Barking dogs breed tension among neighbors

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 | 9:44 p.m. CDT; updated 12:22 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Kimberly Yagel-Burks and her boyfriend, Ben Garzan, play with the family dogs, Cocoa and Jack. Both are one-and-a-half-year-old Australian Shepherd littermates. Yagel-Burks, who lives on the 900 block of Maupin Street, has received six citations from Columbia Animal Control about the dogs’ barking.

Looking out the front window of his home, Ken McRae can see where the ruckus is coming from: Two dogs fenced in behind a neighbor’s home are at it again.

For much of the past hour he had hoped the barking would stop, that whatever was exciting the dogs would move on, or that they would lose interest. Eventually, he picked up the phone and called Columbia Animal Control.

Tips for living with dogs

What dog owners can do Residents of Columbia who own dogs prone to excessive barking don’t have to make enemies of neighbors. A good first step in healing relations is to keep the dog indoors at times when neighbors may be bothered, such as in the early morning. That advice comes from Ann Gafke, a local dog trainer with 40 years of experience. “Dogs do bark,” Gafke said, “and part of it is simply outside stimulus, like if someone comes to your door or goes past your yard. How can you keep the birds from chirping?” Molly Aust, senior animal control officer for the city, recommends dog owners seek advice from their veterinarians. She also recommends the use of a collar that discharges a small electric shock when the dog barks. Columbia Animal Control currently offers the collars on a one-week trial basis. “If it works, they can purchase one,” Aust said. “It’s not bad. It’s just a tingle.” A second type of collar, available at retail stores, sprays a mist of citronella when the dog barks. The citronella, an ingredient in many types of mosquito repellent, irritates the dog and discourages barking. For information about other products, as well as tips and links to product suppliers, go to “It’s up to the dog owner to be responsible,” Aust said. “When we get involved, it’s usually people who are not real responsible, and that’s why there’s a problem.” What neighbors can do Animal Control recommends neighbors talk to the owner of a dog that barks excessively before calling in a complaint. Aust said people often skip this step because they’re hesitant to bring bad news to their neighbor’s door. “People can be really defensive about this complaint,” she said. For those who choose to file a complaint, Animal Control requires a specific address of where the barking dogs live, as well as information about the caller. “They must tell us who they are,” said Gene Easly, a 24-year veteran officer at Animal Control. “We don’t do anonymous complaints. Otherwise, that’s all we’d be doing.” The first complaint results in a warning and the second carries a fine of $50, if the dog owner pleads guilty. Additional citations within a three-year period carry a fine of $65.

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“I’ve been complaining for a year and a half now,” said McRae, who lives on a shaded block just off West Boulevard. “I just want the barking to stop. It takes a lot of energy to complain about your neighbors.”

McRae is not alone in being fed up with noisy canines.

Over the past three years, Columbia Animal Control has processed more than 400 complaints about barking dogs. It’s a problem that penetrates the most private area of a resident’s life — his or her home. Exasperated, some phone the city, which issues warnings and citations. But many report that the nuisance of noise pollution continues.

The Missourian compiled an electronic database of Animal Control’s daily call log for the past three years to find some of the most frequent callers and offenders in Columbia.

McRae’s neighbor, Kimberly Yagel-Burks, recently received her sixth citation from Animal Control, the most any person in Columbia has received in the past two years. Her two Australian Shepherds, which were gifts from her parents to her children, ages 7 and 9, are strictly outside dogs. They have free run of a spacious backyard enclosure.

The dogs frequently are home alone during the day because Yagel-Burks works full time as a teacher’s assistant at a local elementary school.

“They’re trying to protect their boundaries,” Yagel-Burks said, explaining that her dogs are just barking at passersby during the day and raccoons and possums at night. “Dogs bark. That’s what they do.

“They’re my children’s pets,” she added. “They’re part of this family.”

A noisy trend

In 2007, the number of barking dog complaints in Columbia hit a record high of 151, up from 114 the previous year. The current year is on track to meet or exceed last year’s total.

Animal Control receives the most calls in April, May and June. Autumn also registers high numbers. Molly Aust, the city’s senior animal control officer, said that’s probably because warm temperatures encourage people to open their windows and leave their dogs outside — two factors that combine to annoy neighbors.

This past September, when temperatures hovered in the low- to mid-90s, Animal Control received 21 calls, the largest one-month total in three years. The city typically receives the majority of calls in the morning, particularly in the hours before 9 a.m. Only about one-third of complaints come in after 3 p.m.

On a weekend afternoon in early May, McRae, a yoga instructor at Alley Cat yoga studio downtown, had several windows open in his corner-lot home. As he spoke, the sound of barking carried throughout the neighborhood and his home, where he says he spends much of the day because he typically works from home in the morning and afternoon.

He said his repeated calls to the city seem to be having little effect.

