LAST week I drove past the animal shelter in Glen Iris where we got our dog Charlie some years ago or, more accurately, where Charlie got us.
When we started our search, we hawked around a picture taken from the cover of the book Rocky and Gawenda: a story of a man and his mutt by former Age editor Michael Gawenda. A dog like Rocky seemed like a good starting point. The common response from dog homes was “Where did you lose him?” to which we had to explain we hadn't lost him, we were just looking for one like him.
We arrived at the Glen Iris shelter that Sunday morning, the three of us, five minutes before closing time. "Want to adopt?” asked the staff. “Stay as long as it takes.” They then paraded what seemed like an endless supply of lovable creatures, all holding hope in their eyes. Finally Charlie appeared on the stage with a distracted air as if to say “What now?”
“That's the one,” we cried in unison.
"No,” said the very efficient woman in charge. “This one’s got an attitude problem. He wants to fight all big dogs. He’s very aggressive. You [she looked at the three of us shrewdly] would never be able to manage him.”
We carried on looking, but Charlie had already wormed his way into our hearts. We pleaded to be able to take him. Finally she gave in, but not before she taught us how to growl so we could show Charlie who was alpha male.
He wasn't called Charlie when we signed the papers but you only had to glance at his vaudeville gait as he led the way out to see we had no option. Only the bowler hat and cane were missing. The vote for a name change was unanimous.
As it turned out, we could equally have called him Houdini. In the early weeks he made several spectacular breaks for freedom. One involved jumping up and balancing on the rim of a bath, jumping from there to a narrow window sill, pushing out the fly wire screen then tumbling head first onto a brick patio two metres below.
Another time, when he had been entrusted to a friend, he cast caution to the wind and leapt off a high balcony like a hairy flightless bird. That might have been the end of him if he hadn’t got snared in the hardenbergia vines as he fell. He was found there some time later, looking embarrassed.
It took time but eventually he realised he didn't need to escape because he was already home. We like to think that since we have given him our hearts he is at peace with himself. He’s no longer aggressive. The only dogs he snarls at these days are pit bull terriers, rottweilers and arab bull mastiffs, and then only when they’re on a lead. He hasn't had any victories but he hasn't had any thrashings either. Except for a couple of very special four-legged friends, other dogs are of little consequence in his life.
I've heard it said that some dogs have owners and then there are dogs that have support staff. Charlie is in the latter category. He is a syndicated dog, spending week days in the country and weekends at his Wonthaggi residence with another member of his staff. Of course he has his favourites in the syndicate and doesn't do a very good job of hiding the fact.
Germaine Greer in a recent Age column wrote about ethology (the study of animal behaviour), as applied to training animals to be guide dogs, performance animals, trotting horses, etc. "If you are the kind of person who cheers when a pacer breaks stride,” she writes, ”applied ethology is not for you. Or me. I prefer my animals unbroken.”
For that last statement alone I can almost forgive her her past rantings and ravings.
And I see more clearly now that Charlie is not being occasionally disobedient, just displaying his unbroken side.