Taking care of a helpless creature taught me about pain. I learned how to be gentle.
The last time I saw him, he was smiling and panting with that puppy look that vibrates right through you. Charlie was a lap dog, and he couldn’t get enough time sitting contentedly on my lap, looking up once in a while to check I was okay, then settling down again into the nest he had burrowed into my pants.
We went for two walks a day on most days, morning and night. As soon as I said the word walk, he would be so excited he could barely contain himself. We had an understanding. He would walk briskly beside me and would only stop if he needed to do his bathroom thing.
Charlie was a rescue. He belonged to an airline pilot who thought nothing of leaving Charlie alone for extended periods of time while he was away with his job. When we went to see him, we met a woman at the house who said she was a neighbor who stepped in once in a while. She reached down and lifted a trap door in the kitchen floor revealing a dark, ancient cellar. “Charlie spends his days down here,” she said, “so the neighbors won’t hear him barking.”
I couldn’t believe anyone would put a dog down there, alone for days at a time. After all, dogs are social creatures. After being a big part of Charlie’s life for nine years, I’ve come to believe every man should own a dog at least once in his life. Here are my top four reasons.
Patience: The first few weeks of having Charlie around was eye-opening. I was 29 and had never had a pet of any kind as a kid. I couldn’t believe Charlie was a living, breathing creature with feelings, moods, and emotions. I was a strong influence to Charlie from the start, and as a result, his new routines started to take shape from day one. As the weeks passed, I could feel myself becoming more and more patient as a result of Charlie’s needs. When Charlie was anxious, I’d take a few deep breaths, reach out to let him lick my hand, and reassure him that everything would be okay. I’ve learned to deal with my stresses the same way. I take a deep breath, in through my nose, let it out slowly and do it again.
Sensitivity: Taking care of a helpless creature taught me about pain. I learned how to be gentle to Charlie’s sensitive areas and how to be more aggressive when he wanted rough housing. Charlie needed to be brushed and combed, nails trimmed, teeth checked and of course, baths. He was a purebred Bichon, and like lots of dogs, this breed is all about giving as much as possible back to his owners.
Empathy: Those expressive eyes made me believe I could understand exactly what Charlie was thinking. After a few months, I started to find myself doing that with my colleagues at work. One day Paul confided in me about a tough situation he was going through. I couldn’t believe how bad I felt for the guy and how I just wanted to reach into his life and help him. I honestly think Charlie was, at least in part, responsible for the amount of empathy I felt for Paul.
Leadership: Charlie expected me to take charge. He needed that. Oh sure, he’d pull at the leash sometimes or occasionally sniff at a tree when he didn’t need to pee, but dogs need a strong, kind master who is not afraid to take charge. Leadership can be challenging, but with dogs, it’s all about being strong, kind and consistent. I think that works with people too.
Thinking back to that dark cellar, I realized that’s what my marriage had become. It was a confined space with only one way out. And the only way out was to get a lift from someone who could help me up.
After two years of marital counseling, my wife turned to me and said, “I just want to live in my own apartment with my little dog.” Although I hadn’t thought of Charlie as hers, I knew the rescue had come about because of someone she knew.
My attempts to arrange a plan to visit Charlie had failed. The marriage breakup had been devastating to me and having lost Charlie as a friend had been an added blow. Life isn’t always easy, and this was a challenge Charlie and I would just have to deal with. Six months later, I saw my ex at a hearing. “Charlie really misses you,” she said. “He’s never been the same since our breakup.” I looked away, remembering Charlie’s smiling face looking up at me from my lap.
“Yeah, I miss him too, I muttered.”
Photo: Flickr/ Joy