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This page is part of the Failed System section of New Animal Control.Org

The Barking Laws, Law Enforcement, and the Courts

Everything You Think You Know is Wrong

Chronic barking is one of those topics about which everything you think you know is wrong. For example, you would assume that if your neighbor's dog barks in such an extreme fashion that your quality of life is devastated and the health and well being of your family is imperiled, that you could turn to your local police and animal control departments and get timely relief from the ongoing torment.

After all, you are the victim - right? And your recalcitrant neighbor who refuses to take responsibility for his dog is the perpetrator. Therefore, surely after the authorities receive your complaint, they are going to step in and force the dog owner to do the right thing - aren't they?

No, probably not. The fact is that the legal system seems to have been set up to make it something between difficult and impossible for you to use the resources of law enforcement to force your neighbor to take responsibility for his dog. Far from protecting you from abuse at the hands of the irresponsible owner, you will find that the system will run interference for the dog owner, and work to block any attempts you make to correct the problem.

Those of you who requested assistance from your local police and animal control departments before turning to this web site already know what I mean. The authorities throw every possible obstacle in your way. For those of you who are just hearing it for the first time, I know it may be hard to believe, and I'm sorry to have to be the one to break the news to you. But when it comes to abusive barking situations, the system is rigged and the legal deck is stacked against the victims. That does not absolutely preclude the possibility of you solving your barking problem through the legal system, but you need to know going in that if you pursue the legal option, you will be swimming against the tide.

Another link, How the animal control system was highjacked, and how that usurpation spawned systemic failure, explains how the legal system came to favor the perpetrators over the victims of barking abuse. However, the section you are now reading does not discuss either the origin of or the solution to society's dog management problem. This section simply addresses barking-related laws and tells you how the legal system goes about processing barking dog complaints so that you will be better able to plan your strategy intelligently as you work to bring your particular barking crisis to an end. If you want to learn how the legal and animal control systems came to be corrupted, you'll have to read the section mentioned above.

The Santa Rosa Story

A while back, I needed help dealing with a neighbor who refused to quiet his dog. I called the Humane Society of Sonoma County which, at the time, handled animal-related complaints for my current hometown, Santa Rosa, California. I talked to a woman there who told me there was nothing animal control could do unless I first submitted letters of complaint written by people from at least three of the neighboring households.

"Look," I said. "The neighbors are not going to write letters. What do you need letters for anyway?"

"We have to have letters because we need proof that the dog is actually barking. For all we know you could be a vindictive neighbor filing a false report."

The dog was barking as we spoke so I asked her if she could hear it over the phone. She allowed that she could, "But," she said. "How do I know that it's your neighbor's dog that I hear barking?"

"Well, why not come out here to see it first hand," I said. "The dog is never quiet for more than five minutes at a time. You won't have to hang around long before you hear it for yourself. In fact, he barks at everything he sees; all you have to do is walk by on the sidewalk and he'll bark at you. Surely the powers that be will acknowledge that a dog that barks at everything in sight is barking excessively. Just come out here and take a look."

"We can't do that."

"Why not?"

"We aren't funded adequately to allow us to come out and listen for barking dogs."

"That's okay," I said. "I'll be glad to pay for it."

"We can't let you do that."

"Why not?"

"There's no mechanism established that would allow our agency to receive money from you for a thing like that."

"That's okay," I said. "I'll pay an animal control officer, person to person, to come out after work, on his own time, to witness the barking."

"Oh, we can't do that either."

"Why not?"

"Animal control officers are not allowed to do that."

"Okay," I said. "How about if I hire an off-duty police officer to come out and serve as a witness? Would that be sufficient proof?"


"A person can go to jail for life on no more than the word of a police officer." I said, "Are you telling me we can't trust the word of a cop as to whether or not a dog is barking?"

"I'm sorry."

"Well, how about if I hire two off-duty police officers to come out here and verify that the dog is barking?"

"We can't accept that as proof either."

I pointed out that you can have a human being legally put to death for capital murder on less evidence than that.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Well, how about if I hire a member of the city council to come out here? How about if I bring out every member of the city council, the mayor, my clergyman and the chief of police? Would that be enough evidence that this dog is barking?"

"I'm sorry," she said. "We need letters from the neighbors."

Do you see what I mean about the deck being stacked? Like most places, where I live in Santa Rosa, your neighbor's dog can stand under your bedroom window barking around the clock. But the authorities have established procedures that are such that, even though the animal cries out all but continuously, it may, nonetheless, be completely impossible for you to prove to their satisfaction that the thing is even happening.

