A new law attempts to silence barking dogs

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After hearing from citizens tormented by barking dogs and others worried about proliferating regulations, the Montezuma County commissioners voted 2-0 to give the sheriff ’s office the authority to cite owners of canines that make “unreasonable noise.”

Commissioners Steve Chappell and Gerald Koppenhafer voted to amend an existing resolution, passed in 2010, that regulates dogs considered “not under control” because they are not on the owner’s property or in the immediate presence of a custodian. (Working dogs such as cattle dogs are exempted, by state statute.)

The new amendment provides that dogs not under control can also be those making “unreasonable noise.”

Sheriff Dennis Spruell said he brought the matter to the commissioners because once or twice a week he gets calls from people who complain that the sheriff ’s office won’t do anything about a neighbor’s barking dogs. “The reason we won’t do a thing about it is we can’t,” he said. “So I thought it was about time to bring it in front of the commissioners.”

He emphasized that he is a dog-lover and that the problem is not the dog’s fault, but the owner’s for not training the pet. He also said, if the ordinance passed, it would be the responsibility of the person complaining to file charges and go to court, because the responding deputy would not usually be the one hearing the dogs.

Under the resolution, violations are considered Class 2 petty offenses and may be punishable by fines of $50 for the first violation, $100 for the second.

Eleven people spoke in favor of the amendment, nine against it. Administrator Ashton Harrison also read two letters the county received in favor of the new resolution.

Some people recounted stories of being kept sleepless for days or weeks by neighbors’ dogs that were sometimes even tied next to their windows. They spoke about having to keep windows closed even in summer and of trying to work things out with their neighbors, only to be told, “There’s no law, so there’s nothing you can do.”

Craig Watson, who said he lives near Mancos, told the board he has a neighbor whose dogs bark continuously at night. Because the neighbor is rarely home, Watson left notes asking him to put the dogs in at night, to no avail. One day he saw the neighbor outside and went over to speak to him, but the man accused him of trespassing and called the sheriff, Watson said.

Night after night the dogs interrupt his sleep, he continued. “And when the dogs aren’t barking, I’m waiting for them to bark.”

The situation became so dire, he said, that in October he fell asleep while driving and ran off the road, fortunately harming no one. “It’s like torture,” he said. “You can never get any sleep, so your body at some point says you’re going to sleep. Torture by sleep deprivation screws up your life horribly. I could kill myself driving, or somebody out there.”

He added, “This is a deadly situation. When you can’t sleep for weeks or months, you start wondering what you’re going to do. . . Suicide and homicide become options. This is a serious safety issue.”

Susan House, who lives near Mancos, said she has neighbors with dogs that bark 12 or more hours a day. She works at home and has to keep all her windows closed, but she still hears the noise. “I would sit there and shake,” she said. “It takes a rational person and turns them into an irrational person. I thought, how can I poison these dogs? Can I go over and shoot them?”

She said she and a number of other people affected by the barking tried sending emails to the owners, to no avail. At one point she began calling them whenever the dogs woke her, only to be sent a letter by their attorney accusing her of harassment.

Greg Kemp, also of the Mancos area, said numerous people over the years have complained about noisy canines in the county. In one recent case, he said, a woman with terminal cancer was released from the hospital and came home to spend her final days in peace, only to be tormented by the constant barking of a neighbor’s two large dogs.

“Some people cannot be depended upon to be considerate of one another. If that were the reality, this ordinance would not be necessary and neither would many others,” Kemp said.

Steve Davis of the Dolores area said he also supported the new resolution, albeit reluctantly.

“I hate to see more and more regulations. I moved out here to have a little bit of freedom and I certainly hate to see more freedoms being taken away. . . However, I do believe a decent night’s sleep is extremely important for productive people,” Davis said.

He said the needs of people working night shifts also should be considered. “I went through a period of extreme sleep deprivation which began with a barking-dog situation, so I think for the health and welfare of the people in the county we should have some means of rectifying unreasonable dog noise at certain times of day and night.”

However, other people opposed the amendment, saying it was too broad. Don Raney of the Dolores area said it “opens the door to other nuisance issues” such as crowing roosters and mooing cattle.

Rusty Hamilton, who owns hunting hounds, said he hears mules baying down the road and calves bawling when they’re weaned. He said he worries about putting no-bark collars on his dogs for fear they then won’t bark when they see a lion.

Dexter Gill, emcee of the local 9-12 Project and Tea Party chapter, said the proposal “takes away from our opportunities to work as neighbors.”

Debra Newton of Road 21 said, instead of a law, the county could implement a “mediation committee” that would try to work out solutions between the parties involved in barking-dog disputes.

Several people asked how “unreasonable” would be defined, and suggested that people bothered by noisy dogs file lawsuits in civil court against the owners. Slough said in his best legal opinion it was not necessary for “unreasonable” to be specifically defined by decibel levels and times of day. He said the Colorado Supreme Court in 1978 upheld a disorderly-conduct statute containing the phrase “unreasonable noise” in reference to people. The court said, “The word ‘reasonable’ is often used in the law,” and said the context had to be considered when deciding if behavior was unreasonable.

Slough said he believed the county’s amendment would hold up in court since the statute regulating people from making unreasonable noise had been upheld, and people have more rights than animals. “Dogs don’t have the constitutional right of freedom of speech – I don’t think – but people do,” Slough said.

Spruell said passing the amendment would not mean the sheriff ’s office would need to hire more deputies. In answer to questions about whether the office would profit by handing out tickets, he said, “I don’t get a nickel for fines.”

He also said barking dogs would not be impounded, as vicious dogs are. “During my regime, there will be no dog impounded for noise unless it’s ordered by a judge,” he said.

Spruell and the commissioners said they were not seeking to regulate dogs that bark when someone drives up to a house or a predator comes into the yard, but those that bark hours at a time for little reason.

Both commissioners said they don’t like to see more laws, but that sometimes they are necessary.

Chappell said laws are made “because of the few people that will not make reasonable accommodations to their neighbors.”

Koppenhafer agreed. “If you think we like passing these resolutions, we don’t. I don’t. Every time government passes a new regulation, it takes more of your freedom away. . . .But we also have to live in a society where people get along, and when people just ignore their neighbors and won’t consider their rights, I think government has to do something.”

The board was asked whether barking dogs could be regulated under a disturbing- the-peace ordinance instead of a new regulation, but Spruell said there is no such ordinance in Montezuma County, only one against disorderly conduct.

Gail Binkly can be reached at freepress@fone.net.

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From December 2012.