- Pilot sentenced for drowning a dog because he was fed up with it barking
- Constant exposure to sound of barking really can induce extreme distress
- The most common reason for dogs barking are boredom and loneliness
You can picture the scene. The sun has finally come out, and the weather looks set fair. You dig out your shorts, dust down the barbecue, and plan to spend the day outside. But then, just as you settle down on your creaky sun lounger, your peace is shattered.
It’s the dog next door, and it’s barking. Not just a few woofs, but an incessant and high-pitched yapping.
Perhaps it will soon stop, you think, but it does not. In fact, it barks for a further four hours until its owner gets home, by which time your day in the sun has been ruined.
But what makes it worse is that you know it is going to happen all over again tomorrow, and the day after that. And as the dog is a border terrier with a life expectancy of 15 years, it could well be another decade until the yapping finally stops...
Such a situation will be familiar to many who read yesterday of the dreadful case of Stephen Woodhouse, 52, a pilot for Flybe who lives in Long Buckby, Northamptonshire.
This week, Woodhouse was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail, suspended for two years, for cruelly drowning his neighbour’s dog in a bucket because he was fed up with hearing it barking from ‘morning until night’.
‘I’d reached my wits’ end,’ Woodhouse told police officers. ‘All I could think of was that the noise had to stop. It was driving me bloody mad... so I stuck it in the bucket until it stopped moving. I never thought of the consequences.’
Of course, nothing can ever begin to excuse Woodhouse’s shockingly vicious crime, which has rightly appalled animal lovers across the country.
But even those utterly sickened by his cruelty will recognise that barking dogs can drive neighbours to distraction.
So why do pets elicit such extreme reactions? Why do dogs bark? And what can owners do to stop them?
Why does barking drive us mad?
Constant exposure to the sound of barking really can induce extreme physical and psychological distress.
The reason for this lies in your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls core body functions such as your heart rate and breathing.
When you hear a sudden, sharp noise, the sound waves are transmitted to the brain, which interprets them as a potential threat.
The brain then sends signals to the ANS, and we start to feel tense — leading, typically, to an increased heart rate and higher blood pressure.
If a dog barks once or twice, there is no harm done. Our heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. But if the noise is continual, every time that dog barks, your ANS repeatedly fires up, and this starts to have an impact on your endocrine system, which is the collection of glands that release hormones throughout your body.
Your brain tells the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, which is the hormone that prepares your body either to take flight or fight in the face of any threat.
In addition, the pituitary gland can release the hormone called corticotropin, which in turn causes the adrenal cortex to release corticosteroids, which make your body more sensitive to the effects of all that adrenaline.
By now, instead of lying back and wondering how many sausages you are going to burn on the barbecue, you are a cocktail of hormones that is causing you not only to feel anxious, but also immensely angry.
Stephen Woodhouse appears to be the first neighbour in Britain to have been driven to going to the horrific extreme of killing a barking dog, but there have been similar incidents abroad.
Last year, in Washington State in the U.S., banker David Latham, 55, leaned over a fence and shot dead his neighbour’s corgi puppy.
They are vocal for any number of reasons. They might feel threatened, excited, keen to play, hungry... but the most common reasons are boredom and loneliness.
Dogs are sociable creatures, and if their waking hours are spent without human company, they voice their anxiety.
Take the case of Patricia Stephenson, of Ealing, West London, who shut her two boxers outside all day, or would leave them home alone all night.
‘On Friday nights she used to go out and not come home, and those dogs would bark all night and they would keep me awake for hours,’ said one neighbour. ‘It wasn’t fair to those dogs as they were getting lonely.’
No fewer than 22 neighbours complained about the noise — and Mrs Stephenson was given a two-year conditional discharge and ordered to pay more than £3,800 in fines and costs after admitting breaches of a noise reduction order.
The truth is that more and more of us have working lifestyles which make us unsuitable to be dog owners. It is simply not fair to leave these creatures alone for hours.
Dogs also bark when their territory is threatened — when the doorbell goes, or someone approaches the house.
