Barking dogs are affecting woman’s health but says laws not enough to silence them
A woman who says her mental health is deteriorating as a result of barking dogs near her home believes urgent change is needed to stop people being driven crazy.
For four years Jane in Adelaide’s inner south-east has been trying to cope with barking from two neighbouring properties, including a little “shrill” dog just metres from the interior of her home.
“I think she’s got separation anxiety,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide Mornings program.
“She could go from 6:00pm to 10:00pm at night, barking most of that time.”
Jane recorded evidence of the dog barking relentlessly for nearly an hour-and-a-half from a backyard while its owners were out on Australia Day in 2015.
The dog is excited and does not appear to be barking at anything in particular.
“The second dog, my personal opinion is, he’s supposed to be an inside dog and wants lots of people and family.
“He wants to be inside with them and is stuck outside and is mostly just barking his frustration.”
Jane’s situation worsened two years ago when another neighbour, who himself was frustrated with the second barking dog, moved away and a new neighbour moved in — bringing with them two dogs.
But it was the little dog that caused her the most nuisance, and when she approached its owners she said they did little to help despite originally being “quite communicative” over the phone.
“I tried over three months, three times, and when it happened again I thought, ‘Right, I’m just going to make a complaint’, and that was July 2014,” Jane said.
Council offers little help
Jane’s first port of call was the City of Mitcham council.
“One of the council’s own officers, the only person to meet me in person in the entire four years, recommended to the council that it should fine the owners, but the officer responsible for issuing fines explained to me how she never issues fines for barking because it creates too much work for her,” she said.
“She said to me, ‘Oh, look. There’s so much noise in the suburbs these days. Barking’s just another noise. We’ve all got to put up with it’.
Jane said the council asked her to write a “barking diary”, but did not accept subsequent invitations to come and listen to the barking themselves on three different occasions on three different weekdays.
She said the situation had left her so distressed at times that she sometimes felt suicidal and was an “anxious wreck” much of the time, which left her seeking a mental health plan.
Jane subsequently learnt she has autism spectrum disorder, despite being high functioning, and suffers “hypersensitivity to sensory input”.
She said this gave the little dog’s bark an extra wallop that startled her, “like I’ve had a little zap, like static electricity or something”.
The prolonged scenario had exacerbated pre-existing PTSD, she said, a condition her neuropsychologist had written to the council about, notifying them that her case “should be given urgent priority” because of her “very severe and significant condition”.
The neuropsychologist believed the “non-action by Mitcham council was leading to the exacerbation of her ASD and PTSD symptoms, which is then leading her to withdraw from life as a result of her very high panic and trauma conditions”.
The council wrote back to Jane’s neuropsychologist, stating action could only be taken within the extent of its powers.
It said the evidence provided and information obtained by officers though their investigations and discussions with neighbours was insufficient enough to enable further action to be taken.
It also said neighbours had taken certain undertakings to manage the dog by keeping it inside when they were not at home.
Law applies to ‘average’ people
Dog and Cat Management Board secretary Andrew Lamb said there were laws dealing with a dog persistently barking when it was considered unreasonable in terms of the peace and comfort of individual people.
“But it’s important to note, the test is a reasonable person and it’s not aimed at people with particular sensitivity,” he said.
He said the laws changed about a year ago to prevent people needing to go to court, with each council having their own prosecutorial discretion about the circumstances.
Cairns Regional Council recently campaigned for dog owners to be more considerate of their neighbours. (Supplied: Naomi Mancktelow)
This will usually require the complainant to fill out a diary, and based on that the council could issue a barking dog control order, or might send officers out there “to have a listen themselves that corroborates the dairy”.
“The council can impose a barking dog control order, and if that’s breached then the council can expediate and there’s no need to go to court,” Mr Lamb said.
“The council is applying the law and the law applies to the average person, not somebody with a particular sensitivity.”
Law of ‘common sense’ must apply
Jane acknowledged the rule of law, despite considering its distinction somewhat offensive.
“My opinion is, we have to ask the politicians to write into the Act to make it clear we don’t just want common law,” she said.
“We want common sense so that all people can live in peace.”
She said the situation had made her far more sensitive than she ever was before.
“My sensitivity is tuned way up, but once I’m out of this and I’m not constantly exposed to them [the dogs] I will come back down.”
She has written to councillors and her MP, paid for a double-page open letter to the SA Dog and Cat Management Board in the local community newspaper, complained to the ombudsman and made a private application for an intervention order against one neighbour.
But despite receiving sympathy from some, including the magistrate, nothing came of it and she has resorted to civil action in the small claims court, which is ongoing.
Jane’s situation is ‘complex’
City of Mitcham Mayor Glenn Spear said Jane’s situation was complex and the council had acknowledged her vulnerability to barking noise.
“Although it is not incessant, by her own admission, the council also accepts it challenges her beyond the ability of the relevant legislation to resolve her situation,” he said.
“Based on the council’s investigations and the evidence provided, the level of dog barking occurring does not breach the legislation.”
Law Society of South Australia president Tim Mellor considered the situation a “huge problem” and advised people to get a lawyer in such a situation.
He said the law was always going to be expressed in the general way, which was the general law of nuisance.
“That involved the notion that people are entitled to expect to enjoy the use and occupation of their land, without unreasonable interference from their neighbours, whether it be by noise, or dust, or smell, or tree roots or leaves,” he said.
“Those are all things amenable to the involvement of the law of nuisance and barking dogs classically would fall into that law-of-nuisance sphere.”