MURRIETA, Calif. -

A Murrieta man accused of standing by while his dog mauled a 3-year-old boy pleaded not guilty Thursday to a felony charge.

   Robert Steven Kahn, 62, was arrested last month after his 3-year-old Akita, police said, inflicted severe injuries on a toddler at a Lowe's Home Improvement store in Murrieta.

   Kahn was charged with being a negligent owner of an animal that caused  great bodily injury. He appeared with his attorney today before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Timothy Freer, who scheduled a felony settlement conference in the case for March 18.

   Kahn remains free on $5,000 bail.

   According to defense attorney Nicolaie Cocis, the dog was surrendered to  Wildomar-based Animal Friends of the Valleys, a nonprofit that provides animal control services in Murrieta and surrounding communities. AFV impounded  the Akita in early January, and Kahn agreed to leave the canine with the agency  -- on the promise that it would attempt to find a new home for the pet.

   ``He raised the dog from a puppy and did not want him to be euthanized,'' Cocis told City News Service. ``The dog was a companion and friend.''

   According to Murrieta police Lt. Tony Conrad, shortly before noon on Dec. 28, Kahn was walking with the dog through the garden center at Lowe's, in the 24700 block of Madison Avenue, when a boy wandered away from his father to stroke the 75-pound husky-like breed.

   Conrad said the dog was on a leash but lunged at the youngster and ``bit him in the head, causing significant punctures and cuts to his face.''

   ``The father rushed to his son's aid and spoke with the dog's owner, (who) apologized and then left the garden center ... ultimately leaving the  area,'' Conrad said.

   The toddler was rushed to nearby Inland Valley Medical Center, where he received 50 stitches for tears to his head, jaw, neck and around his right eye,  according to Conrad, adding that because of the severity of the injuries, the child later was taken to Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego for further examination.

   He was released the following day.

   ``It happened in the blink of an eye,'' Cocis told CNS. ``The kid walked over to pat the dog. Before my client could do anything, the dog reacted. I'm not sure if it sensed something, was scared or what.''

   Detectives obtained surveillance video from Lowe's and distributed it to the public, resulting in Kahn's identification.

   ``Mr. Kahn is an upstanding guy,'' Cocis said. ``He is completely emotionally wrecked by this whole thing. He feels terrible about the injuries that the child suffered.''

   According to Conrad, investigators learned of two additional attacks in October and November.

   ``In those incidents, the dog showed aggression toward young children --  3 and 5 years,'' Conrad said. ``Injuries from those two incidents were less severe and did not require hospitalization.''

   According to Riverside County District Attorney's Office spokesman John Hall, the prior attacks factored into the decision to file a felony charge for the mauling of the 3-year-old boy.

   ``The previous incidents ... established the dog as being aggressive, and that the owner would have knowledge of the dog's propensities,'' Hall told CNS. ``There was no serious bodily injury in any previous incident, so the statute charged here would not apply in the other incidents.''