Features October 1998 Issue

Quiet Barking in Your Neighborhood

Practical and legal remedies exist to quiet nonstop barking in your neighborhood.

What can you do if the dog whose barking is driving you insane is not your dog?

Besides leaving a copy of the foregoing articles on the dog-owner’s front porch (maybe they’ll take the hint and train their dog not to bark), you might consider the practical and legal remedies offered by attorney Mary Randolph, author of Dog Law. This outstanding book, published by legal self-help specialist Nolo Press, of Berkeley, CA, covers all legal aspects of owning dogs.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter in Dog Law that deals with barking dogs. The tips contained in the excerpt will be enough to guide most people with nuisance barkers in their neighborhood through an amicable and effective resolution to their problem. However, if you are embroiled in a serious conflict with the balky owner of a problem barker, WDJ strongly encourages you to consider buying Dog Law and reading the entire chapter.

Dog Law author Mary Randolph is a dog owner and attorney, living in Berkeley, CA.

Probably the most common complaint about dogs is the noise they make. The good news for neighbors is that usually problems can be resolved without resorting to legal means, through informal negotiation or mediation. And if that fails, there is almost always a law against noisy nuisance dogs.

If you can’t get these laws enforced to your satisfaction, you can sue the dog owner to get the nuisance stopped and to recover money damages. But substituting a major hassle with expensive lawyers for a small one with a bad-mannered spaniel isn’t much progress. Lawsuits are especially undesirable when the other party is a neighbor – after all, you’ll still be next door to each other no matter who wins.

Below, we discuss the most promising ways to resolve neighborhood dog disputes out of court and stay on relatively good terms with the neighbors.

Confront Your Neighbor About the Barking

The obvious first step – asking the dog’s owner to stop the noise – is either ignored or botched by a surprising number of people. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising approaching someone with a complaint can be unpleasant and in some cases intimidating.

However, talking to your neighbor calmly and reasonably is an essential first step. Even if you do eventually end up in court, a judge isn’t likely to be too sympathetic if you didn’t make at least some effort to work things out first. So it’s a no-lose situation, and if you approach it with a modicum of tact, you may be pleasantly surprised by the neighbor’s willingness to work toward a solution.

Sometimes owners are blissfully unaware that there’s a problem. If a dog barks for hours every day – but only when it’s left alone – the owner may not know that a neighbor is being driven crazy by a dog the owner thinks is quiet and well-mannered. Even if you’re sure the neighbor does know about the dog’s antisocial behavior, it may be better to proceed as though she doesn’t.

Here are some suggestions on how to get the most from your negotiations:

- Write a friendly note or call to arrange a convenient time to talk. Don’t blunder up some rainy evening when the neighbor is trying to drag groceries and kids in the house after work.
- If you think it’s appropriate, take a little something to the meeting to break the ice - some vegetables from your garden, perhaps.
- Don’t threaten legal action (or illegal action!). There will be time to discuss legal remedies if relations deteriorate.
- Offer positive suggestions. Once you have established some rapport, you may want to suggest, tactfully, that the owner get help with the dog. Try saying something like, “You know, my friend Tom had the same problem with his dog, and since he’s been taking the dog to ABC Obedience School classes, he and his neighbors are much happier.” Of course, if you make suggestions too early in the process, the neighbor may resent your “interference.”
- Try to agree on specific actions to alleviate the problem. For example, that the dog is kept inside between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
- After you agree on a plan, set a date to talk again in a couple of weeks. If your next meeting is already arranged, it will be easier for you to talk again. It won’t look like you’re badgering your neighbor, but will show that you’re serious about getting the problem solved.

If the situation improves, make a point to say thanks. Not only is it the nice thing to do, it will also encourage more progress.

Mediation: Getting Another Person to Help

If talking to your neighbor directly doesn’t work, or you’re convinced it’s hopeless, consider getting some help from a mediator. A mediator won’t make a decision for you, but will help you and your neighbor agree on a resolution of the problem.

Mediators, both professional and volunteers, are trained to listen to both sides, identify problems, keep everyone focused on the real problems and suggest compromises. Going through the process helps both people feel they’ve been heard (a more constructive version of the satisfaction of “having your day in court”) and often puts people on better terms.

Mediation provides a safe, structured way for neighbors to talk. They meet informally with one or more mediators, and first agree on ground rules – basic guidelines, such as no name-calling or interrupting. Then, each person briefly states a view of the problem. The mediator may summarize the problem and its history before moving on to discuss possible solutions.

Unlike a lawsuit, mediation is not an adversarial process. You do not go to mediation to argue your side. No judge-like person makes a decision for you. So there is nothing to gain from the lying and manipulation common to the courtroom. People can become amazingly cooperative when they realize it’s in their power – and no one else’s – to resolve their problem.

