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August 17, 2017

Lessons From a Hellhound to a Father

Mr. Eko, my first dog, was affable, adventurous and even tempered. I felt quite proud (some might say smug) of the well-mannered pup I raised and trained. I’d look at Eko and marvel at how my puppy grew into the dog I decided he would be. Because I once believed my dogs were only shaped by my decisions. I was certain their personalities were simply the sum of my choices. Then I met Penny.
Mr. Eko, my first dog, was affable, adventurous and even tempered. I felt quite proud (some might say smug) of the well-mannered pup I raised and trained. I’d look at Eko and marvel at how my puppy grew into the dog I decided he would be. Because I once believed my dogs were only shaped by my decisions. I was certain their personalities were simply the sum of my choices. Then I met Penny. “I think you’re ready, but watch out for that one, Will.” Those were John’s words when I carried Penny across the threshold of his front door. John had matched me with Eko a few years prior, and when I told him I’d like to add an adventurous little sister to the mix he paired me with Penny. “She’ll be an adventure alright,” John said with a laugh. I matched John’s smile, not understanding his good humor came from wisdom while mine was born of garden variety idiocy. With blissful ignorance I gave John a wave and drove off. Ignorance has a bad rap, but I’m increasingly convinced it’s the only way anything of value gets done. If you had listed the destruction, frustrations and general mayhem that little puppy would unleash on my life I would have turned my car right around. Instead I drove on, daydreaming about the life I’d decided to have. Penny would be Eko’s cute side kick – a bouncy, delightful sweetheart. We lived an adventurous life, so Eko would be there to comfort and protect Penny when the world overwhelmed her. As we now know, it was the world which needed protection from being overwhelmed by Penny. My first inkling Penny missed the memo about the life I’d decided upon for her was when we stopped at my mom’s house before our drive back to Chicago. Eko saw what I didn’t and wisely pushed his way past Penny through the swinging door. Auggie, my mom’s six-month-old Old English Sheepdog, was not as fortunate. Though about a third his size, Penny brawled Auggie into exhaustion, stole his bed and then used him as a blanket. Nevertheless, I felt if I made the right choices I would be rewarded with the right outcome. I proceeded to make the exact same decisions for Penny as I had for Eko. We went to the same puppy classes, but where Eko was valedictorian Penny was voted Most Likely To Have A Natural Disaster Named After Them. We did the same loose-leash training, but where Eko trotted past other dogs Penny was insistent she play with every single one. Recall at the dog beach came naturally to Eko but I literally had to buy new shoes in order to have a hope of catching Penny. Finally, after a particularly egregious wave of furniture destruction, I accepted Penny was not the dog I thought she should be. The dog I wanted her to be. The dog I long ago decided she must be. I admitted to myself that while I had given her all my love and effort, I never gave her a proper chance to be herself. To assert her identity independent of Eko. More importantly, her identity independent of me. “Penny Mayhem,” I said, marveling at her latest caper. The name felt right the moment I said it.  Like that had always been her name and it just took me some time to realize it. A group of us had just watched Penny lead a pack of dogs across the beach like some mad Pied Piper. Flying and turning and weaving, Penny ran her playmates until they lay panting in the sand. She promptly trotted back to me with her mischievous, “Okay, whose next?” look. “That girl is a force of nature!” one woman remarked. Indeed she is. And I only began to fully appreciate Penny when I embraced her for who she is – a tiny tempest with an off-kilter ridge, off-kilter ears and an off-kilter attitude to match. A dog who will never step paw in the show ring but who embodies the relentless and indomitable spirit of a Ridgeback better than any other I’ve ever met. Once, her spirit would have chased lions. For me, Penny chased off far more frightening things.  After Eko’s sudden death my world went dark. Aphorisms like “If you’re going through hell, keep going” seem wise until the moment you find yourself there and discover hell is pitch black. Not only can you not see where you’re going, you can’t even see yourself. But I was not alone. We carry our dogs places inside ourselves no other person can ever visit, and as my soul sank so too did Penny. How long I would have wallowed in darkness on my own, who knows? Penny did not wait to find out. Her world had been torn apart just as mine had, but where my fire for life was extinguished hers still burned brightly. And what better guide through hell than my little hellhound? Penny shared her fire with me and we raced through the darkness, each breath a small bellows, fueling a growing flame. Despair feels relentless, but in the end even it found keeping up with Penny Mayhem too exhausting a task. The dog I decided Penny should be the first day I met her never could have saved me this way. Thankfully the dog Penny decided she should be was exactly the dog I needed most. I think about that idea a lot these days when I’m holding my son. Once again I find myself at a beginning, blissfully ignorant about the future. Except this time I’m embracing the questions instead of trying to answer them ahead of time.  Whether pup or person, I’m convinced each are born who they already are. It’s not for us to decide, but to guide. I don’t know who Lincoln will be. I’m certain it’s not who I want him to be. And that, I’ve learned, is a very good thing. He will be the person he needs to be, and my job is to help him be the best version of that person possible. For reasons and times I cannot predict, I know that whoever he is, Lincoln will be exactly the child I always needed.    

