Fearful feral to family dog
Of all the many dogs I’ve lived with and worked with, Charlie, whose story is told in my book Charlie, the Dog Who Came in from the Wild, was the most extraordinary teacher. A Romanian feral dog with no previous socialisation with humans, behaviourally more wolf-like than dog-like, he prompted me to think deeply about the nature of humanity and dogdom. I had to draw on all my experience, understanding, knowledge and resources while I helped him to gradually learn to live in what was, for him, a terrifyingly alien world.
What Charlie had always known was the fields, the elements, the arduous process of hunting and foraging, and the daily battle to survive. He was a wild creature, supporting himself and living independently from humans. It took 20 months from the first sighting of him to his capture, and he was taken in by his rescuer when his left eye was so badly damaged that it had to be removed. After surgery he lived outside, in a garden, for a few weeks until he was brought to me, and the shock to his system of being transported to the UK and carried into my home left him temporarily paralysed with fear.
Imagine, then, how terrifying the constraints of domestic life must have been for him. Everything was unfamiliar: people in close proximity, food and water bowls, walls and doors, household objects and furniture, dog beds, sounds and scents – and no freedom to escape. His saving grace was Skye, my lurcher, who he bonded with quickly and who became his wise, gentle mentor.
I had no knowledge of Charlie’s background when he arrived – this came later, after conversations with his Romanian rescuer. All I knew beforehand was that he was “shy” of people, and that he had lost an eye. Charlie arrived as a foster dog, and two weeks later, already loving him and realising how hard it would be for him to cope with yet more change, I adopted him. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made – for both of us.
The first step in helping Charlie was to gain his trust. I did this through giving food and water by hand when he shrank from the bowls, and through speaking softly, moving slowly, and by being careful to make sure he never felt under pressure to interact. Once he learned to feel safe with me, other people were gradually introduced to our home, each with a list of The Charlie Rules, as we called them, beforehand. These were to avoid looking directly at him or approaching him, to keep their voices low, to avoid any sudden movements or gestures, and to throw tasty treats as they entered our home – making sure these were thrown behind Charlie to give him space to retreat.
Once Charlie was coping well enough to go beyond the garden, I had to do a lot of work in helping him to cope with traffic, even in a quiet village, and in safely socialising him with other dogs and people. His fear manifested as aggression, but gradually he learned that the presence of others meant that good things were coming his way. Eventually he made many friends, both human and canine, and the story of his progress (and frequent regressions, followed by more progress) brought him a huge following on Facebook.
In the 26 months that Charlie lived with us he learned that humans were a source of love, instead of fear. He learned to come when his name was called, to take pleasure in snuggling up, to invite play, to do happy dances at the prospect of walks, and to look to me for reassurance if he was afraid. He learned to enjoy the comfort of a dog bed and then, when he eventually felt brave enough to negotiate the stairs, he discovered that sleep felt even safer up on my bed, resting against my legs.
During that time, I learned a great deal about the wild nature in Charlie and was reminded that we humans, too, need to feel a sense of connection to our own wild selves. I learned about the joy of building a powerful bond with a soul who was living out of his natural element; about trust and responsibility; about patience; about how to creatively negotiate challenges; about the importance of monitoring my responses and emotions. Most of all, I learned the immense power of unconditional love.
Charlie arrived on the 23rd February 2013 and passed away on the 27th April 2015. The sense of loss when he left us was overwhelming, and his huge presence in my life is profoundly missed. Hundreds of people, many who had never met him in person, sent emails, Facebook messages, cards, flowers, and even beautiful paintings of him. I have a necklace made by my daughter containing a blossom fixed in resin and set in silver, from one of the bouquets that were sent in honour of Charlie’s memory.
Charlie was a testimony to the effectiveness of positive methods. His story is a reminder that kindness and understanding, combined with knowledge of dog behaviour and communication, works for all dogs – even wild souls, such as Charlie.
Lisa Tenzin-Dolma is principal of The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour and founder of the Dog Welfare Alliance.