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Neighbor vs. dog: a war of the woofs

Tensions flare over canines -- and the noise and mess they can make. More than 1 million live in the region, raising the question: pet or peeve?

February 22, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

FOR Southern Californians at odds with their neighbors, the source of the problem is often simple: It barks night and day, pees on your flowers, poops on your lawn. It escapes from its yard to terrorize cats and terrify kids.

Of all the ills that beset the urban scene, the domesticated dog would seem least likely to offend. Man's best friend, and all that. Yet here in L.A., it is a reason friendly neighbors turn hostile to one another, a wedge that reduces peaceful coexistence to anger, and sometimes war.

Last month someone tossed poisoned food into the backyard of a West Hollywood house with two dogs. "The little one, Giant, used to bark endlessly. The big one, Baby, you never heard," says a maintenance man who works next door and who loved Baby. The perpetrator, believed to be a neighbor irritated by the barking, tried to silence Giant but killed Baby instead. The worker next door, who asked that his identity not be revealed out of fear of retribution, has posted signs on Orlando Avenue asking neighbors for help finding who took the life of his canine friend.

An extreme case, perhaps, but hardly unprecedented. In North Hollywood early this month, police arrested a man on suspicion of trying to silence a noisy boxer by tossing meatballs laced with rat poison into the yard.

As Los Angeles grows, disputes over dogs are expected to get only more prevalent. County animal control officials say they do not tabulate canine complaints separately, but anyone who listens to the rants of dogless neighbors or sees the militant don't-poop-here signs on front lawns can't help but sense a growing rift over what some see as a four-legged nuisance.

No authoritative count of the local dog population exists because more than half are believed to be unlicensed. But Michelle Roache, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control, estimates the number to be at least 1 million in her county alone. About 36% of all households own a dog, and as the human population rises, its canine community keeps pace.

It's not just a matter of quantity, Roache adds. As density increases, more conflicts arise because of sheer proximity.

"L.A. is changing. Neighborhoods that used to be all single-family dwellings now have condos and apartments going up," she says. "There's that whole new residential loft area in downtown L.A., which is one of many with an increased population of pets."

That means more poop, more barks, more dogs running loose, she says. And more confrontations.

Cabrini Schnyder, who lives with three dogs in a loft at 5th Street and Broadway, has appointed herself a kind of poop monitor for the loft district downtown. She takes mental notes on dog owners who don't pick up after their pets, and she plans to find a neighborly way to encourage greater cleanliness.

"This is a great new community, but I see it becoming uncomfortable for people who don't have dogs," she says. "They get up, get dressed and want a pleasant walk to work. What do they see? I'm talking huge piles of poop."

Off-leash dogs are another problem. Lisa Burton of West Hills says a trip to the local park playground with her son Adam, 4, often sets her on edge because some neighbors let dogs roam freely.

"Little kids walking from cars to the playground get scared and start to scream," Burton says. "Then the dogs do their business right there on the grass. I can't let my son play on grass filled with germs." She's found herself losing control and screaming at dog owners, she says.

Scott Robinson, a Woodland Hills real estate broker, recalls a neighbor so incensed by deposits on his lawn that he rigged a special sprinkler with an electric eye, drenching all dogs and their walkers who set foot on his property.

IT'S no surprise, then, that one category of mediation services is related to canine disputes.

"The dog owner sees the pet as a family member; the dogless neighbor sees the dog as a dog -- with everything that brings, meaning noise and mess," says Mary Culbert, director of the Loyola Law School Center for Conflict Resolution, a nonprofit mediation program for L.A. County.

"As L.A. gets more densely populated, whatever one neighbor does impacts the other neighbor more intensely. Sometimes it starts with a small dog problem and escalates to more than that -- loud voices, harsh words and threats."

Fear floods Liz Sinderbrand's voice as she tells how a neighbor tried to have her dogs taken away. Sinderbrand has lived in the same house in Calabasas for 30 years, she says, the last 10 of them with Sam, a black bearded collie, and Joe, a rat terrier.

"I never had problems, no neighbors had a bad word to say," she says. Then one day a note on the door from county animal control said her dogs were disturbing the peace. The complaint came from a neighbor in a nearby building. Sinderbrand went to talk with him, hoping to make peace, but to no avail.

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