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Los Angeles' Dog Barking Hell 

Laid-back L.A. Animal Services department takes months to stop problem barkers

Thursday, Jul 21 2011
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In Los Angeles, it's against the law for a dog owner or guardian to allow dogs to make "excessive noise" after receiving legal notice of a noise complaint and a request to make the dog stop. "Excessive" is noise that's "unreasonably annoying, disturbing, offensive, or which unreasonably interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property of one or more persons occupying property in the community or neighborhood."

Dog barking must be continuously audible for 10 minutes or intermittently audible for 30 minutes, within a three-hour period.

Angelenos can call the police when contending with a 100-decibel house party three doors away, but if the neighbor's dog barks at the top of its lungs at 3 a.m., that won't draw an officer visit because it's not under the Los Angeles Police Department's jurisdiction.

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That also means, to the shock of many victimized by chronically yelping dogs, that it won't be taken care of right away.

There is a very methodical process, starting with writing a formal complaint letter to the City of Los Angeles' Animal Services department, which then relays an official complaint to the alleged offender's owner. The complaining party then must wait at least 15 days but not more than 120 and, if the barking continues, write a second complaint letter. The second letter triggers an informal if sometimes heated or awkward meeting between the complaining party and the dog owner, mediated by an Animal Services official.

But something is going wrong in L.A. People are living next to incessantly barking dogs, and City Hall seems to be providing insufficient help in resolving the problem.

"It's a neighborhood problem," says Capt. Jorge Figueroa, the head officer at the Animal Services building on 11th Avenue south of West Adams, one of six such zone headquarters in the city. "We just try to make 'em come up with something that'll work for both parties."

According to Figueroa, a majority of barking problems are resolved after the first letter. But nearly 10 percent of the noise problems continue, sometimes for months, requiring a second, more formal "administrative hearing."

Todd Becraft is among that 10 percent. "It is maddening," says Becraft, an immigration attorney, of the dog barking he and his wife have endured on a very pleasant Leimert Park street. "Because [the dog] barks not because of intruders, or because of other dogs barking, but rather out of anxiety and loneliness. It's a whimpering bark that is very nerve-wracking and borderline insane and sad."

After moving in seven years ago, Becraft and his wife made a point of creating bonds and friendships in the neighborhood, even starting a neighborhood block group for which he continues as its unofficial "captain."

He considered the next-door neighbor a friend, but that friendship started to erode when the neighbor's large mastiff, confined during the day to a fenced-in area about 20 feet from Becraft's kitchen, began regularly letting loose with its deep and powerful bark.

Becraft began registering his displeasure. After sending the two complaint letters, Becraft in the spring of 2009 attended his first informal mediation, which led to modest improvements: The neighbor, who had been keeping all three of his dogs outside, moved two into the house.

Yet another informal mediation was set by city officials for November 2010, but the dog owner didn't appear. Becraft immediately requested an administrative hearing. He faced a lengthy wait of seven months, all the while harassed by the deep, powerful barking, before Animal Services conducted the hearing.

"It was very informal," says Becraft, who somewhat resembles a thinner Henry Rollins and speaks in a soft, calm, considered manner. "Which may or not be good, I'm not sure. The hearing officer was extremely diplomatic. He tried to seem empathetic to everybody. And it was less like a formal hearing than I'm used to."

As a lawyer, Becraft participates in immigration-related administrative hearings every week.

"There was no procedure, I guess I could say" of how Animal Services handled the years-long, unresolved dispute at his hearing. "It was like a conversation. Everybody sort of interjected wherever they wanted to."

Although he kept a "barking log" that stretches over 18 months noting the noise and aggravation he and his wife endure, Becraft also submitted a DVD which the hearing officer played and then kept to review.

At a formal "administrative hearing," Animal Services can set "terms and conditions" on the offending resident, with revocation of their dog license the ultimate sanction.

Ironically, if the pet is unlicensed, the owner can more easily escape sanctions. And in a twist that might surprise victims of incessant barking, any evidence submitted by the dog owner to defend the barking is considered by City Hall to be private. The complainant can't see that evidence unless the dog owner allows it, under Animal Services policy.

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