“I’ll keep calling if I have to,” said McRae, who keeps a detailed log of when the dogs bark and said he regularly discusses the issue with neighbors. “Sound is a big issue. It’s part of my environment. It’s not that I want them to get fined. That’s not the point.”

Yagel-Burks has pleaded not guilty to all six citations. She was arraigned in Municipal Court on May 2 and is scheduled for pretrial counseling June 2 for an eventual hearing. She faces combined fines of about $300.

“It’s going to hurt me financially or my kids emotionally, or it’s going to waste my neighbor’s time,” Yagel-Burks said. “It’s a no-win situation for everyone.”

Yagel-Burks currently has a collar on one dog that delivers a mild electric shock if it tries to bark and said she plans to get one for the other. But she said she hates to do it. She said she tried taking her two dogs to obedience training last fall, but because of the dogs’ unruly behavior, “the instructor asked us nicely not to come back.”

Yagel-Burks said she thinks her neighbors are overreacting.

An owner problem?

The city classifies barking dog complaints as a violation of the city noise ordinance, a class 1 misdemeanor that can result in a fine of as much as $1,000 and one year in jail. Violations can occur any time of day or night.

The Municipal Court has heard 55 barking dog cases since June 1, 2006. In those cases, 22 defendants pleaded guilty and paid fines. Two pleaded not guilty but were found guilty by the court. One defendant, Robert S. Tyler, who pleaded guilty to 12 counts, eventually had to pay more than $500 in fines and court costs.

Assistant City Prosecutor Randy Rincks, who handles noise violations for the city, said the nuisance of barking dogs represents a quality of life issue, but people have different interpretations of what constitutes a nuisance.

“They’re dogs. They bark,” Rincks said. “You never know if someone’s animal is being too noisy, or if someone is just being too sensitive. That’s when you have to let the judge decide based on the witness’s testimony.”

Rincks added that fines typically motivate dog owners to take action. Some buy shock collars or simply keep the dog inside more. Only 15 percent of callers to the city have had to call more than once, and less than 10 percent of cases ever make it to court. As in speeding citations, the majority of dog owners simply plead guilty by paying the fine.

The court requires the filer of the complaint to testify against the offending party, usually a neighbor.

As far as McRae is concerned, that would not be a problem.

“If I’m here, I’ll go to court,” McRae said. “I would think that if she is paying a fine, she’d do something about the problem.”

Of course, not everyone who hears a barking dog picks up a phone and dials Animal Control. Another of Yagel-Burks’ neighbors, Hank Landry, said the barking of her dogs sometimes keeps him up at night, but he still hasn’t called the city.

“When we (the neighbors) compare notes in the morning, we’ve all had the same problems,” Landry said. “I don’t think it’s a dog problem. It’s an owner problem.”

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Thom Baker May 28, 2008 | 12:09 p.m.

Years ago I had neighbors who had barking dogs. I worked out of my home and they barked all day long. The neighbors were apologetic but said they had to stay out during the day since both worked and ask me to turn on some fans to quell the noise. After about 2 months of this I took a small tape recorder and recorded the dogs barking for about 2 hours. When my neigbors came home they started to barbecue. I had 2 speakers pointing towards their house and replayed the barking dogs for 2 hours. I never had barking problems again.

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Jude Sommerjones May 28, 2008 | 1:21 p.m.

My next door neighbor's dogs barked without stopping for hours at a time. Together with another neighbor (who was extremely bothered) we kindly stated that she probably didn't realize it but her dogs were barking most of the time she was gone (all day). The neighbor with the dogs said "I can't believe you didn't tell me sooner" but the truth was, the dogs were new to the neighborhood and we felt the situation would somehow take care of itself. After our discussion I was shunned by the neighbor with the dogs. She refused to even look me in the eye when we were 10 feet away from each other like I didn't exist anymore. She has since moved but how uncomfortable it all was! No wonder people do not want to confront their neighbors. I think most people don't realize that ownership of a dog is HARD WORK!!! I didn't know this either until I adopted a dog two years ago. Dogs need to know that someone--other than themselves--are in control or they will feel the need to be in control. Cesar Millan's show, the "Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic channel assisted me greatly in understanding dog psychology. I am no expert but I do know that just by giving my dog a good, brisk, 30 minute walk every day does WONDERS for his attitude. I also correct him in the yard if he barks and we rarely have the incessant barking we hear often from other dogs on our walk. I allow one or two "notification" barks but beyond that, I intervene. At first we had some dog/cat scuffles but I let them all know that this behavior was unacceptable and now they get along just fine. We do have some VERY frustrated dogs in our neighborhood who spend all of their time in a small, cramped space or NEVER leaving their yard. I ask all of you dog owners: How frustrated would you be if you lived your life never leaving a pen or your yard?????

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