"You realize you've crossed over into insanity, don't you?" my friend Chris asked when I mentioned the new mixed-breed addition to our household, Meggie. "Four dogs is over the rational limit."
Chris grew up on a farm with at least eight dogs in residence at any given time. His mother, Barbara, loves animals. Along with dogs, half of which are border collies (working dogs for her flock of sheep), Barbara keeps assorted cats, both barn and house, and the occasional mourning dove being nursed through some unpleasantness or other. Recently, she bought a clutch of ornamental chickens, prized for the intricate, multi-hued beauty of their feathers.
When I first met Barbara, I saw this predominantly peaceable kingdom as a delightful oddity, something to be visited but not emulated. At that time, I worked on an ocean-going tug with my husband, Gary, and was at sea for two weeks at a time. The care and feeding of a dog would have hindered our routine.
Yet, I love dogs. I always have. Their joy in the moment, their insistent affection, their tolerance, their inspiring loyalty, are all a pledge and an example to humankind.
After Gary and I had children, I stopped going to sea. The routine changed. My life became circumscribed by hearth and home. So, when I ran across Sasha (almost literally), I was primed for dog ownership.
I was driving Matt to nursery school. As I passed through Kennedyville, I saw what looked like a lean gray wolf about to step into traffic.
I slowed down and shooed her off the road. Obliging, she trotted off. Later that day, I saw her again, standing beside the market, scanning every truck that passed. When I went through town the third time, the dog was standing in the center of the road. I stopped, opened my door, and said simply: "Get in."
All 90 pounds of dog climbed over my lap and jumped into the back where Abby, not quite two years old, was strapped into a car seat. I suddenly wondered if my instinct had been judicious, but the dog lay down and put her head in Abby's lap contentedly.
"Don't get comfortable," I told her. "You're going to the humane society."
BUT the humane society was closed that day. So she came to town with us. I bought groceries, stopped at the library, then picked up Matt from nursery school and went back home - with the dog.
Matt and Abby wanted to keep her, but I was reluctant. Adopting a dog adds responsibility and cost, neither of which I was eager to increase at that point. At home, the dog waited patiently for me to open the kitchen door, then went inside and lay down with her back against the step in the dining room, as though she had been there all her life.
"Don't get comfortable," I told her as I herded the children through the door, burdened with bags of groceries.
That evening, I took the dog to Barbara, who in addition to raising sheep is the president of the county humane society. Perhaps, I thought, she can discover the dog's origins, help find its owners. I found her on the phone. When she hung up, I told her my story.
"I think she's part husky, part Alsatian," I finished.
"I was just talking with the people in Kennedyville who've been keeping her," Barbara replied. "She came to them as a stray two months ago. They say she howls all the time, won't come inside, and won't eat."
"She's quiet as a mouse, is ravenous, and won't leave the house," I said.
Barbara's eyebrows went up. She came out and peered into the car. "That's her," she said, grinning.
Sasha, majestic in the front seat, leaned against the upholstery, utterly at ease.
"She looks pretty comfortable. Don't you want to keep her?" Barbara asked, grinning again.
"I don't know...." I faltered.
"She sure looks at home," Barbara prodded. "Sounds like it, too."
Barbara had been known to stash a barn kitten in the car of unwary dinner guests, a kind of country door prize.
I felt a little coerced and wasn't sure I liked it. But I did like the way the dog walked quietly behind me when I went from room to room. And I very much liked the way she followed the children, watching over them while they played outside, quiet but attentive.
I called her Sasha.
Despite having given her a name, for two weeks I pretended that she was in transit, just passing through like one of Barbara's mourning doves. It wasn't until someone offered to take her that I realized Sasha had become our dog. After that, there was no turning back. She got comfortable.
She chewed the seat belts in the car when she was nervous. On sunny days, she ran off to the swampy creek at the end of the corn fields, returning covered in muck. Though grown, she wasn't reliably housebroken. For a year.
But I never considered finding another home for her. She loped happily beside me on long walks and climbed the stairs to bed with me at night. She was visibly grateful to be here, eager to please. She loved us.
And we loved her. The responsibilities of imagined dog ownership were now outweighed by the benefits of owning Sasha.
She was the thin edge of a wedge that pried open the door to more dogs. Not long after Sasha, we acquired Skye, half border collie, half Australian shepherd, then Stazi, a cantankerous, only-a-mother-could-love husky. Meggie, our fourth dog, arrived last August.
"Insanity," Chris repeated, laughing. "You've gone beyond the pale."
"Actually," I replied, surprised at the ease with which I even considered the notion of yet another dog, "I'm under the legal limit. The town zoning laws draw the line at five. I still have one more dog to go."