When two people do agree on how to alleviate the problem, it’s best to put the agreement in writing, which helps clarify everyone’s expectations. And it’s invaluable if later memories grow fuzzy, as they almost always do, about who agreed to do what.

The best place to look for a free mediator for this kind of dispute is a community mediation group. Many cities have such groups, which usually train volunteers to mediate disputes in their neighborhoods.

Other places that may be able to refer you to a mediation service include the small claims court clerk’s office, the local district attorney’s office, radio or television stations that offer help with consumer problems, or state or local bar associations.

State and Local Laws on Nuisance Dogs

If the situation doesn’t improve after your efforts to work something out, it’s time to check your local laws and see what your legal options are. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be better prepared to approach your neighbor again or go to animal control authorities, the police or a small claims court.

In some places, barking dogs are covered by a specific state or local ordinance. If there’s no law aimed specifically at dogs, a general nuisance or noise ordinance will make the owner responsible. Local law may forbid loud noise after 10 p.m., for example, or prohibit any “unreasonable” noise. And someone who allows a dog to bark, after numerous warnings from police, may be arrested for disturbing the peace.

To find out what the law is where you live, go to a law library and check the state statutes and city or count), ordinances yourself. Look in the index under “noise,” “dogs,” “animals” or “nuisance.” If you don’t have access to a law library, you can probably find out about local laws by calling the local animal control agency or city attorney.

Animal Control Authorities and Nuisance Dogs

If your efforts at working something out with your neighbor haven’t succeeded, talk to the animal control department in your city or county. The people there are likely to be more receptive than the police or other municipal officials.

When you call, don’t just make your complaint and hang up. If it’s really a persistent problem, you need to be persistent, too. Ask the person you talk to – and write down his name, so you won’t have to explain your problem every time you call – about the department’s procedures. Find out what the department will do, and when. For example, the department may need to receive a certain number of complaints about a barking dog within a certain time before it will act.

Some cities have set up special programs to handle dog complaints. The animal control department establishes a simple procedure for making a complaint, and follows up promptly – and repeatedly, if necessary. This is a great idea, for two main reasons. First, it gives a specific city official or department – usually the health, police or public safety department – responsibility for the problem. If it’s not clear who’s primarily responsible, someone with a complaint is likely to get shuffled from department to department.

Calling the Police on a Barking Dog

The police aren’t very interested in barking dog problems, and you can’t much blame them. Unless you live in an exceptionally quiet and peaceful place, police have lots more serious problems on their hands. Another reason to avoid the police, except as a last resort, is that summoning a police cruiser to a neighbor’s house obviously will not improve your already strained relations. But if none of the options already discussed works, and the relationship with your neighbor is shot anyway, you might as well give the police a try. The police may be your only choice, too, if you don’t know who owns the offending dog, as can happen on crowded city blocks where you just can’t tell whose dog is making the noise.

The police have the power to enforce local noise laws and laws that prohibit disturbing the peace. As when you’re dealing with animal control people, don’t be afraid to ask the police exactly what you and other neighbors must do to get them to take action. You may well have to make more than one call or written complaint.

Small Claims Court for Nuisance Dogs

If nothing you’ve tried helps, you can sue the owner of a barking dog, on the ground that the dog is a nuisance that interferes with your use and enjoyment of your home. The least painful route is through small claims court. Small claims court procedures are simple and designed to be used without a lawyer. In some states, including California, lawyers are barred from small claims court. Even if they aren’t banned, you will rarely see one there because most people find it too expensive to hire them. Fees in small claims court are also low, and the process is relatively fast – which means you’ll get to court in a few weeks or months, not years.

Winning a lawsuit in small claims court can get you money (and satisfaction), but probably nothing else. In most states, small claims court judges only have the power to order someone to pay money. They can’t give you what you really want – a court order telling your neighbor to make the problematic pooch be quiet.

Still, making your neighbor fork over some money may be even more effective than a simple court order in convincing your neighbor to clean up his (or his dog’s) act. And you can keep going back to court and asking for more as long as the nuisance continues.

If you absolutely must have a court order telling the neighbor to stop (the technical term for this kind of order is an injunction), you may have to go to “regular” court (often called circuit, superior or district court) instead of small claims court. For that, you’ll probably need a lawyer, though you can bring a straightforward nuisance suit yourself, if you’re willing to spend some hours in the law library finding out how to draw up the papers and submit them to the court.

Reprinted with permission of Nolo Press. For information about suing in small claims or regular court, see the rest of Chapter 7 of Dog Law.

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