Dogs are masters of guilt. You’ve got to admire them, in a way. Anyone who’s owned one will recognize the following scenario: You take a seat next to your beloved pup, scratch them behind the ears for a good five minutes while cooing and making inane baby-talk, and then you stop, ’cause we humans gotta do stuff ”“ dust the living room, bake a pie, make a pasta sculpture of Ed McMahon, whatever. And the second you take your hand off that adorable head, it looks at you sideways with those hurt, imploring eyes.

“Don’t stop!” they plead. “Love me forever or I’ll die!”

Then, you cave, and nothing gets done. You sit there, dusty and pieless, and scratch until your hand feels like it’s been slammed in the door of a Jeep Cherokee. I’ve never felt more like a scummy ax murderer than when a black lab fixes me with that needy stare.

We love them anyway. What choice do we have?

It’s cuteness, and relative innocence, which allows them to get away with acts that would be grounds for a restraining order under any other context. I’m thinking specifically of a dog so hyper and ill-behaved that, were he human, he’d be straight-jacketed and confined in a high-security mental institution, locked in a cell with a guy who makes papier-mâché hats out of dead woodchucks. For the sake of protecting this K-9’s identity, I’ll call him “Dipstick.”

Dipstick is a pitbull-boxer mix owned by a friend of mine, “Gandalf,” whose patience with his dog’s shenanigans is so high it implies an outsized tolerance for severe punishment. You could probably hook electrodes to his nipples and use the trigger to tap out the Bill of Rights in Morse code, and he’d just smile and say, “Is that all you’ve got?”

What makes Dipstick a handful is boundless energy combined with profound stupidity. Usually the low-IQ dogs are found among the smaller set, the shih tzus and miniature poodles ”“ dogs that would almost be cats, were it not for a propensity to urinate on sofa cushions and mail carriers’ pants. That a mid-sized pooch can demonstrate such low aptitude is almost impressive, indicating some kind of head trauma in his past, or maybe a history of heavy drug use. The latter seems unlikely given his lack of opposable thumbs, but it would explain why he makes Ozzy Osbourne look like Aristotle.

Every time I walk through Gandalf’s front door, there’s Dipstick, bounding over to assault me with his coiled frame of taut tendons and sinewy muscles, a hyped-up mass of kinetic energy carrying the forceful wallop of an excavator’s wrecking ball. Up on his hind legs, front paws groping frantically at my torso like a breathless lover, it is apparently one of Dipstick’s life goals to pummel me to the ground, where he’d likely perform unspeakable acts with a tongue roughly the size of an airport runway. Standing upright in the face of such an attack is an exercise worthy of some kind of congressional medal, the kind they give to front-line heroes who jump on grenades to spare their fellow infantrymen. Someone call Obama. Tell him it’d be my first medal since placing third in a sixth-grade three-legged sack race.

It’s not that I mind being mauled by a mutt, providing it’s a mild mauling, and short in duration ”“ just long enough for the dog to get the initial excitement out of its system. In the proper context, such a greeting is delightful. I play doting uncle to a handful of friends’ various dogs, and it’s a treat to hear the clop-clop of paws clacking against the kitchen linoleum, and to feel the heat of excited puppy breath as it licks my cheek. Inevitably, I leave these homes smelling like Purina and butt. Completely worth it.

The problem with Dipstick is that the initial excitement, that friendly fervor, doesn’t end. Ever. I could camp out at Gandalf’s house for a month, and there’d be Dipstick, snapping playfully at my hands and scratching at numerous areas of my body with claws that could puncture the hide of a callus-ridden elephant. It’d be helpful if he could follow basic commands, but no. While he knows certain key phrases, like “sit” and “get the hell away from me,” he complies for roughly the duration of a mouse fart. Then, it’s back to sticking his snout in my business. He’d be a good door-to-door salesman, if he didn’t have the cognitive chops of a newborn baby.

His transgressions are many and grievous; you can’t enjoy a simple evening of television without the bugger making his presence known, usually at decibels that could shatter diamonds. And yet, when he nudges his head under my hand, I crumble like a dry cookie and rub behind his ears as though he were the sweetest, most benign creature this side of Winnie the Pooh. It’s the eyes, the upturned ears. I’m a sucker for a cute face.

This isn’t something a human can get away with. If a buddy of yours stands in the middle of your living room and shouts obscenities at the TV during “The Simpsons,” you don’t spare him punishment because he makes doe eyes and curls in your lap afterward; you sock him in the arm and tell him to shut up. Then, you realize he’s on your lap and get really creeped out.

With a head case such as Dipstick, sanity and peace of mind are sacrificed in the name of interspecies companionship ”“ which, for animal lovers like me, wields a certain strange power. Anything is better than the guilt that comes from ignoring that rub-me gaze, a resourceful dog’s get-out-of-jail-free card in times of misbehavior and general bad antics. Maybe I’m a sucker, but a dog would have to do something shockingly out-of-bounds to warrant permanent disapproval, like knocking off a federal bank, or forming a Britney Spears tribute band.

At some point, though, you’ve got to draw a line in the sand. That pasta sculpture won’t finish itself.

— Jeff Lagasse is an extremely permissive staff writer and columnist for the Journal Tribune. Arrange to send him adorably puppy photos at 282-1535, ext. 319 or [email protected]