Charlie came into my life unexpectedly, an unwanted gift after losing my beloved black lab, Sadie.

I vowed to never let my heart break again. But the kids went to work on me, and so I agreed to adopt a kitten. We arrived home with a kitten and a puppy.

For a long time I told myself Charlie was the kids’ pet, not mine. But any dog that’s half lab, half shepherd needs exercise, so I found myself taking long walks with him every morning. Then trail runs, with him galloping ahead, then doubling back to check on me. When I was out working in my gardens, he would tag along. Charlie became my shadow. When I moved, he moved. Where I led, he followed.

Charlie was sensitive and loyal. His sole job was to watch over me, and he took it seriously.

Looking back, I think he knew I had cancer long before I was diagnosed.

In October 2011 when Charlie was 6 years old, I learned I had familial adenomatous polyposis colon cancer, a form that is both aggressive and genetic. I was terrified not only for myself, but also for my children.

When I arrived home, Charlie was there to greet me. He put his head on my lap and I swear he cried along with me. Then we walked and walked and walked some more.

Charlie, a 100-pounder who used to be happy to sleep on the floor next to my side of the bed, insisted on snuggling right up to me, courteously leaving just enough room for my husband.

Chemo started immediately. After a couple infusions, my energy was waning. And it was winter. The chemo caused my fingers to tingle and I needed gloves just to reach into the refrigerator. Walking outside in cold rain or snow became a challenge. When drops of water hit my face, it felt like tiny pinpricks.

However, I had a big dog that liked his daily walks. My husband bought me super warm, waterproof gloves and I bundled up and kept walking with Charlie. On very cold or snowy days, we took to the woods for trail walks – my face was more protected from the elements beneath the canopy of trees.

On a regular visit to the oncologist, he remarked on my “good health and complexion” and asked if I was getting any exercise. I told him about Charlie and how we were keeping routine in a life that cancer treatment was changing daily.

Charlie wasn’t a trained service dog but instinctively he knew I needed him, and he never left my side. He lifted my spirits — and on my worst days, even my hand to pet him — and kept me moving.

Fast forward to 2017. Our walks slowed down because of Charlie’s arthritis, but we persevered. I gave him glucosamine/chondroitin for his joints and vet-prescribed medication for inflammation and pain.

His last major walk was Thanksgiving Day 2017. We stayed closer to home after that, walking to the mailbox and tending the gardens.

By late summer 2018, Charlie developed neuropathy in his rear paws. His legs were weak, and he needed help to go outside. He accepted my assistance, but I knew it was really because he wanted to stay close and protect me.

It became clear that Charlie was never going to give up, despite his obvious pain. I needed to be his protector, to do right by him as he selflessly did for me and my family.

Never did I have a more faithful, loyal companion. Never did I come to so treasure a gift I only thought I didn’t want.

Denise Teter lives in Kimberton, Chester County, with her family. She can be contacted at deniseteter5@gmail.com