In April of 1988, in a somewhat irrational move, I went to the Humane Society in Peterborough, Ontario and got myself a dog.
The move was irrational mostly because I was living with three roommates in a smallish apartment, the dog in question not house trained, and two of the three roommates were in the middle of final exams. Suffice to say that a lot of things that weren’t supposed to get peed on did get peed on, and I stretched the roommate patience boundaries to their limits.
It was also irrational because, although we had dogs growing up, I knew next to nothing about real life dog care, especially when living in a city. And I had certainly never trained a dog before.
The dog I choose was named Penny. Although I would never name a dog Penny myself, I considered it bad luck to change her, so Penny she stayed.
Penny was born in Scarborough. When she came into my life she was 4 months old, and, to be charitable, was somewhat “out of control.” Although I never learned Penny’s back story, I always attributed birth in Scarborough, and the mysterious journey to the Peterborough Humane Society, as the cause of her mild insanity, and tried very hard never to hold it against her.
At the end of the school term, after everything that could be peed on had, we roommates went our separate ways, and I moved into an abandoned house at 107 Hazlitt Street in Peterborough’s left-bank “East City” neighbourhood. The location was perfect for Penny, as the house fronted on 25 acres of park land on the banks of the Otonabee River, giving her plenty of room to roam wild and free and live an almost country-dog existence.
It was over that summer that, despite my attempts to steer her on the right path, Penny gained a reputation as an irascible dog.
Some of this was deserved, of course: she, somewhat famously, ate the Birkenstocks of my friend Stephen, who became my roommate on Hazlitt Street shortly after Penny and I moved in.
And I do recall her eating, among other things, a pound of butter and several heads of broccoli.
On the way to Division St. Fish and Chips in Kingston she did jump out of the moving car, albeit at low speed and suffering no ill effect as a result.
It must be said, to Penny’s credit, that summer was one full of various self-administered intoxicants, so some of her whacky behaviours might have been imagined or at least exaggerated.
The one thing Penny never really learned to do under my watch was to come when she was called. I tried, oh I tried. And I did develop several tricky maneuvers that involved throwing sticks into the waiting Datsun 510, with hopes that a deluded Penny would bound in to fetch them, only to be trapped by a quick close of the car door.
These maneuvers were made somewhat easier by Penny’s primary behavioural characteristic which was a love of the fetch. Penny was a Lab-Spaniel cross. And although she had the size and ears of a Spaniel, the Lab parts of her brain won out. She would fetch anything. Endlessly. I never, ever saw her get tired. The look on her face during a good long throw-fetch session was one of pure grace and contentment. Indeed it was her proficiency at the fetch that, if not won over, at least drew some of her doubters away from the brink.
There are three episodes from Penny’s early years that further draw a picture of her unusual nature. The first occurred on Heydon Island, the Muskoka retreat of my good friends George and Leslie. Penny and I were invited to spend the week at Heydon Island that summer. For Penny, who revelled in being let to run free, Heydon Island was a paradise: I literally let her loose when we docked on the first day, and collared her only when it was time to leave.
On the morning of the second or third day, I woke up around 7:00 a.m. and found Penny, who despite her wild and free Island days would always find me to sleep near, nowhere to be found. Thinking that perhaps she had decided to make an early day of it, I got up and headed off to the “dip dock,” a small wooden dock on the deeper-water side of the Island that George and Leslie’s son Stefan called the “dip dog” because of Penny’s delight in jumping from it.
When I got to the dip dog, I heard Penny, whimpering quietly. But I couldn’t locate her. After some searching, eventually I realized that she was under the dip dog: somehow she had managed to jump off the dock, and then swim underneath, but the waves lapping against the dock prevented her from extricating herself. I summoned George, and together with the help of a crowbar, we managed to pry off one of the dock’s planks and free Penny. She bounded up out of the underworld and went off running to play some more.
The following summer, my girlfriend Mary Clare and I headed out west for several weeks. We decided to stop for three days in Winnipeg to take in the Folk Festival. We arrived there at about 3:00 a.m., exhausted after a drive straight from Thunder Bay. We quickly set up our tents and, unable to constrain Penny and Sam (Mary Clare’s dog), we let them out of the tent to play amongst themselves through the night.
When we woke up the next morning, we found that Penny (and it surely was Penny, as Sam was never devious) had made a night of wandering around to other campsites and gathering for us things she thought might be useful: there was a nice lower-lumbar support cushion for the car, a plastic water bottle, and several other items. We had no choice, of course, but to keep these items, as they could have come from anywhere. If we had wanted, Penny and I could have hacked out a very lucrative life of crime together.
The next summer, I was working at Trent Radio and, because of a kind manager, Penny was able to come to work with me most days. One day I working downstairs in the studio, having left Penny to sleep upstairs in our second floor offices. The phone rang. It was someone calling from Tom’s Square Pizza across the street. “Do you know that there’s a dog on your roof?”, they said.
