The dog who cries wolf (and pigeon)

I've decided to give up barking. My placid adoption of this admirably abstemious philosophy is based directly on a wise old saying: "Why keep a dog and bark yourself?" So now foxes and gray squirrels and, for all I care, an ardent invasion of aardvarks, may enter our private back garden whenever they feel so inclined and I am guaranteed not to bark at them. There is no need.

The dog Bugsy sits on the wooden stairs that go down to the kitchen. His rear is poised on one step, his back legs on the next one down, his front legs lower still, on a third.

From this angled vantage, he gazes out the window at the foot of the stairs like a figurehead on an old sailing boat. He concentrates. He looks. He stares. He watches. A faint agitation in the bushes, the merest flicker of a twig, a suggestive shadow in the undergrowth, and he is instantly tight with expectancy. The next moment his suspicions are decisively confirmed, and he launches himself toward the window, ripping open the air with unbridled vocality.

His bark is high-pitched and ear-splitting (though unfortunately not high enough to be heard only by bats). A magnificent indignation hones its message. Here (he informs the universe) is a dog who knows his rights. Who has a point to make. And that point is: "How dare you, alien creature, enter my garden?"

He now stands with his front paws planted tensely on the low windowsill, like an overeager lion on a royal crest. He is clearly visible, and definitely audible, to fox or squirrel (or pigeon, for that matter, if there's nothing else handy to bark at).

He barks and barks and barks.

I'd say he loves it. It gives him purpose.

But there is a problem. The squirrel's sole interest is getting at the peanuts hung out for the birds. The fox's sole interest is in sniffing around. He is on one of his frequently repeated sniffing-around jaunts through the neighborhood. The pigeon, who has alighted rotundly on the roof of the bird table, is intent on asking one mimed but salient question: "So where is the food?"

Not one of these three habitual intruders is at all troubled or ruffled by the frenetic and furious dog on the other side of the window. They know their rights, and what the noise merchant within seems unable to grasp is that this is not really his garden at all. It is theirs.

Besides, they've heard it all before. Ho hum.

So, in our house, has the other dog.

Muff lived with us for a year or two before Bugsy arrived on the scene. Until he joined us, she was in charge of barking. She took the job very seriously. Squirrels were her special provocation; they drove her to a wild distraction. But these days, she goes by the same proverbial principle of delegation that I do. Why have a Bugsy to bark for you and waste your own breath? So she tends to look a little curious merely, while her boyfriend is on barking duty. She bothers to participate only if she feels a second voice is genuinely needed.

Dogs are pack animals, I know, but I have never before observed this sort of sharing of responsibility so clearly. The measure of it is when we are at the table having a meal.

Bugsy is interested in small gifts of food, but much less so than Muff. Bugsy can be yelling and screaming out the window for all he's worth, but Muff will remain near us at the table, begging, hopeful, superdedicated to the potential treat. She knows on which side her bread is buttered.

It may be, however, that Muff has also realized a sober fact - that all this barking produces no effect whatsoever. The squirrels, foxes, and pigeons reappear, if anything, in increasing numbers. No amount of fury inside the house has stemmed the flow. In fact, the local foxes have now reached the point where they evidently consider the human population on their territory mere background scenery.

I was gardening a few days ago on a sunny afternoon, and a fox stood contemplating me about five paces away. I asked him how things were with him. I asked him if he was enjoying the mild spell. I asked him how his wife was. He didn't move. (Nor, I admit, did he answer.) It seems he thinks me a friend.

So if I'm a friend, why would my dogs be otherwise?

There is a small, very pretty fox, one of last season's crop I suspect, who likes to come up close to Bugsy's barking window, again in full daylight. He calmly appraises the crazy canine with a mild, unmoved interest.

My theory is that he finds the activity on the other side of the glass bemusing but not, finally, convincing. "Bugsy Barking" is possibly his favorite daytime small-screen sitcom - sharply written, enthusiastically performed, rather noisy, and decidedly over the top - but, in the final analysis, pure fiction.

I mean to say: Who in real life would behave like that? The stuff they put out on TV these days! You can hardly believe it. Does that dog get paid for it?

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