If Fido Barks A Lot...
By J. Diane Parrish, Esq.
Jun 25, 2004 - 3:45:00 PM

UNITED STATES—A "barking dog complaint" made to the Department of Animal Services, the city agency dealing with such problems, sets in motion a long and potentially disastrous process. If the department ultimately decides your dog's barking constitutes "excessive noise," they can come get him and sell him—or kill him.   So, if your beloved Fido barks a lot, and the noise bothers a neighbor, you need to pay attention.
Photo by Brittany Crouse

The process starts out deceptively innocuous.  If your neighbor files a complaint, you get a letter from the department telling you to quiet your pooch down.  If the neighbor complains again, you get another letter, this time inviting you to a meeting at the animal shelter to discuss how to quiet your pooch down. The department might suggest you get a trainer, or use an anti-bark collar—an inhumane device that delivers an electric shock, or squirts citronella in Fido's eyes.

If there's a third complaint, the process gets very dicey.  Now the department holds an administrative hearing.  A hearing officer takes evidence from witnesses under oath, and determines—without using any objective standards—whether Fido's barking qualifies as "excessive noise."

According to the Department, barking (or whining or howling) is considered excessive when it is "unreasonably annoying, disturbing, offensive, or unreasonably interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property of one or more persons occupying property in the community or neighborhood." (Municipal Code s. 53.63)

It is the department's use of an entirely subjective reasonableness standard that makes the process so risky.   It means that if your neighbor can testify with sufficient persuasiveness that Fido disturbs her, makes her nervous or interferes with her sense of serenity in her garden, the Department may conclude that Fido makes "excessive noise." And that puts you one step away from losing your best friend forever.

With stakes so high, the only safe approach is prevention.    

1.  Be friendly with your neighbors before a problem arises.  That way, if Fido's barking ever presents a problem, your neighbors will be motivated to work it out with you.

2.  If Fido is already a barker  (like he might be if you leave him alone, or outside for long stretches), ask your neighbors if the noise bothers them.  And remember, the term "neighbors" includes the people down the street on both sides, not just the folks next door.

3. If the neighbors are already annoyed, take immediate steps to control the problem.  Perhaps Fido can be trained; you may want to try to install a doggie door so he can get in the house where he feels your presence.  Take him with you more often.  Get him a friend.

4. Most importantly, be polite; avoid getting into a battle of wills, and approach the problem in good faith.

The materials contained in Speak! are intended for general information and should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice or opinion. Readers are urged to consult legal counsel concerning particular situations and specific legal questions.

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