The many personalities of Penny.

This is a long one. Dogs are involved. Possible danger of feels. You’ve been warned.

I miss dogs.

It’s been over a decade since I lived in a home with pets. Rental units that allow them are scarce in my city, and it’ll be years before we’re ready to buy. I’m trying to be patient, but it’s tough. I grew up in a household that had anywhere from 2 to 5 furry and feathered extra members of the family living in it at any given time, and to go from that to a life with no pets at all, well, it’s been ten years and I’m still getting used to it.

I’m not going to pretend there aren’t perks. I no longer need dedicated “dog clothes” to wear when I’m at home to avoid getting the good ones covered in pet hair and saliva. Okay, yeah, so I still dress like a slob at home most of the time, but it’s the principle of the thing. If I want to kick back on the couch with a beer in my wedding dress, I totally can….and if we’re being honest, I totally have. (What? It’s too awesome a dress to just leave sitting there in the closet all the time.)

My career as a wedding photog is going to take off any day now.

There is no more walking into a room to be greeted by that tell-tale odor that lets you know you’re about to embark on a game of Find the Poop. There are no more soaked sock surprises from stepping into hidden piddle puddles. I can safely leave the closet door open, knowing my shoes will remain un-gummed by soft, curious mouths.

There are no faint warning whines at 5am which you are briefly tempted to ignore, but which you know will only escalate in volume the longer you take to get your butt downstairs and pour a cup of goddamned kibble in a bowl. There is no more resigned mopping up of saliva after the source of the whine wolfs down said kibble way too fast and ends up horking half of it back up onto the floor – only to gobble it down again just as enthusiastically.

But there are also no more warm furry cuddles. No frenzied celebrations upon your return after leaving the room for a mere two minutes. No loving gazes from those innocent, trusting eyes that let you know that you are THE ENTIRE WORLD to this creature.

There is a dog-shaped hole in my heart.

The reason is Penny.

I know we’re not supposed to pick favorites, but Penny was something special. As fond as I was of our first dog, Ellie, who would sit patiently and pretend to listen as I practiced reading aloud to her in my early years; as much fun as I had with our third, Millie, who would flop down on her side and sigh in disgust if you took too long throwing the ratty old tennis ball which was her most prized possession; as much as I adore the sweet, lazy disposition of my parents’ current darling, floppy-eared Dee Dee, who is so stupidly well-behaved that you could leave her alone in a room with a full holiday turkey dinner on the table and she wouldn’t so much as lick a drumstick; I confess, I loved Penny the most.

Penny was the world’s best friend. Penny was a champion snuggler. Penny was the reason we couldn’t have nice things.

She was a nut, like me.

Penny was a dalmatian, a breed best known for being coveted by evil skunk-haired women as raw materials for couture coats, and sitting docilely around fire halls wearing spiffy hats.

Good dog…wait.    Photo by Mr. Jincks on Flickr.

They are unique and fun and super pretty and my best advice if you are ever considering getting one is DON’T.

That may sound odd coming from someone who was just gushing about how much she loved hers, but they are truly not for the faint of heart. People expect sledding and herding dogs to be high-maintenance because it’s in their job description. But when it comes to dalmatians, most people seem to see them as purely decorative.

Don’t. Don’t be fooled. We learned the hard way that dalmatians contain enough self-renewing energy to power a small town until the apocalypse. If you are ever thinking of making one your next pet, you should do two things first.

1. Go pull your copy of 101 Dalmatians off the DVD shelf, laugh maniacally at it, and throw it away.
2. Watch every episode of Looney Tunes that contains the Tasmanian Devil instead, and imagine bringing that into your home.

If you truly have the patience and restraint to forgive the innate lack of either in a dog, then sure, by all means go for it. If you don’t, you and your dalmatian are going to be very unhappy together. Luckily for us and for Penny, after the initial shock wore off we managed to rise to and eventually embrace the challenge of housing a lithe, spotted wrecking ball.

She made our lives hell, and somehow that made us love her all the more.

So without further ado, meet Penny. All thirteen of her.

Penny the Force of Nature

You know how in the old days, dalmatians used to run tirelessly alongside horse-drawn firefighting wagons?

They still think it’s the old days.

Dalmatians feel the need…the need for speed. And if you don’t have a horse, a wagon, or a fire as a reason to spring into action, they’ll just make something up.

