Written with wit and insight, this writer’s biography of her dog expands the parameters of the "I love my dog" genre to create a story appealing not only to dog lovers but also to any reader who enjoys a well-turned phrase and a clever take on the timeless story of a Cinderella: A mutt from the dog pound makes good.
Oh sure, if you’ve heard one tale of yet another adorable dog saved from death row, you’ve heard them all. But meet Charlotte—charismatic, chatty and compelling—who twice lands the four-legged starring role in "Annie," gets her photo in a national newspaper as a community activist, and can lead you to every groundhog hole in historic Jefferson County, West Virginia. The book has over 75 photographs of the beautiful and comical Wonder Dog.
Like Charlotte, the author was adopted at a young age and she brings to this biography an empathetic warmth for those who know the miracle: I was lost but now am found. And who is to say among accidental encounters, be they at a dog pound or a Starbucks, which were fated in order to give voice to a deeper self. Or any voice?! Charlotte, mute and pirouetting in a cage, developed the vocalization skills of a Skat singer once she got her own human. And the author as a toddler, smiling but silent, starting talking only when she got her own dog.
The bond is strong between dog and companion, and often humorous. Charlotte, sometimes described as a walking cartoon, possesses a personality akin to Gidget-meets-Ophra, and has trained her companion to be a chauffeur and to stand patiently while she innocently bids smiling folks to draw near to ask: What kind of a dog is that!?
Draw your own conclusions after reading of Charlotte’s unrehearsed antics on stage ("Somebody Cue the Dog") and her quest for that all-important degree from dog school ("Ain’t Misbehavin’ Cause I is Educated"). And read of her good deeds, party skills, vacation adventures, and even about the historic sites that draw millions of visitors to her home area. Charlotte loves a swim in the Shenandoah or a trip to John Brown’s fort in Harpers Ferry.
And you’ll love this sweet dog who, even as she enters her twilight years, remains relentless in her commitment to help, to please and to entertain. She brings honor to the name "mutt," and when you finish her biography, you, too, will call her "Wonder Dog!"
When I was three years old, my godmother gave me a puppy. I had been adopted the previous year and was adapting well enough to my new home it seemed, except I wouldn’t talk. I’m told I was a curious and loving child who readily smiled and returned hugs, but I was silent, and when nightmares struck I shivered but did not cry out.
My mother’s best friend had been designated as my godmother. I recall “Aunt” Alice only as a large woman who loomed high above me, as did all grown-ups, but she had a great soft bosom that enveloped me when she swung me up in her arms and she smelled of gardenia talc. Perhaps the puppy was her idea or maybe my mother’s. Since they are now long departed, whatever discussion took place about it is lost, as is why the dog was named, “Patsy Dog.”
Alice emerged from her car and walked toward me with a tawny puppy. I could barely hold it, small as I was, but hold it I did, hugging her against my heart. Mother and Dad enjoyed recalling that day: How I carried the puppy around the farm yard, showing her the chicken coop, the cow barn and the shed where the kitty cats hid, and finally my room. There I placed my best doll before her. For a bewildered Only dog and a frightened Only child, such friendship was inevitable.
Psychologists and childhood experts can explain the interaction of a child and a pet, the bond that forms and the impact on the child’s development. What I know is that from that day on Patsy Dog was integrated into every aspect of my little child’s world, my nightmares waned and talking came, at first only to Patsy, but eventually, as friends will attest, to anyone wandering into range. Patsy Dog would be my constant friend until she died the week I was leaving for college.
Flash forward to the present. A woman of a certain age and a mutt from the Dog Pound. When I began to write about the remarkable dog in my grown-up life, memories of Patsy surfaced, as did pangs of regret for the careless moments when she was doubtless ignored—when I played with friends or was self-absorbed in fantasies of being a trapeze artist or flying to the moon. But when we are children, we behave as children. It is the blessing and the curse of maturity to become accountable for our misdeeds and the start of wisdom to comprehend that the commonplace is where the gifts of incalculable value are found. Something as everyday as a dog’s loyalty.
Patsy, then, did not reap the benefits that flow to Charlotte. Patsy was wallpaper, fixture, weather. Breathing at the foot of my bed at night and licking my hand to wake me. Under my feet at the kitchen table and my homework desk. Waiting at the school bus stop, morning and afternoon, rain or shine. The day came when I got off that bus and flew to change clothes not for a walk with Patsy down to the fish pond, but up to the barn to saddle my horse. A timid dog of some 30 pounds, Patsy never ventured close to this huge, hooved creature, but she maintained her job as security guard by skulking from one scrawny cedar tree to another in the pasture where I rode, thinking herself to be hidden, no doubt, despite the long yellow tail flapping from green foliage.
