It is 9.37am, and the dog is barking again. Not mine, the newfoundland down the street. Cannonball - not his real name, but what he sounds like - sits at the gate all day, booming and boofing and woofing at every passing person, dog, bird, moth, leaf.
As it has for the past 20 minutes. As it does every morning, Monday to Friday, beginning, roughly, somewhere between 8.32am and 8.47am. It's the sort of booming, penetrating staccato sound to which a human responds as they would to the sound of gunfire, to someone yelling "F***" repeatedly at them, or to torture.
It provokes a physiological response; the heart races, blood pressure rises, vision blurs, the mind shuts down. You get angry, then distressed and sometimes you start to cry. If there is one guaranteed obstacle to the peace and happiness of working from home, it's the random noise of a big, bored dog. Let me first take a self-defensive position.
While my best friends tend to be people, some of my best friends, and members of my family, have a dog as their best friend. I can appreciate this. There are good dogs in the world, such as Lassie, most golden retrievers, dogs that help blind people get around, round up lost sheep and stop drugs coming across the border. I know some dogs have an unfathomable loyalty to their owners and I, too, get misty at stories about dogs like Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier who remained by his master's grave in Edinburgh until dying too, 16 years later.
However, when dogs start barking and carry on barking, it's like a blowfly in the room, or an itch that can't be relieved. Once the brain has acknowledged it, it can never again ignore it. It's like an allergy. You start to have an inflammatory response to any sort of exposure.
Thanks to Cannonball, I'm now irritated by the yaps of the fox terrier across the road, who tends to be set off by Cannonball, and the dog at the back, which has recently started howling, a long, lengthy, melancholy moan that, needless to say, can really get you down. And the other dozen or so dogs that live within a 200m radius which will all, at various stages of the day, add their boofs, woofs, arfs and yaps to the cacophonic chorus.
Sometimes it's like being in a forest filled with wolves. Or a canine asylum. I'm not the only one. Complaints about barking - always an ongoing issue for local authorities all over the world - are increasing. Auckland City Council reports that it received somewhere between 140 and 180 complaints each month over the past four months and 2091 complaints for the 2007/08 year. "Aggression is decreasing, wandering is increasing, but barking is going up," says Clare Connell, the council's animal contracts manager.
Whether this is because there are more dogs, or more dogs barking, isn't clear. Says Connell: "We're more built-up, there's more infill housing, people are living closer together and more people are working from home. And people don't know their neighbours very well. They don't talk to their neighbours, so they will complain to us." "It's dogs at home," adds her colleague in animal control, Karen Dewson.
"Everyone rushes around getting the kids organised but they forget about the dog. They think, 'give it a few biscuits and a bowl, it'll be right'. Well, it's not."
Those of us suffering the sins of our neighbours are obliged to recognise that we are also suffering the sins of our idiotic ancestors. According to canis familiaris lore, Homo sapiens deliberately selected dogs that barked. This began around 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, when dogs were wolves - although some still say dogs are descended from coyotes - and humans started feeding them their leftovers.
Some wolves decided to stay on, trading in their freedom for easy food. And those wolves that barked best at any unwelcome intruders would have been kept on. Well that's the theory because unlike dogs, wolves don't tend to bark.
However Mark Vette, an animal behaviourist (who now spends most of his time training animals for film and television) points out that "wolves don't bark as much as dogs, not because they don't have the predisposition, but they don't have as many reasons". Suburban dogs bark out of boredom.
Wolves don't get bored; they've usually too busy looking for dinner and as they live in a pack, they're always among friends. Both dogs and wolves will bark if something invades their territory. The average suburban dog is enclosed within a 400sq m property that borders a public thoroughfare and is surrounded by fences along which cats creep all day. It sees itself as being constantly under siege.
A wolf, however, has a territory so large that they don't encounter strangers. It is common, according to people who know about dogs, for suburban dogs to suffer from "separation anxiety" when their owners go off to work all day. Wolves don't tend to get left behind. And some dogs bark because they've been driven mad by all the aforementioned strains of suburban life. "To be honest, I think we probably ask more than we should of most dogs, expecting them to adapt to this kind of living," says Vette.
As veterinary behaviourist Elsa Flint notes, our breeding preferences in more recent centuries are more relevant than comparing dogs with wolves. We've bred them to guard, to work and to conform to our idea of cute, selecting for neotenic traits - juvenile characteristics. "That is, friendly, puppy-like behaviour," says Flint. "We want cute, child-like dogs, something we can pick up and love."
