December 2012

Putting a collar on barking dogs

One of the great mysteries of existence is why barking dogs don’t seem to wake up their owners. We can’t pretend to know the answer. Maybe the owners are deaf or drunk; most likely, they’re just heavy sleepers.

But a sizable portion of the populace can’t sleep through incessant racket. In Montezuma County, those residents may now find some relief under the law, thanks to the Montezuma County commissioners and Sheriff Dennis Spruell.

On Dec. 3, the commissioners passed an amendment to an already-existing resolution dealing with dogs “not under control” in the county. The amendment added a provision stating that out-ofcontrol dogs can now include ones that are making “unreasonable noise.”

The board took up the matter at the urging of Sheriff Spruell, who said he gets numerous calls from sleepless citizens asking in vain for the sheriff ’s office to do something about canines that yap for hours at a time, often at night. Spruell decided to ask the commissioners to consider giving the sheriff ’s office the authority to cite owners of animals that make an unreasonable amount of racket, and the board ultimately decided to do so.

At a public hearing on the proposed amendment, citizens spoke both for and against it. Those opposed raised concerns about how “unreasonable” would be defined. It’s a good question, but, as commission attorney Bob Slough pointed out, that word is frequently used in laws, and it isn’t necessary for it to be spelled out beyond the definition in the dictionary. The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld a statute regarding disorderly conduct that contained the word “unreasonable” in reference to people making noise. The court said that the meaning must be considered in the context of each particular situation.

A few people noted that many animals make noise, including coyotes, roosters and cattle, and worried that the county would try to start enforcing noise regulations about nuisances like that. However, the resolution in question deals entirely with dogs. No other animals are mentioned anywhere in the language.

Other folks were also concerned about any increase in regulations, and we sympathize with that sentiment. However, none of them could offer any real solution for the people who spoke for the amendment, who told of losing night after night of sleep to barking dogs despite having asked their neighbors to quiet their animals. The opponents’ attitude seemed to be, “Tough luck for you – just put up with it.”

A couple of critics suggested the sleepless citizens should file civil lawsuits against their neighbors. That’s an extremely expensive and time-consuming process – not much of a remedy. Another individual said the county should institute some sort of “mediation” group that would try to bring both sides together. But, as Sheriff Spruell commented, what would motivate the owners of the barking dogs to agree to mediation, if there is no law in place requiring them to do so? Let’s face it, there are some people who are just rude, bad, inconsiderate neighbors, and politely asking them to be more thoughtful doesn’t do a damn bit of good.

Some people voiced concerns about what would happen when Spruell is no longer sheriff, saying a new official might be overzealous in enforcing this law. Well, Spruell has the potential to serve two more terms beyond this one, so he could be sheriff for quite some time. After that, it’s up to the county’s voters to make sure they choose someone whose law-enforcement philosophy makes sense and fits with local sentiments. Or, for that matter, they could vote to end term limits on the sheriff entirely.

The existing dog resolution has been in place since 2010, regulating dogs that run loose outside their owner’s property, and we’ve not heard that there has been a “reign of terror,” with deputies ticketing people willy-nilly. On the contrary, the feedback we have heard is that citizens feel safer walking or cycling along county roads because dogs are no longer allowed to roam about, menacing passersby.

For years many different people in the county have complained about dogs that bark incessantly – not working dogs, not dogs barking at visitors or mountain lions – but bored animals that raise a ruckus for hours on end. Sleep is a basic human need, and depriving people of it for long periods amounts to a form of torture. It also promotes dangerous conflicts — does anyone remember the case of William Baldwin, who was killed by sheriff ’s deputies after a standoff in his Montezuma County home, prompted in part by his fury at a nearby barking dog?

Citizens deserve some remedy for intolerable noise. We hope this resolution will offer that remedy, and we thank the commissioners and sheriff for being willing to implement it.