ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Despite being the fluffy, golden lion of the dog world, the chow chow breed is one of the most restricted or banned breeds in the United States.
We talked with Stephanie Dehn, the mastermind behind Ypsilanti Instagram celebrity thecharlieadventures about how she uses two 2 1/2 year-old chow chow Charlie to battle breed stigma and educate the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor community.
We asked Dehn what inspired her to make Charlie’s account, thecharlieadventures, after she rescued him from a puppy mill in Alabama.
Dehn: “Well, I’m a marketing major. So, I figured that I could prove myself a little bit better to prospective employers if I actually knew what I was talking about and had a real-life example of what my work is. And, how I interact with other people online and how my social media skills are. So, I did it more for wanting to be able to hone in on my skills for social media on top of the fact that I wanted to be able to track how Charlie was doing and growing. So [it’s] more for personal use. “
A4: Did you ever think he would have over 7, 000 followers?
Dehn: “No, no, and actually that was the one thing for us [Charlie’s pawrents]. Like 'If we get to 100 that’d be great. If we get to 200, that’s awesome! If we got to 1,000, that’d be life-changing.' I think when we hit the first thousand to 5,000 followers we were like 'This [the account] could actually be a thing!' But after the 3,000, 4,000 followers that we got, I really wanted to invest more time in it because I could clearly see there was potential, especially to make a lot of friends. I think this year, the biggest thing for us, we really want to hone in on the friendships and relationships that we’ve made. Because there’s a big difference between people who have hundreds of thousands of followers versus people who are more like micro accounts, like ours, where they only have 5 [,000] to 7,000 followers or less than 10 [,000] -- you actually know the vast majority of your followers and you already have that relationship with them. For me, I just wanted to get to know everyone who follows Charlie and understand why they follow Charlie and to be able to give back that loved feeling that they give us.”
A4: Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti show up often on Charlie's account. What are some of your and Charlie's favorite places?
Dehn: “So for Charlie, obviously the dog park. But really, I guess anywhere he can be an introverted celebrity. I know it sounds really weird but he likes to be the center of attention without having to deal with everyone. He’s like an old 96-year-old man. He loves the attention and he loves when people acknowledge his existence but he’s also like, 'OK, I’m over you guys.' He’s super sassy -- he rolls his eyes at people.”
Dehn said that Charlie really likes going to coffee shops and they frequently go to Cultivate in Ypsilanti which has dog-friendly outdoor seating, as well as the Arb so that Charlie do something he loves -- eat flowers!
In the winter, Charlie is happy anywhere as long as he’s outside. Dehn said that they frequent a bakery-restaurant where Charlie, when functioning as her emotional support animal, is allowed to enter. Dehn has known the owners of the bakery/restaurant for a while so she makes sure to call ahead to get the OK from the owner and to put in a food order for Charlie.
A4: You mentioned that Charlie is an ESA. Do you find out that people are more friendly once they find out he is an ESA or do you find that they’re just more excited to meet a big fluffy dog?
Dehn: “Well honestly, we’re caught in a really awkward spot. Charlie is a chow chow and they have a really bad reputation, just like pit bulls do, which is super unfortunate. He would never hurt a fly. I mean, yeah, he can roll his eyes at people and he may not want to have all of the attention all of the time but he loves children and other dogs. He will run up to any child and be like 'love me, touch me, hold, me.'
“And we get a really bad rep, usually from older people, who are in their 40s or 50s who say chows are aggressive. And they will literally walk across the street so they don’t have to walk on the same sidewalk. We constantly get people saying dumb comments like, 'Oh I’m surprised he hasn’t turned on you yet,' or 'I’m surprised he hasn’t bitten you yet.' It’s really just an upsetting situation because I know who he is and I raised him to do better than that. And I know that he wouldn’t do anything dumb like that. It’s just unfortunate to see that a whole generation of people still hates on a specific breed just as now, a whole generation hates on pit bulls."
“He’s like your average introverted friend - too much interaction and he gets overwhelmed and gets tired immediately.”
Dehn said when Charlie is working as her ESA, people are generally understanding and respectful. She said that Charlie will read the situation to see whether or not she [Dehn] is comfortable. If neither dog nor handler are comfortable, they excuse themselves from situations.
Despite his winning smile, Dehn told us that people are still really hesitant about approaching Charlie. She purposely takes him around town and the Eastern Michigan University campus to not only help him socialize but to educate people who still believe in the bad-chow reputation.
Are you hoping that his account will prove that the bad reputation about Chows is no longer necessary?
“Oh yeah. The biggest thing with our account, especially as we go out more frequently, is that I always want to make sure I’m educating people because it’s a two-part conversation. The first part is that they’re not aggressive dogs. They do their own thing. They’re aloof, they don’t necessarily need all that attention. They’re very low maintenance in terms of energy release -- everything like that. It’s a lot more of education about the breed. And then [the second part] turning around and saying just because they’re a low maintenance breed, just because they are a very chill dog, doesn't mean that they’re meant for everyone. They have a lot of super strict needs. They need to be socialized at a young age because, they won’t become aggressive, but they’re just going to become even more introverted and won’t want to deal with people. So, they will react at some point. Either to animals or to people.
"With any dog breed, you need to make sure you do your research.” - Dehn said.
Dehn told us that in recent months more and more followers have asked how they can get their own Charlie. But instead of pointing them to a shelter or breeder, Dehn tries to educate Charlie’s followers on finding a breed of dog that fits their lifestyle, personality and situation. She said that even her neighbors in Ypsilanti thought that Charlie would be more aggressive than pit bulls and as he got bigger, people would make negative comments based on their assumptions.
When talking about maintenance, Dehn told us that Charlie doesn’t require a lot of grooming and as he has gotten older he’s needed less training and discipline. She said that during the first six months to a year, he needed firm handling and socializing. During his first two months with her, because he was a puppy mill rescue, he didn’t like her and didn’t trust her. She couldn’t crate train him as he hurt himself trying to escape a crate.
But to get those "pawfect" shots of Charlie’s smile, Dehn said the trick was eye contact and training.
Dehn: “That’s something I started when he was a puppy. I really wanted that eye contact. For me, eye contact is really important in terms of training as well.”
She told us that it has helped create a bond of respect with Charlie and that it helps him to listen really well, which is why she spent some much time training him.
In the future, Dehn says that this year the main objectives for Charlie’s account are traveling, more education about chows, and nutrition. Charlie eats a raw diet and Dehn knows that many pet parents are growing concerned about what they feed their dogs and are curious about the nutrition behind having dogs eat a raw diet.
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