The dogs that make it to Sher Polvinale’s house have, for the most part, had a bleak run of it. They were dogs whose ribs you could count from 10 feet away; they were hit by cars that kept on driving or were attacked with hammers. Some lived in families that cared for them, but maybe the owner became incapacitated, or after the dogs went blind or lost use of their hind legs, that care simply ran out.

But all that changes when they feel Polvinale cup their faces for the first time. Polvinale, a 68-year-old former librarian, and her husband, Joe, a business owner, opened their house as a sanctuary to senior and ailing dogs in 2005, attaining nonprofit status in 2006. Two years later, Joe died of lung cancer. They had always agreed that the limit of dogs at any one time should be 10. Without her husband, Polvinale let that figure double. The dogs have the run of the four-bedroom, three-story house, but all this is possible not because of the size of the house, but the size of her heart.

With the help of 50 to 60 volunteers working in shifts, the dogs spend their days ambling out into the large back yard. Sometimes they watch TV. They sit on furniture and never hear “Get down!” Twice a day they hear in the kitchen their food falling into silver bowls like the clatter of a rockslide. At night a horde sleeps with Sher. And although 67 dogs who were lucky enough to live in the Gaithersburg home are now memories for Polvinale and the staff, dogs don’t come here to die. They come here to live.

— David Rowell

E-mail us at

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.