Comments for Lessons From a Hellhound to a Father

  1. you said it so well she was the dog you urgently needed that moment…a lionhunter turned into a service dog this moment and that was wonderful. I often feel this for Phenny… he is completely different, but he is the dog what helped me to carry on and to see some light while wandering through the pitch black hell…

    I’m sure your Lincoln will become a wonderful human once … he grows up with fabulous parents and with two fabulous pups, so he will be a human once with a heart of gold…

  2. Fran says:

    I m so happy u had penny thru your darkness. She keeps things interesting to me. So glad u got zero cause u n penny needed her in ur dark times. LOVE this blog. Hugs to all

  3. Victoria Coleman says:

    Amazing how life lessons can come from man or beast but if we listen close enough and open our hearts we learn those life lessons and become a better person to others and ourselves.

  4. Connie Taylor says:

    Penny was brought into your life for many reasons. None more important at the time than helping you slowly recover from the loss of Eko. I foresee many great and mischievous adventures between her and Lincoln when he gets older. She will also help shape the person he will become in life.

  5. Tiffanie says:

    Your insight and articulation never ceases to amaze me. Penny gave you a run for your parenting money, and you remained unconditionally hers. You didn’t give up on her, or trade her in for a mellow dog. And these lessons, as you have already realized, will make you an amazing Parent. Our family has 3 human kids, and they are each hardwired so differently, and each stage of life is handled by them differently. It is an incredible journey to release another human out to the world. Thank you for your blogs, I wish you peace and happiness.

  6. Exactly. The world is uninterested in what we want. So we’re forced to carry on in order to find what we need. We can resent that fact or embrace it. Thankfully we’re learning to do the latter.

  7. Listening is the tough part! Thankfully Penny’s persistence drilled through my think skull.

  8. Penny shaping Lincoln, now that’s a scary thought!

  9. So beautiful, and so inspiring, as your posts so often are.

    My wife’s dog, Zoe, has also inspired a few posts of lessons she has taught me.

    Thanks for reinforcing these many life-lessons our dogs teach us.

  10. Thanks for the kind words and the encouragement. Both are appreciated, especially from someone who has been there before (3x!)

  11. Emmadog says:

    Lincoln may be the teenager from hell down the road, but you will love him. Bailie was Mom’s first taste of a wild child who does what she wants. She is timid in new surroundings, but if she feels comfortable, look out. Madison, on the other paw, is wild and fearless. Every person and pet is different and perfect in their own way. Hard as it is sometimes, the sooner we accept that, the better life is.

  12. Turok says:

    Will, I’m still waiting the publishing of all your writings! You’re born to be a writer disguised in this perfect dog owner, well, you’re growing to be both who gives us a lot to ponder!

  13. TheRidgebackLife says:

    I wonder if John was snickering behind your back as you strode down the walk with Penny tucked into your arms. All smiles and hope for the future. I’m sure he’s quite relieved you turned out to be the perfect person for the little hellhound. It still amazes me how breeders know their puppies so well, that they’re able to match personalities. We chose Neeka and she tested us constantly in the first couple years. Couches, coffee table, shoes, books, all we’re on her list for destruction. Khoi was matched to us. He tested our supervisory skills. If it ran, he chased it. If it didn’t run, he chased it until it did. We have Penny split into two dogs. And we love them both unconditionally. Our kids think we love them more.

  14. meANXIETYme says:

    Beautifully written, both with the haunting bittersweet feelings of guilt and joy. Thanks for sharing your insights on your experiences…it’s just amazing to go along on this adventure with you and your entire family!

  15. bibi says:

    Thanks for your BLOG. We lost our perfect Ridge Back a few weeks ago. Now we have decided to take a puppy again. You are probably right- Tsala is going to be different and probably cause much more trouble than our loved one, but I hope we`re ready for it!

  16. Ohhhh how I LOVED this and you are sooooooooooo right! “Whether pup or person, I’m convinced each are born who they already are. It’s not for us to decide, but to guide.” Insightful, BRILLIANT and spot on!!! I have no doubt, with yours and Emily’s guidance/nurturing, you are going to be bursting with pride with Lincoln!

  17. Kismet says:

    Oh no-Penny will train Lincoln.

