When dog's bark is worse than city's bite

JENNIFER Harrison has two neighbors who just won't shut up.

Their names are Ginger and Rip, and you can forget about reasoning with them.

Ginger, a Shih Tzu, lives next door and has "extreme anxiety," Harrison said. As soon as she's left alone, she'll start yapping, sometimes for hours on end.

Rip, a pit-bull mix who lives in a house behind Harrison's, "seems like a really sweet dog," Harrison said. But his owner usually leaves him outside all day, and his bellowing bark makes Harrison crazy.

Harrison, a massage therapist who often works out of her West Passyunk home, tried to work with her neighbors by leaving notes and having discussions with them. But the dogs' owners didn't seem to think the barking was that bad, she said. (We couldn't reach either neighbor.) So, Harrison turned to the city.

She's tried every agency that might be able to help: the SPCA, Animal Control, even the police. She said that she has no idea if the city has ever acted on her complaints. The barking sure hasn't stopped.

In fact, we've talked with a handful of residents all over the city who feel helpless when it comes to barking that just won't stop. Like Harrison, they've tried talking to their neighbors and calling numerous city agencies, but nothing works.

So, we're here to help. We don't have a magical "mute" button, but we can tell you what to expect when you make a complaint.

WOOF: We contacted Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy to find out what to do if you have a noisy neighbor with four legs and a tail. The agency you want is Animal Control, Abernathy told us. As of last month, Animal Control had taken over enforcement of all barking-dog complaints.

Call 3-1-1 and an operator should put you in touch with the agency. But beware: It takes a lot more than a call to Animal Control to shush that dog.

First, the officers that the city will send out need to hear the barking to issue a ticket, Abernathy said. And, as Harrison pointed out when we visited her, when you actually want the barking to happen, it doesn't. (In Harrison's case, when officers responded to complaints about Rip, the pit-bull mix, they did not hear any barking, Abernathy said.)

If officers don't hear barking when they come out, Abernathy said, they'll usually leave a warning and information on the city's laws on barking. They'll also schedule a time to come out and follow up, which is a good practice on their part.

If the officers do hear barking and have received multiple complaints about the property, they'll fine the dog owner $75.

The next hurdle? Getting owners to take the ticket seriously.

"There's no bite to the ticket," said Bill Cox, who was on former Councilwoman Joan Krajewski's staff and who has dealt with barking-dog complaints. "They can use it as wallpaper, because nothing will happen."

He's right. Last year, It's Our Money reported that from 2006 to 2010, millions of dollars in city fines went unpaid. The city needs to find a more effective way to enforce fines because, otherwise, quality-of-life regulations can be ignored. Possible solutions include publishing a list of businesses and people with outstanding violations to shame them into paying, or denying permits and licenses to those with outstanding violations.

Abernathy admitted that it's a hard issue for the city. If dog owners ignore a ticket, there's not much else the city can do. 

"We can't take possession of the dog," Abernathy said.

WOOF, WOOF: The fact that the city can't always fix these problems doesn't mean that they're unfixable. We spoke with Krista Milito, co-owner of the Philly Pack, a dog-behavior business.

She said that there are things dog owners can do to quiet yappy pets.

* Exercise your dog in the morning, Milito said, to get rid of pent-up energy.

* Train dogs to know that barking isn't an appropriate response to every little noise, she said.

* You could also go the bark-collar route (a collar that either emits a smell or releases a vibration every time the dog barks), Milito said, although every dog is different and some may be more sensitive to the collars than others.

Of course, some of the dogs that bark all day are neglected. In those cases, it's not about sophisticated training - it's about people taking care of their damn pets.

"Dogs aren't naturally perfect," Milito said. "They need guidance. It's up to us as dog owners."

Got a problem you want to bark about? Tell us at howl@phillynews.com, @phillyhowl on Twitter, or at 215-854-5855. More columns at philly.com/city_howl.