THE small town I live in has no official count, but from my daily walks I should guess the year-round residents number, statistically, one dog to every person-and-a-half. And rapidly evening up. I do not own a dog but have a feeling of being owned by five or six, which jump eagerly to heel the minute I close my door and step into the street. They may abandon me for the moment when we reach the wharf, if they spot a boat tied up and a fisherman eating his paper-bag lunch. But they find me again at the laundromat or post office or bank. A chatty neighbor, passing by, will sometimes say, with a sentimental smile, ``They're protecting you.'' Nonsense! I protect them. Especially Digger, an amiable monster, slightly backward, part retriever and part anybody's guess, who insists on trespassing on other dogs' territory. When barked away, he runs and leans against me, as much as to say to the angry barker, ``You wouldn't dare, with her around!''
He likes to pretend to be all golden retriever, as on the occasion when he snatched Mrs. Porter's handbag out of her hand and ran away with it as she walked downtown. You could hardly label it street crime because, when she returned home along the same route, several hours later, Digger galloped up to her and neatly laid the handbag at her feet. It was not even scratched, and none of the contents was missing.
Most of our public buildings have only one general entrance, but the bank has two, and I take advantage of that fact by bidding my retinue farewell at one door, walking through the bank, and leaving by the other door. Someday my canine friends are going to reproach me, but at present they seem perfectly happy to catch up with me later on the beach.
In that part of town they are forbidden during the summer tourist season. The signs the town erects make that clear. But nobody has taught them to read, and they use that as an excuse for trespassing. Although a number of us have signed petitions requesting a leash law, these receive no serious attention at Town Meeting and never reach the ballot at election time. The dogs find it much more fun to run through all the gardens and backyards than to trot sedately at the end of a leash, as do the minority, the well-trained Tory and Penny and Misty. I rather suspect a little baksheesh involved here, perhaps a bone-shaped biscuit at the end of the run. Nothing of which I have proof.
When Digger has masqueraded long enough as escort, say, at the end of about four miles, he takes to lying in the middle of the road and challenging motorists. They usually drive around him, and look daggers at me. No use trying to convey the fact that I am not his owner. I do not yet know who owns him. Perhaps he doesn't. His name I learned from my newsboy. He has no collar.
Nellie, who does not run with the hounds, bangs on my kitchen door every morning on her way through the neighborhood looking for handouts. She is mostly collie and has a thick brown coat. One year, when she was shorn smooth, I was slow to recognize her. She was visibly hurt. I rather suspect that the shearing had followed an encounter with a skunk. She considers me her property and barks at every stranger who approaches my door. Then runs away terrified if the stranger speaks to her sharply.
She reminds me of the old sheep dog my French relatives once owned. The sign on their garden gate read, ``Prenez garde. Chien m'echant.'' When a tramp came into view, someone would wake the ``wicked dog,'' who would waddle out, barking feebly till the stranger disappeared, then return to his mat and fall asleep again.
Lily the basset hound no longer comes bleating for pity, with her sad story about her master's marriage to a widowed neighbor who already had a black retriever. Lily proved to be persona non grata to the retriever, and everybody for miles around soon became aware of it. I believe her dogged determination won her a new home.
The dog who must be the most familiar to our Dog-Constable, more familiar even than those he has to chase out of the school playgrounds at recess, is the panhandler who sits in front of an art gallery in the main street, squatting so that all his ribs stick out (a semi-starved pose) and lifting appealing eyes to the passer-by. Summer visitors are fair game. Frequently one will pat him, make sympathetic noises, then cross the street to a lunch counter and return with juicy hamburger. He is a large creature of the mastiff type and no doubt capable of consuming a number of hamburgers without concealing a rib.
If we had a leash law, the summer people would probably miss our ubiquitous canines. I wonder if, in some odd way, they are not responsible for the situation.