It seems that Penny had woken up and decided that the open window, which led to a gently sloping roof, was too good an opportunity to pass up. So she leaped onto the desk and out the window onto the roof. Where she was spotted by our helpful neighbour. By the time I’d gotten the phone call and hurried outside, she had miraculously made it down from the roof into the yard, which would require a brave leap of perhaps 12 feet down.
Midway through our second summer together, I decided that Penny needed to be trained. While her antics were sometimes hilarious, I was concerned that, left to her own devices, she would do harm to herself or others. So Penny and I signed up for classes with Fred Primeau, professional dog trainer.
For reasons I cannot recall, my car wasn’t working at the time, so Penny and I actually had to hitchhike to Fred Primeau’s for our weekly sessions, which was always a challenge, especially in the rain.
If I had ever doubted the usefulness of professional dog training, Fred Primeau disabused me of all doubt. While it’s not quite accurate to say that Penny was a “changed dog” after our 7 or 8 sessions, the training did have a rather dramatic effect on both of us (I’ve always maintained that Fred actually training the people, not the dogs). Even some of Penny’s greatest critics noticed the change in her behaviour and “controllability,” and day to day Penny-management became much easier for both of us.
The most dramatic event ever to befall Penny and I occurred our last spring together. I was headed off on vacation somewhere, and Penny wasn’t able to come with me, so my friend Oonagh graciously agreed to look after her while I was gone. When I returned from vacation, and went to pick up Penny, Oonagh invited me in for tea, and we let Penny out in her back yard to play.
About 20 minutes later I heard the most terrifying shriek from the street in front of Oonagh’s house, which I immediately felt in my gut was Penny. We ran outside to find a huge American car ground to a halt on the street and a very shaken man getting out to see what he had hit. I was shaking myself.
We leaned down simultaneously to find Penny, splayed on all fours, pinned beneath the engine. She was alive, and looking quite shocked. Fortunately for all concerned, a helpful truck driver stopped at that moment, whipped out a car jack, and jacked up the car. Penny stood up, shook herself off, and walked over to us, apparently none the worse for wear.
The driver of the car was, as you might expect, considerably relieved, as were we. We rushed Penny to the vet to ensure no internal damage had occurred, and found that, in the end, short of a small cut on the lip, she was in fine form.
Which was about as close to a miracle as I’ve ever seen.
Later that year, I had an opportunity to go to El Paso, Texas for several months to care for George and Leslie’s Stefan. As much as I would have liked to bring Penny along, it quickly became evident that wasn’t going to work. Fortunately, my old friend Lorna happened to have just returned to Peterborough, and volunteered to care for Penny while I was gone. As Lorna and Penny had always gotten along quite well, I knew Penny would be in good hands, so off I set.
While I was in Texas, Lorna got an opportunity to move back to the British Columbia, and, not wanting to shirk her commitment to me, took Penny with her. The plan was that, on my return from El Paso, I would swing up through BC and retrieve Penny.
As things turned out, I ran out of money and needed to make a mad dash for Montreal, which was to be my new home, and couldn’t rendezvous with Penny. Although we developed several tentative plans otherwise, it became apparent over the next months that Penny was going to stay with Lorna in the west, which proved, in the end, to be best for Penny, Lorna and I (although I can’t say that I didn’t miss her terribly for long after).
And so, over the next years, Penny switched from being “my dog Penny, who Lorna’s looking after” to “my old dog Penny” to “Lorna’s dog Penny.”
Lorna moved several times after that and, as coincidence would have it, ended up moving to Prince Edward Island several years ago with her new husband and two kids. Catherine and I went out to visit them several times, and I was able to see Penny again, now a sort of “elder statesdog,” still eager for the fetch and able to go, go, go all day but, said Lorna, reconciled to paying for this with an arthritic recovery day following.
Lorna and her family obviously loved Penny dearly, and I counted myself lucky to have been able to have such a kind and loving family take over care for Penny for the balance of her life.
I was in touch with Lorna over the holidays this year, and found that Penny had died last February 3. Lorna apologized for not telling me at the time… “I guess I didn’t know how” was what she wrote yesterday. I know exactly what she meant.
On our way to El Paso, in the summer of 1990, we stopped at a roadside rest stop for a picnic. I had my guitar with me, and brought it out to haggle out some tunes before we headed off. I wrote a little song called “Penny, Super-Dog of the Azores” in that rest step, which Stefan sang for several years after. I still have the tune running through my head.
When you don’t have a dog, it’s easy to get cynical when people start writing about their powerful relationships with their animals. I’m prone to this myself. And yet as I write this, 16 years after picking Penny up from the pound, my throat is clogged and there are tears in my eyes.
So, good-bye to you, Super-Dog. Be well, and keep those other heaven-dogs in check.