Before we got Penny, the back fence of our yard was supplemented by a thick wall of rhododendrons and azaleas. I used to like to walk in the narrow space between the chain link and the towering greenery; it felt like my own small Secret Garden.

But by the time Penny was done with the yard, she had carved an entire nature trail out of that green wall, and she ran it regularly with the zeal of a professional driver on a closed course. During the summer she would kick up such large and lasting clouds of dust during her circuits, it looked like our yard was suffering from a localized dog-shaped sandstorm.

I’m betting Imhotep and Penny would’ve been BFFs.

Penny the Escape Artist

Our yard was fenced and gated, but Penny was crafty. In no time at all she had figured out how to unlatch the gate, and then it was time to go exploring.

She was never hard to find; her first destination was always the house next door, where she would make short work of any fallen crabapples from the neighbor’s tree.

It was catching her that was the hard part.

Penny the Troll

Penny was faster and nimbler than you, and she not only knew it, she was kind of a dick about it. Once she was discovered, she would stay put until you were a mere couple of feet away from her. But the second you got close enough to start reaching for that collar, she would get The Gleam in her eye. The “I’m Going to Bolt” Signal.

And then she was off again, dancing effortlessly past your reaching hands as you made a futile grab. Thoroughly pleased with herself, she would scamper down the block a bit…and then stop. And look back at you. Waiting. Gleaming. Daring you.


Only with the promise of food would Penny willingly, albeit warily, trot back over and allow herself to be leashed and led back home. We weren’t particularly happy about rewarding her douchenozzle behavior with food, but let’s face it, she was already rewarding herself with the crabapples, and she would just find something else to eat anyway.

Penny the Dog Who Ate Everything

The world was Penny’s entrée. In her early days when she was small, she made do with devouring the armrest on my father’s (formerly) beautiful leather armchair, and pulling up and swallowing bits of carpet fiber. Pine cones were also a favorite treat. My mother used to keep decorative baskets of them sprinkled with potpourri around the house, but after several incidents these were quickly moved to safer heights. Although we had to admit, the potpourri did make for slightly fresher breath.

Then Penny grew large enough to reach up on the counters, and that’s where the real bounty was to be had.

Memorable countertop casualties of Penny included my father’s old and supple leather wallet, the brand new wallet he bought to replace it, an abundance of Christmas ornaments, a picture of herself, two entire loaves of bread – plastic, twist ties and all – and three large slices of chocolate cake intended to be our dessert on my mother’s birthday.

Penny the Preservationist

It is worth noting that since the three large slices of chocolate cake were for a special occasion, they had been served out on our nicer dessert plates. Penny managed to devour all three slices and lick the plates spotlessly clean without moving a single one out of place, because while she was perfectly willing to tear up our yard, chew up our furniture and steal our food, she drew the line at breaking the fine china.

“What do you take me for, some kind of animal?” – Penny

Penny the Garbage Disposal

The pet owners among you probably gasped at the dangerous implications of a dog eating three slices of chocolate cake, and I would have too – had it been any dog except Penny.

Penny’s digestive system was a scientific enigma. Oblivious to us tearing our hair out watching for any sign she might need to be rushed to the vet, she never suffered a single ill effect from any of the random things she ate. The same could not be said for the pair of giant Newfoundlands across the street, whose owners accidentally left them alone with a large box of specialty chocolates while they were out Christmas shopping and came home to Barfapalooza.

Penny the Turd Taster

Penny enjoyed everything she ate so much that she made it her mission to savor it again once it came out the other end. Any attempts to curtail this behavior resulted in the appearance of Penny the Troll. The moment she saw you heading for the poo shovel, there was The Gleam, and she would go into overdrive, gobbling down as much delicious dookie as she could before you managed to scoop the rest away.

We tried all the tips we could find to discourage her, to no avail. “Look at her,” my father remarked as we watched her delightedly down poop nugget after poop nugget that we had just doused liberally with hot sauce. “We’re just seasoning it for her.”

Penny the Fountain

Have I mentioned that Penny enjoyed eating? I’m pretty sure she never stopped thinking about food even while she was concocting one of her crazy plans to turn our house upside down for no reason. And the second that food went from hypothetical to probable, that’s when the drool began.

