LAST TUESDAY, outraged readers had the telephones at this paper ringing off the hook.

The morning's front page had reported that several thousand U.S. combat troops were going to Central America. But the callers were not complaining about that.

They were furious about the story at the bottom of the page: how the Pentagon was about to shoot dogs with high-powered weapons so military doctors in training could study their wounds. How dare they shoot dogs! said the chorus of callers.

The story also produced a pained reaction across the Potomac from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who owns a collie named Kiltie. Weinberger immediately directed that no dog will be shot so long as he is secretary.

Upon hearing all this, we checked with the telephone operators at The Washington Post. How many persons had called about the dispatch of troops for maneuvers in Central America? How many about the president's Tuesday news conference, which concentrated on that and other U.S. muscle-flexing in the region? A trickle of calls came in, we were told. Nothing to speak of.

That kind of thing sets you thinking: Why?

Knee-jerk cynics no doubt will conclude that the public cares more about dogs than about people. In fact, a popular line on Capitol Hill last week was that the fleet headed for Central America could have been turned around if only the president had announced that the ships were carrying "U.S. combat dogs," not men. The public outcry would have stopped him in his tracks.

It's not hard to imagine others pointing to the periodic and predictable stories in the press about how many millions of dollars Americans spend on their pets while other Americans go hungry.

But all this is too easy, and, more important, it misses the mark.

The outraged reaction does not tell us that the public cares more about dogs or cats or horses than about people. It reminds us, rather, of how weary people are, weary of trying to deal with the momentous, immensely complex, often morally blurred issues they are regularly urged to confront.

Consider just a few of those issues. Nuclear weapons and the fate of humankind -- a nice little one that creates bewilderment and fear, when people think about it at all. The swiftly changing world economy -- another fun one that gets you into things like global trade barriers and the world monetary system, to say nothing of U.S. jobs. The defense budget -- surely everybody should be knowledgeable about weapons and military manpower and what's really "enough."

This, of course, is merely the beginning. Budget deficits. Racial, ethnic and sexual justice. Health. The tax maze. Other nations' troubles. The environment. Various species of corruption. Education. Toxic substances. The list is immense.

It should be no surprise, then, if most Americans feel numb, if they yearn for the stable, the traditional, the morally clear-cut. That is a fundamental fact of our political life today, and it is only natural for it to be reflected in responses to the news.

Shooting innocent dogs? That's clear-cut. Something you can do something about. Make a call, holler, and it's stopped. Thank goodness.

Sure, part of it was that special bond between man and his best friend. Defenseless, loyal, and loving, dogs have long enjoyed a special place in our hearts. It's axiomatic that animal stories get a rise out of the public. Before the dog story appeared, in fact, one editor said publishing it would be like "dropping a lighted match into a can of gasoline."

But the account also presented a chance to reaffirm our humanity, to say there are still some things we can see quickly and clearly and won't stand for. Shooting 80 mongrel dogs is one of them.

The influence of the press is sometimes shaped by little more than this, the way the reader rises to the bait called "news." At times, the public's taste seems to border on the bizarre, as some stories stir bewildering depths of emotion while others leave people limp and unmoved.

It is easy, even comforting for those of us who write for newspapers to say readers are irrational or subject to pet (pardon the pun) passions. It's hard sometimes not to take public reaction personally and construe silence about stories as a sign that nobody really cares about the subject or, worse yet, that we failed to give give an account as compelling as the story warranted.

Fact is, we probably are partially responsible for that silence -- for failing to humanize the news, to translate statistics into flesh and blood, military hardware into comprehensible terms.

There were laughs in the newsroom about the calls following the dog story, but they were not laughing at the callers. It was a self-conscious laughter by people who struggle daily to tell stories of complexity and gravity and whose efforts are met more often than not with deafening quiet.

In the scheme of things, the defense secretary's decision to stop the shooting of dogs is a minor victory, and perhaps no victory at all, since there is talk of using goats or pigs instead. Perhaps against the unfolding canvas of events, the deep concern for the dogs may seem a pathetic distraction, insignificant beside the paralysis felt on larger issues.

But last week's outpouring was fundamental in its sincerity and compassion. There was a poignancy to the calls that showed that all that was needed was an opportunity to make a difference, a chance to sway, even if on a tiny scale, the juggernaut of events that shape the world.

Given that chance, people were only too glad to speak out. How many calls would it take to turn the U.S. fleet around?