Rambo Barked at Butterflies
Rambo Barked at Bees
Rambo Barked at Sunshine & the cool Autumn breeze
He lunged and snapped at babies
Fangs bared at you and me
Rambo Barked at everything
Die now Rambo…die now… please?
We suspect that the Real Estate agent asked the neighbours to hide their dog Rambo in their house while she was showing her listing to prospective purchasers, such as I and my 8 and a half months pregnant wife Elaine, on that sunny but crisp February morning.
We were a young couple with a baby on the way and this was our first house purchase so we were operating at maximum busy, excited and optimistic. Perhaps – because of this – we weren’t as attentive to important details, such as the character and compatibility of our new neighbours, but on that day, none of that mattered, all seemed well, and our offer was made…and accepted. We were the new owners of a sweet little stucco bungalow on West 17th Avenue in Vancouver! We took possession quickly, loaded up a truck with our belongings, and enlisted the help of friends to make setting up our nest as smooth and fun as possible.
I don’t remember when Rambo started barking. We were so busy in those early days, setting up house, working at our respective jobs, buying baby things, and getting ready for Elaine’s due date – which was just weeks away – that everything else dropped off the radar. We’d met our new neighbours – a seemingly pleasant middle-age Greek couple – who ran a restaurant up on Broadway, and were the proud parents of five daughters ranging in age from 6 to 16. And we were vaguely aware that they owned a rather large German Shepherd which seemed confined to their back yard.
Dogs bark, it’s normal for them to do so, and is part of the background noise/ fabric of city life…lots of people…lots of dogs…lots of barking. I like dogs – a lot – and always try and befriend them wherever I go. In fact, I’m a complete idiot when it comes to dogs and will crouch down on one knee in the street if I see someone walking a dog in hopes that I can pet them…”Do you mind if I say hello to your dog?”, I emplore, “Oh yes, go right ahead, Bart (or Fluffy or Rex) is very friendly”…and then it’s all sweet luvvins, hugs, and ear rubs. Rarely am I warned off with, “No no, please maintain your distance…Satan is trained to kill and will lunge for your throat without a moments warning”…but there are such dogs.
Our son was born on March 11, just weeks after we had moved into our new home. The delivery went smoothly and soon we were cuddling and fawning over 7 pounds 9 ounces of joy that would transform our lives. Elaine only needed a day or so in the hospital before she and our new baby Cameron were deemed safe to go home.
A typical Vancouver lot is 33’ feet wide by 120’ long. Usually, there is a thin 3 or 4 foot strip along one side of the house, with a sidewalk, allowing for access to the back yard, and a fence separating the neighbouring property. We parked on the street and for some reason decided to walk along this sidewalk with Cam bundled up in my arms, to enter via the back door. It was a lovely day, and Elaine walked on ahead as I navigated the narrow sidewalk while learning how to safely carry a baby. Suddenly, I heard rapid movement in the neighbour’s yard and then – out of nowhere – 80 pounds of unexpected German Shepherd ferocity was leaning over the fence, lunging, snapping and barking – fangs bared – at me and our days-old baby. I automatically protected Cam’s head with my hand as I pressed him closer to my body and crab walked sideways into the back yard, with my face almost scraping the stucco wall, trying to avoid Rambo’s bite.
Elaine turned in horror as I scrambled to safety with Cam. “Jesus, are you guys OK?” She asked, as I handed Cameron to her. Who was, by the way, still sleeping and completely nonplussed by the situation. “Fuck, that scared the shit outta me”, I said. “We’re going to have to mention that to the neighbours” “Be super careful if you ever need to walk alongside the house until we get this sorted out”
That evening, I wandered over and rang Dmitri’s doorbell. One of his daughters answered the door and called out, “Dad!” We had already met the neighbours and they seemed like very amicable people. When Dmitri appeared I explained our scary & awkward encounter with his threatening dog and he was most apologetic. “Oh no…we are so sorry about that…and with the new baby” “Rambo is very protective of my girls and we have him because we work late at our restaurant. He keeps our girls safe when they are home alone. He’s just not used to you yet as you are new” “We’ll keep him on the back deck so he won’t lean over the fence at you again…so sorry” Thus assured, I went home and told Elaine about the “solution to our little problem”…all seemed well.