In our wildest dreams, we did not see that sheer volume of drool coming. Excessive drool was supposed to be for hulking, boxy-faced dogs with huge, blubbery jaws and sagging jowls. Penny did not fit that description. Penny was dainty. Penny was ladylike.

Penny was Niagara fucking Falls.

I have never seen so much slime come out of one animal. At the sight of anything remotely edible, long, viscous strings of saliva would begin to flow; watery stalactites growing ever longer until they finally broke and formed twin pools on the floor. Penny getting excited over the promise of food was what I imagine setting up the Ghostbusters library scene must have been like.

The “Penny Was Here” wing of the New York Public Library.

Penny the Giver

Despite her willful disobedience, perpetual criminal behavior and gluttonous leaking, Penny was a sweet and generous soul. She refused to greet you without picking up something to offer you first. Sometimes it would be a favorite toy. More often than not it was one of the throw pillows off the couch. Occasionally she would bring over one of my father’s slippers, drop it at your feet, and then go get the other one.

Once she brought half a bird up to the back door for my mother. My mother respectfully declined the gift.

Penny the Taker

My parents didn’t believe in children having locks on their doors, my door didn’t believe in staying firmly shut on its own, and Penny didn’t believe in the “no dogs allowed upstairs” rule. So whenever Penny the Escape Artist outsmarted the improvised barrier my father rigged up to keep her from wandering the second floor of the house, one push of the nose on my door and Penny could browse my belongings at her leisure. But she never touched a single thing, except Freckles.

Freckles was a plush dalmatian puppy that my parents bought me after we got Penny. I kept him tucked away with the rest of my stuffed toys in my old baby bassinet, and this was clearly unacceptable to Penny. How on earth, she mused, could a non-dalmatian be an adequate mother figure to this sweet polka-dotted darling? No, if Freckles belonged anywhere, it was with her. So whenever she managed to sneak upstairs, she would head straight for my room, delicately remove Freckles from his place in the bassinet, and carry him back downstairs, where she would gently groom him and shower him with affection.

I was fairly indignant at first, but once Freckles began to spend most of his time in the wash cycle due to repeatedly being mouthed by Penny the Turd Taster, I had a hygiene-related change of heart, and gave Freckles to Penny for keeps. She couldn’t believe her luck.

The happiest dog in the world.

Penny the Fumbler

Despite her quick reflexes and sharp, calculating mind, Penny never quite got the hang of the game of “Catch”. While Millie, her junior by six months, could execute an all-out aerial ballet in her graceful leaps for her coveted tennis ball, Penny was a hopeless case.

It’s not that she didn’t want to catch the ball. By all appearances she wholeheartedly did want to catch the ball. But somehow in this one area, the mechanics of being a dog eluded her. She must have watched Millie successfully catch a ball hundreds of times, yet her brain could only lock onto one thing: “Humans catch with their hands, not with their mouths, so I shall catch with my hands as well.”

Nobody could explain to her the significance of opposable thumbs in this plan.

And so, any time a flying object came hurtling towards her face, whether it be ball, stick, or disc, Penny would rear up on her hind legs and embark on a wild and misguided flailing of the forepaws which almost universally failed to neutralize the incoming missile.

We eventually just stopped trying to throw things to her, which might have been her plan all along.

That moment when you realize your dog is Regina George.

Penny the Leaning Machine

“This one won’t be fed from the table,” my mother vowed when we brought Penny home. “This one won’t be allowed up on the couch.”

Famous last words.

Penny was a people person and an insatiable snuggler. Why on earth would she spend her time curled up alone on the floor when she could drape herself over one of her favorite humans on a nice overstuffed sofa? Penny would have her cuddles, oh yes. And if you wouldn’t watch Seinfeld down on the carpet with her, then she was damn well going to be up on the couch with you.

We gave in and slipcovered the chairs.

Soon after came the leaning.

Penny would begin by wandering over to the couch nonchalantly enough. Casually hop onto the cushion next to you and give it a long, lazy sniff. Then, with a great sigh, she would plunk her butt down as close to yours as she could manage. And sitting up nice and tall, she would commence the patented Penny Lean.

