My whole adult life I’d thought I was allergic to dogs. Our kids would beg for a dog, and I’d say, “It’s a dog or me, your choice!” Besides being allergic, I’d thought of a dog as just another thing I’d need to take care of. I was actually ‘anti-dog’: If you brought your dog to our house, it had to stay outside. Even if it was cold out. I was ruthless! I didn’t know the names of my friends’ dogs. Dogs simply didn’t matter to me. AT ALL. My friend Ann loves to tell the story of how when her dog died, I wrote her a condolence note saying something like, “I can’t relate at all, but I wanted to acknowledge that I know this must be a really sad time for you.” So when I had my ‘dog awakening,’ it was a pretty huge life change.
It all began with my daughter Sonya’s friend Layla’s dog Daisy. No one told Layla my no-dog rule when she came to visit one October, and it was too cold to insist that she keep Daisy outside, so I had to relent. They spent the night, and the next day when I came back from some errands, Daisy greeted me with joy and excitement. I thought, “…Well, this is NICE! And she doesn’t even know me… I could get used to THIS!”
The real fork in the road — where I parted ways with my ‘anti-dog’ self — came a bit later when I met Ike, the German Shepherd-Rottweiler my musician daughter Sonya ‘dog shared’ in Brooklyn. Ike changed my life forever. Ike was Sonya’s neighbor’s dog. Sonya would sometimes dog-sit, and then, after the neighbor had a baby and moved across town, Ike began to live with Sonya part-time. It was the perfect situation for all of them. (Why don’t more people dog share!?) The first time Sonya brought Ike home to our place in Western Massachusetts, it was love at first sight for me. And I had no allergic reaction! Ike was devoted to Sonya, but I could coerce him to jog with me before she got up. He’d sleep on the floor at the foot of her bed, and when I’d come in to the room to get him, he’d slowly crawl on the bed on TOP of Sonya, looking at me the whole time. He’d rest his head on her back and just stare at me. I knew he was saying “I am NOT leaving her.” But I learned that all I had to do was get a leash and treats and he obediently came with me.
So began my new life as a dog person, and the eight-month hunt for OUR dog. During this time I went to visit my friend Nancy in Mexico. She warned me that she’d just adopted a Chihuahua street puppy. I thought, “Oh God. A yappy, tiny rat dog?” But Docie was the size of a teacup and totally adorable. And Docie would provide huge comfort for Nancy a year later during her husband’s illness and death. Do these dogs who ‘find us’ somehow know we will soon need them as much as they need us?
I really wanted a German Shepherd. Actually, I really just wanted another Ike! Peter, my husband, was indifferent about getting a dog, but he was going along with me. Our son Max was graduating from high school, and he was pretty annoyed with me that I’d said no to a dog his whole life and now as he was leaving I’d had a change of heart? I pulled them both into my search. Sometimes online, sometime in person. We came close with a huge one-year-old German Shepherd that we went to meet at an apartment in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was kept in a bedroom where the walls and wooden door were destroyed from him scratching them. The owners had to find a new home for him because he barked all day while they were gone. It was tragic all the way around. For the owners who loved him, and for the dog who should not have been cooped up all day. I thought our 50 acres in the country would be perfect! They brought him for a visit, and I saw that Peter and Max really liked this wild teenager of a dog — but he made me really nervous. Just watching him knock into things and sloppily drinking from a bowl getting water all over the place made me anxious. The owners left and never called us back. I must admit I did wonder why THEY didn’t think WE were a good fit, but I was relieved. I knew he was too much dog for me.
Meanwhile, I was getting to know my friends’ dogs and learning their names. I started dog-sitting our neighbors’ dog Lexi. I like to call Lexi my “starter dog.” I used to jog by their house and stop to pet Lexi if she was outside. When I realized they were moving in a few months to be closer to work, so they’d not have to leave her for eight hours at a time, I offered to pick her up on my morning jog and keep her until they came home. For free! This was great for all of us! I loved that she became so excited to see me when I arrived in the morning! I loved jogging with her and having her in my studio at my feet. I was a bit sad on the weekends when I didn’t have her. I’d jog past her house and hope she’d be outside so I could say hi.
Life as a ‘dog person’ was a whole new way of being in the world. I stopped to pet dogs and to talk with the owners. As a result, I connected with people differently. It was almost as if I had new eyes, and a new way of seeing the world.