The next few months were a haze of new parenthood, settling into our new digs and grappling with all the demands that life throws at 30-somethings in the late 1980’s. We discovered – quite quickly – that “Rambo’s deck” was on the back of the neighbour’s house, on the same side and level as our bedroom…about 10 to 15 feet away from where we would be – trying – to sleep…and that, as well as his violent demeanor, Rambo was an incessant barker.
I have a gift. It is the gift of sleep, and I am blessed to be able to sleep almost anywhere and through nearly all conditions. Noise had never been an impediment to sleep – until Rambo. And I should explain that in fact it wasn’t Rambo’s barking that woke me up at night but Elaine’s sharp elbow and insistent voice. “George” jab jab “George!” jab jab “GEORGE!”…”Rambo’s barking and it’s going to wake the baby” “That’s every night this week” “Uuh…ok” I said rousing from my deep sleep…”what do you suggest?” “That dog has been barking almost constantly since we moved in two months ago…it can’t go on… between breastfeeding Cameron and Rambo’s barking I’m not getting any sleep” “Why don’t you go over and knock on their door and ask them to keep their dog quiet.” “It’s only 2:00 am, I don’t think Dmitri or Sophia are back from the restaurant” “Well then, go and talk to one of the daughters, they can deal with it”…”Uuh ok” I said pulling myself out of bed. I slipped on my housecoat and some shoes and headed out.
Most of the houses on the street were built in the 40’s and 50’s and were equipped with the “old school” round white plastic doorbell button. I pushed it twice. Then a third time before I could hear the sounds of someone stirring inside, against the background of Rambo’s – now feverish – barking. A young girls trembling voice came through the door “Who is it?” “Hi” I said, “It’s George your next door neighbour” “Hey, Rambo is barking a lot and it’s waking our baby” “Can you bring him inside or something” “Oh, sorry” she said. I think it was the 12 year old. “Ok, I’ll bring him in” “Thank You, g’night”
Problem solved, I thought. It seemed like such a simple solution – just bring Rambo into the house at night as we were all getting ready to go to sleep…ahh…I felt a wave of relief, and satisfaction that I had effectively completed my “man duty” and protected my own family from this noisy disruptive beast. Going one step further, I vowed to get their phone number in case I was ever in such a situation again and would just phone rather than looking like a sketchy guy in a housecoat standing on a porch at 2 in the morning.
The “system” seemed to work – for a while. Rambo was still a crazy threatening barkaholic from his porch, but the girls made an effort to bring him in at night, and if they forgot, I could just phone and they would oblige. But then, they seemed to lose the thread of the agreement and either forgot to bring him in at night or just wouldn’t answer the phone.
After several more months of this hit and miss solution, as Elaine’s late night elbow jabs were becoming more frequent and insistent and I was becoming more irritated at the neighbour’s intransigence, I came up with the bright idea that perhaps I could recondition Rambo not to bark through negative reinforcement – or punishment – in layman’s terms.
We left the hose out at all times and I would spray Rambo anytime we were walking by and he was going rabid on us. But he figured this game out fairly quickly and would go to the other end of the porch to avoid the cold water and continue barking. Late one night, I got out of bed to have a cigarette and spray Rambo when Dmitri – who happened to be home – leaned out the window and said, “Hey! Why are you spraying my dog?” “Well Dmitri”, I said, “He sounds like he’s getting a little hoarse from all the constant barking!” “No one answered the phone when I called” “We didn’t hear the phone” he said, “Well, can you take him in now?” I asked, “No, he’s all wet” I put the hose down and went inside, angry, “the system”, which also included civility, seemed to be breaking down.
Elaine had gone back to work after her maternity leave ended but we were still wrestling with “the Rambo problem” after a year of seeking possible solutions. We griped about this situation to friends, family, and coworkers because it had become a seemingly insoluble problem that we were obsessed with. During one dinner party after a few glasses of wine our friend Dave said “Why don’t you just kill Rambo?” we all paused at this suggestion, and looked at Dave to see if he was serious “Sure, you just need some kind of poison, wrap it in a piece of steak and chuck it up on the porch” After this length of time it almost seemed like a good idea, but no, we couldn’t do that – we both liked dogs too much to even contemplate such an act, and realized that this wasn’t really Rambo’s fault, it was the owners fault, because they hadn’t trained him properly and weren’t dealing with a viable solution. “Maybe we could kill Dmitri and Sophia” I suggested…our guests laughed as they were used to my dark sense of humor.
