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New York City Likely to Get a New Barely Enforceable Barking Law in 2004

SH-H-H! Worse Than His Bite

The New Yorker on line - Written by Eric Konigsberg - Nov. 7, 2004

Good schools, abundant day-care options, probably more discarded chicken bones per block than you'll find in any other town: the relative lack of green space notwithstanding, it was possible, until recently, to consider New York City an excellent place for dogs. That may soon change, however, now that Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a series of new noise-control amendments. Along with curtailing the excesses of ice-cream-truck drivers and dub-reggae enthusiasts, his plan calls for an enforced limit of ten minutes - five minutes at night - when it comes to barking dogs. After that, a dog's owner may be deemed in violation of the law and issued a ticket or a fine.

"There have typically been a lot of dog complaints to the 311 line," Jordan Barowitz, the Mayor's spokesman, explained the other day. "Last month, for instance, there were eleven hundred and forty-nine calls under the category "animal noise." And then, let's see here, "animal noise, chronic": four hundred and fourteen. That month was a bit heavier than April. September, October, it's very high. It drops in November, but it bounces back up in December. Maybe they get excited about the holidays."

Currently, the city's noise code reads, "No person shall permit an animal, including a bird, under his or her control to cause unnecessary noise." This, needless to say, is a little vague. "It produces problems from an enforcement standpoint," Barowitz said. The city's Department of Environmental Protection, which drafted the proposed legislation, examined the laws in several other cities before deciding on the ten-minute rule. Charles Sturcken, the D.E.P.'s public-affairs director, said, "Seattle has some of the more advanced measures in the country. Hawaii apparently has very quiet noise codes. Atlanta has a ten-minute-duration law anytime for barking, or up to half an hour for intermittent barking. Palo Alto, it's also ten minutes. We thought that was reasonable."

Reasonable for people, maybe. To a dog, the ten-and five-minute limits might seem arbitrary, and a little harsh: even in dog years, five minutes of barking is thirty-five minutes, which falls just short of the standard therapeutic hour. What's more, the Mayor's proposal ignores the archetype of the barking dog as hero ("Lassie, Dad's hurt! Get help!"), and the fact that raising a ruckus is what a lot of dogs have been bred to do.

Some breeds are more vocal than others. According to a study published in 1965 by the animal behaviorists John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller, the lowest "threshold of stimulation" belongs to the cocker spaniel. A cocker spaniel puppy fighting with a litter mate over a bone barked nine hundred and seven times in ten minutes. The quietest dog in the study was the African basenji, which almost never barks (the most vocal basenji racked up twenty low-pitched "woof"s in the bone-fight test), a trait the animal is believed to have developed over many generations of hiding from leopards. Jean Martin, a basenji breeder in Tully, New York, says that she gets a lot of calls from New Yorkers shopping for a barkless dog. "Basenjis don¹t bark, but they can scream. They can howl. And they can yodel."

It is not easy to stop a dog from barking. Though a recent study published in Science indicated that dogs may understand human language, in one case comprehending more than two hundred words, anecdotal evidence suggests that the phrases "Shut up," "Knock it off," and "Put a sock in it" are not among them. For that reason, counter-barking can be big business. Andrea Arden, a trainer, says, "I get probably two or three calls a day from people with a barking problem. They say, "You need to get back to me immediately. I only get one more warning, and then I'm out of my building." The most popular quick fix is a special collar that emits a spray of citronella oil whenever its wearer barks (it is activated by sound vibrations). "Those are fine," Arden says. "But I'm worried people will resort to desperate measures -- shock collars, tranquillizers, wiring the dog's mouth shut. The absolute cruellest thing you can do is debarking -- that's when the vocal cords are cut. You hear about that a lot with beagles. I personally don't know any vets in town who do that, but it happens. And I have no doubt that the noise restrictions will mean people start giving their dogs up to shelters."

"I'm sure I'll be getting the calls," said Darryl Vernon, a lawyer in midtown, who for twenty years has represented dog owners in all kinds of legal actions. "The landlords will say, This is governmental ratification, and I'm going to use it to sue and evict dog owners and raise the rent." Until now, I've never had a client get a violation from the city for barking. It's mainly for odors."

This page is part of the News of the Usual Legal Run-around,
which is a component of the Barking Dog News and