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March 26, 2019

“Watch Out For That One. She’ll Test You.”

A few gray hairs huddle together on the underside of Penny’s cheek --- wisely hoping to escape her notice, I suspect. The first and only scar Eko gave her, a nick across the nose during an ambitious foray into his dinner, has faded to all but my own eyes. Past her signature neck whorl is a patina of scrapes, scabs and well worn paw pads. The crown of the ridge running along her back, like the girl herself, remains as reliably off kilter as the day I carried her home.

A few gray hairs huddle together on the underside of Penny’s cheek — wisely hoping to escape her notice, I suspect. The first and only scar Eko gave her, a nick across the nose during an ambitious foray into his dinner, has faded to all but my own eyes. Past her signature neck whorl is a patina of scrapes, scabs and well worn paw pads. The crown of the ridge running along her back, like the girl herself, remains as reliably off kilter as the day I carried her home.


“Watch out for that one. She’ll test you.”

John’s final words to me when I picked up Penny ran through my head yesterday as I watched Miss Mayhem run her head through Zero while wrestling at the beach. Those words have echoed in my mind countless times over the years – usually while surveying the aftermath of one of Penny’s calamities or frantically attempting to prevent another.

But on the dawn before her fifth birthday I felt like I understood the words for the first time. It’s funny how that works. You can know exactly what someone said, replay the same words in the same order for years, yet entirely miss their meaning.

As a young man, I took John’s words as a challenge. A gauntlet laid down before me in the shape of an incorrigible puppy. A warning of the storm to come and a command to rise to the occasion.

Oh, the storm did come. I brought it home with me, actually. Hurricane Penny left pieces of my couches and my psyche indiscriminately strewn in her wake. Penny exposed my weaknesses and failures as a caregiver on a daily basis. Frustrated, I often felt like I couldn’t measure up to the challenge. Like I failed the test.

While the wounds Penny gave my furniture were fatal, the marks she left on me were not. Like the scar on her nose, I suspect only I can see these faded imprints now. But I recognize them for what the are — testimonials of growth. Reminders of painful but necessary lessons for me to become a better version of myself.

Yesterday at the beach, apropos of nothing, Penny took off at full speed down the shore. Zero gave chase for a moment but then settled down to watch the familiar show. Even Rhodesian Ridgebacks pause to watch Penny Mayhem in action.

For a frenzied minute Penny zoomed at nearly impossible angles, piles of sand exploding in each brief moment her paws touched the ground. A tangle of discordant motions somehow coalescing against the laws of nature into a symphony of vitality conducted by my mad maestro.

A biting wind swot around us, the waves roiled along the shore, and at the center of it all was my tiny tempest.

In place of a bow, Penny gave a quick shake and trotted over to us with a “Yup, still got it” tail wag. As if we ever doubted her.

And that’s when I understood John’s words anew. What if they weren’t about doubting Penny’s character,  but about doubting my own?

Watch out for that one.

What if he was speaking to the puppy? What if he was telling Penny how much I would one day need her to look after me? That her indefatigable countenance would provide strength during a moment of reckoning.

What if he knew one day I’d be going through hell, but the Churchillian encouragement of “keep going,” would fall on deaf ears? What if he gifted me a little demon because he knew I would need someone familiar with the joint to drag me out?

She’ll test you.

Maybe it wasn’t a challenge at all. Maybe it was an invocation. One which promised this firebrand puppy would prepare me for what lay ahead. A benediction of blazing spirit which would burn my hands to touch, but build the callouses I needed to hold it tight in my darkest hour.

Of course, John could not have known any of what was to come. And I can no more alter the nature of his words than I can change the nature of the fearless puppy he placed in my arms.

But words, like dogs, can be gifts hidden within themselves. We cannot change the meaning of their nature, but we can change the nature of their meaning. After five years, the words and the dog both mean more to me than ever before.

Many who’ve witnessed Penny’s relentless constitution wonder how I endured the tribulations with her. But my secret is I could not endure without her. The wild puppy who pushed me from my smug complacency, the unrelenting adolescent who demanded a better version of myself, the zealous hunter who hounded the lions of my grief until at last even they relented.

This is Penny’s gift. Underneath her diminutive frame and akimbo ears is an unequivocating force of nature. One which offers no quarter to plan or circumstance, but which always offers a way forward. And woe unto any who block her path.

Today, on her birthday, I feel especially grateful for another year with my mischievous misfit. Not because she is the dog I dreamed she would be, but because she is exactly the dog I most needed her to be.

It’s taken me five years to fully appreciate the meaning of the words and the puppy John gave me that day. Fortunately, Penny’s seemed quite happy to spend her days pushing, pulling and carrying me towards that epiphany.  

I can only wonder how much more Penny will come to mean to me in the days ahead, but no matter what comes, I know she’ll make sure I’m ready.

Ready for what? Just about anything. Happy fifth birthday, Miss Mayhem!

Comments for “Watch Out For That One. She’ll Test You.”

  1. CTaylor says:

    As always, you find the words the rest of us cannot to express all the emotions we are trying to share. Have a wonderful “Pup filled, Ms Mayhem” day!!!!