The Anti- Barking Laws

Barking is regulated on the city or county level of local government. Therefore in theory, we could have different barking ordinances in place for every city and county in the country, but we don't. On the contrary, across the nation, most of those laws seem to be very similar.

The best way to learn about the barking law that applies to your area is to call the mayor's office and inquire as to who handles barking dog complaints. Usually it will be the Department of Animal Control or, much less often, the Police Department. Call the appropriate department and ask them how you can get a copy of the law. Be sure to get it in writing. Then, read it carefully for yourself. Don't take anyone else's word for what the document supposedly says.

The enforcement of noise ordinances is viewed by most law enforcement agencies as a low-prestige, low-priority assignment to be avoided. Therefore, in those few places where there are viable anti-noise ordinances in place, it is common for officers to mislead citizens who call-in asking for help with noise problems, by denying the existence of the statute or by misinforming the caller as to what, exactly, the law says. Or they may mislead you concerning the ground rules of the enforcement of the statute.

In that way, law enforcement is often able to keep noise victims from knowing their rights under the law and thereby, prevent them from pressing the agency to assist with the abatement of a type of crime they view as unworthy of their attention. So get a copy of your local ordinance, read it carefully and know what it says before you approach the authorities for assistance. That advice goes for any type of noise problem you may need to address. This is the voice of experience: when it comes to noise-related statutes, never trust a police dispatcher or an individual law enforcement officer to tell you what the law says. Get it in black and white and read it for yourself.

You have to realize that most "anti-barking" ordinances were written with the intention of making them unenforceable. And in those rare locations where there is a workable ordinance in place, much more often than not the authorities find some excuse for not enforcing it.

Your town probably has what I call a multiple-household law, which is one of those ordinances I just mentioned that is all but unenforceable. But you won't know for sure until you call Animal Control, or whoever, and check it out. For your sake I hope you have some kinder, more workable ordinance in place in your hometown. But then again, if the law where you live was conducive to the quick resolution of barking problems, you probably wouldn't be on reading about the legal system.

The Multiple-Household Laws

As you read on you'll notice that sometimes I refer to multiple-household laws (plural) and sometimes to a multiple-household law (singular). That's because there are slight variations in the multiple-Household laws from place to place, but they are the same in a couple key ways.

They all attempt to intimidate and dissuade the victims of barking abuse, first by writing an all but unenforceable ordinance, and then by placing the burden for enforcing that unenforceable law squarely on the shoulders of the victims.

The multiple-household laws, like the one here in Santa Rosa, say that before the authorities will even consider taking legal action against an irresponsible dog owner, the victim must speak with the neighbor about the barking. Then you must write a detailed letter of complaint and file legal papers against the owner. You must also gather data relevant to his prosecution, and you must serve as a witness against him in court and then -- and this is the killer clause -- then you must persuade at least two of your neighbors, from separate households, to do the same. (For a total of three households.) That amounts to a legal mandate that the victim must organize the neighborhood and spearhead a legal crusade against the perpetrator of the crime and, thereby, enter into what will almost certainly become an upsetting, energy-intensive, time-consuming, antagonistic relationship with that person.

As you can imagine, the consequences of being forced into that kind of relationship hits the victims hard. As one veteran prosecutor put it, "When one neighbor reports a barking problem to law enforcement it starts a little war." These "little wars" can get vicious and very scary.

Even if you've never had the experience for yourself, you know intuitively that, if you spearhead a campaign to bring legal action against a neighboring dog owner, there is going to be trouble. So you want to avoid it if there is any way you possibly can, and that's just how the other victimized neighbors feel as well. So they are loathe to join with you in the effort. The fact is that, try as you may, you will seldom if ever find anyone who is willing to commit to the kind of protracted legal action mandated by the multiple-household laws. People are seldom willing to sign on to a thing like that, no matter how severe the barking problem may be. So that's it. Without another two households ready to join with you in towing the line, you're dead in the water as you drift in a sea of noise, and contemplate the worth of an unenforceable ordinance.

Some places have a two-household version of the mutliple-household law, in which the authorities will agree to take legal action against an irresponsible dog owner only if the victims from two seperate households will agree to join together in driving forward any potential legal action.

The multiple-household laws are the only criminal ordinances in existence that require more than one complainant to come forward before law enforcement will agree to take action. By requiring complaints and extensive follow up actions from multiple victims before agreeing to proceed against the perpetrators, the authorities engage in the very questionable practice of denying victimized citizens legal protection on the basis of how their neighbors choose to behave.

One of the most diabolical aspects of the multiple-Household laws is that many of those ordinances do not actually specify whether or not it is illegal for someone to allow their dog to bark in a fashion that is injurious to the well-being of the neighbors. The laws just state that if people from two or three separate households submit to the arduous ordeal laid out above, then sometime within a year or so, a judge will hear the case, and his honor will decide whether or not, in that particular case, the barking was illegal.

