- Associated Press - Saturday, April 14, 2018

MIDLOTHIAN, Va. (AP) - Lee Asher is motoring cross-country in a battleship gray RV with seven friends.

Six of them - Lillie, Bo-Bo, Cali, Stella, Molly and Butters - don’t drive or chip in for gasoline. But they always want to stop for a bite or bathroom break.

That’s because they’re dogs, all rescued: a Saint Bernard, a chocolate lab, a golden retriever, a pit bull with a hint of Cane Corso, and two, toy-sized mongrels.

“You are who you hang out with,” said Asher, who - because he was bullied as a child - found that pets could be better pals than people. “You learn so much more about the proper way to treat people through the proper treatment of animals.”

A strapping, dark-haired corporate trainer from Venice Beach, California, by way of Boca Raton, Florida, Asher is driving left coast-to-right coast - and back - to promote dog adoption; specifically, rescued canines.

Asher wheeled into Midlothian on April 8 to visit the Richmond Animal League, his only stop in Virginia.

The sentiment of a popular bumper sticker notwithstanding, dog is not his co-pilot.

Luke Barton is.

A dog photographer who grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, but speaks with the lilt of his British birthplace, Barton not only drives but chronicles the journey with stills and videos that are posted on Instagram and Facebook.

The pair and their dog team - the animals usually lounge away the miles in the motor-home’s spacious midsection - will visit all states in lower 48 and Alaska. They have stopped in 14 states since departing Los Angeles on Feb. 15.

From Virginia, Asher, Barton and their four-legged friends are heading to Washington, D.C. They expect to complete their trek in Alaska in November.

Quitting their jobs and selling their possessions, Asher and Barton decided late last year to travel the country, plumping for the companion animals that are a source of joy to millions but increasingly end up in shelters because their owners move, die or lose interest.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says that 6.5 million dogs and cats annually are placed in shelters and 3.2 million - 1.6 million dogs and 1.6 million cats - are adopted.

Euthanasia is falling out of favor, with no-kill policies the rule for organizations such as the Richmond Animal League.

Asher and Barton are paying for the trip with $57,000 raised online through crowdfunding, $20,000 of which was donated by Best Bully Sticks, a Richmond company that makes digestible chew toys for dogs from beef tendons.

“We came up with the idea in November, launched crowdfunding in December, kick-started it in January and departed in February,” said Barton, wearing a wool watch cap tugged over his ears.

About 80 people, many with dogs, turned out to greet Asher and Barton. Before the men arrived, there was a buzz of excitement, much of it attributed to Asher and Barton’s avid use of social media.

Hannah Robertson of Richmond, a pediatric nurse, said - while cradling her rescued, black-and-white Boston Terrier-Shih Tzu mix, Pepper - that she has been following Asher on Instagram for a year.

“I sent him a message that I was coming to this event,” said Robertson. “He didn’t reply. But when I saw him in person - just now - he said, ‘You said you were coming.’ “

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