Charlotte weighs in at 65 pounds and is not timid, though sometimes, as with the rest of us, bravado, not boldness, gets her through the scary times. (A Rottweiler in your training class hates you, for example). Charlotte has no “seen-but-not-heard” attitude about her role in my life, or with any humans. And Charlotte is not taken forgranted. Now, with many years having passed since Patsy, years that were full of… oh, let’s leave it at “experience,” I approach with gratitude a small bit of existence that is uncomplicated or challenging—the companionship and love of a dog.
With this happy dog, I more easily endure slights or sorrows because of that furry face, that enthusiastic acceptance. I have, in fact, come to think that all of life’s moments, glad and sad, would be better accompanied by the permanent presence of one dog that, at birth, God assigns to each of us for all our time here. (A dog and, come to think of it, a handy-man.) And I appreciate that Charlotte is a good influence. Though I know that our dogs will love us, regardless--while our loving human connections can be weakened by enduring character flaws on both sides--she inspires me to unselfish behavior. As someone once said, I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.
As I started notes for this book, I was struck by the interval of time between these two dogs, a life-time really. Still, you get busy. You leave behind the pets of childhood and there’s college and travel and small apartments and career and a busy married life that accommodates cats rather than dogs. Then divorce and beginning again and money issues and sick parents and relocations. But the fates provide. Charlotte was not “planned” but placed before me in a happenstance that, as I look back, was surely part of a larger order. Certainly it changed my life, and gave her one. And Charlotte’s life has touched many.
The impact of this four-legged critter in a two-legged world is impressive. Her story should be told. You may well ask why. Charlotte is a dog, and what is to be learned from her little snippet of a life? I think a biography of a life that is well-lived--whether it’s inside dog fur or an Adolpho suit–can remind us of deeper truths than the day’s headlines reveal or a credit card provides. And, maybe it’s just because a Cinderella story always bears repeating. Whether it’s an evil step-mother or a judicious dog catcher who has placed a lovable soul in peril, we love to applaud the underdog who gets to a castle, or a little cottage in the woods. Charlotte got to that little cottage in the woods but she didn’t rest on her haunches.
Beautiful, chatty, Charlotte–like some fortunate humans–possesses a charisma that bids us draw near to catch her contagious conviction that life is fun. She can’t speak our language, can’t give advice or lead us to much except squirrels and groundhogs. But animal-loving humans, supposedly many IQ points ahead of Canis lupus familiari, respond to this dog as if a discovery has been stumbled upon that renders them Happy. They smile. “What kind of dog is that! She’s beautiful!”
As it turns out, however, writing a book about your own dog is far from a walk in the park with a canine, though the idea seemed simple enough. No hours of squinting at microfiche on Species Identification Issues, no tomes on Sumerian rock carvings of dogs in Mesopotamia. Just the story of My Dog, told in a way that does justice to her specialness.
Well, sure. Except lots and lots of people own lots and lots of dogs and they love them as special. Asking them to read a book about your dog may be like asking them to watch all the slides of your Florida vacation. Then there’s the danger of the cuteness that hovers threateningly over any writer’s attempt at animal talk and thought.
Or the fact that every nuance of behavior of your pet, the snuffling under the rug for popcorn and the curved tail unfurling in sleep--is not the stuff of fascination to others. You’re just so darn close to the subject that you lack objectivity on the material. (But who among us can be truly objective about our dogs, or our families, or even our picks in the Final Four).
Finally, describing Charlotte is equivalent to explaining how something so small as a child’s hug can alter your universe. All that being said, here, nevertheless, is the story of my car-loving dog and her chauffeured rides to sites and events and adventures. If this sounds as gripping as MapQuest directions, let this be said: Charlotte is never dull. Since the same cannot be said of her biographer, I have cheated mightily by using many photos. Behold, then, Charlotte, in Charlotte the Wonder Dog, in loving remembrance of Patsy Dog and the pets of our childhood. And in honor of Charlotte and all the rescued “mutts” who bring joy to us in our adulthood.
Also available at fine bookstores everywhere.