In other words, according to the multiple-household laws, the barking of a given dog is only deemed to be excessive after a judge says that it is excessive, and it is only illegal after the judge rules that it is illegal.

But notice that, other than saying that chronic barking is illegal when a judge says it is, the multiple-household laws do not establish any standard for what is and is not an acceptable level of canine vocalization. Those laws don't say that, "X amount of barking is too much barking. Therefore, it is against the law for you to allow your dog to bark more than X amount."

By failing to establish a standard and a viable mechanism of enforcement the authorities have, in effect, legalized chronic barking, in a move that robs you of all legal protection and elevates your neighbor with the barking dog to a status wherein he is above the law and beyond accountability.

As a consequence of these made-to-fail laws, your neighbor can let his dogs bark all day and all night, non-stop, every day and night, sunrise to sunset to sunrise with no fear of law enforcement intervening. He doesn't have to let you sleep at all - ever. He can let his dogs bark until you're numb with fatigue and screaming hysterically. He can keep it up until exhaustion and stress destroy your marriage and your children are failing in school and suffering from chronic exhaustion. That's the way the multiple-household ordinance works. It's not what you'd call a victim-friendly law.

As long as his dog's voice is the vehicle by which he delivers the damage then, for all practical purposes, under the multiple-household law, there is no limit to the extent to which your neighbor can inflict injury on you and your family. And the system is structured so that legally it is somewhere between exceedingly difficult and completely impossible for you to do anything about it.

So, that's the bad news. Now let me give you a little ray of hope before I give you some more bad news.

I've heard rumors that there are places where viable, readily enforceable anti-barking laws are in place. I've heard it said that people who live in those places just have to call the authorities to get their barking problems quickly resolved. Unfortunately, so far none of those rumors have held up when I checked them out, and I honestly don't believe that such a place exists. But who knows, maybe it does, and maybe you are lucky enough to live there. With that in mind, don't just assume that there is an unworkable ordinance in your area. Read through your local law for yourself and see what it says.

Also, some complainants do actually succeed in finding people from other households to join them in a multiple-household action. Over the years I personally have approached, perhaps, two dozen neighbors, and was never able to persuade a single one to sign on to such a thing. And of course, where I live, it takes not just you and one other neighbor, but you and two other neighbors to move the thing forward, which was more than twice as many households as I was ever able to mobilize. Based on those experiences I have to tell you that your chances are slim.

Nonetheless, you never know, you might be able to do it, especially if you enjoy a close, supportive relationship with some of your nearby neighbors who are also suffering from the noise. Unfortunately, even if they sign on, it could take you up to a year to get your case heard in court and the dog owner is free to let his dog continue barking all that time. For that matter, it is extremely common for the problem to continue even after the judge has ruled against the dog owner. And before it's over your interactions with the owner are almost certain to get ugly. Still, in theory, even if you are saddled with a multiple-household law, you might, nonetheless, succeed. And in the end, if you finally get a little quiet, it may prove to have been worth the effort.

The Single Complainant Victim-Driven Laws

Single complainant laws force bark abuse victims to jump through all the same procedural hoops as the the multiple household laws. However, with a single complainant ordinance in effect, one single victim, acting alone, can stir the legal system to action.

Unfortunately, one rarely finds a town with a single complainant law in place, so count your blessings if you have one in effect where you live.

The problem with the single complainant ordinances is that they are still victim-driven, which means that the complainant faces many of the same dangers and hardships posed by the mutliple household laws. Therefore, while the single complainant laws are more likely to bring about results for the individual bark abuse victim who is bold enough to pursue that option, there is no possibility that those ordinances could ever bring an end to the barking epidemic beause, even if such laws were widely adopted, few people are willing to sign up to personally drive forward a legal action against their neighbor.

The Consecutive-Disruption Ordinances

If you don't have a multiple-household ordinance in effect where you live, then you are probably subject to a consecutive-disruption law.

The consecutive-disruption laws really just barely make a pretense of trying to prevent chronic barking. Their goal seems to be simply to make it illegal for a dog to bark all the time, without letup.

Under the consecutive-disruption laws, people are allowed to keep dogs that bark with astounding frequency. Under those ordinances it is only illegal to keep a barking dog if the owner allows the barking to continue on for more than a certain number of minutes in a row.

For example, in many places, allowing one's dog to sound-off is only deemed to be illegal if he does it for more than twenty-minutes consecutively. However, if the canine falls silent for more than sixty-seconds during that twenty minute period, then the clock resets, and the dog can bark on nonstop for yet another twenty minutes without the law having been violated.

