With a gigantic smile on my face, I like to tell people, “this is all his fault.” The moment Charlie came into my life everything changed – for better or for worse.
It was 2007, I was 20 at the time and in college. I was working at a local pizza shop and my boss came into work one day complaining that a dog that he had given away had just been given back to him – for the second time. This should have been a red flag, but I was young and dumb and felt for the poor dog. I was living on my mom’s couch at the time, putting myself through college and going through a major life transition. Why not add a dog to the mix? (So much sarcasm here.)
The first time I met Charlie, I couldn’t help but think he was incredibly funny looking. I had never met a Boxer before. What, just what, is wrong with his face? It’s so smushed!
When I went to pick him up the next week with my boyfriend, he barked at us- a lot- but I shrugged it off. Once we finally got inside the house, we went over feeding instructions, got his crate, and piled everything, including us, into my little two door Civic coupe. My boyfriend drove, and I had Charlie on my lap. We were unsure of each other, but that was okay. In my head, I pictured us doing everything together! Going to the beach, playing at the park, and hanging out with friends. I couldn’t wait for my friends to meet him.
But much like I have discovered life to be like since growing out of my naive young adulthood , nothing is ever the way you picture it to be. Shortly after getting Charlie home, he began to exhibit what I know now to be tall tale signs of separation anxiety- although I didn’t know what it was called then. He would follow me around the house, couldn’t sit still without me in the room. This quickly progressed to him barking/crying every time I left the house, and then eventually peeing all over my floor. Within 48 hours of being home, Charlie landed his first bit to someone’s hand when I took him downtown for a walk. Much to my shock, he was not a friendly dog at all. Turns out, that people, especially strangers, made him very anxious – his whole life. Going to the vet was always an ordeal – sneaking in and out through the back door to avoid the lobby area. Lots of spray cheese and peanut butter.
Before I knew it, my life wrapped around my monster of a dog. I couldn’t leave him for longer than four hours, maximum. We couldn’t walk much during the daytime because I lived in a city with people everywhere. I had to be selective about who came to my house. Finding a place to live with a 75lb dog was not easy. I was in college and trying to get my feet under me and I was frustrated.
So many times I thought to myself how much I wanted to bring him back. How he needed a home other than mine. Maybe I wasn’t the right person for him. What was I doing to fail him, that he felt the need to be aggressive or anxious all the time, no matter how much I loved him? I did tons of Google research and took all sorts of good and bad advice from people. I worked with a few different trainers (of all different kinds), with minimal results. I cringe looking back, thinking about the things I let other people do with my dog in the name of “training.” When really, no one was looking at the root of his behavior- which was a large dose of underlying general anxiety.
Unless you’ve been in a similar situation, it’s hard to understand the anxiety and stress dog living with a semi-unpredictable dog can cause. I never really want to go back to those days again- my days of pre-behavior knowledge. Looking back I would do things so much differently now. I lacked the resources I needed to really help Charlie and his struggles with life. He was a toss away dog, who experienced the trauma of being bounced between homes and being crated for extended periods of time for the first few years of his life. His problem wasn’t dominance. He didn’t have an agenda to ruin my life. He was a dog who had been through a lot. By the time I gained the knowledge that could have helped me back then, Charlie was a senior dog. I began implementing the behavior knowledge I had gained in the short time I had, but before I knew it, he was very sick. Charlie succumbed to cancer in August of 2015, and broke my heart into a million pieces.
It’s because of Charlie that I never gave up trying. I always wanted to understand more about what drove his behaviors. I wanted to learn how to handle the leash better. I wanted to be able to communicate with him better. I began volunteering with dogs and ultimately started working with them. Before I knew it, I graduated from college and never put my degree to use – I went on to manage a doggie daycare and complete dog training school instead. I became and advocate for all dogs and even more importantly- their people. Charlie gave me something that I use every single day with my clients who have pets with behavioral issues and aggressive tendencies. He gave me the gift of walking in their shoes and knowing what that feels like. To live with that fear every single day. Every single door knock. Every single vet appointment. Every single walk down the block. So for that Charlie, I thank you and even if they don’t know it – so do many of my clients.