  2. Laura Tafelsky says:

    Happy Birthday Penny! You truly are a blessing for your family.

  3. Mandy says:

    Gorgeous girl… hapoy birthday Beautiful post

  4. OlRedHair says:

    Happy birthday Penny! What a beautiful post by your dad today. He certainly has a way with words. You are quite a gal!

  5. Happy Birthday Penny…..having a pet is – or should be – a symbiotic relationship….and I’ve been lucky enough for that to be true with my cats. You push, pull, give and take until you are balanced – but never “totally” – and that’s when the lessons come and you learn from each other. Penny knows that….just ask her !!

    Hugs, Pam and Teddy

  6. Uwe says:

    Herzlichen Glückwunsch Penny aus Deutschland ! Happy birthday Penny from Germany !

  7. mamastick says:

    Happy Birthday! I thought I was reading about my black lab, Leo. He was a good time Charlie and there was never a dull moment him. He has been gone 5 years and I still miss him every day.

  8. Cynthia Marquez says:

    This may be absolutely my favorite post ever!!!! You’ve nailed it!

  9. Eve says:

    That is definitely food for thought isn’t it? But yes I agree you got what you needed for you at the time Penny came into your life! AND may I say “Well Done to YOU BOTH!”

    Happy 5th Birthday to little Ms Mayhem Penny!

  10. This post, like so many of yours, Is quite provocative and relevant. My newest pup, now nine months, has tested, challenged, and frustrated me from the moment I brought her home at 4 months old. Boundless, unbridled, and fearless energy she also tests her older and much bigger sisters. When I chose her out of a litter of three the rescue organizer said, “yep, that’s the one I’d pick”. I, like you with Johns words, wasn’t sure what she meant. I’ve never had a pup so vocal and willing to tell me with her body AND voice what she wants, doesn’t like, or just opine on life. I still don’t know what the rescue organizer meant but your post gives me reassurances that there may be a greater purpose to this 52 pound golden retriever we call Koda. I am convinced she will somehow make me a better version of my current self.
    Cheers and happy birthday to Miss Penny.

  11. Happy Birthday Penny! We sure enjoy seeing all the mayhem you bring to your family. Keep on leaping.

  12. Leslie says:

    I’ve only added a comment once before, I think because most times I feel like I would just be restating what everyone else says–how much they love what you write. I love your beautiful writing, and how it makes me laugh and cry at the same time. Anyway, I just want to say THANK YOU for all the time you take to write this blog and share all the wonderful pictures!

  13. Happy Birthday to a very happy girl!

  14. John Arvin - Mystic Isle Ridgebacks says:

    Hi Will, your post today has even more meaning for me than you could ever know. I had to euthanize Penny’s Uncle Reese yesterday at 12 1/2. Still, it was unexpected because it happened as a result of a collision while lure coursing with Penny’s Mother Molly. Life ultimately is a test, and I’m grateful to have found owners such as yourself, Emily and Lincoln to have Penny be her test subjects. Penny I’m sure, will continue to be Penny and I’m always looking forward to her next adventures.
    Happy Birthday to Penny, Bullitt, Australian Penny,Congo, Jake, Red, Cali and Kisco, and may they all have many more!

  15. Lynn Dean says:

    Penny seems to celebrate her birthday EVERY day through her boundless energy, love of life, and affection for everyone and everything around her. What a gift she is for you and those of us who have come to know and love her through your words and images. Happy Birthday Miss Mayhem!

  16. chris says:

    My husband says with each dog we have, we learn something new to help better the lives of the future dogs. None of our dogs seem to have the same issues but my husband also says that each dog comes to us for a reason. That reason in our family is that they know we will seek out the answers such as chiropractic, holistic, homeopathic, etc to better their lives with the issues they may face. I will never be without a dog even as I age because they bring such joy, happiness, giggles and unconditional love to our lives no matter how long or short their time is with us.

  17. Darci says:

    Happy Birthday Penny! What a blessing you are!

  18. Jo Campbell says:

    Beautifully and powerfully written, as always. Happy birthday, Penny, you wonderful whirlwind!

  19. coastingnz says:

    Happy birthday beautiful Penny. You bring us all such joy – all over the world. This day belongs to you, enjoy every minute of it. Snuggles from NZ. xo

  20. RidgebackLife says:

    Neeka has a muzzle full of grey hairs to break up the black mask we fell in love with. She was born two months before Eko, so I frequently wonder if his mask would be peppered as well, or more so after the influence of Ms. Mayhem. I know a lot of Neek’s comes from a life with Khoi and he is just as wild as Penny. So it seems, the fate of our first pups is to reflect the influence of their younger charges. Happy Birthday Ms Mayhem. Khoi is right behind you with his fifth birthday as well.

  21. Laura says:

    Happy birthday, Penny! I’m so happy you keep everyone on their toes, funny girl.

  22. Rikke says:

    Happy birthday sweet Penny ❤️ Hope you had a crazy wild day

  23. Happy Birthday, P. Five looks great on you!

    Love and licks,
    Cupcake

  24. What a wonderful gift this fur ball has turned out for you. Hope her dat was a ‘pawsome’ birthday celebration tearing it up along the beach and in all those hearts who matter the most to her.

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