Just how many minutes the dog is allowed to bark in a row varies from place to place, with each city setting its own limit. Although, it usually seems to be something in the neighborhood of twenty minutes.

Under that kind of ordinance, if you have two or three neighbors who each keep a highly vocal canine, you can have the sound of somebody else's barking dog going off inside your house once every forty-five seconds, 24-hours a day, and legally there still isn't anything you can do to stop it.

So the consecutive-disruption laws are not exactly the answer to your problem.

You do have one other hope, though. Up to this point I have written only of the "anti-barking" laws that are contained in the criminal codes. However, you might be able to force the dog owner to quiet his dog using the civil laws.

Please note: In some states the terms civil law and civil courts are not used. In those places, those institutions are called by other names. However, for lack of a better solution to that inconsistency, I will use those terms (civil law and civil courts), to indicate the non-criminal branch of the legal system that deals with the issuance of injunctions and the resolution of the general question of who owes what and to whom.

Criminal Law Versus Civil Law

There are two types of law: criminal law and civil law. Broadly speaking, criminal law, of which the "anti-barking" laws are a part, is supposed to protect us in situations where we are victimized by someone who is behaving either maliciously or irresponsibly. The enforcement of criminal law is carried out by law enforcement, which takes the initiative, bears the expense and puts out the effort necessary to bring the problem behavior to an end. Animal control, by the way, is considered a branch of law enforcement.

Civil law is designed to settle disputes between people when one person thinks someone owes them something or has some legal obligation to them that is not being fulfilled. Civil law is enforced by the individual who feels he has been cheated. Under civil law, the person who believes he has been wronged has to take the initiative. He must do all the work and bear all the expense necessary to move the case into civil court where the dispute can be settled by a judge.

When you are injured because your neighbor refuses to take responsibility for his dog, clearly that cannot be accurately characterized as a dispute, because the problem there is not a difference of opinion between individuals, or one person refusing to fulfill a contractual agreement with another. Rather, it is a case of one person victimizing another by behaving either irresponsibly or maliciously. Therefore, it should be dealt with through the criminal codes.

A private citizen should not be forced to correct a neighbor's criminal behavior by pursing the matter through the civil courts. Nonetheless, most of the criminal codes pertaining to barking abuse are so patently unworkable that people are often forced to turn to civil law to in an attempt to abate their barking problems.

Abating the Beast of Barking in Civil Court

The purpose of the civil courts is to provide citizens with a forum in which victims can sue to gain compensation for injures or financial losses they suffered as a result of the defendant's misconduct. However, when your neighbor's dog is barking chronically, you don't really want to be monetarily compensated for your suffering, you just want the barking to stop so your suffering will end, and you want it to end soon. But from the day you file the required legal documents, it will take you something in the neighborhood of two months to two years to get into civil court, depending on where you live.

Exposure to chronic barking for that length of time can do irreparable harm. In two months, marriages can come apart, exhausted children may fall behind in school, opportunities may be lost, and addictions and health problems may develop. Clearly, the slow moving mechanism of civil court is not geared to the quick fix solutions necessary to protect the victims from continuing harm in an ongoing barking crisis.

In addition to the two-to-twenty-four month wait to get into court, filing a civil action is sure to be proceeded by a long, frustrating period in which you try to resolve the problem through other means. After all, you don't just rush out and file with the court on the first day the neighbor's dog begins barking. You are sure to spend several months just hoping the dog owner will take care of it, followed by several more trying to prod the owner into correcting the problem, followed by several more struggling with the city, attempting to get them to take action. By the time you realize that the city is uninterested, learn about the civil option, file the papers and wait for your day in court, you are going to have suffered with the problem for a very long time.

Dealing with chronic barking through the civil courts is a time-consuming, energy-intensive hassle, which makes it a poor venue for seeking a resolution to a barking problem, especially a small barking problem. Aye, there's the rub. The aggravation quotient has to be very high before it is worth it to even consider proceeding civilly.

In any case, it may not be possible to resolve your problem by suing. If you are in poor health, lacking in sophistication, or overwhelmed by an unrelenting work schedule, then for you, setting the civil mechanism into play and following it through to completion may be an impossibility.

In addition, to bring a successful legal action in superior court, you're going to have to retain an attorney. And that could end up costing you more than you can afford. Indeed, paying an attorney to champion your cause in superior court could prove to be more hassle, and perhaps more expensive, than simply selling your house and moving, and that's especially true if you are facing a litigiously belligerent dog owner who is eager to lock horns.

