When you think of Dalmatians, you probably imagine a black and white spotted dog proudly riding along in a fire engine (or that Disney movie). While fighting fires is not a given when it comes to this breed, helping others definitely is—especially for Charlie, the deaf Dalmatian devoted to helping not only humans, but other pups as well. We spoke with Colleen Wilson, Charlie's human and trainer, about his therapy work, travel tips and how his ability to inspire others stems from his disability, not in spite of it.
Ollie: What led you to adopt Charlie?
Wilson: My friend found him on “urgent death row dogs” list. He was surrendered by his past owner who told the shelter he was uncontrollable and destructive, and to put him down. I had recently lost a dog and wasn’t looking for a new one but figured I would pull him from the shelter and give him to a rescue. When we met, it's like he knew me. He was insane, but still taught him a few things within a few minutes of meeting him. I wish more people went out and got their pets from shelters like the Animal Care Center of NYC.
Ollie: Was Charlie born deaf?
Dalmatians are prone to deafness so I tested him at the shelter, he was between six months and a year old. Dalmatian breeders almost always put down the deaf puppies. Charlie was originally sold at a pet store so he was a puppymill dog, unfortunately.
Ollie: What was your experience with special needs dogs prior to adopting Charlie?
Wilson: Not much, I am a trainer but I have always liked challenging dogs more than the cookie cutter ones. I adjusted my style with Charlie and we really learned together. He knows how to communicate with me as well, he has a bell he rings and signals for me when he is ready to do something.
Ollie: Why did you decide to train Charlie as a therapy dog?
I helped train therapy dogs as a kid. My last few dogs would not have made good therapy dogs but Charlie is different. Around children, seniors, people with disabilities he calms down and likes to make them happy. He treats each person differently. It's hard to describe. The therapy dog test is intense, over an hour long, with a lot of problems for a deaf dog but he aced it and has loved it ever since.
Ollie: How has Charlie helped train other dogs?
Wilson: He is the best at teaching dogs to chill out while on walks and to heel properly. He helps me get dogs excited about training because they watch him do everything looking so happy and they just copy him. Skate boarders, rollerbladers and bikers usually cause dogs to panic because of the noise, so I plop Charlie down next to them and have the other dogs watch him not react. When I board and train dogs, he teaches them manners, and what not to do if they’re aggressive or have fears of thunder and fireworks.
Ollie: What is Charlie’s daily routine when he is working versus when he isn't?
Wilson: I don’t know how he does it and separates everything. He has his crazy dog side every morning and runs around with his friends to get his energy out. They play wrestle and bite each other. He has a scarf for therapy work, and when he has that on he instantly calms down. And then when he is training and working on sets, he is usually “naked” with no collar. He is obsessed with working, treats and being on set with lots of people to love him.
Ollie: It looks like Charlie travels quite a bit! Do you have any advice for pet parents when it comes to taking your pup on a trip?
Wilson: Traveling comes to basic obedience and trust. He doesn’t love the car or traveling so we over-exercise a few days prior, pack favorite treats to make it a positive experience, and slowly extend travel trips to be able to get ready for the long ones.
Ollie: What's one of the biggest lessons you have learned from Charlie?
Wilson: Patience—he took a while to train. A lot of trial and error but from that we’ve developed a whole new training system. I was really nervous about taking home a deaf dog like it was a major disability. It really isn’t, he taught me more positives about owning a deaf dog than negatives.
Ollie: Can you tell us a special story about Charlie and someone he has helped?
Wilson: One that stands out to me was an autistic adult in New York City, she was wheelchair bound. Her senior parents were pushing her around the city for the first time. I was walking fast like a typical New Yorker. Charlie all of as sudden stopped, turned, and put his head in her lap as I was jolted back. The woman smiled and her parents were elated, he kissed her and she laughed. They said they hadn’t seen her smile in a while and wanted to take her to New York but she was so overwhelmed. Charlie just calmed her and made her day. It was the sweetest thing, he was so proud of himself and was strutting all the way home.
Follow Charlie on all his adventures on his Instagram account!
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