The way Debbie Cahill figures it, the mutt was a suburbanite who was used to regular meals, peace and quiet. He came downtown over July 4 weekend with his master, perhaps for the fireworks on the Mall. Somehow, master and mutt got separated.

Maybe the dog made a break for freedom. Maybe he was abandoned. Whichever, Cahill first saw him flouncing around the benches of Washington Circle on the night of the Fourth--without a tag, without a collar, alone, panicky, filthy and hungry.

In honor of the circle, Cahill and some friends named him "Washington."

"The main thing is, he was such a nice dog," said Cahill, who lives in nearby Foggy Bottom. "You hate to think a dog like that will be picked up by the city and killed if you don't do anything."

But to do nothing would have meant death, too--by starvation. So for three weeks, Cahill and a bunch of other Foggy Bottomers made "Washington" a neighborhood project. They fed him, they played with him -- and they tried to calm him down.

"Washington" was never very appreciative--or receptive. A criss-cross of german shepherd, golden retriever and collie, "he'd run like the devil anytime you got near him," Cahill said.

Because of his spookiness, it became clear that death by speeding auto was the most immediate threat to his health.

It is tough enough to try to cross Washington Circle on foot if you obey the signals. "Washington" obeyed only his persistent fears. Approach him with a dog food patty, and he'd streak off into the street -- fair game for the Urban Cowboys forever jockeying for automotive position there.

Besides, according to Laura Lee Larson of Arlington, another of the dog's admirers, some well-meaning people were feeding "Washington" Danish pastry, raw hot dogs and other foods that spoil quickly in 90-degree heat. "He was beginning to suffer," Larson said.

So Cahill put him up for adoption with the D.C. Animal Shelter. But candidate after candidate either lost interest or failed the adoption test.

So Larson has temporarily taken "Washington" in. "He's a soulful dude," Larson explains. "You couldn't help but like him."

But she is quick to point out that her five cats moved into her house first, and they aren't thrilled by the new arrival. So "Washington" still faces death if he returns to the city pound and a permanent home can't be found.

Is there anyone out there who's been missing a petulant pet since the holiday, or who would like to give a home to a proven survivor? If so, the Animal Shelter (576-6664) would be delighted to hear from you.