In other words, we've bred three types of dogs; guardians, workers, and infants. Which we leave at home all day without a job, with no one to play with or a territory to protect, in the middle of suburbia, where every passing human, dog, cat is identified as a threat. No wonder they're barking.
Flint is currently doing a PhD on barking, in which she is exploring why dogs bark, why people find barking so annoying - it seems that people are less distressed by the sound of machinery than the sound of an animal - and also trying to identify what constitutes reasonable or nuisance barking. She is also exploring why people are more inclined to turn to their local council rather than talk to each other about a problem dog.
"Neighbours can be very intolerant," she says. "They won't approach each other directly. They'll complain to dog control. It seems that people are afraid of the repercussions, or think they will be abused, or they might know the people and don't want to upset them. So they'll go behind their back." Her expression suggests she doesn't entirely approve. "Why don't people just talk to each other?"
Probably because the person driven mad by barking has been driven mad by barking and no longer trusts his or her capacity to have a reasonable discussion about the cause of their madness. The complainant also knows that if the dog continues barking - and miracles rarely happen - they're going to have to complain again.
At this point the complainant starts looking less like a reasonable neighbour and more like a neurotic, providing the owners with an opportunity to blame the complainant for being intolerant, rather than the dog for being intolerable. The complainant will probably start wondering if she is being intolerant.
I mean, it could be that she just needs a holiday. Also, the complainant knows that if he or she fronts up three times and still nothing changes, obliging her to turn to a territorial authority for help, they'll know who it was. And they've got a dog. Not that the council can really offer that much help, anyway.
In the first instance Animal Control is constrained by the dog control legislation which only obliges it to weigh in if a "nuisance is being created by persistent and loud barking or howling". This is extremely vague and open to interpretation. If you do complain to the council, they might leave a letter or go around to the owners and offer them some tips on how to ensure their dog is entertained when they're not there.
If the barking still doesn't stop, the complainant is asked to fill out a form, in which they are expected to state what days and hours in which the dog barked. If the barking hasn't made a complainant neurotic enough, filling out a form like that certainly will. But if they do, the council will then ask other people in the street if the dog is irritating them - supposedly establishing that the complainant isn't just being intolerant, neurotic or even vindictive.
Apparently they often are. "We do get to see a lot of unpleasantness," says Morrell. It's unclear what happens next and the dog-owner is always given a chance to object at every stage of the process, and apparently the form is necessary in case things end up at a council or court hearing.
I suspect most people would probably prefer to move house than front up to a court or council hearing to insist a neighbour give up their dog. So you can see how this plays out. Morrell reports that of all the forms sent out, about a third are returned.
Even fewer cases seem to proceed to the point when a noise abatement notice is issued. In the 2007-08 year, when Auckland City Council received 2091 complaints, it issued 15 noise abatement notices. Presumably the other 2076 dogs are still barking. In any case, what can you do when it's not just one dog, but a dozen dogs, all of which bark at different times of the day?
Auckland City Council has 18,982 known dogs living in the area (as distinct from the Auckland region) and, according to the 2006 census, it had 143,007 households. That is, one dog to every 7.5 households. This is peanuts compared to Waitakere-West Auckland, where there are 13,603 registered dogs living in, at last census, 61,836 households. That is a dog for every 4.5 households. For a borough that brands itself as an eco-city, this doesn't seem a particularly sustainable way of living.
In its - I believe genuine - attempt to be constructive, Auckland City Council's Animal Control recently sent out a Bark Busters pamphlet to registered dog owners, in which it offered some useful and inexpensive suggestions for entertaining a dog when they are at work, such as cutting off the ends of a cannon bone, and filling the hollow with peanut butter, or filling toilet roll tubes with treats, sealing them off and scattering them around the garden, like a canine treasure hunt.
According to both Vette and Flint, barking is complicated. Sometimes it's normal (the dog is bored, excited, responding to an unfamiliar noise, defending its turf) but often it's abnormal (separation anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder) in which case rectifying the problem will require the help of a trainer or behaviourist. Yet all dogs can be taught to bark only when it's appropriate, and to be quiet when it's not.
It's about raising them the right way, taught preferably between the ages of one and four months. It is far harder to teach an old dog the error of its ways but it can be done, owners - and the owner's resources - willing. As a last resort and a quick-fix, there are what are euphemistically called "electronic trainers" - dog collars that deliver a shock every time a dog barks, although Flint is emphatically opposed to the devices. "I think they're abusive. And I've seen the reality of dogs going into learned helplessness.
