DOGS, without doubt, are high-maintenance pets. They need walks. They go into sniffing frenzies, and they gnaw. Some slink quickly into melancholia, if ignored.
Yet we love our dogs, dearly, for their loyalty and care. And, if the past few weeks are any indication, the canine kingdom can substantiate all the cliches about "man's best friend."
*For three days and nights, a beagle-dachshund and a cattle dog guarded young Josh Carlisle, lost in the harsh Ozark wilderness in subzero weather. The strays snuggled the 10-year-old to keep him warm, and police believe the dogs guided Josh to water, who was not dehydrated after his 70-hour ordeal.
"We started praying the minute we heard Josh was lost," said the boy's mother, Johnnie Coffey, reached last week at her home in Cassville, Mo. "People said the dogs were angels. I say the dogs were guided by angels."
*Samantha, a Rottweiler in north-central Florida, stuck doggedly to three-year-old Blake Weaver as he wandered for 20 hours in the Ocala National Forest on Jan. 24. Samantha lay down on the boy to keep him from freezing temperatures.
*Lyric, a working Irish setter in New Hampshire, two weeks ago "dialed" a 911 emergency number when her master was in a life-threatening situation.
*An abused dog rescued from a Woburn, Mass., animal shelter last month saved its new owner from an early morning fire.
Indeed, in the annals of dog heroism, 1996 may be a banner year.
Three weeks ago, the 1995 Dog Hero of the Year was announced, selected from some 250 entries. The winner is a "daring mixed breed" named Bailey, who saved his master, Chester Jenkins, from a 2,000-pound Belgian Blue bull. Mr. Jenkins had been pinned and mauled by the bull when Bailey, a young Chesapeake retriever-chocolate Labrador, shot out of "nowhere" to seize the bull's nose, refusing to be thrown and allowing Jenkins time to crawl under a water trough.
"A lot of the extraordinary feats are by specially trained dogs," says Jesse Vicha, a spokeswoman for Ken-L Ration, which has conducted the annual award for 42 years. "But our award is for family dogs. Every owner believes his dog is a hero."
Dog hero winners are chosen by a panel of three judges who weigh factors such as the difficulty, uniqueness, and consequences of the heroic act. Mutts and pedigrees, puppies and older dogs, tiny poodles and great Danes - all are honored for courage and for saving human lives under extreme conditions.
This year, for the first time, trained dogs - German shepherds who helped after the Oklahoma City blast - won a special award. One set of shepherds led rescue workers to people trapped in the rubble of the gutted federal building in Oklahoma City. Another team of "therapeutic dogs" was dispatched to cheer the children of families harmed by the blast.
Increasingly, dogs are being turned to as a kind of healing agent, creatures whose unassuming friendliness and empathy can help in times of woe.
IN the recent "Hidden Life of Dogs," author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas asks, "What is it that dogs want?" The answer: to belong. Animal psychologists have recently pinpointed different kinds of intelligence among dogs.
More profound research, such as that presented by Susan McCarthy and naturalist Jeffrey Masson in "When Elephants Weep," shows yet another side to animals. The new book indicates that emotions in animals are intrinsic and not just the wishful projections of humans, as long thought. Moreover, many animals, such as the hippopotamus, show emotions that can only be described as compassion, he concludes.
The research applies directly to dogs, often referred to half-seriously as the only animal that has made an alliance with humans. In the case of Josh Carlisle, some observers say the dogs' care transcends the merely learned or instinctual, showing responsiveness to a higher intelligence.
Certainly that is the view of Josh's mother. "God ... has a hand in everything we do, including the return of Josh," she says.