Were he less a pussycat, Caspar Weinberger would not have yielded so quickly and mildly when complaints were made about the Pentagon's plans to use dogs in a lab to train surgeons in the care of wounds. Animal-welfare groups, as well as dog zealots, rallied behind Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who found the idea of experimentally shooting dogs "a shocking waste of animal lives and tax monies."

Unlike in his chesty defenses for an increased weapons budget, Weinberger for once had reasonable arguments for the Pentagon's case.

The dogs to be killed were awaiting death at animal shelters. Man's best friend was already friendless. At the military lab, high standards of humaneness--including anesthetizing the animals before they were wounded-- were to prevail. Reputable physicians support these teaching methods.

The $70,000 cost of the facility contrasted well with the $370,000 the Pentagon wanted two years ago to build a kennel for 12 German shepherd patrol dogs at Fort Myer. Congress said no.

Aside from these arguments, Weinberger could have used a stronger one had he the courage. The "shocking waste of animal lives and tax monies" that so upsets Lantos and his co-sentimentalists is almost nothing compared with the waste created by irresponsible dog owners.

The Pentagon's lab would have killed 80 dogs annually. Every year, an estimated 6.2 million dogs must be destroyed at the nation's 1,200 tax-supported pounds and 600 private shelters. Why no outcries against that? Some $250 million is needed to keep these death houses operating on behalf of America's dog lovers.

A disgustingly large number of the 6.2 million destroyed dogs meet their drugged or gassed fate because the owners are uncaring.

A study done for the Pet Food Institute found that only 44 percent of the owners exert the proper efforts to give their pets quality care. The rest--56 percent--ranged from the lazy owners who let their animals roam the neighborhoods to bite, bark and defecate at will, to the disenchanted owners who find more problems than pleasures in their charges.

On the same day that protectors of dogs were cheering themselves for calling the cowering Pentagon to heel, another kind of canine story was being played out in Commack, Long Island. A woman was driving home with her three children when a stray dog sprinted across the road.

The woman swerved. Missing the dog but losing control of her car, she moved into the path of a 10-wheel Mack truck. The car was crushed. The three children were killed and the mother hospitalized in critical condition. The dog, never touched, lived. Its owner hasn't been found.

This tragedy didn't earn the national headlines given to the planned Pentagon wound labs. The harm that reckless dog owners inflict on the community has become routine, to the point that civil anarchy prevails. The arrogance of owners has meant that entire cities have become dog runs. An official of the Humane Society of the United States reports that "most cities lack the personnel or commitment to control dog owners. Owners groups are often well organized to resist regulations."

In the rare city that can take no more filth from dog waste and passes a scoop law, the owners of the befouling animals know that they, not the police and not the citizens offended by the squalor, are in charge.

When a scoop law was passed in Boston, an editorial in the Boston Globe said that the city's 65,000 dogs can hardly be watched by the 16 "inspectors" assigned to the problem. Accordingly, the Globe thought that "gently exercised peer pressure might help; a polite but firm word from pedestrian passers-by might embarrass offenders into compliance."

Embarrassment? You'll get indignation. Or curses. And why gentle pressure? What other class of defiant lawbreakers is able to con us into being soft on their crimes.

Irresponsible owners deserve public wrath, not gentleness. The latter hasn't worked. For a short-term solution, stiff license fees should be imposed. Since the problems created by dogs are costly-- from killing us on the highways to polluting our streets--make ownership costly.

Long-term, there is the example of Reykjavik, Iceland. Its supremely intelligent citizens have been banning dogs for more than 50 years. It's a clean and healthy town.

In the United States, where the birthrate for dogs exceeds that of humans, the animals are not to blame. They are merely one more species exploited by a society that gives animals few rights. In this case, allowing owners to go leashless means that the rest of us are forced to go to the dogs too.