The title of this post is Penny’s vocabulary. All of it. One word, spoken in a million different ways. She could express a lot in one word.
I’m not going to try to tell Penny’s whole story. I don’t really know it; by the time I came along, Penny was an adult dog. That part of the story is my wife’s to tell, and I know she’ll tell it when she’s ready. Instead, I’m going to do my best to tell the story of my time with her, from my own point of view.
The first time Allison asked me to her home for dinner, back in 2005 when we were first dating, I met her dogs. Keiko, a big, shaggy, friendly Akita who seemed to perpetually have a silly, goofy grin on his face, had no problem with me at all. He slobbered all over me and wagged his tail. Penny, a beautiful copper-colored Rottweiler mix, figured that I was trouble. She barked, she growled, she postured, and in several more subtle ways she let me know that I was NOT welcome. When Allison and I sat close together, she was hypervigilant, constantly watching for anything that looked like an aggressive move from me.
I haven’t been a dog person most of my life, at least not consistently. I had three dogs as a child. Two ran away and one was hit by a car while we were visiting my grandparents. I became a cat person and stayed a cat person until around 1995. That year, meaning well, my now ex-wife bought me Sadie as a surprise. I arrived home to find this huge, beautiful black Lab sitting in our living room with a red bow around her neck. I was actually horrified, but I tried to be open-minded. Sadie, a very intelligent, friendly, eager-to-please dog, managed to stick her nose into my heart and wedge the rest of herself in. After a year or so I didn’t know what I’d do without her, and then I was forced to find out; a burglar casing houses in the neighborhood came through and poisoned several dogs with antifreeze, including my Sadie. That was it. Nope, nope, nope, no more dogs for me. It hurt too much to lose them. Back to cats!
So I wasn’t planning on getting too attached to Keiko or Penny, but Keiko had different plans from the start, and after a while, even Penny stopped growling and barking. For the first week or two I still couldn’t pet her; she’d back away, growling, at any attempt. But it was clear she was softening up. One day, she didn’t back away. She still growled, making sure I knew this wasn’t her idea, but she let me pet her. Later, the growling stopped, too. Tolerance became indifference, then acceptance, then affection. Allison tells me Penny never liked men much, and that her willingness to bond with me was very unusual. I was flattered. Allison must have taken her dog’s judgement pretty seriously, because she hung onto me, too.
I still had to be careful. One morning, before either of us had gotten dressed, I was sitting on the edge of the bed. Allison playfully pushed me onto my back, intending to lie down with me an instant later, but Penny made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join in. She lunged up and nipped me on the nearest body part she could reach. A few moments later, when I could see, breathe, and speak again, Allison and I had a good laugh about Penny’s efforts to neuter me. She didn’t do any harm nor even break the skin, but I learned that it was a really, really judicious idea to get fully dressed before putting Penny into a playful mood.
To help us bond, I started giving both dogs a biscuit each evening when I got home from work, at Allison’s suggestion. Predictably enough, they started getting very excited when I came through the door, which Allison was very happy about. They would behave very politely, as Allison had trained them, approach me, and sit. Then (this part was my idea), I would say, “WOOF!” to each of them. They would respond instantly with an enthusiastic “WOOF!” and I’d give them their treats. “They just want the treats,” I would protest. “It’s not me.” Allison differed.
One evening I came home and gave the dogs their treats and noticed something. Keiko wolfed his down. Penny, after showing her usual enthusiasm, went and set hers aside, only going back to eat it later. A light went on. Maybe they weren’t just dying for a treat … maybe they just enjoyed the interaction, the game of sitting and speaking. When I related this theory to Allison, the response was something like, “Duh.”
By this point, I had — without the least intention of doing so — become a dog person again. I loved both Keiko and Penny very much, but Penny was much more determined to bond with me and to win my heart. We played together, we hung out together, and got so close that on several occasions, Allison jokingly accused me of stealing her dog. I even took a stab at training her.
She already knew sit, stay, lie down, and heel. Allison is a terrific dog trainer. Penny was one of the most well-behaved, well-adjusted, perfectly socialized dogs I’ve ever seen. Her only weak spot was nervousness with strangers, and that was only because of her fierce loyalty and protective nature. She would let NO ONE she didn’t approve of anywhere near her people. So I didn’t have a whole lot to teach her. I thought I’d try to teach her to shake hands.
I didn’t like “shake hands.” It was too … humanizing. So I settled on “Paw.” For days upon weeks I would say “Paw,” and reach for her paw. I’d repeat the lesson several times each day. It didn’t work. Allison saw me trying and realized that I had no idea what I was doing, so she talked me through the right way to teach that behavior. It still took time, but one day I had Penny sit, said “Paw?” and had my breath taken away as she ever-so-carefully raised her paw and dropped it into my hand.
