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.
“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.”