First contact was always made by the shoulder with a decisive thump. Then, gradually, Penny would shift the rest of her weight over your way until all 53lbs of her were cutting off circulation to your arm. And then – the pièce de résistance – she would twist around, lean back and smack her bony skull into lay her head gently on your shoulder and stare adoringly upside-down at you with those mahogany brown eyes that could melt even the hardest of hearts, even as you were hoping to god she wouldn’t try to lick you, because we all knew where that tongue had been.

Heaven help you if you ever tried to sit next to anyone but Penny on that couch. Double the humans meant double the snuggles, and Penny would do whatever she had to to wedge herself between two warm bodies. My 11th grade boyfriend, a dog owner himself, blithely took it in stride when we had to watch movies at my house as a Penny sandwich. Other guests were less enthused.

Penny the Angel

A good many of Penny’s alter egos had a mischievous streak, it’s true. But when Penny was good, she was very very good. I have never in my life seen an animal so humble and grateful and just happy to be here on this beautiful earth. And as time passed and she learned how to mellow out a little, she only became even more sweet-natured. Even The Gleam became almost tongue-in-cheek.


And as fun as it is to reminisce about all her wacky antics, infamous as they were, what I remember above all is the love. Even my no-nonsense father, who made scarlet-faced threats to get rid of Penny every other week in the early days, fell madly and hopelessly in love with the gentle soul hiding within that whirlwind of mischief. She was a bright spark that made all life before her seem dull and grey.

Penny died at home, asleep on her favorite spot on the couch, at the age of 12. She had spent the final year of her life at odds with an aggressively growing bone cancer in her shoulder, and it was her time to go. My mother, in her grief, accused me of being heartless because I didn’t cry, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. My heart wanted desperately to break, but every time it tried, the remembrance of the pure, utter jubilation that radiated from every fiber of Penny’s being would knit it back together again stronger than before.

Penny was the first dog whose life I had participated in from start to finish. Ellie was already well into old age and suffering from congestive heart failure when I came into the world; I was too young to understand it was a mercy when we helped her slip away, and all I felt was anger and loss at her passing. But with Penny, I had been there for every joyful first as well as every painful last. I had witnessed a complete life, short by human standards, but as wholly celebrated as any of us could hope for. And there was so much love, so much love crammed into that small lifetime that would continue to live on. With that knowledge, I was content. My beautiful friend had gone peacefully, surrounded by everything and everyone that made her happiest, and I was glad for her.

What an utter joy and privilege it is to give a dog a full and happy life. I look forward with all my heart to having the chance to do it again.


20 thoughts on “The many personalities of Penny.

  1. What a great post! We had a Rottweiler named Buster from when he was a tiny little cuddly bear until he died of old age at 13. He was much the same as your description of Penny (couldn’t catch a ball for shit, destroyed anything he touched) but was such a lovely friendly and loyal dog. We also can’t have pets in our apartment because we rent it, but I do miss having someone who is ecstatically happy to see you every single time, even if you were only out of the house for 10 minutes.

    I also torture myself looking at pictures of cute dogs, get a load of this:


  2. My wife says I married her for her dogs. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it is because of her that for more than twenty years I’ve lived with Dalmatians. My total unconditional love for every Dalmatian we’ve had has nothing to do with being unable to read this entire post at once, though. There’s some dust or something in my office that kept getting in my eye.

    Thank you for making me laugh and love Penny, and for your stern warnings to would-be Dalmatian owners.


    • And thank you for the lovely comment! Curse those darn dusty offices.

      Two decades of polka dotted happiness…ah, the bliss. The bliss and the eternal dog hair. It’s been years since I moved out and I’m still finding Penny hairs hiding out among my things, stuck here or there in an old scarf or coat lining, like little nostalgia javelins.


  3. Awww… I love Penny. And I hate Dalmations, sorry. I have a Penny, though, she’s a Newfoundland, or as I like to call her, an ottoman.
    She was crazy busy as a pup, into everything and completely unaware that she weighed in at an impressive 115lb, but now she’s an adult, a warm footstool for me, and a sloppy tongue for the kids. We love her very much.
    I can’t imagine life without dogs. You need one.


    • I know. I’m going a bit crazy without one of my own. I’ve been looking for volunteer opportunities at shelters to at least help improve the lives of a few abandoned souls until I can take one home, but it seems like everyone else had the same idea because I haven’t found an opening yet.


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