In November of 2012, Ike suddenly died. It was such a traumatic experience for Sonya. Getting someone to help her carry this over-100 lb. dog into a cab, having to put him down, bringing him home and keeping him on ice in her bathtub for a day until the owner flew back from a trip. Sonya, the owner, and two male friends drove Ike upstate to his owner’s home to have a ceremony and burial for this magnificent beast who was beloved by so many people. I get teary just writing these words! I was blindsided and very surprised by the grief I felt at Ike’s death. I’ve lost both parents to cancer, and many friends to AIDS. I was shocked that this grief felt similar to the human grief I knew too well. And Ike wasn’t even my dog! Part of it was feeling Sonya’s grief, and part of it was my own, as I had formed a bond with Ike. I once drove two hours each way to pick Ike up while Sonya was on tour so I could have him to myself for three days. Sonya walked the streets of New York City with Ike off leash and took him everywhere. He roamed at festivals and sometimes even laid at her feet on stage while she played shows. Ike was her protector.
Soon after Ike’s death, we went to The Simon Foundation, about 1.5 hours from where we live. I’d spent a lot of time on Petfinder and visiting shelters, and I was really ready to find our dog. You had to fill out an application and give references before coming to this shelter. They brought dogs they thought could be right for us into a private room, sparing us the tortuous ‘kennel/cages walk.’ I was drawn to one dog, while Peter and Max liked another. We couldn’t make a decision, so they suggested we leave and think about it. The next day Peter said, “I keep thinking about that dog Hunter, and I could imagine him in our life.” And Peter hadn’t even really wanted a dog! He had been going along with it for me. Hunter was nothing like the dog I’d imagined, but I went back two days later with my friend Ann, a highly qualified, long-time dog person. I needed a pro along with me for this huge decision. I asked the universe to give me a sign that this dog ‘Hunter’ was the one for us. When they brought Hunter out and he lovingly bonded with Ann, she looked up and me and said “Gaaaaaaayle… he’s perfect!” I went to the counter and as I filled out the paperwork I got my sign from the universe: His birthday (totally random of course as he was a rescue from the south) was October 17. PETER’S birthday.
So on Dec. 5, 2012, we got our dog! Lexi’s family moved the NEXT day. I had one day with both dogs. Talk about perfect timing! Max wanted to name him Dante. I agreed, but after after a few days I said, “He doesn’t seem like a Dante. He feels like a Charlie.”
Charlie has pretty much always been a great dog. You know that saying that life doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle? We really got the dog meant for us and one we could handle. A difficult dog could have destroyed us. They told us he was two years old, but then he grew. So I think he was more like eight to 10 months. He behaves better for Peter because Peter is firmer with him than I am. Hmmm, we had a similar dynamic with our kids. What a surprise!
I paint Charlie as often as I can. Charlie has kind of become my muse. He’s learned how to pose really well for photos. Sometimes he looks regal, other times he looks really sad. This past Halloween I painted Charlie as SLD — Super Lover Dog. He’s often in my cover pitches to The New Yorker. Charlie REALLY wants to be on the cover of the New Yorker!
We have a seasonal ‘glamping’ Airbnb on our property, and one of the big perks is that people can bring their dogs. We’ve met some wonderful people this way, and Charlie gets to hang out with some really great dogs. And while I’m pretty sure Charlie loves me BEST, he actually ‘loves up’ anyone who wants/needs it. It’s not uncommon for a guest to say that snuggling and walking with Charlie was one of the best parts of their time at our Pondhouse. Guests routinely talk Charlie up in our reviews. “Gayle and Peter couldn’t have been better hosts but the real rockstar of our stay was Charlie, a truly amazing and unique dog who really made it hard for us to leave.” I didn’t rewrite a single word of that review. I swear.
Kids adore him, and no matter what any small child does to him he is always very gentle. This little girl was giving him a ‘massage.’
I am commissioned fairly often to paint dogs that have died. I feel a special connection to these dogs when I paint them. I imagine their eyes looking lovingly into their owner’s eyes. I ‘ask’ the dog to help me to catch their spirit. Seems to work! Doing these portrait commissions gave me the idea for a book about people and their rescue dog stories. This is a work in progress as I collect stories. I offered a free dog portrait in an Instagram contest to the person who submitted the ‘best’ rescue dog story. I received some very moving stories, and I chose the winner because her story made me cry. She’d had so much hardship in her life, and her dog Weeza just really saved her life. Luckily her story had a happy ending.
A few of my favorite dog portraits:
I cannot imagine life without Charlie, and I just hope the inevitable is not for MANY years! And now I cannot imagine life without a dog. That unbridled happiness and unconditional love? I never want to be without that again. I firmly believe having a dog makes me a happier, healthier, and generally nicer person. Peter and I laugh more because of Charlie. And I really enjoy my quiet alone time when Peter is away on photographing trips. I talk to Charlie, we snuggle and watch TV, and he follows me around most of the day. How could I ever get lonely? Around the same time we got Charlie, I started buying and not-killing plants. And I became vegan. So, now I am a vegan, dog-loving person who is able to keep plants alive. Who knows what else could happen? Anything is possible.
This story is lovingly dedicated to Ike and Sonya, for turning me into a dog person.