Charlie: an Appreciation

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My dog Charlie died just before Christmas last year. He was about 15. He’d come down with what we treated as pneumonia, but knew might be congestive heart failure. He was coughing a lot and for a dog that age, it can be one or the other, or both. He had been doing fine, and before he got sick I thought, maybe he’ll make it to 17 or something extraordinary. He didn’t look so old. He didn’t like long walks much anymore, but he’d still have his run-arounds in the yard. That was always his greatest joy, and mine to watch and encourage. I’d half chase him around or just lunge, and he’d take off. Around and around the yard, park, or beach he’d go. We called him Wind Dog, both because he ran like the wind, and ran most when it was windy. He loved wind.

He also loved sand, and snow. Maybe the former because he was a beach dog, adopted as a puppy from a shelter in Santa Monica. He spent his first year with long daily walks to the beach, and the dog park. I wasn’t working much then, and spent days painting and teaching this scruffy puppy to be the best dog in the world, which pretty much worked out. He liked water, but only up to his elbows. He hated to swim, but he’d cavort in any puddle, creek, or shoreline. Even in the middle of winter he’d frolic and just stand in ponds of parking lot snow melt, and smile. Attuned to simple sense pleasures, a canine Amelie, he would walk languorously back and forth amidst tall grasses. Thick carpet sent him into ecstasies of rolling.

Charlie was a mutt. I once saw a show featuring Scottish Bearded Collies, and as an adult he looked more like that breed than any other, and had those herding instincts and brains. He lived for the chase, to chase and be chased. For many years, he was the Walter “Sweetness” Peyton of any dog park. He was fast, but rarely the fastest. The magic was in his moves: he’d dodge, dart, shuck, twist, stop on a dime and pivot, using dogs, people, and benches to pick and roll. Sometimes he was too good. Given the time his skills generated, 50 dogs would eventually join in, and that was always going to end in tears. Still, he was never badly injured or bitten; such luck and resilience. He would get slammed and tumble, spring up and run some more.

chuck in snow

He was able to charm just about any dog. He was about 50/50 with people. If he liked you, he let you know it. If he didn’t, you’d think he was unfriendly or shy or worse. I tended to like and trust people who were drawn to his scruffy diffidence, like a doggie litmus test. He never forgot anyone. Long years could pass, and his glee at seeing old friends was infectious. There were yards where he would have seen a dog once, and he’d forever pause to look for them.

When I picked him out, I’d gone to see his whole litter at a small private rescue on Pico Boulevard. Two bitches had already been adopted. 5 males were left. Charlie was shorter and stockier than the rest, and at that point resembled a Jack Russell. The others were lankier, and looked like small wolfhounds. Charlie was clearly the alpha. Everybody followed his lead. He never dispensed obvious control or violence. He was just independent and good-natured. A peacemaker. Dogs, and people, responded. Still, you didn’t want to push him. He’d let you know if you overstepped, as our cute little agro bastard of a chihuahua Hal learned, or failed to learn, over and over.

He ignored me completely at first, occupied with toys and other dogs. Over a couple trips, I walked each of the siblings around the block, one by one. Two were twins, and didn’t like being separated, so they were out. Another was friendlier, but goofy. Charlie was clearly whip smart, and I realized that he just didn’t bond automatically. He had to get to know you. On the fourth trip I took him home. He got car sick on the short ride, and was never that crazy about car rides afterwards. Colorado mountain trips were a special misery for him. He patiently endured the tens of thousands of miles he ended up being transported on countless roadtrips, and cross-country moves.

He was a good puppy, except for one phase where he kept digging up my landlady’s orchids. I almost got evicted over that. He could do a lot of damage in a short amount of time, but it was a blessedly short reign of terror. Throughout his life, he’d dig huge holes at the beach, furiously pawing at the sand, methodically tossing it in every direction as he excavated another perfect pit. He liked a good stick. In LA, as a 10-pound pup he’d hilariously pick up fallen 15-foot palm fronds and trot down the street with his chops held high, trying to drag the things home. Cars would stop to take pictures.

He got his boring generic dog name from a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. I had been trying to come up with some perfectly fascinating name from myth or literature, and when she casually tossed off “you should just call him Charlie,” I thought, hmmm, Charlie. It suited him, capturing some Chaplinesque, every-dog quality he had. It was LA after all, and he too was in black and white. I can’t count how many people over the years would say, “he’s like a movie dog!” A humble star. Charlie became Bonnie Prince Charlie became Charley Barley became Chuck became Chuck-a-Chuck became Char Char became Chas Barkington III became Chucklebutt, etc. As one does.

