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Are we expecting too much of dogs these days? My thoughts on barking and by-laws.

Are we expecting too much of dogs these days? My thoughts on barking and by-laws.

A few years ago, a by-law was introduced by the City Of Cape Town, whereby a dog may not bark for more than 3 minutes in half an hour. While fines have always been issued in some areas by law enforcement for dogs that have been reported for barking repeatedly, it seems that just recently this new by-law is being used quite zealously by intolerant neighbours to have the court order the removal and destruction of barking dogs.

So, what is the root of the problem here? Are people becoming less tolerant, is the law unfair or are dogs indeed barking excessively because they are not being cared for adequately? Obviously, each case is different and one or all of these factors may be involved and so require closer examination:

  1. Are people less tolerant? Life is anything but “uniform” these days – we no longer have a situation where dad goes off to work and mom stays home with the kids and the pets. Many households sit empty all day long, while there are an equal number of professional people working or running businesses from their homes. For those working at home, noises in the neighbourhood can be disturbing and barking dogs are quickly noticed. In most urban areas, the City is also encouraging “densification”, which means that more people are living closer to each other than ever before. We also live in a city where there is a battle for resources: jobs, affordable homes, and even water is scarce. We worry about the safety and security of our families and our homes. We face seemingly endless traffic daily and we watch many laws being broken by our government and in society all around us, with little justice prevailing. All of this creates stress and pressure and undeniably makes us less tolerant for daily annoyances and inconsiderate neighbours. Disputes amongst neighbours are unfortunately quite common and in many cases, dogs can form a convenient focal point for any grievances which may be felt. I have dealt with many cases where a particular neighbour has repeatedly reported dogs for barking while all other neighbours openly state that they have no issue with these dogs barking at all. One can only imagine that in such cases, there is an axe to grind or the particular neighbour is incredibly intolerant.

  2. Is the law unfair? I believe that this law is grossly unfair. I will never forget the cartoon that came out at the time with a dog with his paw clutched over his mouth while the house is being robbed and the caption “If only I hadn’t used up my 3 minutes on the neighbour’s cat”! This really says is all. It is ridiculous to expect a dog not to bark when there is a disturbance around the property. In my area, there are several things that tend to set dogs off and keep them barking until that event is over: baboons, baboon monitors chasing baboons, rubbish collection, prime dog walking time (when everyone and his dog traipses off down to the beach through the neighbourhood) and the water meter man. If a dog is outside at the times when these things are happening, it is highly likely that the dog will bark for as long as this disturbance continues and as dogs do not have an internal stop watch, they may very well pass the 3-minute mark. This is normal behaviour. It is one of the reasons that many people acquired dogs in the first place – to act as an alarm when something unusual happens or someone is there who is not supposed to be there. If a dog barks for more than 3 minutes at disturbance that continues for a long time, is the by-law being transgressed?

  3. Are dogs not being cared for adequately? While in many cases, it does appear that reported barking is normal “watch-dog” barking and the dog or dogs in question are generally, loved, cared for and well-adjusted, there is another very problematic side to barking problems: those dogs that are barking due to distress or boredom. The reality is that when dogs are left alone for hours on end every day, emotional problems often develop. Dogs are social animals and they have been specifically “designed”, through human selection, to form their primary relationships with human members of the family, not other dogs. Most dogs do not enjoy their owners leaving home – if they are gradually exposed to separation early in life and given the opportunity to develop coping skills (chewing appropriate stuffed chew toys and sleeping in a comfy place), they learn to tolerate it and even be content on their own for short periods (a few hours), BUT dogs do not do well with being left alone for long hours all day, every day. They may either become distressed (experience actual psychological pain similar to grief) or they may become bored and frustrated. Barking can be a way for a bored dog to fill the time and it is a way for a distressed dog to try and call the owners back and relieve their distress. This kind of barking is not healthy behaviour and is an indication that the dog is emotionally struggling. This is a problem that should not be happening and needs to be addressed urgently.

So, what should we be doing as neighbours? We need to be tolerant. We need to realise that we do not live in a bubble and we will experience some noise and disturbance in our daily lives. We need to recognise that normal watch-dog barking is VERY different to distress or boredom barking and cannot be eradicated altogether or limited to a three-minute period if something unusual is happening at that moment. We need to communicate openly and kindly with our neighbours if we have concerns and feel that there is a problem or the dogs are truly unhappy or neglected. We need to encourage them to get help from reputable behaviourists if help is needed. Calling law enforcement should be a last resort and preferably only in cases of neglect or emotional distress that are not being addressed.

What should be we doing as dog owners? Firstly, we need to recognise that having a dog is not a right, it is a privilege. If we are out working long hours all day and every day, we have no right to get a dog. Dogs are not lawn ornaments. They require human companionship, mental stimulation, exercise, training and enrichment. I always marvel at people that can’t manage a consultation or single training session except after 7pm, because they are so tied down to work. Where is the dog during all this time? How is the dog going to grow, learn and develop when he or she spends all daylight hours alone? It is a completely unrealistic situation and totally unfair on the dog or dogs (having more than one is unlikely to help). Secondly, we need to be sensible about management to reduce alarm barking: If your dog has access to the front of the property, they will be disturbed by every single person who passes by. Consider keeping them indoors, so they can relax in a favourite spot rather than feel the need to patrol the perimeter. Thirdly, ensure that you are meeting your dogs’ needs and that boredom is not a problem for your dog. Find out about puzzle feeders and occupational toys and make use of them. Finally, if you suspect that your dog is distressed in your absence (even if you are only going out for very short periods of time), book a consultation with a behaviourist to get help for your dog immediately. Separation related distress is an awful thing for a dog to experience and it can affect many other areas of their lives. It is not something that should be ignored and help is available.


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