By Sandy Balzer
My middle-aged mutt is often mistaken for a puppy. He inherited permanently loose skin and wrinkles from his Shar Pei ancestry, and his compact 30-pound size falsely hints at a growth spurt just around the corner. He’s very active, high energy, and likes to play. He is living his best life. But it wasn’t always that way.
At four months old, Chuck was pulled from a garbage bin somewhere in Los Angeles with bits of duct tape sticking to him. He was unneutered and had multiple lacerations from dog bites, wounds that are scars to this day. I only learned of his past post-adoption, buried in medical records. The day I picked him up, he was yelping frantically and banging the door of his cage on his way to what I now recognize as a full-blown doggie panic attack.
The first two days of our partnership, we spent every minute together. “Peanut,” as he was referred to at the time, warmed up to me and was affectionate. I changed his name to Chuck. We became friends. I assumed we were settling into a harmonious human/dog happily ever after. So, when I left for work on the third day, I was surprised when Chuck attempted to follow me frantically, tearing at the inside of my front door. He scratched until his nails bled. The sight of destruction, blood, and manic dog was horrifying. I tried everything, from putting him in a crate when I left—he broke off two teeth and a toenail breaking out of it—to covering the door with indestructible plexiglass, letting him roam free in the house, and hiring a dog walker. I had a regular Marley (from Marley & Me) on my hands as Chuck changed tactics and tried to tunnel out through the drywall next to the door before the dog walker even arrived.
This was bigger than “normal” canine mischief; I was dealing with a serious issue. I worked with a dog trainer and to condition Chuck to cope with my leaving. Over the next tumultuous year, we uncovered new sources of Chuck’s fear that resulted in aggressive or panicked behavior: the vet! Meeting another dog while on leash! Meeting an unneutered dog while off leash! Tall men with deep voices! Skateboards!
From dog spats and injuries obtained during Houdini-like escape attempts to allergic reactions of epic hive proportions, I developed a close—albeit expensive—relationship with Chuck’s vet. But we persisted. We kept up the training. I took him to a nearby off-leash beach every day for exercise and socialization. I stocked up on Benadryl. The more people wrinkled their noses at me— “You’re doing this all for a dog?” —the more determined I became.
Progress has not been straightforward. Setbacks abounded, like the time four-year-old Chuck stayed with my sister while I traveled. Four days before I was due home, he lost his cool and picked a fight at day care. Six hours, 87 stitches, and a prescription for Prozac later, Chuck was no longer welcome at day care, and my sister was forced to work from home the rest of the week. She wore knee-high boots to protect her calves because Chuck followed her everywhere, running into her with his cone.
We had leaps forward too. I found High Tail Hotel, the perfect day care and boarding where they never use cages or confinement. I’m weaning Chuck off Prozac and replacing it with phytocannabinoid treats that are less stressful to his liver and seem to work better at soothing anxiety so he can enjoy being a dog.
We enjoy the beach every day. I follow him around obsessively with my camera, recording every joyful moment. His Instagram (@chuckthechucker) has even garnered a small but loyal following. The best part is he continues to surprise me with his love and playfulness. It was only four months ago that I caught him playfully bowing to a large adult unneutered male dog, not just tolerating, but playing! Chuck is still pulling out new tricks.