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Who let the dogs out?

August 13, 2009
By Paul Miller

The day my wife and I moved into our new home, we met our neighbors. Three of them, in fact, all hairy and excited and noisy. They welcomed us by barking so loudly the windows in our home vibrated.

I stood by a back window, looking over the fence into the yard next door, and watched the dogs range all over the place, barking furiously at nothing and at everything.

I wanted to cry. Our old neighborhood had been a kennel, with dozens of dogs electrifying the days and nights with noise, and I thought we’d found a quieter side of town. The ink wasn’t dry on our mortgage, and I already was thinking about giving up suburban life to move into a hollow tree.

Second opinion

My wife, who doesn’t mind noise as much as I do – until it hits 10 hours – remembered a magazine article on dogs by David Quammen, our favorite naturalist and writer. I managed to find the article in the wreckage of our closet.

“Let’s begin slowly,” Quammen said, “with a relatively safe statement: Not all dogs are bad.” He goes on to explore how we as a society have come to own so many millions of dogs, how some of us have turned them into sensory-deprived howling machines, how a barking record was set by a cocker spaniel who managed an astounding 907 barks in a 10-minute span. Quammen also mentioned the Basenji breed from the Congo basin that (sigh) make no noise at all when hunting antelope with their Pygmy breeders in the Ituri forest.

Who let the dogs in?

Where, historically, do our dogs come from? Quammen thinks the cherished belief that dogs were first domesticated as hunting companions is a fairy tale. “Reputable archaeologists guess, instead, that the dog’s first role in civilization was to eat garbage.” Seems that wild dogs were tolerated in the nomad camps of our knuckle-walking days because they scavenged scraps of food that would otherwise rot, smell, and draw flies. Dogs were merely tolerated, then eventually became familiar and permanent fixtures of our lives.

Hunting, shepherding, sled-pulling, and being coddled as pets all came later – not to mention their role as watchdogs. And not to mention the canine bark: “One of mankind’s first acts of genetic planning.”

Barking up a lot of trees

At that point, Quammen wondered about the same thing that puzzles me: How can anybody claim their animal is a watchdog when it barks hysterically a few hundred times a day (and night)? Do the owners jump up every time to make sure their home is safe?

In fact, in addition to defense, dogs bark when playing, as a greeting, a reaction to distress, when seeking contact, during group vocalization, when threatened or bored, or when a leaf blows down the alley. In other words, dogs bark for any and every reason imaginable, although I think boredom might be the No. 1 reason.

Abandon an energetic beastie in a small yard, and he’s going to be bored out of his twinkie. To find out what it’s like, we should wear choke collars and tie ourselves to trees. How long would any of us last?

Where oh where can my alphas be

I don’t think our canine neighbors were bored, though, because they had each other to goof around with. It’s likely they vibrated our windows because their alpha people were gone, and that was very worrisome. The alphas, in fact, seemed to have disappeared. After three solid days of barking, I could translate the dogs' hysterics: “Mom and dad are gone, gone, gone gonegonegonegone! Whenever will they be back! Back! Back! Back! Back! Back!back!back!back!back!”

I knew the caregivers weren’t home because I went over and knocked on their door a handful of times over the course of a week. Finally I left a note on the door, saying that I’d pulled swaths of hair out of my head because of their animals.

Sweet, blessed relief

I wasn’t expecting an answer, so imagine my surprise when the dogs’ mom called about six years later (in dog terms). We talked for a good half-hour on ways to resolve the problem – and bless her for realizing there was a problem – and she assured me her dogs would be taken care of whenever she and her husband left town.

We talked about going over to meet the animals so they could get a good smell and eye us up and down. Hopefully, they wouldn’t bark every time we walked in our own yard. She even gave me a number I could call, a Doggie 911, in case her canines had a bad fur day.

Tail wagging the dog

Let me finish by saying: I love dogs. I was raised in a menagerie of dogs, cats, rabbits, ducks, and siblings. But now that the three dogs next door are quieter, there’s that exuberantly bored female who lives across the street…

“As the Lord is my witness, we got too many dogs,” Quammen says.

Oh, man, don’t I know it.

Who let the dogs out? first appeared in Comment, CSU’s former faculty and staff newsletter.