To make the option even less appealing, when you file in civil court, the burden of proof (( is on you. Perhaps more than any other factor, the judge will make his ruling based on how many witnesses you can produce to back your version of events. Unfortunately, potential witnesses don't want to appear in court for a civil case any more than they want to testify as witnesses in a multiple-household/criminal court case, and without them you are going to be in a bad way.

If you have any doubt as to the extreme reluctance of potential bark-abuse witnesses to testify in court, go to News of the usual legal run-around (( and read the two news accounts of what happened in Nahant, Massachusetts, where for more than a year a small army of victimized citizens besieged the city fathers, seeking relief from a pair of relentlessly barking Golden Retrievers. Nonetheless, the judge was still powerless to act because not one of the complainants was willing to testify in court.

Even with witnesses ready to testify, however, you may still find the litigatory trail to be steep and rocky. It is common for the complainant to bring in witnesses who testify that the dog barks all the time, only to be countered by an equal number of witnesses brought in by the dog owner to say the dog never barks, ever, and what you end up with is a wash out.

Sadly, the worse your situation, the less likely you are to be able to set things right through either the multiple-household criminal law or the civil court option. That's because the most horrendous situations are those in which nearly all your neighbors keep barking dogs. For obvious reasons, no one who has a barking dog is going to agree to appear in court to testify against the other neighbors who also have barking dogs. That's how things are set up: the worse your barking problem is, the less chance there is that you will be able to find relief through the legal system as it is currently set up.

What's worse, the more people you sue, the less credibility you have. So when someone comes to court time after time, suing one neighbor after another, there comes a point where the judge begins to assume that the real problem is a cantankerous complainant imagining problems where none exist. Therefore, if you are in absolute barking hell, surrounded on all sides by irresponsible neighbors keeping highly vocal canines, you are likely to run out of credibility with the judge long before you win enough cases to quiet your living space. For that reason, attempting to eliminate a severe ambient barking problem by working through the civil court is extremely unlikely to prove productive.

Anyone who has had the experience can tell you that fighting your way through a legal dispute is a psychologically brutal, grinding, upsetting ordeal under even the best of circumstances. And with a little bad luck it can drag on indefinitely. Aside from the possibility of violent retribution or a never-ending low-grade war with the neighbor against whom you litigate, you may find yourself the target of retribution in the form of a counter-suit that could drain a river of money from the family coffer for years to come.

No matter how you cut it, the civil remedy is a poor option. Just taking one person to court is likely to prove a major distraction. If you file multiple cases against your neighbors, you can be sure your life will be transformed as your time, your attention, and your relationships come to be dominated by that quest.

The crowning touch is that when you finally get to court, you may find yourself standing before a judge with his own barking dog, who will simply dismiss your case, leaving you worse off than you were before you sought legal remedy.

An officer of the court told me about a similar event in San Francisco of which he had first hand knowledge. It seems a guy living in the city was cursed with a neighbor dog that defecated habitually on his doorstep and barked without mercy. As is true most places, San Francisco's criminal code "anti- barking" statutes are all but unenforceable, which, I guess, explains why there are no officers assigned to the task of enforcing them.

Desperate for a little quiet, the guy proceeded in San Francisco superior court, seeking an injunction to quiet the dogs. He successfully solicited written depositions from his neighbors, gathered the data, and placed a security camera on his roof to provide an electronic record of the dog's activities. He filed the papers, bore the expense, endured the anxiety and sleepless nights and waited in anguish for his day in court. It was a long, expensive and an emotionally traumatic experience, however, when the day finally came, the court granted him his injunction against the dog owner.

Before you applaud the happy ending, think back to what I said in the section about dealing with the owners of barking dogs; they self-select for the traits of hostility and recalcitrance. True to form, the dog owner ignored the court order. The victim returned to superior court to request that the authorities enforce the injunction against the owner, only to be told that the court was "too busy" to involve itself further with his case. To the best of my knowledge that dog is barking still.

There is no doubt about it. Forcing victims to attempt to resolve their chronic barking problems through the civil courts does them injury every bit as heinous as the burden placed on them by the mutiple-household laws.

Nonetheless, stacked deck or not, some stouthearted souls do eventually succeed in forcing their neighbors to quiet their dogs by filing civil actions. And, in the absence of a workable criminal law, the civil court may well be your best bet. One of the links on our sister site, Seeking relief through the civil courts ((, explains how the civil court is divided up, and gives you the information you need to find an attorney and actually file with the court. In addition, it suggests some legal strategies that might allow you to show the dog owner the light without having to follow completely through with a lengthy civil action.

This page is part of the Failed System section of New Animal Control.Org