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Los Angeles' Dog Barking Hell

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.

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.

 

At his administrative hearing, a city Animal Services officer told Becraft that while a solid hour of recorded barking makes for an easy decision, Becraft's five- to six-minute barking sample was not necessarily "excessive."

Figueroa's philosophical outlook, that a chronically barking dog is a "neighbor" or "community" issue, often underlaid by lifestyle differences between people living in close quarters, is echoed throughout the dog-barking officialdom at City Hall.

"I can tell you," says Brenda Barnette, general manager of Animal Services, "that often in the hearings, it's about a problem or issue between neighbors." She insists that's "not really a dog issue."

Barnette previously led the Seattle Humane Society and Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation.

Is it possible that many involved in the prevention of animal abuse develop something of a blind spot when it comes to the abuse of humans by loud animals?

"We do a lot of dog barking" enforcement, Barnette says. "But our priority is safety." She says the entire community should take responsibility for a neighbor's chronic barking dog — an unlikely behavior in polyglot L.A. — then adds: "But we really do need people to complain and to fill out and bring formal complaints."

What Barnette and her colleagues may be missing is the culture of passivity in L.A. when it comes to some quality-of-life detriments.

In many administrative hearings aimed at halting chronic dog barking, the "evidence" from dog owners claiming their dog is not a problem often takes the form of letters written by third-party neighbors, as was the case in Becraft's hearing. Such neighbors are either dog owners supporting a fellow dog owner, or they're neighborhood friends who don't want to upset the established equilibrium — even if that includes incessant barking.

"Having the sound of a barking dog force-fed into your home over time," says Craig Mixon of Sonoma, who operates barkingdogs.net, "can impact the functioning of your autonomic and endocrine systems so severely that it will erode your ability to function, derail your career, shatter your relationships, ruin your marriage, tear your family apart and destroy your health.

"But that should come as no surprise. After all, noise is a toxic entity."

Mixon believes the "dog lobby" — basically, every business that benefits from dog ownership — has been instrumental in creating weak antibarking and other dog-control laws in order to make dog ownership all but guaranteed to anyone, anytime.

Becraft says of the dog who has made things miserable for him and his wife: "It wasn't barking at passersby or intruders. He wanted to go in the house. He wanted attention. He'd stand with his head against the sliding glass door, and he would whine."

Becraft ultimately filed a lawsuit in small claims court to rein in the mastiff and regain his family's peace and quiet.

His lawsuit immediately caught the eye of a television show, and he received an overnight mail letter inviting him to be on Judge Judy. He says the letter guaranteed he would collect money if he won. But Becraft had second thoughts, never served the neighbors with notification of his lawsuit and allowed his claim to be dropped.

"We thought it was a little too aggressive," he says. His dog-loving neighbors "were our friends. You know, that's the thing. You see how these things deteriorate."

Becraft admits his situation is a lot better now, and he credits his neighbor with really making an effort. Instead of putting the dog outside at 5 a.m. when he leaves for work, the owner has the dog put out around 8 a.m. Becraft doesn't feel the neighbor has acted from malevolence. "Maybe they didn't notice the dog barking? I don't know."

His frustrating years of effort to arrive at this point are not an exception. L.A. residents have to jump through hoops for extended periods of time to stop nuisance noise. Over the months or years, many barking dog complainants accumulate piles of barking evidence DVDs with footage captured by multicamera video security systems, or they create minilibraries of date-stamped barking time logs and elaborate Excel spreadsheets that cross-reference barking with other factors.

In the persistent barking cases where Animal Services declines to intercede, frustrated residents turn on humming humidifiers, ceiling fans, white-noise machines and other sound-masking devices merely to sleep.

Figueroa laments that, 27 years ago, Animal Services had 100 animal officers who could go out on calls, double the number he has now.

"The process takes a long time simply because we're understaffed," Barnette says. "I think we used to have three or more officers at a hearing and now we're down to one. It takes a lot longer to get through the process. Our hearing officer makes the decision based on the evidence, and if there's not enough evidence, he dismisses it. We try to be as fair as we can."

 

But do they?

The Los Angeles City Council in May 2010 approved a new, initial $100 fine against dog owners to provide Barnette's team with a better tool for cracking down on excessive barking problems. Incredibly, Figueroa says he has never been told about the $100 fine ordinance.

Nor does Barnette list the $100 fine as one of the tools she uses to help L.A. victims of barking.

The City Council made a splash last year, telling CBS and other media that the $100 fine they approved unanimously would help City Hall force thousands of persistently violating pet owners to comply with the dog-barking law.

With 19,351 notices sent to pet owners during the previous year for barking, leash and cruelty violations, and some 10 percent — nearly 2,000 — of those believed to be persistent violators, the media spun the new barking-dog fine as a revenue stream for the city potentially approaching $2 million.

As the Associated Press reported last spring: "Barking dogs will now be a Los Angeles moneymaker, since the city council voted unanimously Tuesday to put some teeth in an ordinance that will fine pet owners who violate the city's barking and leash laws."

Instead, 15 months after the City Council directive, the staff of the Animal Services Department appears to be unaware of it, or uninterested in using it.

Now, Becraft awaits Animal Services' decision about his case. That takes another four to six weeks — because the officer who oversaw the administrative hearing has to take the decision to his or her supervisor.

Whatever the outcome, under City Hall's current approach, L.A. residents will continue to endure chronic barking-dog problems that can take up a tremendous amount of energy and require months or even years to resolve.

Reach the writer at groptimum@ yahoo.com.


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