THE WORLD'S going to the dogs, I tell you. They're taking over. And what's worse, their owners are behind it.

Take what happened to me last New Year's Eve, when I almost dis-invited a dear friend from a party I was planning because she wanted to bring her dog along. She was worried that if she left "Buddy" at her own home in Maryland overnight, he might make a mess. Her proposed solution: to bring the dog to our home.

"We'll clean up behind him," she promised.

"Uh, I don't think so," I told her, as I silently counted to 10.

I found myself having to start the count all over again after she informed me that another close friend also was concerned about leaving her dog alone. Now, I'm no animal hater. A well-mannered family pet pulls at my hearstrings as much as anyone else's. And I understand that dogs have needs. But just when did it get to the point that a social invitation to a friend automatically extends to little Fifi, too? Increasingly that's what's happening these days. More and more people assume that if they're invited, then their dog is, too.

Monica Collins, who writes the syndicated Ask Dog Lady column, explained what's driving this, saying, "something . . . has shifted in our psyche. They don't sleep in the garage anymore. They have become center stage as a member of our family . . . We go overboard with our dogs. We let them sleep in our bed. We let them ride in the front seat of our car.

"I was guilty myself when I first got my dog. I imagined everybody would be glad to see him. I wanted to bring him everywhere and show him to everyone," she added.

Collins didn't get a clue until a cat-owning colleague told her flat-out not to bring Shorty to a dinner party. "That's when it finally hit me I was asking for a little too much," Collins admitted.

Bringing an uninvited dog to a social event is the height of bad manners. Even asking if it's OK to bring a pet can be rude because it puts the host in an awkward spot. If the host says no, then you're an animal-hater. But submit and then you're the one left fuming when you accidentally step in poo. This kind of thing has been a personal pet peeve for years. Last week, I got a fresh sense of just how widespread this practice has gotten after the New York Times published an article called "Who Invited the Dog?" by Joyce Walker and Abby Aguirre. The Times piece, which was the most widely e-mailed piece on Dec. 13, discussed how some Americans are so into their animals that the usual boundaries between pets and humans have eroded to the point that they bring the pets along with them socially.

Now, loving your dog is one thing. Foisting it on others is a whole other matter. But some folks take offense if you even suggest that their pets aren't welcome. Claudia Kawczynska, the editor of Bark magazine, told me about a neighbor of hers who is known for whipping up wonderful dinner parties. One of the regulars at the feasts would routinely show up with a frisky Labrador until the hostess finally asked him to come alone.

"He was so pushed out of shape that he hasn't attended one of her parties since then and he lives right across the street," Kawczynska said.

The way I see it, dogs have their place, but it's not at the dinner table. At least not if I'm cooking. Call me squeamish, but I like a clear division between pets and food. And by that I mean food on the table - as well as stray table scraps that might wind up under it, too. Besides, it's hardly fair to the pet to have to be subjected to being underfoot as well. Imagine what it would be like for a dog at a house during a New Year's Eve party with a bunch of rowdy people using noise makers.

The current holiday season has kept Collins, the petiquette expert, busy offering up advice about dealing with houseguests' pets during Christmas. One was from a woman whose daughter had adopted a cocker spaniel that had attacked the woman's 250-pound mastiff during Thanksgiving. Collins suggested that if she couldn't bring herself to ban the dog from the house, then she buy a crate for it. "We should all have the guest crate. That's the politically correct term in the world for cage. This is part of our culture now. As dogs become more imbedded in our culture . . . this is only going to become more of a phenomenon." *