I may have a solution for you guys said Elaine’s co-worker Milo. Milo was a very clever guy who was a skilled technician with BC Tel. “I could set up a high pitch sound feedback device, that would blast Rambo with a high pitch noise, only audible to a dog’s ears, every time he barked” “It’s kind of an immediate feedback loop…his bark triggers a switch on a noise sensor which triggers the other high pitch noise amplifier” “Essentially the high pitch noise would hurt his hearing and train him not to bark through negative feedback” “Wow” said Elaine and I in unison, “What a great idea Milo, I mean, it sounds like a long shot but we’re willing to try anything.”
Within days the affable and earnest Milo returned with the device which he had fabricated in his workshop at home. He had even attached it to a wall bracket which would screw into the side of our house, close to our bedroom window so we could run a power chord to an inside wall plug. It looked a little cumbersome, like a 1950’s Sci-Fi illustration of a death ray machine, and if that was the net result we would not be heartbroken, but we were hoping that Milo’s hi-tech solution proved worthy of it’s promise…we plugged it in.
Rambo, of course, had been barking incessantly since Milo showed up, outraged by the appearance of this stranger doing strange things in our yard. When the device was finally installed and plugged in we all held our breath, hoping that Rambo would collapse in a puddle of furry whimpering discomfort with each bark. We watched closely, trying to detect any sign of “negative feedback loop effect” which might indicate that Milo’s device was working. “I think I saw him wince”, I said. “He’s got a kind of puzzled quizzical look…I think”, said Elaine. “Maybe I need to turn it up to 11”, said Milo. “Yes! Yes!”, we agreed, “11 – 12 – 19- max it out Milo! Let’s see what this baby can do.” After a few more tweaks and adjustments, we all stood in the yard, intently looking at Rambo, which infuriated him into a spasm of frothy barking.
Whatever behavioural modification benefits the inflicted pain might have given us seemed to be offset by the additional frenzy Rambo was exhibiting from receiving it. This new discomfort just made him crazier, plus, wily beast that he was, he moved farther back on the deck, seemingly to get away from the “range of pain”. “Give it a week”, said Milo, “It’ll take a little while to see if it works”
We gave it a month. It didn’t work. And we fell into some kind of despair. “Well honey, we’ve tried everything”, said Elaine, “Do you think it’s time to exercise the “Dave Option”?” “No, I can’t even seriously contemplate that”, I said. “There is the Noise-ByLaw Infraction” “Maybe it’s time to get City Government on our side, show Dmitri and Sophia we mean business” “Hit them in the pocketbook where it hurts, with a nice big fine” “Leave this one to me, honey, I’ll call the City”
The Vancouver City Dog Barking Noise ByLaw Infraction process is – in itself – a descent into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. After eighteen months of frustration and fruitless effort, this appeared to be the last avenue open to us – short of exercising the “Dave Option” – a labyrinth of paperwork, identifications, reporting, discussions & explanations, delays and perhaps most unfair of all, the need to “Use a log (called a barking package) to record the day, time, and duration of barking, and impact it has on you” which was, at that time, several months. If the Animal Control Officer thinks you have a case, it goes to the City Prosecutor to set up a Court Date, which you must attend and if successful a Fine is set. From start to finish this whole process took about 4 or 5 months, countless hours of my time, and in the end they were fined $75 for a first offence – with a warning. And all the while Rambo barked and barked.
“Well that was a complete waste of time”, I said with resignation, “Five months of effort and they get a $75 fine and a warning, and our problem hasn’t gone away” “How shitty is that?”…We sat in the front room and looked out the picture window as 2 year old Cam played happily with his toys, as toddlers do.
“Maybe they’ll make more of an effort to control Rambo”, said Elaine, “If we continue with the noise bylaw, the fines get heavier and I think they can have their dog impounded” “Money doesn’t seem to be a problem for those guys”, I said, “And if Rambo gets impounded they’d probably just get a bigger, meaner, noisier dog to protect the girls from monsters at night…a Rottweiler with a personality disorder…or a Mastiff with childhood Trauma…something so psychotic and big we’d never be able to sleep or access our sidewalk again” Elaine could tell I was embellishing for playful effect…and she smiled. “I dunno” she said “I guess for the time being we have to go back to square one and call them at night if we’re woken up…what other option do we have, being as you’re too cowardly to do the manly thing and go over there and break Rambo’s neck”…now it was my turn to smile. “Yeah, let’s just take it one day at a time”, I said, “I guess we’ll need a fresh supply of earplugs”.