Penny had a very insistent nose. Some mornings I would be in my recliner, and Penny would want attention. She would shove her whole nose up under my elbow and use it to pry my forearm out so I’d pet her on her head. So I’d pet her for a while … five minutes or so, usually. Then I’d stop and put my arm back on the armrest. If that was enough, she’d lie down with a sigh and keep me company. But if I wasn’t yet done, she’d wedge my arm out with her nose again and I’d continue. The puppy nose could be very convincing, and downright dangerous if I had a cup of very hot coffee in that hand.
Hugs were something she needed to be a part of, too. If Allison and I were ever to embrace for more than a few seconds, we were never surprised to find a Penny-nose wedged in somewhere. If she for any reason couldn’t get into the hug by sheer nose action, she would bark until we noticed her.
The tradition of Penny woofing for a treat remained a constant. As her teeth got older, the biscuits became soft treats, but if I came through the front door, whether I’d been gone five minutes or five days, she expected a treat, and she got it. She always met me at the front door; I would see her face in the small vertical window beside the door, grinning at me. I’d ask if I could come in, and she would reply, “Woof!” By the time I sat down in the living room, she’d be right there at my right foot, sitting pretty, usually offering up her paw before I even asked. I’d get out her treat, ask her, “What do you say?” and she’d bowl me over with a big, enthusiastic “WOOOF,” then take the treat gently from my fingers and go devour it.
Penny wasn’t a retriever, but she liked to play. Whether it was play-chasing each other around the living room, or just tossing her rawhide bone and watching her run and grab it, she loved any interaction we’d give her. She loved when we’d get down in the floor and wrestle with her, or just stay down there and let her curl up against us.
She was a very sensitive creature. She knew when someone was upset, sick, or injured. I can remember many, many times when I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through a day, and then Penny came over, laid her head on my knee and looked up at me with those big eyes and wagged her tail. No matter what kind of person I thought I was, and no matter what anyone else thought of me, to Penny I was great. She loved me no matter what.
She loved us both so much that we often presented her with a dilemma. When Allison went to bed very early in the evening and I stayed up very late, she couldn’t decide where she wanted to be. She usually ended up taking up a position near the bedroom door, just about halfway between us. Other times she’d spend a few minutes in each place, moving back and forth. She needed to keep an eye on both of us. From what Allison tells me, she missed me terribly each time I went out of town, sometimes sleeping by the front door as if she needed to be there in case I came back in the middle of the night. She did the same when Allison went on trips.
She had her quirks. She never quite learned to localize sounds. I once had a doorbell sound that announced text messages on my phone; I had to change it. Each time it went off, she was SURE someone was at the front door, and it became very stressful for her. Doorbells on TV fooled her, too. She wasn’t dumb; she erred on the side of caution, and I loved her for it even though I did occasionally laugh at her. We had to be very careful to keep her from freaking out when we played Wii Golf. People swinging their arms around worried her. But she loved her people, and she watched over us, a fierce, loyal, loving guardian.
And now she’s gone.
I don’t want to go through the whole story of the disease process that eventually claimed our sweet dog; I don’t want to remember her that way, and I don’t want anyone reading this to remember her that way. I want to remember every moment we spent together, every cuddle, every “paw,” every “WOOF,” every dog kiss, and the way her grinning face looked when she woke me up. I want to remember the smiles, the laughter, the walks, the trips we took together. I want to look back and smile about what a wonderful, one-of-a-kind dog she was. There will never be another Penny, and I’m pretty much inconsolable.
We said goodbye to our beautiful dog at 9:30 this morning, and it seems this day will NEVER end. I’m at work — I don’t really want to be, and I’m not being very productive, but at the moment, nothing seems as terrifying and sad as going home to that house, which despite a background noise level provided by seven birds and one cat, is going to seem so, so depressingly quiet. I don’t want to go look in through that window by the door and see no happy dog face greeting me, or to look at that jar of dog treats sitting by the end table. It’s ironic. Penny would worry herself sick if she saw me like this.
So I will go home. I will try to draw close with my family tonight, both of whom are as upset as I am, if not more so. My wife raised Penny from a tiny sick puppy into a beautiful, huge, wonderful dog. So much of what Penny was came about because of the kind of woman who raised, trained, and loved her. Penny was a reflection of my wife’s love, affection, dedication, and knowledge.
Penny had beautiful, intelligent eyes that were windows into her beautiful, innocent soul, but they were also mirrors reflecting our love for her, and particularly my wife’s love for her. Penny will always be a part of me, a part of us. I don’t think any of us are going to be the same after this, but we will go on, and we will remember her and honor her memory. She would want that.