Saturday, December 01, 2007


Not many years ago at a Montana campground, a man was barked at by a family dog. It was unclear why the dog decided to follow this man and bark at him and also unclear why the family didn’t make the dog come back to them and shut up. The man who was being barked at “lost it,” took a chainsaw and cut off the dog’s head -- then stalked over and threw it into the middle of the horrified family circle.

When law enforcement caught up with this guy, the first order of business was a psychiatric exam. They figured he was, as the English say, “barking mad.” After the psych folks cleared him, he stood trial and served time. No word on what was done for the family, especially the children.

It doesn’t just happen with barking dogs. On another occasion two old geezers at a campground got into a shouting match over the noisy generator one was running to keep his wife’s medical equipment operating. He was shot dead. These two incidents seem worse because they were out in supposedly idyllic campgrounds, but similar clashes can happen in any neighborhood.

When a police officer is first trained, the wise old veteran will emphasize knowing every small thing that goes on in a neighborhood, whether it’s a cracked window on night patrol that hadn’t been there before or a strange noise that can’t be identified. Big crimes and tragedies start small and if you can stop them at that stage, it’s much easier. Thus, the most pesky and persistent element of an AC officer’s day is the most important: the small, repetitious complaints.

Most animal control officers really sigh over barking dog complaints. Sometimes the complainants are just displacing their real beef or maybe they’re super-sensitive. Most often the dog owners aren’t even there and don’t believe that their dogs bark all day, hour after hour after hour. They “habituate” the sound and no longer “hear” it. If they are told the dogs bark to the point of being unbearable, their reaction is likely to be, “Well, what do you want ME to do about it? I have to go to work. The dog can’t be inside. Talk to the dog.”

Or maybe they get a shock collar, buckle it on and ignore it until the dog is half-mad itself from being shocked every time a kid in the neighborhood yells, a car door slams, or another dog barks --all without teaching it anything. A dalmation -- often a breed that is hard to control -- barked too much. The owner buckled the shocker onto the dog, the dog started off, the man yelled at his dog, the dog turned around, added two and two, and bit the man. It takes thought and training for the human animal as much as the dog.

I once had a desk job just over the cubicle wall from the noise abatement officer. All day long the complaints came in about loud music, deafening machinery, etc. He patiently stacked them up. At the end of the day he made out a postcard for each one asking the offending party to be quiet and mailed them. That was the program. His policy was, “once you’ve addressed the complaint, that’s the end of the problem.” But it wasn’t.

Dogs barking, cats meowing, and babies crying have in common that they are emergency sounds, demanding attention. In their opinion something -- maybe something life-threatening -- is wrong. Some people cannot tolerate such demands. Many will shoot animals with bb guns or pellet guns, saying that they aren’t “real” guns. But they can do real damage. Unfortunately, we know what stressed people -- even parents -- can do to crying babies. Aside from that, a dog that barks ALL the time is not performing as an alarm. There is no way to differentiate its ordinary behavior from real warning.

The point of this essay is not cruelty. Barking complaints are a good example of how clueless people are about using democratic process to abate a nuisance. Their idea is that if they don’t like something, there ought to be a law against it -- and they don’t want any responsibility for enforcing laws. It’s an “I’m gonna tell Momma” syndrome.

First, they don’t want to be active initiating action or even to be a complainant -- they want the animal control officer to act on their behalf without anyone knowing. (Sometimes the offender is scary enough for one to be sympathetic.) But the American court system requires that people be confronted by their accuser and have the right to question them. (Unless, as we read, the accused is at Guantanamo -- an occasion for outrage.)

Second, they want the animal control officer to judge whether the barking is excessive, but the AC officer can’t go live at their house so as to hear yapping at 3AM. In some cases, like a kennel, it might work to use a noise registering device to take readings. But many dogs bark at AC officers when they weren’t barking before, so that testimony is not helpful.

Third, they want to say, The dog barks “too much” or “all the time.” But court testimony needs to be exact and convincing. A calendar on which it is marked that a dog barked for two hours in the afternoon on Tuesday, on three hours in the morning on Friday, and at one hour intervals all day Saturday will convince a judge.

Or fourth, they want to tell what others said, but that’s hearsay evidence. Come on! You know what Perry Mason would say! What the citizen really needs is the person-skills to go over and say, “Your dog really barks so much that it drives me crazy. Can we find a solution?” Using law enforcement to address small neighborhood complaints is blasting a skeeter with a cannon -- but we all know how annoying a mosquito can be.

Then the AC officer needs to have the time to explain HOW to find a solution or maybe a pamphlet or a referral to a dog-trainer. Someone needs to have taught the officer how to transmit that information to the neighborhood. Maybe the local elementary school would organize an assembly. Maybe a public information session on the television. Sometimes it takes an arbitrator to hear both sides and try to sort out what’s happening. Maybe the person complaining is contributing to the problem by letting her child tease the dog. Very often a few minutes of suggestions by an officer can make a difference.

Certainly this is what separates the dog-catchers from the animal control officers. It’s too easy put a hanger on the front door knob and consider that good enough. One guy I knew competed against himself daily to see how many barking dog hangers he could distribute in one shift. A lot. And he never ran out of complaints either.

The English have another saying. When they have a problem, they “take advice.” That means they consult an expert. “Taking advice” is a part of intelligence and sanity. How to give effective advice to a barking dog -- more than just shouting at it -- is a skill every dog owner needs. It's not easy to live in a democracy because it assumes competent citizens.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People get traffic tickets every day with only the testimony/complaint of a police officer. If I witness a crime such as a robbery or assault - all I have to do is call 911 and testify if asked at the trial. I'm not expected to conduct the investigation or confront the attacker to reason with them. Why give animal control/law enforcement a free pass when it comes to people using their dogs to attack others -whether it be with noise or physical? If a system can't be invented to control dogs - then dogs shouldn't be allowed at all.