You know the old saw about how you can ward off a hostile dog by "letting him know you're not afraid"? My advice is: Don't try it unless you're packing a heavy communicator like an 8-gauge blunderbuss. Otherwise teeth will meet butt, because putting on an "I am not scared" front with nothing more than stern glares and shouts just won't cut it. Why? Remember that tongue-flailing Irish setter with the bandanna collar who ran with directionless idiocy on your college campus? Well, the sad fact is, most dogs aren't smarter than he is. We're talking about creatures who can be amused for two hours at a time by a chewed-up Frisbee or a "fighting" hand puppet. Thus, to assume that a charging dog has the necessary brainspeed to process your body signals in time to slam on his paw brakes is just plain foolish. Every neighborhood kid knows this, and yet responsible adults continue to give the same old bad counsel. A couple of years ago, Real Estate Today advised agents who are confronted by an attacking pooch to "look the dog in the eye, give it a loud, guttural admonition of AAAHH!, and see if it backs off." Good advice in one sense: After li'l choppermouth clamps on to your thigh, you can keep yelling the same thing without breaking character.

Guided by such insights, my policy around dogs I don't know well has always been one of Enlightened Handsoffism Until Readiness To Lick My Toes Is Demonstrated. Which is why, as I approached the home of Maxine Swaine on a pre-Christmas Saturday, I was shivering like a refrigerated Chihuahua. For those of you who haven't heard of this celebrated case, Swaine is the Charles County woman who keeps 20 dogs at her home -- a small blue farmhouse at the left end of a forked dirt road off Rte. 5. According to the neighbors with whom Swaine is heavily feuding -- Randy and Gayle Crowder, who live about 350 yards away on the road's right fork -- the dogs bark all the time, keeping them awake at night and making their lives Hell. In papers filed last fall with the county, the Crowders also alleged that one of the Swaine dogs attacked them in their own driveway and "nicked {Gayle's} shoe" before she leaped to safety in the family truck, and that one of the feral cats who used to roam Swaine's woodland bit Randy last April, forcing him to undergo a series of rabies shots. Swaine says all of the above is a lie. She admits the dogs bark, but says it happens only when strangers come up her driveway, and that they stop on command. Any other barking, she says, came about from Randy Crowder stopping and slamming his truck door and "hurling obscenities" at the pen. As to the attack-cat and nipping-canine charges, she says "cats don't bite" and "not true," respectively. She says that the Crowders are out to get her because of a feud they had with her late half-brother, that they trapped and killed the wild cats, and that one night they resorted to the oldest, most diabolical trick in the book -- having a pizza delivered to her house just to wake up the dogs. The Crowders deny all charges.

I know what you're thinking: Why don't these people just lob dynamite sticks through each other's picture windows and be done with it? Normally, I might agree, but in this case we have to consider the innocent bystanders who are in enough peril already: the dogs. In November, the canine control board ordered Swaine to have all but one of them surgically "debarked," a sentence that has been stayed pending the outcome of Swaine's appeal in Charles County Circuit Court. Find the prospect of 19 muted pooches upsetting? Me, too. Ever since I heard about it, I've been having these dreams in which I'm Ranger Corey and 19 Lassies are trying to "tell me" about a family of tourists who are trapped in a deserted mine, only . . . they can't. Nor am I unsympathetic to the competing parties and their plights. Swaine is a kindly if eccentric person who can't resist foundlings. Most of her dogs -- about whom Swaine is admittedly "somewhat psychotic" -- are adoptees, and her caretaker, Joseph (Kojak) Lindauer, is a former circus roustabout she found sleeping in her doorway when she lived in Baltimore. On the other hand, though I suspect the Crowders have ulterior motives for picking on the dogs, I understand their position. If you've ever been kept awake by barking dogs, you know that a) it drives you crazy; and b) their owners aren't always "reasonable." Last year I lived across the street from a woman whose mutts did a nightly four-hour woof concerto. When I staggered over bleary-eyed to complain one day, she screamed, "Get yourself off my porch!" and tried to squirt Lemon Pledge in my face. In les affaires du rowwoooooo, passions run high.

I'll admit that as I burbled toward the Swaine ranch in my Diesel Rabbit, I indulged in a minor "Highway to Heaven" fantasy -- like Michael Landon, I would cruise in, talk to both sides while rubbing my chin and looking angelically concerned, make everyone see the light with a little Solomonic wisdom ("Why not cut all the dogs in half?"), and then drive away while the former enemies sob and hug and the dogs and cats gambol about in Maypole formation. That didn't happen. After parking the Rabbit, I saw Lindauer on the front porch and I surveyed the doggie deployment. Four were secure in a front-yard pen, barking. The rest were stacked inside at the windows, barking. Not wanting to take chances, I rolled down my car window just enough to stick out two lips, and in my best "hiya buddy" tone, asked, "Is Ms. Swaine here?" Lindauer said something, but I couldn't hear it because the dogs were very loud. (As I found out later, though, Swaine really can shut them up with a command, and most of the time I was there, they didn't bark at all.)

I got out and approached Lindauer. That's when "it" happened. A white, long-haired, indeterminate breed that I hadn't seen came flying off the porch with its jaws flapping like a cartoon alligator. I imagine my shout of "AAAHH" was doubly unimpressive to him because when I issued it, I was bounding back to the car with a drum major's high steps. Lindauer came over and, while the white dog did excited vertical sproings behind him, told me that Swaine was at the laundromat and would return soon. She did, and we taped a nice interview -- inside my car -- in which Swaine named all the dogs (the one who terrorized me is called Le Petit Chou, "the little cabbage"), and made it blisteringly clear that a patch-up with the Crowders was not possible. (When I phoned him later, Randy Crowder made it pretty clear, too -- the operative mood here is intense mutual loathing.) No, in this case, all the behavior modification will have to be done on the dogs. We can only hope that a more humane alternative than debarking will emerge. Swaine mentioned some reconditioning technique that uses ultrasound, and I've read about an electronic collar that produces a buzz and a mild shock each time it detects a bark. If money is a problem -- and it will be, because those anti-bark collars cost $200 each -- I say: Let's start a fund, put on a talent show.

Something! Anything! The Little Cabbage's voice must not be stilled.