  18. Andrew says:

    Hi Will, we’ve decided to jump headfirst into the fire and get a Ridgeback brother for our Leo. Wish us luck!

  19. As the saying goes, “from the mouths of pups”. You are doing well as a parent young grasshopper.

  20. Pat says:

    Warm praise of Miss Mayhem and her role in your life. Can’t wait to see who Lincoln is. 🙂

  21. And I’m glad it didn’t take me until Lincoln is a teenager to figure that out!

  22. Ha, thanks! I’ll have to get my act together here and figure out a worthwhile way to get my thoughts in one place.

  23. I’m sure he was! It’s pretty incredible how early puppy personalities shine through, and word on the street is that will start to happen with Lincoln in the next few months.

  24. Thank you! I’m glad I have somewhere to share my follies and fortune.

  25. It’s never easy beginning again and opening your heart, but it’s always worthwhile. Best of luck!

  26. That’s the plan, but as we’ve learned, the plan always goes out the window!

  27. That’s awesome! I’ve no doubt it will be a great adventure.

  28. Haha, thanks! I’m doing my best. Things will get interesting once Lincoln starts going mobile.

  29. Who knew how helpful a touch (or heaping) of chaos could be in one’s life?

  30. meANXIETYme says:

    I meant *grief* not guilt. I’m so sorry I didn’t catch that typo. 🙁

  31. So enjoyed this. Beautiful writing, beautiful pictures. Penny Mayhem is a dog after my own heart.

  32. René L. Hester says:

    Well said, yet again Will. You and Emily are wonderful parents and Lincoln will bring you lots of joy, as your three Rhodesians have; Eko is never far away & the lives you forge built on memories will carry you through the good & bad times. I personally cannot imagine my life without my furry friends. They are part of my family and help shape me and my life. I see that clearly in the life you’ve made for your family. I always look forward to reading your blog and seeing images of your entire family, especially funny happenings with Penny & now Xero! Thank you for sharing!

  33. Thank you! Penny is a dog after…well, she’s pretty much after everything in this world.

  34. Always glad to have a place to share my follies, fortunes and experience. I’m lucky to have my dogs, and so is Lincoln. Both as he grows, and for all the lessons I learned long before he showed up.

  35. Elyse says:

    Beautiful testament to all of you.

    My son is exactly the person he was as a small child — I agree wholeheartedly with your observation.

  36. laetitia says:

    The Penster, we call her here. I just love that head with those ears and that face… I have her many faces and expressions as screen saver on my computer. At times when I tend to get too serieus while working or at moments when life delivers punches at me, all I have to do is to look at her face and I lighten up instantly. She has no idea what an inspriration she has been for us here on the other side of the ocean. Miss Mayhem, you are the best. Never change. Thank you for being you.

  37. coastingnz says:

    Eko never stops teaching – his physical presence may not be there but his spirit always is reminding you of the lessons learnt. Penny has been able to shine – show you and teach you and like you say, who’d have thought….. now with Zero and Lincoln you have some tools in your box you might not have had otherwise to face this next chapter together. Looking back can be very painful but also very rewarding and enlightening.

  38. Jo Rhodes says:

    I’m so glad your girl has a fun streak in her. At least your grey hairs will be about mischief that hopefully won’t be too dangerous. My boys weren’t socialized properly and are menaces in unfamiliar territory…They have a prey drive to match, so recall is met with a “Who’s that you’re calling?”
    I am grateful your rambunctious, gentle girl.
    Phase one of world domination complete. Everybody who’s smart loves Penny.
    Yours in mischief, Jo, Sam and Dean

  39. Such wisdom! Dogs are great teachers. So are babies. And experience. And ignorance.

  40. What a delightful post on the what if’s and what should be’s. Luckily reality is seldom like our intellect, and that’s most likely the very best thing.

  41. Sharon Benson says:

    Beautifully written. I have a 28 and a 26 year old and they are who they are. Completely different but from the same parents.

    We lost our 11 year old therapy golden retriever Carlee on Juky 9th of heart disease. So extremely heartbroken . We loved her so much and the house is too quiet. Hopefully we will be able to get another golden sometime in the future. She was our baby after the kids graduated college & moved away. What can I say…

  42. Well said………Guiding is all we can do because the inner spirit and direction in ALL of us is there from the instant we are created. Our relationships with our pets, our families, our friends – it all helps us learn how to BE “good guides”. You certainly have had some wonderful training to get to this realization and Eko played no small part in that for sure…………..the wheel keeps turning!

    Hugs, Pam and Teddy too

  43. janieleeds says:

    What a beautiful story! I love the feisty Penny! Accepting her for who she is makes you an incredible father of humans and dogs! Keep up the great work!