It's quite hard for them to figure out the connection between the barking and the pain. They don't know what they can do without being hurt, so they'll sit in the corner not daring to move." Vette says they may be appropriate in some cases, but only under supervision of a trainer or behaviourist. "But if the alternative is euthanasia, then what is humane and what isn't?"
There are other options, such as dogs walkers and day-care. Don't laugh. Doggy day-care is increasingly de rigueur in the United States and, judging by the number of dogs attending Barkley Manor, a dog-care set up by Krista Johnson in central Auckland, the idea is starting to catch on here.
On Wednesdays, Barkley Manor entertains 59 dogs. "You make a bit of a lifestyle choice when you get a dog," says Johnson, who grew up with six Irish setters and currently has a golden retriever poodle, Dudley, which turned out to be "a profound barker" and which she has managed to train to be otherwise. She has even managed to train him not to bark when a cat walks along the fenceline. "It took weeks. Every day. But dogs thrive on repetition."
Dudley's barking, she says, prompted her to set up the day-care. "I am a dog owner, with a dog I don't want to leave at home on its own. I appreciate that when he is bored it leads to destructive behaviour. On a personal level it's ripping your furniture and so forth. At a neighbourhood level, it's the barking.
The barking is not just a human annoyance. It's not there to frustrate the hell out of humans. The reason dogs bark is very simple. They're scared. They're stressed. They're frightened. They're excited." As far as I can tell, this means they'll bark for any reason at all and how can a human really tell? But Johnson says she can identify the difference. "If you get an 'ow ow ow ow ow', that's an 'I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared'. Most dogs will do that. The slower, deeper, consistent bark tends to be attention-seeking. My dog does it. He'll sit in front of me and go 'hough, hough, hough'. But 'boof, boof, boof, boof, boof', that repetitive, consistent bark, that's boredom, OCD-type barking."
At Barkley Manor, the dog's day is structured; ball in the morning, rest at lunchtime, ropes and other games in the afternoon. "We're currently in ball game and high energy time," she says, pointing to the large television screen in the reception, linked to surveillance cameras turned on a room filled with more than 25 dogs. Someone throws a couple of balls. A german shepherd catches one mid-flight. Another bounces off a wall, which a striking looking vizla catches with Roger Federer-like precision. There are ropes hanging from the ceiling. Plastic furniture to climb over and under. Other dogs to roll around with. "Dogs need to hang out with other dogs to learn life," says Johnson.
"In the city there are other dogs around. The only reason they learn not to be pack-orientated is that they're taken away from their siblings at a very young age." The cost varies depending on how many days the dog attends, but is around $35 a day. "This is not just somewhere to go for the hell of it, but somewhere where they get a really fun, stimulating, educational day. Not all dogs will like this - some find it too scary, too exhilarating - but most dogs experience the sheer joy of it.
Mentally, it's just an assault course for them. "I can guarantee that every dog that comes here will be absolutely exhausted by the end of the day, she continues. "Most of them leave here and pass out in the car. We've had some fall asleep in reception. And a tired dog is a happy dog. You know, all those cliches. The more that's going on in their life, the less they're barking."
If you ever need to be reminded of exactly how dependent dogs have become on humans - not only for food, but for fun - a visit to Barkley Manor is enlightening. When you walk into the large, warehouse-sized room you may find yourself surrounded - and 25 pairs of eyes looking to you to throw a ball, offer a bit of rope, hand out a biscuit.
Walk a few metres and they'll trot behind you, looking more like flock of ducklings than a pack of dogs. When I visited the tails were up, the tongues were hanging out, the eyes bright, and fixed expectantly on the new human standing in the middle of the room. I knew it was really about the ball or the biscuits but still, dogs have an extraordinary capacity to make you feel wanted. Needed. Adored. This, presumably, is why humans love their dogs.
When you come home at the end of the day, there it is, delighted to see you, its body language conveying its uncritical and unwavering devotion. It is likely the neighbours will be just as delighted that you're home, only less forgiving that you were gone so long. Unlike dogs, humans can voice their frustration and their fury.
Consider this story my verbose howl, a long-winded bark, not just on behalf of all those working from home but the bored and anxious suburban dogs surrounding them. I feel, and too often hear, their neuroses.