Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : April 2007

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 Bar Bulletin Focus

Animal Law   

Your Neighbors May Be Abusing Your Pets

No one can condone truly excessive dog barking. (Anyone who has taken their dog to a dog kennel knows what truly excessive barking is.) However, there are those who would declare one bark excessive, while there are those who grow indignant by merely having to live next door to a dog that has to be heard now and then.

Because of advances in technology, new and unforeseen methods of animal abuse have been developed and are currently on the market. Of particular note are ultrasonic bark-stoppers, high-pitched dog-repellers and other devices that use sound to punish a dog when it barks. One such flavored device is designed to be swallowed by the animal and can be activated by a cell phone.
Because these technological devices are so new there are no specific laws on the books that would regulate (or stop) their use. Most enforcers of animal cruelty laws don’t even know they are being used, and they are being used with more regularity than most dog owners realize.

The reason for such ignorance is that these devices are designed to be practically invisible. Most of the punishing-sound devices are inaudible (or barely audible) to human ears, yet they can create “discomfort” in animals, particularly dogs, even when used at great distances. Many such devices were designed to ward off attacks by vicious dogs, rather than for close-up use on animals that are tethered or otherwise confined and cannot escape. Manufacturers have discovered a boon market for these devices, which can be purchased, with anonymity, on the Internet.

Even when such a device is discovered, proving such cruel use and that the use is responsible for harming the animals is difficult. Providing witnesses and photographic documentation is near impossible.

One such device, the Good Neighbor Barker Breaker, advertises that you can “[M]ount Good Neighbor Barker Breaker on your property, near your neighbor’s barking dog.” The unit has a built in microphone that listens for barks and emits a sudden, high-pitched sound that “distracts the dog and stops annoying barking” with a range of up to 40 feet. It further advertises that it can even be used “while you’re away!” In an article at http://www.byte.com/art/9801/sec15/art1.htm, author Marc Abrahams details the “Doggie Don’t” manufactured by Q-Smith, Ltd. According to Abrahams, the device is a “battery-powered mini car alarm joined to a cell-phone receiver” that is disguised as beef-flavored gum and fed to the animal. It is activated by the cell phone. Even Abrahams states that the device is “at the fringe of legality,” but extols that “pranksters will have field day with this product, but that’s the price we pay for having such flexibly useful technology.” As few dog-owners have their pets x-rayed at the veterinarian, the likelihood of discovering this device is slight. (The article even extols that it can be reused when excreted.)

For anyone owning a dog for protection of the home, these devices affect such protection. The more the dog is exposed to and harmed by the device, the less it will perform its security duties and not want to bark when needed.

It is not likely that there are any criminal laws that address these tools of torture in the entire United States; there certainly is no statute or case law in the state of Maryland. New laws are needed to address these new technologies and the abuses they can encourage. Moreover, while there are animal cruelty laws in most county codes, they are usually enforced by county agencies that are very poorly funded.

Electronic shock collars have been on the market for a long time, and one would assume that they are safe; however, a February 2006 article in the Whole Dog Journal indicates that these tried devices may not be so safe. Author Pat Miller notes that some dogs are affected negatively and exhibit “learned helplessness” behavior and/or the ceasing of normal dog behavior. The article parades a series of personal accounts that demonstrate what kind of bad experiences can result from these tried systems for behavior modification. The individuals wielding the devices in the article are, for the most part, compassionate owners that seek the bare minimum in volume or shock. However, the users of the new sound devices are more likely to be cranking up the volume for maximum affect. Dogs affected by these devices hide under furniture, walk low to the ground and shiver. One dog-owner witnessed a neighbor’s handheld noise device attack on his tethered dog, at close range, and stated that the dog was writhing on the ground and frothing at the mouth before he was able to stop the attack.

The manufacturers and vendors of these products claim that the products are safe, yet they extol the punishing virtues of the devices. It is surprising that these manufacturers would open themselves to civil liability in this manner. It is true that the animal is valued at a few dollars of personal property, yet to most pet owners, their animal is more than mere personal property, and certainly worth more than the dollar valuation assumed for pets. However, an argument can be made that damages include the cost of a replacement security system or the decrease in value of a home because of such ongoing nuisance activity.
County agencies are authorized to enforce animal laws in a county, not neighbors. This western-style justice is particularly offensive because it is hidden and unknown or ignored.

Glenn H. Meyer is an Owings Mills-based sole practitioner concentrating in the areas of bankruptcy and collection.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: April  2007