Barking Dogs and Me: A Loud Story

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2003, Tom Bentley

Could listening to a barking dog actually drive you mad? I fear it could. Worse yet, I fear this not in theory, but in fact: barking dogs are making me a sweaty mess.

It’s been going on for a while, my disaffection with the throaty declarations from man’s best friend, but it’s not a simple thing of disliking dogs. To the contrary, I like dogs and always have. I’ve always welcomed their unbiased affection and grinning loyalty, having had many good and worthy canines as pets through my boyhood. College days and frequent moves kept me dogless after I left my parents’ house, a situation that persisted until I took the easy-care route of keeping cats as my primary pet. Now, I struggle to hate the barking and not the barker, for in my neighborhood, that good and loyal nature is often marred by a manic tendency to bark, and bark and bark again.

A little background noise: I live in a semi-rural neighborhood outside of Watsonville, near strawberry fields and ramshackle houses, a good place for Rover to chase gophers, menace cats and nose about underneath trailers and old cars. My neighbors have keenly noted the ideal state of dogdom here and have acted upon it. Almost all of my immediate neighbors have three dogs per family; one has five. (Having one dog must be a sign of reduced virility.) This loose association of canines has few hard rules, but one of them is that should one dog determine that the air is ripe for barking, many of his brethren will join in. The hills beyond my house create a splendid bowl of sound, so that when the canine chorus truly lets loose, there is a reverberant echo effect. This pleases these raucous singers so much that they fall all over themselves composing another round.

Clarification: I know, as we all know, that dogs bark. It is the nature of dogs, as butterflies flutter and accountants mutter. But what sets my teeth on edge is not the temporary daytime cascade of barks, perhaps at a pedestrian passing by, or at a transient delivery person. The kind of barking that I find oppressive, that causes the gorge to rise, that spanks my hind raw is this reflexive, open-ended barking, a kind of barking aerobics that our neighborhood dogs all too often perform.

This kind of barking is the dull pounding of a headache, the animal barking at the air, barking at a weed moving, barking at the weed not moving, barking in anticipation of their next bark. An occasional flurry of barking has no real sting – it’s that yapping “ON” switch without relent that irks, the ping-ping-ping of water torture that bends the civility out of my mind and bends in the unreasoned rage. These prolonged symphonies sound like the dogs are barking for an aerobic workout, in forty-five–minute stints of high-heartbeat houndishness.

Where are my neighbors when their dogs are barking, you might ask? At this point, I have given up asking, but I have my theories. One of them is that the owners of barking dogs practice a kind of selective consciousness, a tuned ability to tune out. How else could you account for perfectly reasonable folks saying “Barking? No my dogs don’t really bark that much. Maybe a little,” after their dogs barked for multiple one-hour stretches, from 11pm to midnight, then from three to four am, and then again at dawn. Or another neighbor will claim that it’s the other neighbor dogs barking: “Yeah, my dogs bark a little, but softly. It’s probably their dogs you’re hearing.”

I’ve always been a member of the Good Neighbor School. Don’t steal your neighbors’ tomatoes, don’t put the speakers on the roof and play 50 Cent at three am, don’t drink seven tequila shots and initial their cars with a tire iron. I want to be known as the neighbor that smiles and waves, who never lights the adjoining field on fire, who doesn’t consider a backyard meth lab a good example of free enterprise. I don’t want to call the cops on my neighbors. I really believe in that creed of “Can’t we all just get along?”

But sending out letters, making a couple of calls, having a chat or two hasn’t seemed to work. There will be nights when all is well, and I begin to think that civility reigns again, but then a two a.m. soliloquy becomes a disco riot of doggy declarations, enough to send me screaming out into the rural night, “Shut those damn dogs up!” and return with heart pounding.

Sleep is a delicate thing. If you’re like me, a fairly light sleeper, and you’ve been woken three or four times, it’s a challenge to find slumber again. And of course, there’s that weird psychological accompaniment, where when you’ve had a recurring stimulus, your brain leans forward in wait for it to return. I’ll lie in bed with fists clenched after a few barking bouts, on edge for them to begin anew. Absurd as it is, when I reach this state, the dogs don’t even have to bark to disturb my serenity. Or after a couple of no-sleep nights in a row, I become trigger happy, where a couple of random barks has me sitting upright in bed, muttering, anticipating a night of werewolves and bloodletting. A car door might shut and I think that it’s a dog bark.

Sometimes, after a fractured night of booming barking, good sense abandons me so that I run out on the deck and let go of my own prolonged round of barking, as loudly and resonantly as I can. Of course, that only pauses them for a moment, as they calculate a response. But it gives me some sense of how satisfying it must be to just let loose your spirit’s song in the dead of night. It feels good; it clears out the mind’s clutter. But it only feels good for a moment to me. It must feel very good to the dog.

Of course, there are times when the night howlers have cause: a coyote might cry at the evening’s injustice, and that moves the local dogs in deep ways. But a lot of the time it seems to just be dogs in their yards, bored. Dogs don’t seem to do too well being ignored, especially when the wide sky is above them and the night hours crawl by. They seek stimulation, and if they have none, they stir some up.

Some of te local dogs have signature tones: there’s the horrible, broken lament that sounds like the animal’s in psychic pain, or the torturous single-syllable ping, a metronymic yapping that makes me crazy in its repetition. (Could these careful barks be inculcating a Manchurian Candidate assassination command in me?) These sounds make me realize why a dog’s barking troubles me so much more than the regular crowing of the roosters or the trilling of the birds at dawn. The dogs’ work is like a persistent knock, knock, knock at a door that can never be answered. Its purposelessness has a perverse quality.

I turned to the Internet with the question of “why do dogs bark?” and got this back:

That was the question asked in the cover story of the January issue of Smithsonian Magazine. After a nine-page analysis, the final conclusion was: they bark “just for the hell of it.” The gist of this learned study was that barking is the hallmark of domesticated dogs…[dogs] are actually animals stuck in a middle ground between infancy and adulthood. Barking is just the manifestation of “juvenile” vocal behavior. In other words, the extravagance and apparent meaninglessness of barking is that a dog remains a metamorphic adolescent for life!1

Not very reassuring, if you ask me.

Someone told my sweetheart Alice that the barking of a dog is a beautiful thing, that it meant protection and company to the owner. I tried, I really tried to see it this way. I tried to objectively listen to the machine-gun firing of one of the biggest neighborhood offenders and see if I could find beauty in it, but again it only sounded like jarring noise, an unsharpened saw cutting badly. Those sounds make it so hard to sit in the garden and think that it’s a beautiful world.

I laugh at myself for it, but I’ve become a biddy with binoculars, spying out of my house, trying to determine just which dog is sending out his manic message. “Oh yeah, it’s Lion Dog; he looks like he’s just barking at a cloud,” or “There goes Brindle Dog again—must be someone walking by.” You might have heard of that mythical dog named Cerberus, who had nine heads. That’s no myth. That dog lives in my neighborhood, and all its heads bark.

Sure, earplugs are readily available, and even somewhat effective. I resort to them some nights when I’m fed up. But they aren’t comfortable, and I don’t like the sense that I’m potentially shielded from any situations that would have normally woken me up. Besides, I don’t want to have to alter how I sleep because my neighborhood sounds like a bow-wow bowling alley. I’m just hoping that the local dogs (or their owners) will finally understand that their barking is annoying, and that they should get another hobby. Can’t they start a book club?