particular dog groomer, the state may have bitten off more than it can chew. Alexander, 31, has since fought tooth and nail to reverse the application of a law that can punish a groomer with a $2,000 fine. "I'm not doing this for the profit, I'm doing this for the dogs," says Alexander.

Suing for restraint of trade, she recently won round one in the dogfight. Alexander was granted a temporary injunction by the state superior court, allowing her to brush, floss and remove tartar. Now she wants to open the field wide to all groomers, arguing that they're as qualified to clean teeth as vets are. Besides, she adds, groomers aren't as expensive. Their fees run from $5 to $20 a cleaning; vets charge $75 to $100. "Let the dog owners make the decision, not the government," says Alexander. She lives in Stockton with her two children from her first marriage, Russell, 14, and Douglas, 12, and is pregnant by her soon-to-be groom, Alan Gunter, 22, who, ironically, is a veterinary technician.

Gunter sides with Alexander, but most others in his profession do not. Vets are using money and formidable lobbying power to bar groomers from cleaning teeth. But Alexander, who has the backing of at least 15 state senators and 25 representatives, is hoping to prove that the vets' bark is much worse than their bite.