THERE WAS A TIME, 30 years ago, when families who lived off Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda had enough room in their yards for dogs. My brother's best friend kept hunting dogs in runs behind his house and a favorite summertime activity was to repair a run or build a new one.
These were not pampered dogs and they were not allowed inside the house. They barked, of course, when kids approached the runs. But they settled down quickly and there was enough land between houses back in those days that an occasional outburst from the dogs bothered no one in the neighborhood.
And it was a neighborhood full of dogs. There was our English setter and the Irish setter up the street and the collie two homes away. And it was a neighborhood full of space -- space for kids to play in yards and for dogs to run in their back yards and in the meadow across the street and in the woods where they built the subdivision after we moved.
It was the last neighborhood I lived in where there wasn't somebody annoyed with somebody else over somebody's dog. There was the time one neighbor's dog made a deposit on the lawn of another neighbor who was having a dinner party. A guest in evening gown and slippers took a wrong step, there ensued what police euphemistically call an exchange of words, and the owner of the dog and the hostess of the dinner party didn't speak for months.
There was the dog which took to barking at 5 a.m. in the summer when people were sleeping with their windows open. It woke everyone up, only everyone wasn't eight months pregnant as I was; they could go back to sleep. I couldn't, and as the barking continued I decided to telephone the owners and ask them to shut the dog up.
Yet I still feel guilty about disturbing neighbors whose dogs are disturbing me. They are, after all, neighbors, and most of us are guided by some degree of desire to keep peace in the neighborhood in which we live.
Some dog owners don't seem to care at all about their neighbors, though, like having a dog means you can live by another set of rules. I've known people to pretend that they don't hear their own dogs barking.
Dog owners let their dogs do things they would never let their kids do. There's the lady who walked her dogs on a leash and who one day stopped on our front lawn. When my husband asked her what the dog was doing, she answered, "He's only urinating." My husband explained that we have a small child who played on the front lawn and we didn't want her dog's urine on it.
There's a man in Reston named Paul who handles the situation another way. When he sees a dog stopping, he dashes out with a shovel, and takes the droppings to the owner's home. "Your dog left something in my front yard," he tells them.
Think what would happen if adults let their children behave this way. Or think what would happen if I were to take my kitchen waste and walk it around the neighborhood, dropping a chicken carcass here, some potato peelings there, and some egg salad and coffee grounds over there. The neighbors would get together and say, "Good grief, Judy's walking the garbage," and before long I'd be spending some time in a quiet place.
The difference between walking your garbage and walking your dog is that one is totally antisocial and the other is part of the American dream. We still cling to the idea of men and boys and their dogs going off to the hunt long before dawn and of puppies playing with children and of dogs napping by the winter fire. But the dogs in these Norman Rockwell memories had farms and dog runs and back yards and, when they barked, no one lived close enough to hear them.
They did not live in the crowded Washington suburbs where people own quarter-acre lots and barely have space for a house, let alone a dog run. And they don't live on the middle-class block of Northeast Washington that erupted in gunfire Tuesday night in a tragedy that police and neighbors say began three years ago in a neighborhood dispute over dogs.
According to the story in yesterday's Washington Post, it started when a German shepherd owned by Carroll T. Fleet was attacked by a collie owned by Betty Haney. Later Fleet complained that Haney's collie befouled his lawn. Fleet also had words with another neighbor about his shepherd. Tuesday night, police say, Fleet apparently exploded and started shooting in his neighborhood, wounding four people. Betty Haney was shot to death, as was her dog, then Fleet killed himself. Haney's daughter, Marla, 16, died yesterday of her gunshot wounds.
A man who lives across the street from Fleet's home told a reporter, "It all grew out of the dogs; it's been ill feelings for years."
Another neighbor predicted there would be more such incidents as people "realize that the American dream is a myth." Part of the American dream, of course, has to do with space, with having your own house and a spacious middle-class neighborhood, your own car, and your own dog. People have clung to the dream of having dogs long past the time they could reasonably hope to afford a couple of acres or even a half-acre of space to run with them.
The American dream may not yet be the myth that Carroll Fleet's neighbor thinks it is, but it certainly has diminished. Now the dream is for a house and a car on a quarter-acre lot in a subdivision.
Sure, you can go ahead and get a dog and walk it and hope it doesn't bother your neighbor too much, but that's likely to be wishful thinking. Realistically, there isn't enough space in the American dream for dogs any more.