Whatever reprieve we were hoping for was short-lived. 2am, days after the Court decision. Bark Bark Bark! Jab-Jab-Jab… “George, Rambo’s barking” “I know, I know, you don’t have to jab me with your elbow anymore, I hear him, you’ve effectively conditioned me to be as noise sensitive as you”, I said testily, “I always hear him…there is no escape” And from down the hall…Waaah Waaah Waahh! “And Cameron’s crying, he’s probably still a bit feverish” “Why don’t you go deal with Camy, and I’ll try calling the neighbours”
I threw on my housecoat and went to the phone where the Kakavelakis families’ number was written on a yellow sticky note. Bark! Bark! BARK! went Rambo…Waaa Waaah! WAAAH! Went Cameron. Bark! Bark! Waah! Waah! …Bark! Wah! Bark! Wah! I thought I was losing it as I anxiously dialed their number. Ring Ring Ring! Ring Ring Ring! Ring Bark Wah Ring! Please God make it stop! Then, someone picked up the phone. There was no greeting so I just launched in, “Hi, it’s George next door, our little boy is not feeling well and Rambo’s barking is disturbing his sleep…and ours”. There was no reply, a brief hesitation, and then they hung up the phone.
Where does mercurial anger start?…from the toes? Does it build and flow from our extremities? rushing carelessly like a raging river through our veins, gaining strength as it cascades through our hearts on its way to the brain where it explodes and washes away the dykes and dams of learned civil behaviour?
The pent-up anger and frustration of two years of dealing with this issue boiled over and I “totally lost my shit” as they say. I grabbed my shoes and headed out the door. “J’en ai Ras le Bol Tabarnak!” I swore in my passable Quebeois. “Hang up on me when I’ve got a sick baby, you fuckers!”, I muttered under my breath. Having a sick baby can add a sense of righteousness to indignant rage, so I definitely pulled that card out of my anger deck. I marched across their lawn and ran up their stairs and began leaning on the doorbell. Ding Dong Ding Dong Ding Dong! I didn’t let up on this for 5 minutes and it’s probably good that no one came to the door – I had become the monster that Dmitri was trying to protect his family from – an enraged man who had taken leave of his senses. While on the porch I started kicking their aluminum screen door as well, putting a sizeable dent into the lower half, and then, realizing it might be time to leave before the police showed up, managed to kick all their potted plants off the front steps on my way back down.
Good thing I wasn’t drunk or it could’ve gotten…ugly.
The next morning, we sat in the kitchen having coffee, discussing this new escalation in events. I think Elaine may have been secretly pleased by my outburst, because it served as a long overdue release of her own pent-up frustration and anger, but also horrified because it represented a new low in our neighbourly relations. “I totally get why you did that”, she said, “we’ve really been put through the wringer on this, if I hadn’t been looking after Camy I might’ve gone over and gotten into some kind of scrap with those guys myself”. “Now, it’s not just Rambo we have to worry about…it’s Dmitri’s reaction, and our emotional well-being” “God, what if he gets a second dog for the front yard to protect his girls from late-night angry neighbours. Sigh” “Such a shitty situation…I don’t even like living here anymore…any ideas?”
We sat for a while in silence, sipping our coffees and pondering our situation when there was a knock at the door. “Shit, that’s probably Dmitri coming to chew me out and seek restitution for damages, I’ll get it”, I said.
I opened the door and there was a smiling bright faced woman with short blond hair, holding some pamphlets. “Hi”, she said, “My name’s Sue Clayton-Carroll, I’m a realtor, and I’m dropping off some flyers because I just sold a house down the street, which is quite like yours, for $250,000, and I’m checking to see if you have any interest in selling.” My eyes widened at this amount – maybe I salivated a bit – as it was fully double what we’d paid just two short years earlier. I could see, out of the corner of my eye, Elaine sit bolt upright on the couch when she heard the amount. “Hi Sue”, she said, “I’m Elaine, I co-own this house with George…so…if we wanted to sell with you, would you be willing to ask our next door neighbour to take their dog Rambo indoors during the Open House? He’s a little noisy” “Oh, I’m sure that wouldn’t be a problem”, said Sue, “We realtors are asked to do that all the time”.
Elaine and I looked at each other, “Why don’t you pop in and tell us a bit more?”, I said, “can I get you a cup of coffee?”.