  44. Ellen Quilty says:

    Ahh Penny Mayhem! Nature vs Nurture.Eventhough she had the same upbringing as Eko it looks as though nature won out!Nothing wrong with that.We call our girl Nikki Mishap or Million Dollar Girl due to her propensity for bizarre injuries and the amount of money she has cost me in vet bills.
    So you see there is always something but we wouldn’t trade these ladies for anything!

  45. Donna Joyner says:

    Ah,Will, your gift for writing knows no bounds. When my black Labrador , Andy, passed;I really thought I was going no never be happy again. My daughter felt the only thing that could help was another dog. It really was that bad. So, here we go to the SPCA on Friday. She knew they had several Labrador litters for adoption. My plan was to take my time , make damn sure I got one that had the closest personality to my Andy. Which was very laid back, obidient, submissive, quiet and devoted. So I spent 2 hrs with all the different puppies before settling on a little black one that was the only one that wasn’t wide open and jumping up and down on their back legs saying “Pick me!”. In fact, the staff said he was always off in the corner quietly laying down or sleeping when his siblings were romping and playing. Perfect, I thought!. Well, Axel is definitely NOT submissive, laid back, obidient or quiet…..at all. It took all of 3 hrs for the real Axel to come out. He is devoted though, so 1 out of 4 ain’t bad. He is 100% wiiiide open, all the time. Has absolutely no recall off leash, and has more energy in a day than Andy had in a week. Wooooweee! But I love Axel as much as I loved Andy and you couldn’t get for any amount of money now. So your post certainly hit home. Oh yeah, Axel did his job as far as getting me to find happiness again.

  46. That was a very touching perspective and so true. Thank you for sharing your Great thoughts.

  47. Orville Roache says:


    Thank you for your videos on Echo, Penny, and Zero. My RR Sheeba (3) love to sit and watch them. We lost our first RR Lhadie @ 2.5 years in 11/2013 due to an enlarged heart and arrhythmia. If you don’t mind answering, what did Echo pass from suddenly?


  48. Hey Orville,

    An official necropsy wasn’t completed in time on Eko so we never got a final answer, but after consultation with both our vet and the emergency vet a sudden cardiac issue was given as the most likely reason.

  49. That’s a great story! The path we take is rarely the one we “want.”

  50. Orville Roache says:


    I’m very sorry to hear that. Heart conditions are so rare in the RR that the cardiologist that examined Lhadie said it was the first time he’d ever seen the breed in his office. 0.01%. They actually checked the rest of the litter and they were all fine. She was my first dog ever and perfectly trained (if ever such a thing) so it was devastating for me and the family. However Sheeba has been a godsend and has provided us with a glimpse of what the true RR energy is like. Lhadie from 8 months on looking back was showing the effects of the heart issue. We just didn’t know it. Anyway thanks for replying and again we enjoy the v-blog.

  51. Anne says:

    Will… you have the ability to take me from laughing until I cry, to crying until I laugh. Thanks!!!

  52. This was beautiful! <3

  53. Amy says:

    I started crying again when you described your loss of Echo. It’s what I went through a year ago when I lost my Lexi. She was a great combination of both Echo and Penny. I am glad Penny is there for you, and helped you learn so much. (I found your blog through Bacon at Piglove.)

  54. greg says:

    Hello! Just welcomed a RR pup into our Chicago home. King Francis as we call him! Would love for him to meet and learn from Penny and Zero! Let me know if you’re ever interested, we’re on Southport in Lakeview, will be making frequent trips to the park and montrose! [email protected]


  55. niraheto says:

    Have had my boy RRB boy Akeem for 3 1/2 months just on 6 monthys old have just had a frontal labotamy or a stroke as i got a phone call from the breeder stating that a family had stuffed her around and she had a little girl available if we wanted here instead of waiting till October guess what we pick up our new little livernosed girl tomorrow from a house that sort of resembled a little bit of order to a house with no order Oh my God. once you have had a Ridgeie you will never look back this is my 2nd and 3rd my wife and kids love the one we have to pieces. Oh well life will never be the same again

  56. T&S says:

    every word and feel the same.
    Our male is the perfect calm dog, our female is like the wind… He is my heart, she is my joy.

  57. Sophie says:

    I always love whatever you write. You have a way with words that makes me long so much for my own Rhodesian Ridgeback. Maybe one day, I can be like you and have a few that I can reminisce on whilst I watch the present puppy play!

  58. Graham says:

    Lovely account of your dogs. Our 1 year old sounds a bit like Penny, full of life and mischief! Wouldn’t have her any other way! ❤️

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