The over-riding reason for their bark is to attract attention — whether to get their owners to relieve the tedium, tell the world there’s someone coming and to frighten him off, to shout out ‘I love going for a walk’, or to announce that they need to answer the call of nature.
The problem is that, over the centuries, humans have bred a loud bark into domestic pets because it made them better guard dogs.
Dogs rated the worst offenders are Yorkshire Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Border Terriers, Miniature Schnauzers, West Highland Terriers, Fox Terriers and Beagles, whereas those less likely to yap away all day are retrievers, collies, Old English sheepdogs and Great Danes.
The smaller the dog, the more likely it is to bark continually. Bigger dogs may bark more loudly — up to 120 decibels (the equivalent of a rock concert or jet engine) in the case of a Great Dane at full blast — but it is the high pitch and relentless nature of barking by smaller breeds that do the real damage.
That’s why an unemployed man from West Heath in Birmingham became so incensed by the barking of his neighbour’s tiny Yorkshire Terrier cross, that he recorded it and played it back loudly at 3am — only to be sentenced to a 12-month community order himself.
First consider getting your dog company in the form of a dog walker or a sitter when you are away. Although this can be expensive, it may well be cheaper than the type of fines you can face if your dog continues to bark.
Some people consider buying a second dog to keep the first dog company, but this is not a reliable way to stop dogs barking, as was the case with Mrs Stephenson of Ealing. Your neighbours may end up having to endure twice the noise as the two set each other off!
Second, make sure that your dog has plenty of exercise and enough to eat. A well-fed, physically tired dog is much more likely to be a quiet dog.
If it’s dark, leave a light on — and consider leaving on a TV or radio, as the sound of humans, even recorded voices, is known to make dogs more relaxed.
Yes, but it takes a lot of effort and a huge amount of patience. Ideally, you need to start training a dog as young as possible, but it’s never too late. Speak to your vet for advice.
To understand the difficulties, you have to get inside the mind of a dog. When a dog watching from a window barks at every passer-by in the street, it is doing so to deter them from approaching the house.
When each of these people then walks on down the street, the dog — unaware they were going to carry on walking anyway — thinks its policy has worked and therefore barks at the next person.
Likewise, when dogs bark to get attention, most owners shout ‘shut up’ — giving them the very attention they crave, and encouraging them to bark even more.
In the first case, the answer is to shut the animal out of all rooms in which it can watch passers-by.
In the second, it is to ignore the dog when it is barking, turn your back on it, walk away and reward it with attention (and a treat) only when it stops.
It will eventually learn that barking deprives it of attention. But this can take the patience of a saint. If you give in too early and shout at it or look at it even after an hour of incessant barking, it will think its barking has worked — and next time could go on for an hour-and-a-half.
Before buying anti-barking gadgets, owners could try muzzles which make barking more difficult by restricting the opening of the dog’s mouth, or gently put their hand around a small dog’s snout while it is barking.
Anti-bark collars — which can sense vibration in the throat and spray citronella (dogs hate it) with each bark, or which emit ultrasound or give a electric shock — are unfair because they confuse dogs and can inflict pain, which might cause them to bark more.
The most drastic step some owners take is to ‘devocalise’ their pet — surgically cut their vocal cords, a procedure called ‘ventriculo-cordectomy’ — which is illegal in Britain.
It is cruel not just because it removes the animal’s primary means of communication, but also because it can cause infections and leave animals with respiratory problems, chronic coughing and gagging.
A neighbour driven to distraction should first talk to the owner, but if it goes on, contact Environmental Health.
Owners can be served with a Statutory Notice under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which gives them 21 days to stop the barking.
If, after this, your dog fails to comply, you could face prosecution and, if convicted, a fine of up to £5,000 — and further fines of up to £500 for each day on which the offence continues. Your dog is likely to be taken away.
Steep fines are more common than you might think. Last year, a Hampshire couple were fined over £1,700 after their bichon frises barked more than 150 times in just 51 minutes.