Even on 80 acres, three can be a crowd

We were not looking for a third dog. But when a neighbor came by about a year ago with a half-stray pup, we promised to see how things went with a new addition.

When you own 80 acres on a rapidly developing city fringe, people naturally think there is room for anything on four legs. If the social dynamics get prickly, well, there's space enough for cooling off, isn't there? The trouble is, every dog wants to be directly underfoot, on the furniture with us (or instead of us), and in the cab of the pickup when we leave home. The competition to be in these more restricted spaces can be heated.

The new pup was friendly to a fault, even ingratiating, as we got to know him. The two resident canines, Oscar and Susie, thought him an amusing if clumsy little creature, and, after putting him in his place (third) in no uncertain terms, they got along well enough.

We tried not to fall for him hook, line, and sinker as he stumbled after us on his heavily padded feet – those leonine paws seemed to embody most of his weight. If he grew into them, he'd be a sizeable beast – maybe more dog than we could handle. Gradually, his ribs became more rounded, his legs long and muscled from tramps about the farm, and his place here assured, come what may.

As he grew into his full and considerable size, Ace, as we called him – a mix of bulldog, Great Dane, and hound – began to assert himself. The balance of canine power shifted permanently, once he realized he could play-wrestle Susie, our gentle lab mix, to happy exhaustion on her back and maneuver around Oscar's flashing teeth to the two-cushioned couch, the entire length of which he can occupy with one contented stretch.

There are, in my experience, three kinds of dogs: indoor, outdoor, and "in and out of doors right behind you." All three of ours rush outside with us at chore time, and for long walks on the pastures and through the woods. When we come in to relax by the woodstove, all three dogs dart just ahead to claim the sofa.

Indeed, once Ace discovered the cushioned warmth of the couch this winter, those 80 acres of space that supposedly make it easy to have three dogs became irrelevant. If we aren't sitting down for a leisurely read, all three dogs sometimes manage to share the little sofa. Not one of them is little, mind you, and the third one up has to perform some delicate acrobatics to eke out space. Once settled, their tightly coiled bodies bring to mind three countries on a minor peninsula with disputed borders. One incursion – like a suddenly stretched leg – and the brief physical détente disintegrates.

Still, the three are basically getting along, especially as winter wanes and time outdoors magnifies. Ace now stands well above both Susie and Oscar, and his body is a foot longer than either of theirs. Susie still gamely wrestles with him; Ace respects her sudden indifference or authoritative snap when she's had enough.

Oscar benignly ignores him, except when the hound circles him, barking directly (and at full volume) into each silken ear in turn. When our border collie's teeth inevitably flash their warning, Ace steps back, grinning, refills his lungs, then sets in again to rouse the old fellow out of his quietude. Two wildly wagging tails reveal that it is all a kind of weird and enjoyable sport to them.

And now, when we drive away for a weekend retreat, leaving cows, horses, and spacious 80 acres in the care of a neighbor, we take along three large dogs.

In nice weather, Ace rides in a cage in the back bed, but if it's rainy or cold, everyone squeezes into the small extended cab. Before long, Oscar is in my lap; I crack a window to clear the rapidly steaming glass. And I begin to wonder how it is that 80 acres can trigger such claustrophobia.

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