I tried from day one to get that dog interested in fetch. He had a three throw maximum; by the fourth he was not coming back. He was hardly interested in balls at all except on rare occasions. If he couldn’t destroy a toy, and it didn’t have a squeaker, he didn’t (in the words of Nate Diaz) give a fuck. He was the Mozart of ruining dog toys: a prodigy, a genius. He’d find a weak seam, tear right into the guts, and mangle the noise maker usually in under 5 minutes. It didn’t matter how dog proof they looked or claimed to be. He was a machine.

18. Charlie (Martyr) 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 in. Raychael Stine
Raychael Stine, Charlie (Martyr), 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 in.

I learned to wrap the toys in old socks, two or three layers thick to give him as much of a challenge as possible. When he couldn’t get it immediately he’d stare pleadingly at me with his soulful smart eyes and whine for about 10 minutes, then get to work. We were both pretty happy when it would take more than a few minutes of effort. He would normally tear through the layers, but he could also deftly untie knots and unravel binds.

Charles wasn’t crazy about my penchant for backpacking, which was my only real disappointment. He liked walks, but wilderness kind of disturbed him. Again, I think he was smart enough to realize it was plain dangerous out there for a critter his size. He was never the dog charging ahead on the trail for adventure. He’d walk just a few steps ahead looking back often, or even behind, and he was thrilled to get in the tent, much less back home. Maybe it came from when he was about 6 months old and we hiked to a spring near Big Sur. At least, there was supposed to be a spring. The ranger I’d seen before we set out didn’t bother to tell me the spring had been dry that year. It was a rough, parched 12 hours hiking back out. Then there were the coyotes, wolves, bears, and varmints heard through the night on other hikes which sometimes left him trembling. Still, he could be a great and fearsome watchdog. He had the intimidating bark of a much larger beast.

Around 14, he seemed to get old overnight, and he became a cranky geriatric there for a minute. Sore, dim-sighted, sometimes deaf seeming but I think mostly just stubborn like a lot of old men. He began to defecate in the house sometimes, which he probably hated more than us. He was always a discrete pooper, systematically rotating to different sites in the yard, always far off and hidden away – unlike our dachshund, who will walk two steps off the porch to shit, then lay in the sun right next to it (and if needing a snack…). Charlie couldn’t express his disapproval, but he would have. The last time I scolded Charlie was about the fourth time in a week or two he’d pooped in the living room, always in the same spot near the door. I’d been letting it slide, but felt something needed to be said. He growled at me when I took him over to it and I realized, you’re right, dude. You don’t want this to happen. You’re an elder. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. Respect. We took other measures to help prevent that.

A couple of months before he died, he started a novel routine. It was interesting, and sweet. I naturally tend to get up before my wife, usually an hour or so before dawn. I let out and feed the dogs, then they get back to bed with her (a treat reserved for mornings). More and more, Charlie liked to go out for his morning sniff around, enjoying some time by himself in the yard. The rest of the day he mainly just wanted to sit on the couch. In those last weeks though, he started whining for a toy to play with after breakfast. This was totally new. I would prepare a sock full of previously shredded dog toys with a biscuit or a squeaker if one had somehow survived, and he’d go at it and even play a bit of fetch (3 throw maximum) for about 15 minutes. Then he’d join everyone else in bed. His grumpiness seemed to subside, and he was sweeter than ever.

He went pretty fast. He was playing hours before he died. We gave him some new medication for his persistent cough; he collapsed almost immediately, probably from a heart attack. A long bad night followed, and he died in my arms at first light with a long moan and a last attempt to stand. It was about the time he normally would’ve been playing or taking his perimeter walk. It was the morning of the solstice. I buried him almost immediately under a big juniper in our yard that I already had thought of as Charlie’s tree. I wept and prayed for him and imagined him cavorting on some beach somewhere, forever. I’m glad his grave is out there. I tend to it, and place the occasional stick of incense on the mound of dirt his body decomposes under, becoming tree, becoming garden, becoming wind.

He was unique. Special. Many creatures recognized it. I won’t have another dog like him, nor love one as much or as well. He is missed.

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