In canine crackdown, Assembly takes aim at barking dogs

Nathaniel Herz
Erik Hill

Anchorage residents fed up with a neighbor's barking dog have a means of recourse -- not a weapon, not a predator loosed into a backyard, but section 17.10.015 of the municipal code, which limits when and for how long animals are allowed to make noise.

In the past year, the code has led to fines for the owners of Zeus, a German shepherd in Eagle River alleged to bark at an ear-splitting 100 decibels, and Ayla, a Karelian bear dog in East Anchorage whose owner agrees can be "annoying," at times.

Other owners, however, have gone unpunished, thanks to what some residents say is an unfair discrepancy in the code that allowed dogs to bark for as long as seven minutes during the daytime, but just five minutes at night. Shift workers complain of discrimination.

At an Assembly meeting last week, Will Johnson recounted how for years he had struggled to capture a seven-minute recording of the neighboring dogs on both sides of his home that kept his wife -- a nurse who works night shifts -- awake.

"The dogs would bark during the day, for all the way up to six minutes, 55 seconds," he said in a subsequent interview.

But, Johnson added, his complaints were thrown out, "because I was short five seconds from the ordinance."

In a canine crackdown, the Anchorage Assembly voted last week to reduce the time limits for daytime barking, to give "day sleepers" equal protection. The new rules, which went into place immediately, will be enforced by the city's half-dozen strong squad of animal control officers, working from a complex off Elmore Road.

It's a tweak to an already arcane section of city law. But it could lead to significant quality-of-life improvements for people like Johnson, and his wife, who have been peppering the Assembly and the members of the city's Animal Control Advisory Board with noise complaints and requests for a change in the rules.

"When one person is enslaved we all are enslaved," said Johnson, who kept up his lobbying efforts even after the noise outside his house subsided. "So I kept the battle going until the battle was won, for everybody."

The Assembly vote was the product of more than a year of work by the city's nine-member animal control board, which originally put barking time limits in place more than a decade ago -- replacing a vague standard that banned "repeated or continued noise" that interrupted sleep or work.

Under the new rules, owners can be cited if their dogs bark for more than five minutes at a time without falling silent for at least 60 seconds.

Technically, the ordinance applies to all animal "vocalizations," but "we've never had a cat-wailing complaint or a cow-mooing complaint -- it's always dogs," said Bradley Larson, the city's animal-control enforcement supervisor.

Anchorage residents fed up with nearby dogs have several options. They can take the problem up with their neighbors directly, or they can suffer in silence, like the neighbors of Assemblywoman Amy Demboski apparently did.

"I had a beagle once," she said at last week's meeting. "And it wasn't until after I got rid of the beagle that all my neighbors came and thanked me -- and I never realized he was barking all day."

Or they can turn to their government for help.

Complaints are fielded by a dispatcher at the Anchorage Animal Care and Control Center, next to the police department on Elmore Road. There, the faint sterile odor of a pet store greets visitors -- thanks to the dogs, cats and turtles housed across the hall.

From the center, the uniformed, badged animal control officers armed with expandable batons and pepper spray are charged with responding to calls. (They also respond to bites, loose animals and other problems.)

After an initial complaint, the center sends dog owners a warning in the form of an "abatement letter," which includes an informational pamphlet on barking. (A sample: "With patience and understanding, you should be able to complete training in two to three weeks. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are making your dog a better pet and making yourself a better neighbor and citizen.")

The center issued just over 500 letters last year.

Repeat offenders get a visit from an officer, and then a ticket -- 27 of which were issued last year. Tickets range from $50 to $400, depending on whether the recipient was a repeat offender.

Before officers issue a ticket, however, they require either a signed statement from a second neighbor attesting to the noise, or "additional date and time specific evidence," which often takes the form of a video or audio recording. Officers will sit and watch or listen to the tape -- using headphones, to spare colleagues the racket -- to establish whether a violation has taken place.

Larson, the enforcement supervisor, doesn't take a position on the barking time change. (He, and the rest of the employees at the center, are employees of a Native corporation, Doyon, that holds a municipal contract to oversee animal control in the city.)

But Neil Koeniger, the chair of the animal control board, which recommended the changes, said that the fix was only fair, given the number of people in Anchorage who sleep during the day.

While noise complaints aren't the most frequent received by the board, the problem can be infuriating for those afflicted, Koeniger said -- "several" of whom had complained.

"The folks who do get frustrated get very frustrated," Koeniger said in a phone interview, as one of his own 18 dogs barked in the background. "An irresponsible owner can kind of wreak havoc with their neighbors."

That havoc is demonstrated by case files at the city's administrative hearing office, where dog owners can appeal their citations.

In one recorded hearing, Shannon Bryant, an Eagle River resident, described how Zeus, the German shepherd, had disturbed her sleep, interrupted her phone conversations and television watching, and even affected her chronic migraines.

"It makes me absolutely crazy. It permeates every room of my home," Bryant said. "There is no peace and quiet."

(Zeus' owner, Steven Harward, could not be reached for comment, though he said at the hearing that he did not let his dog bark for more than seven minutes.)

At another hearing, the neighbor of a Rocksie, a black pit bull mix, complained that the dog's incessant barking kept him from enjoying a coffee with his wife. (In that case, Rocksie's owner said he was busy at his family's flower shop, and thought the dog had been inside.)

While the old seven-minute daytime standard could be tough to meet, Koeniger, the animal control board chair, said that it had still been an improvement on the previous version of city code, which gave the vague standard of "repeated or continued noise."

There's actually no nationwide standard for barking ordinances, said George Harding, the executive director of the National Animal Control Association. And the organization doesn't recommend one, either -- though most cities appear to use time limits, like Anchorage's current code, or descriptive rules like banning "excessive" noise.

Fairbanks bars "frequent or prolonged barking," while outside Alaska, the cities of Los Angeles and Minneapolis permit between five and 30 minutes of noise, depending on the frequency and time of day.

What do dog owners think?

Several mushers and trainers objected to an initial version of the proposed code changes, which were ultimately narrowed. But at last week's Assembly meeting, Christine Roalofs, a board member of the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association, registered her support.

"The ordinance, as it stands, I think is very enforceable, if somebody really wants to take the time to make that point," she said.

The adjustments the Assembly approved last week include several other tweaks in the code aimed at improved enforcement.

One allows the city to issue a limited noise exemption only to people who have four or more dogs. People had been taking advantage of a loophole to get "facility" licenses -- which permitted infrequent periods of up to 20 minutes of barking, mainly to accommodate mushers -- when they had fewer pets, so that they didn't have to comply with the normal rules, according to Koeniger.

"That way, when your brother-in-law from Wasilla comes in and brings his dog, you can chain it up in the yard and it can bark for 20 minutes," Koeniger said.

Other amendments attempt to toughen inspections of the licensed facilities, and to limit adoptions of animals seized by animal control officers, so that people who owned problem pets can't easily get them back.