When Bark Is Worse Than Bite

Nobody seemed to mind the barking dogs in our neighborhood—except me

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Bev and I had a late-life marriage—the second for me, Bev's first after a long political career. It was hard to figure out where we wanted to live. We both owned homes, but neither seemed entirely suitable for our new coupledom.

I sold my place, a sweet little one-bedroom, one-bath in a Portland neighborhood that had been perfect for my long singleness. I moved into Bev's condo, which had more room, but little personality. We agreed it was temporary. Eventually, we'd sell it and use the proceeds from both our house sales to buy something together.

Everything we looked at seemed overpriced, especially in the inner southeast area where we thought we wanted to live. So, to get more bang for our housing buck, we looked further north, in a neighborhood our agent assured us was "up and coming." We eventually found a newish foursquare on a corner lot that we liked. It had good light, a wrap-around front porch and a fig tree in the back yard.

My only hesitancy about the new place was a concern about noise in the neighborhood. I wanted quiet, wanted it desperately. Our tenancy at the condo had ended with a screaming confrontation with a neighbor lady who left her yapping dachshund out in the yard all night long and seemed puzzled that anyone might be offended by the ceaseless, piercing barking. Another neighbor told me she dealt with the noise by lighting a candle and trying to meditate. "How'd that work for you?" I asked.

Before we signed papers on the new house, we went and knocked on doors of all the nearby neighbors, and politely asked if there was any problem in the neighborhood with barking dogs. No, they all assured us, seemingly surprised by such a question. It was a quiet neighborhood, they all said, no problem. None of them seemed particularly friendly, except for the old lady across the street and she was hard of hearing.

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The day after we moved in, the dogs began howling. Dogs, plural. From almost every direction. The Doberman right next door who went berserk anytime anybody passed by his front door, the border collie yapping incessantly behind the fenced yard, two threatening Rottweilers, who seemed to have free rein to run up and down 73rd Street. What those neighbors hadn't told us was that they were all dog owners themselves. And dog owners are apparently immune to dog noise. It's like an inoculation you get when you buy a canine, an anti-virus that affects your hearing.

I decided to take matters into my own hands. I knocked on doors, confronted neighbors, left form letters provided by Multnomah County Animal Services that threatened legal recourses. Nothing worked. The dogs kept howling and I became more and more sensitized to the noise. The slightest yip would set me off: my stomach churned, my heart raced, and I became instantly and unreasonably angry. I didn't know how to let it go. Once that barking started, I was fully engaged and no amount of self-talk or deep breathing could help. In the truest sense, I was becoming a madman. And the neighbors were on to me.

One of them came knocking on our front door, an older guy, 80ish, wearing a baseball cap and overalls, smiling crookedly. Without preliminaries, he asked, "What's the matter with you people? Don't you like dogs?"

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"What?" I said. "Who the hell are you?"

"I live up the street." He flung an arm out toward the right. "I'll say it again. Don't you people like dogs?"

I gave him a hard stare. "I like some dogs," I said. "It depends."

"On what?"

"On their owners," I said.

Bev had come downstairs by then, alerted by the loud voices, and stood beside me.

"The other neighbors don't much care for all your complaining," he continued. "We think you must not like dogs."

All thoughts of maintaining neighborly relations drained away. "Dogs are like people," I said. "If you don't teach them good manners, they're a real pain in the ass."

The old guy's jaw dropped. Clearly, he hadn't anticipated opposition. I was ready to slam the door in his face as final punctuation, but Bev put a gentling hand on my shoulder and stepped in front of me. "Hi," she said, "thanks for stopping by. Would you like to come inside so we can discuss this? I'm sure we both have our concerns."

I started to protest, but caught my breath and stepped to the side. The neighbor guy too seemed to calm down, even took his cap into his hand, smiled at Beverly, and shuffled inside. Five minutes later, he was playing his harmonica for us. Don't ask me why. Bev and he exchanged phone numbers and each promised to call if there were any further problems.

Still, the dogs continued to bark. I took to sleeping with earplugs and playing the radio loudly during the day. But in the end, after two years, we gave in and put the house up for sale and started looking once again.

After a couple more futile attempts to find quiet and peace of mind in the city, Bev and I moved out of Portland to a small town on the coast. It's quiet here and we are (finally) happy with our home and neighborhood. I feel more settled, more able to deal with distractions when they come along. I've even rekindled my love of dogs, happy to see them frolicking on the beach. Might someday get one of my own. And we know our neighbors, almost all of them. I'm sure if there were ever a problem, we could talk to them about it without hard feelings. Maybe it's just the pace of life that eases the strain. City life, for me, had become too stressful. I think that must be true for many people.