There is a dog who lives behind my house and he can sense weakness. Whenever I'm tired, headachy or ridden with angst, the dog barks.
The dog is a beagle with robust good health. He seems to enjoy nothing so much as 20 or 30 minutes of rhythmic, senseless and loud barking.
When the barking catches me in moments of weakness, such as 4:30 a.m. or in the midst of a Sunday afternoon nap, I plot dogicide. My favorite plan is to shoot the dog in mid-bark with a high-powered rifle -- and plead temporary insanity.
I am not alone in this madness. The bark of the dog is heard across the United States, according to animal control authorities. In the suburbs of Washington, animal wardens say the barking is waking babies, turning neighbor against neighbor and sparking many slow-burning fumes.
Consider, for example, the army colonel and his wife who lived in a $100,000 house in an Annandale neighborhood that had 22 dogs. Some of the dogs preferred mid-afternoon barking; others chose the proverbial howling at the moon.
The colonel and his wife tried talking to the dogs' owners. One owner slammed the front door in their faces. Another said he would keep his dog quiet, but didn't.
"It was bigger than we were," said the colonel, who wants his name kept secret for fear of dog owner enmity.
For a good night's sleep, the colonel and his wife did not turn to the high-powered-rifle option. They gave up and sold out.
Now living in a neighborhood without dogs, the colonel's wife said recently, "We sit and look at each other and say life is happy."
There are other horror stories from canine-cluttered neighborhoods.
Marian Hemminger, of Mount Vernon, has winced at the sound of a young dog's bark for a year without complaints. The dog, she hopes, soon will grow up.
Clifford Hansen, of Fairfax, listened for months to the yelp of a German shepherd who practiced getting its head stuck in a screen door. The yelping ended when the dog left town.
Even the rich and the famous do not escape the ubiquitous bark. Johnny Carson and his wife Joanna filed a petition last November, alleging that in fashionable Bel Air, Calif., five neighborhood dogs interfered with their sleep. Two of the alleged midnight howlers were owned by Sonny Bono.
In the Washington area, where there are an estimated 580,000 dogs, each major jurisdiction has a noise ordinance under which neighbors can complain to police, zoning officials or animal control wardens. The ordinances refer to "frequent" or habitual" noise that carries across property lines.
Deciding how many barks constitute a violation of the ordinances is a matter of conscience. My belief is that most Americans who suffer the outrageous barks of neighborhood dogs do so in silence, plotting and scheming unspeakable acts of violence, but rarely calling the cops.
Jack Maize, who has enforced the noise ordinance in Fairfax County for three years, says that when citizens decide to call and complain, their complaints are usually justified. Maize says, however, that owners of the offending dogs are seldom sympathetic.
"Folks think just as much of their dogs as of their family. The first time I talk to an owner, his dander usually get up. I usually back off right then and call back three days later with suggestions."
The idea behind enforcement of noise ordinances in the Washington suburbs, according to animal control authorities, is not to impose a $300 fine or put a dog owner behind bars for 30 days -- it is to bring peace.
Dog experts say dogs who shatter this peace do so for many reasons. A dog will bark to protect its territory or to say it's lonely, bored, hungry, wet, cold, hot or happy. The beagle who leves behind me often engages in the much-despised "chain bark," which results from one dog responding to the bark of another.
"Every dog has a right, but not an absolute right, to do some barking," said Dr. Michael Fox, author of "understanding Your Dog" and "What is Your Dog Saying?"
"There is a certain amount of natural emission (dog barks) that we have to accept unless we want totally sterilized suburbs, which could mean debarked dogs and plastic shrubs and you name it," said Fox, who is director of the Washington-based Institute for Study of Animal Problems for the Humane Society of the United States.
Fox argues that dogs in suburbs bark more than they have a right to because their owners leave them outside too long. And they continue to bark, Fox says, because their owners are not sensitive to their neighbors' concerns and because neighbors are afraid to say anything about the nuisance.
There are exceptions to this suburbs-are-cold-and-nasty theory of dog barking, Fox says. He says there are some dogs, no matter how well supervised, who bark too much.
"Some dogs are so inbred that when they get out of a house, they hallucinate at the sight of a bush and bark like crazy."
Excluding these psychotic barkers, however, Fox believes the "dog barking problem is a people problem. Neighbors don't talk to each other any more."
Animal control authorities suggest that one way to solve problem barking is with a score sheet. The offended neighbor is advised to record the number of barks and the time at which they occur.This gives the neighbor something to do besides fuming and is strong evidence when confronting a touchy dog owner.
Such record-keeping has been institutionalized in Honolulu, Hawaii. There, a citizen has a legal complaint if he can show that a dog has barked continuously for 10 minutes.
In Washington, where there are no such hard and fast barking limits, Dr. Fox counsels patience:
"Some people worry too much. After five or six barks, they stay up and wonder if the dog will bark again. These are insomniacs and they need help. They should buy a record of wolves howling and desensitize themselves."
As for myself, I'm not an insomniac. Until this beagle with robust health and leather lungs began waking me, I always petted stray dogs. I did not need help. Now, I'm often unsure about my health. And the future health of that beagle becomes more tenuous by the hour.