Colleen and Charlie: she rescued a deaf Dalmatian, he changed her life

That cool-as-a-cucumber Dalmatian in the middle of Times Square, posing for a glossy magazine, was nearly put down as a puppy. Charlie is deaf, and it took a pretty amazing human to realise that, rescue and train him to be a jet-setting hero. Wunderdog chats to his owner, Colleen Wilson

Charlie’s life sounds like something out of E! True Hollywood Story: as a puppy, the Dalmatian was returned to the pound repeatedly and nearly put down because no one could handle him. But when Colleen Wilson met him and realised he was deaf, she adopted him and turned him into Charlie Superstar. Now, they travel between New York and Los Angeles, support hospital patients, pose for GQ and train others in the art of communicating with a deaf dog. The moral of the story: good things come to those who adopt.

Colleen and Charlie at the beach. She communicates with him in sign language (pictured above) (All photos, except model shot: Noel Hamilton for Wunderdog)

How did you find Charlie? 
My friend, who works for disabled dog rescue charities and lived in California while I was in New York, pointed him out to me. She saw him on a website because he was on a ‘kill list’, ear-marked to be put down called Urgent Death Row Dogs. He had been returned to the shelter four times as a puppy. The last owner said he was stubborn, bitey and destructive, and he said to the shelter: “Just put him down.” Luckily, Animal Care & Control, which is a ‘high-kill’ organisation, decided not to do so immediately but published him on this list instead.

How did you find out that he is deaf?
I was always a dog nerd and read books about dogs when I was young. I knew that white breeds were prone to deafness. After I read his information at the shelter, I clapped right behind his ears and he didn’t react. The shelter didn’t do any formal tests, but they thought he might have hearing problems. Charlie was also a jerk – he was biting my arm – and I took him and said, “I’ll eat you,” and he started reacting. I started communicating in a very straight-up way with him, while he ignored the shelter workers. I came home with scratched arms, and with the dog. Still, I wish everyone went to shelters to get an animal.

How did you train him? 
Training styles are different for every dog because they are based on the dog’s characteristics. If the owner of a deaf dog doesn’t have a connection with the dog, we have to work on that. Deaf dogs react differently: they show you they trust you by backing into you.

A deaf dog really has to look to you for signs and commands. We have competitions in the dog park: whose dog comes back first – and he always comes first. Charlie plays with other dogs, and deaf dogs can be a bit rougher and more skittish, but if they are socialised well, they are fine. He used to play very rough but he’s slowed down now that he is two-and-a-half years old.

I learned all this through Charlie, and now I am a dog trainer. People I meet on walks and in the dog park sometimes ask me to help with training.

He is more than just trained – he does extra time as well. What are his jobs?
Charlie does have a lot of jobs and, importantly, he has outfits for all his jobs, so he knows when we’re working. Exercise is very important – a Dalmatian needs a lot of exercise and he’s not necessarily good. But he loves people and he loves people with mental disabilities, so he is very gentle.

Charlie’s “Blue Steel”

One of his jobs is as a support dog at a hospital around the corner in Santa Monica. Charlie will sit with someone Intensive Care Unit, for example. A young patient, a girl, was learning how to count and used his spots to count. We are at the intensive care unit a lot as well, because having a dog there calms visitors.

He is also my service dog. I have a nerve disorder, so I get unconscious every now and then. When my knees are up, he sits on me to help me through the episode. He now does that as well when I exercise at home – we had a video of that which went viral. Having him helps me.

Last but not least, Charlie also works on sets in TV and for photoshoots. He was selected to be in GQ, which was amazing. I can put him in the middle of Times Square and he just poses, since he doesn’t hear the traffic noises like other dogs. On film sets, as long as I am there with him, there is food and people, he’s happy. He is really well behaved and we are usually pretty quick – we go in, do a scene in a couple of takes, and out again. He is very popular and gets booked again and again. He is also going to be in a National Geographicchildren’s book.

Since I got Charlie, I’ve started to train and represent other dogs for creative ventures as well. Charlie’s Instagram account is my business card for my company, Dogs on Q: because I feature other dogs on there, owners of other animals have got in touch, so I’m kind of their agent. I also represent the Instagram-famous ‘hugging collies’, which are both rescue dogs, and also Juniper the fox.

You travel between New York and Los Angeles. How do you do it?
He likes New York better – he gets more attention there, and he is an attention whore. He is fine with crowded areas and the noise. As a deaf dog, he is not fazed by construction noise, for example. We also have a dog-park crew there, which is what he’s used to.

[On flights] he can travel in the cabin because he is a service dog. There are four levels in regards to dogs on domestic flights in the US: therapy dogs are the highest level, as it requires very strict and extensive exams for the dogs to pass. Service dogs are also allowed to fly. Emotional support animals (ESA) no longer have special treatment by airlines because it’s so easy to register your dog as an ESA, so they are treated like ‘pedestrian’ dogs, where it depends on the dog’s size whether they are allowed to fly in the cabin.


Does a deaf dog have specific exercise regimes? 
I no longer need a leash, he’s trained. A lot of deaf dogs – many of these are predominantly white dogs [e.g. bull breeds, great Danes, cattle dogs] – are larger and need a lot of exercise. It depends on the breed, but a dog of Charlie’s size needs one to two hours every day. I have a vibrating collar and, if he’s too far away on the beach, I buzz him. It doesn’t hurt – you can hardly feel it. But a lot of our training was around body language rather than with the collar. He always looks at me for reassurance and rarely runs too far out of sight.

Is he completely fixated on you? Could someone else handle him? 
I don’t think anyone else could handle him – he is so focused on me and we have a system. As with any dog, it depends on whether they click with their owners. Charlie throws fits like a toddler when other trainers try to work with him, until I step back in. Perhaps he thinks he is being taken away from me.

He is very intelligent, but he can be a jerk. When he got neutered, he destroyed cushions at home. He also likes to hump other boy-dogs. He grew up in Chelsea in New York, which perhaps explains it.

How has he changed your life? 
I am still in a finance job I don’t particularly enjoy. Working with dogs has always been my vice and my hobby. People in the dog park started to ask me to train their dogs and I started working with people in the film industry, and I’m good at it. From Charlie I got all these other opportunities, so he took me on a different path. It’s great to have a side job that de-stresses me, and hopefully I can do it full-time soon.


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