Hawaii Turns to Dog Shrinks as 'Incessant Barkers' Cut Plea Deals
10 minutes of Yapping Spells Legal Trouble For Vociferous Mutts; 'Barking Is Their TV'
By JIM CARLTON
PAHOA, Hawaii—Carl Oguss is trying to use psychology to reform a couple of scofflaws, who are meeting with him as part of a plea deal.
"No!" he shouts, jabbing a finger at the miscreants after they appear to snub his attempt to drum some sense into them. One of them, Kala, hangs her head.
The other, Kamakani, gives a defiant response: "Woof!"
Jim Carlton/The Wall Street Journal
Henry and Lindsey Kapu seek help for their dogs from Carl Oguss. right, who operates the East Hawaii Dog Psychology Center on the Big Island.
There's the problem. Local authorities have charged Kala and Kamakani with being "incessant barkers," an offense under a new law here on the Big Island. If the two Italian sheepdogs don't zip it, their owners face $575 in fines, and the dogs could be evicted from the neighborhood.
"We have to say 'no' like a loving parent," Mr. Oguss, who operates the East Hawaii Dog Psychology Center, explains to owners Henry and Lindsey Kapu, whose lenience he thinks makes the dogs feel free to bark. He's administering dog counseling as part of a plea deal the Kapus have made after five barking citations.
Dog counseling has been in demand in Hawaii County since early last year, when county commissioners passed an ordinance banning "barks, bays, cries, howls" that go on continuously for 10 minutes, or intermittently for 20 minutes within a half-hour.
Police can write barking tickets or sentence an incessant howler to a humane shelter. "We had to do something because you have neighbors living next to dogs that are barking and driving them crazy," says Mitch Roth, a Hawaii County prosecutor who takes on barking cases. "Then neighbors start fighting and there's mayhem."
Nuisance yapping is a problem everywhere. Los Angeles passed last year an antibarking law with fines up to $1,000. Two years ago, Centennial, Colo. passed an ordinance imposing fines up to $100 per violation on owners of dogs that bark more than 10 minutes.
Dogs probably aren't yowling more than before. Instead, officials in places like Hawaii County speculate that barking complaints have risen in part because more people are home to hear the yapping after losing their jobs.
Dog counseling has become a big business in Hawaii after the state passed new legislation aimed at silencing "incessant barkers." WSJ's Jim Carlton reports.
This Pacific island needed a stronger bark-abeyance law, authorities here say, because it has a particular pooch-population problem. The average U.S. household has 1.7 dogs, says a 2007 American Veterinary Medical Association report. On the Big Island, where people use dogs for hunting wild pigs, many residents have at least five and some as many 30 dogs, says Debbie Crazatta, founder of the Kohala Animal Relocation and Education Service, which helps find homes for stray dogs.
Dog-less islanders have long complained of dogs that bark around the clock. Jim Radovic says his neighbor's 10 dogs would serenade their block in Hilo, Hawaii, at all hours before the anti-bark law. "We got to the point we had two fans blasting next to our heads so we could go to sleep," says the 51-year-old emergency-room nurse.
Under previous law, officers had to time barking for 30 minutes and then give the owner an hour to quiet the hound. Police were usually too busy to stick around timing dog barks.
Mr. Radovic called police as soon as the law went into effect in May. County officials have since impounded five of the offending dogs. "We can sleep better at night," he says.
Some say the new law infringes on rights, human and canine. "It's nuts, man," says 49-year-old Clyde Wheatley, a bulldozer operator whose Rottweiler and Labrador have no barking violations. "To me, barking is good because it notifies you somebody's around who shouldn't be around."
Indeed, it is OK, under the new law, to bark if your owner is about to be attacked.
A county brochure, "Problem Solving Noisy Dogs," recommends three steps. First: Notify the owner. Next: Call the Humane Society for bark-suppression tips, such as "spraying your dog while it is barking."
Last resort: Call police, the brochure says, "when the dog is actively barking and exceeding the time limits." People have called the agency almost daily since the law passed, compared with once or twice a week before, says Starr Yamada, an animal-control officer.
Donna Whitaker, executive director of the Hawaii Island Humane Society, says often a dog barks because it is bored. Dr. Oguss says sometimes a well-mannered mutt is egged into barking by another dog. One large dog, he found, was blowing his cool after hearing the Chihuahua next door yapping for hours. "A dog who is instigating by being rude to your dog is looking to start trouble," Mr. Oguss says.
The Kapus say their problem—and their hiring Mr. Oguss—stems from a personality conflict between the dogs and neighbor Jack Sailer, a 75-year-old retired hospital broker from Texas who reported their dogs to the police. "He's a creepy old man who stares at us through the bushes," says Mr. Kapu, 28 years old, who runs an organic farm on the one-acre property with his wife, 27. "The dogs bark when they see him."
Mr. Sailer says he harbors no ill will and chuckles at being called creepy. He says trouble started after the Kapus started the organic farm. "The dogs would start barking at six in the morning and still be barking at nine in the evening."
Police issued the couple a citation with a $25 fine, then four more with fines totaling $575. The Kapus cut a plea deal with the prosecutor: He would dismiss their last four citations if they agreed to dog counseling and if their hounds avoided barking violations during a six-month probation.
Sizing up his patients, Mr. Oguss metes out advice. Let the dogs know who's boss, he says, teaching Mr. and Ms. Kapus, for example, not to let their dogs walk ahead of them.
But there may be a fundamental problem: Mr. Oguss suspects Kala and Kamakani bark unnecessarily because they cooped up in a 20-foot-by-20-foot enclosure with three goats. "There's very little for them to do," Mr. Oguss says. "Barking is their TV."
The two dogs have learned to pipe down long enough for the county to dismiss the four citations. They aren't out of the woods yet. "If the Kapus re-offend within six months," Mr. Oguss says, "then the matter will be revisited."
A version of this article appeared April 9, 2012, on page A1 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hawaii Turns to Dog Shrinks As 'Incessant Barkers' Enter Pleas.