Dog Wars
Entry for 2017-07-02

It is a charming house on a shady street, sold at a fair price in the orderly settlement of an ample estate, all willingly financed by a friendly bank and represented by an honest realtor with a wonderful complexion. Not a shingle is loose. The neighbors are genial, good conversationalists every last one of them, moderate drinkers who never drive over your lawn. Their children are nice, too, and also moderate drinkers. The sidewalk is level. The mail arrives on time, with a cheery wave and a hearty hi-ho Silver. Garbage is picked up punctually and ever so quietly. The schools are excellent. The tap water is Chateau LaFitte Rothschild 1959. The wiring is flawless. The furnace is incredibly efficient but hardly necessary, the insulation is so good. The plumbing is solid copper, pewter, and bronze. Rabbits never nibble the lettuce without asking permission. Every storm window fits. Every door is hung straight, no window sticks, no faucet drips. The assessment is eminently fair and the taxes, entirely reasonable.

A shrewd purchase, this house, perfect in all respects save one--it is virtually the only house on the street not now and never before occupied by a dog. The previous owner was 92 at the time of his expiration, did not keep a dog, and required the better part of a morning to get from his reading chair to the front window. Thus by the time we bought this house--with its long history of no guardian mastiff and no front yard surveillance by the householder--it had become the one address for blocks around where a dog-walking owner could dawdle a bit, light a cigarette, and without fear of recrimination allow his pet to turn in yesterday's Gravy Train for recycling.

Who Goes There?

And so it was that the discreet charm of the house and grounds ended at the sidewalk, or a little short of it. The grass on either side of the walk survived sporadically, here and there, amid the spoor of many a man's best friend. The rest of the neighborhood, of course, remained beautiful because the lawns of neighboring dog owners were immaculate.

Most urban crises are simply too big to solve. This one seemed too small to solve--too trivial an issue to warrant the introduction of conflict and confrontation into so genteel a neighborhood as this. If a resident is taking his loyal and loving schnauzer out for a morning promenade and does not happen to notice that the animal has committed a depredation upon the lawn of another (it is simply astounding how little is noticed by people walking their dogs)... well, there's no point in allowing such an innocent episode to become a source of friction.

Perhaps a little research would turn up a simple and peaceful solution. Surely the problem had been dealt with before, given that people and dogs have cohabited the planet for quite some time.

Predator and Prey

Yes, quite--at least 11,000 years--this from my research. Before that, dogs were wild; in fact, they were wolves. All breeds belong to the same species, Canis; so to understand dog behavior it is necessary to consider the wolf, just as to understand dog owner behavior, it is necessary to consider the ape.

Wolves guard their territories and drive off intruders, so their domesticated descendants are naturally good watchdogs. And wolves range their hunting grounds, making regular rest stops at the same places, called "scent posts." Knowing this, naturalists studying today's threatened wolf population keep a sharp eye out for scent posts but, as a rule, do not take out 30-year mortgages to buy them.

My research was only making the plight seem more grim until I found an item about the police department of Sacramento, which recently had a plague of starlings dirtying up the police station. Through analysis of modus operandi, the detective bureau established that the natural enemy of the starling is the owl, so they erected four fake owls. Aha! The scarecrow principle!

I searched the literature to determine what species might be the natural enemy of the dog, a species after which to model my scaredogs. The only candidates I could discover were the flea and the mailman--and of course other dogs. Fleas, unfortunately, afflict dogs without scaring them away. Letter carriers don't frighten them either. Fake dogs would be too easily detected. Returning to the wolfpack for more fundamental insights, I found that the only species that kills wolves is man, and that's me. So much for research.

Chemical Warfare

Where zoology had failed, possibly chemistry could succeed. Ortho Chemical Co. puts out a dog repellent in a spray can, as does Hartz Mountain. For $2.50, you might or might not be able to spray a small area of lawn two or three times--might not, because the nozzles clog. You have to respray after each rain. The same chemical base (methyl nonyl ketone) also comes in the form of green teardrop pellets with twist ties to hang on shrubbery, and in a "Scent-Off RUB-STIK" to use as a crayon, inscribing hex signs on garbage cans and trees to keep away dogs. I sprayed the curbside grass, and the dogs followed suit. I drew Xs on a besieged tree trunk, and the dogs erased them.

Walter Armstead at the city's Animal Control Center suggested mothballs. My barber suggested high-voltage electrodes planted in the lawn. A friend recommended a Melanesian blowgun with curare-tipped darts. Another offered to rig the car horn with a remote control device which could be operated from the house. Maggie at the office argued for cayenne pepper.

I'd been afraid to use the green teardrop pellets because small children in the neighborhood might decide to taste them. Mothballs contain naphthalene, which sounds persuasive; but here again, children might mistake them for candy. Moth crystals would seem to be free of such dangers, and their chemical threat even more intimidating--paradichlorobenzene. Whatever the effect on dogs, there would be no problem with moth droppings.

Fortunes of War

I laid out a test pattern--sprays in one sector, RUB-STIK in another, moth crystals in a third, and red cayenne pepper in a fourth (you never can tell about these folk remedies). Neighbors who catch sight of a new resident peppering and mothproofing his lawn can draw their own conclusions.

As the situation began to appear desperate (Dogs 27; Chemistry 0), I finally turned to the law. I had heard that Mt. Lebanon, PA, has an animal control ordinance so strict that pets cannot legally relieve themselves even on their masters' own property. In Mt. Lebanon, a law-abiding dog is not a healthy dog. Among law-enforcement priorities, however, dog-collar crime ranks very low. Police are entirely too busy as it is, stamping out burglary and car theft and ticketing motorists who park in the "Reserved for Detective Cars" zone. They have no time to set the hounds on people who set the hounds on me.

Next, I considered refunding all deposits by mail. This, alas, would entail further research, to avoid the risk of insulting the federal authorities; for example, I would have to determine exactly how a post office canceling machine works.

Fortunately, so such risk was necessary. While I had been burying my nose in the city ordinances, some of the dogs had poked theirs into my test pattern and, miraculously, one of the four sectors had racked up an entire depredation-free week!

Which one? Why, the red pepper zone, of course. It's expensive as lawn preparation go--79 cents for a two-ounce spice can, which is 12 or 13 times the cost of Turfbuilder. But then, everything has its price. With the joys of urban home ownership come the responsibilities, the dues one must pay for the exquisite privilege of living in a perfect house on an idyllic street, lined with majestic sycamores, where children play happily and birds sing. And where now and then one may chance to see the frisky frolicking of a large dog, sneezing uncontrollably, end-over-end and down the street toward home.

(from Pittsburgher Magazine, 1977)