Penni spent her first year of life in a basement. After that, she was abandoned. After being picked up, she was next in line to be euthanized. Fortunately, she was rescued just in time, and now lives an amazing life!
The early history of Penni isn’t a good one. She spent the beginning of her life locked in the basement of a drug house. There, she was subjected to continuous physical abuse and mental anguish from the owners. Somewhere 1-2 years into her life, though, these owners abandoned her. She was found roaming the streets of the Bronx along with two other dogs by a local police officer. The officer gathered all three dogs and drove them to the pound. Like many pounds throughout the US, though, this pound was well beyond capacity, so Penni was immediately placed on the euthanasia list due to underwhelming results from her evaluation (more of that to come). Luckily, Fur Friends in Need showed up just in time. They removed her from the pound and immediately began her rehabilitation so that she could be adopted.
On the 90-minute drive home, Penni’s demeanor immediately revealed just how nervous she was. She was panting at an uncontrollable pace. She was drooling everywhere. She puked not once, not twice, but three times. Once we got home, it didn’t get any better. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that she was terrified of everything. EVERYTHING! I read her intake papers from the pound over and over looking for an insight, but it was seriously the most depressing dog evaluation imaginable. A basketball, a fork, a grocery bag, a dog toy – everything would send her running to the bathtub. At this point, I couldn’t even begin think about standard training. Instead, my only focus was convincing her that she was safe. Her comfort was my only concern. And she tested this, too. Never has my patience been stretched so far! The easiest way I can explain it is this: if you’d expect a dog to do A, Penni did B. At the end of the day, though, it was simple. I had one goal. If I were to ask Penni about all the things she loved about her life, did she finally have an answer?
So, I’m sitting here with this dog and trying to figure out how to go about this. She’s scared of the wood floors, so I have to carry her through the house. She’s scared of every outdoor noise, so I have to walk her at night. She’s not food motivated, so I can’t use it to help persuade her. There were so many dead ends. Strangest of all, though, was this: sometimes we’d be out walking down the sidewalk, and she would just freeze. It was like she was seeing a ghost. There were times I sat there waiting over 20 minutes – and nothing would happen. So, generally, I would just pick her up, move her two feet forward, then start walking again. Eventually, the solution I arrived at was spending as much time as possible outside. Whether it was walks or dog parks or even sitting by the sidewalk in the front yard, we spent a lot of time outside. And, slowly, glimmers of hope revealed themselves. She wasn’t as jumpy anymore. She was more trusting of people. The shaking in fear was becoming less frequent. By this point, we were a couple of months in and while we had a long way to go, we were making huge progress.
Anyone that has seen any recent pictures of Penni knows that even Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime would be intimidated by her physique. But that certainly wasn’t the case in the beginning. Instead, she looked like this (surprisingly, she weighs more in this picture than she does now).
Just imagine: you’ve been thrown out on the street which is stressful enough. On top of that, you’re in heat. That basically puts your body in the worst chemical imbalance imaginable. So, while I could definitely tell that there was a healthy body somewhere within her, it was masked by droopy skin, excessive dandruff, and bad posture. To fix that, we had to start with the basics. Even though she was somewhere between 1-2 years old, she didn’t know how to run because she had been confined for so long. She was so clumsy! For this first six months, she constantly had a scab on her chin because she couldn’t go more than a couple of days without tripping over her feet. Once she did get the hang of running, the next challenge was understanding when to run. She had no idea how to be a dog! When we initially started going to the dog park, she would just sit in the middle of the grass looking left and right as all the other dogs ran by her. Slowly, it started to click, though. A dog would run by, and she could chase it for a few feet. Then a few feet turned into a few yards. Before I knew it, she was getting some good exercise at the dog park! The other discovery I made at this time was that the beach made her happier than anything on the planet. Each and every time we made it to a beach, she instantly transformed. She sprinted. She rolled around. She played with other dogs. She approached every person she passed. When we were at the beach, it was almost like she had forgotten all about her abuse. During these moments, all I can remember thinking was one thing: I need to get Penni out of the city and into open space.
The impact of being outside was undeniable. Penni still had a ton of reservations whenever we were in the house, but when we were outside, it was another story. The simplest way to put it is that it offered her an element of freedom that she had never encountered. Now, it’s important to know that from the day I got her, I trained her to be off leash. Yes – that absolutely came with some challenges. But in a relatively short amount of time, she became quite reliable. And what that meant was that when we were in the woods, I could “release” her and let her sprint around. I could always trust that when I called her, she would come right back. I’m sure everyone has heard of the zoomies (and if you haven’t, prepare for a several-hour-long YouTube binge once you look it up). Well, Penni epitomized the zoomies in every sense of the word. I’d walk down the trail, and she would just blast left to right. Over and over. It made me so happy to see her acting like a dog! The only problem, though, was that these feelings of bliss could only be short-lived. Although I was 100% committed to walking her at least an hour per day (and even more on the weekends), I knew that wasn’t what I wanted for her. I wanted her to have more freedom. I wanted her to have more. And that meant we had to move. Time to get serious about the job hunt.
On Monday, February 9, 2015, we moved to Las Vegas. Of significance was that I moved on a nine-day notice. This meant we had to fly rather than drive. And, of course, putting a pit on an airplane is a mess since she is an “aggressive breed dog”. While other dogs can board in a standard dog crate, I had to build a mini-fortress per the conditions set forth in the IATA LAR CR82 Crate Requirements (in many ways, these requirements were an extension of the rules that applied for the transport of tigers, bears, and other wild animals, but that’s another story). Now, I’m not the type of person that gets stressed. But with her locked away from me, I had three different dreams about the plane crashing. I was a mess! Fortunately, everything went great. When we landed, I grabbed the rental car and immediately took Penni to the dog park. It was pretty easy to see her confusion. A few hours ago, we were sitting in the snow. Now, it’s 82 degrees and sunny. But she was loving it! I had never quite seen her act this…normal at a dog park! What she didn’t know, though, was we were spending so much extra time at the park because I still didn’t have accommodation arranged. I was fortunate in that the company I worked for was incredibly supportive in making my relocation as easy as possible. They offered temporary living arrangements, but all the “in network” options were anti-dog altogether. And as many of you know, hotels and apartments are some of the most discriminative entities when it comes to breed specific restrictions. And that was my battle. I was being denied time after time. I didn’t want to lie, so I had to change my pitch. I walked into a Holiday Inn Express and asked if they had vacancy. Yes. I asked if I could stay for a month. Yes. I pulled out my card, but before handing it to them I asked if dogs were allowed. They asked what kind of dog. I said a well-trained one. They asked what breed. I said one that serves as an emotional support figure for children that I mentor. They asked of the breed again. Without getting into the details, I then went on a very convincing and very eloquent passive aggressive rant. And guess what? It worked!
While looking for a house to buy, I really only had one deal-breaker: it had to have a big yard that Penni could access via doggy-door whenever she wanted. As you can imagine, that is a commodity in Las Vegas! Now, the good news is that I found the perfect spot. The bad news, though, is the closing took 13 weeks! That put some real strain on the temporary living situation. While the hotel I was at was fit our needs, it was getting pretty expensive. As a result, our daily ritual turned into this. I would bring Penni to work with me at 7:00. She would stay in the back of the truck until 8:00 when the kennel opened, then I would walk her over. I’d typically pick her up around 5:00, then we’d head straight to the dog park. While she played, I’d search for the best hotel deal of the night. Naturally, after several nights of this, I became less inclined to mind the dog rules. I will admit – there were quite a few nights where I had to sneak Penni into the hotel. This got old in a hurry. By a stroke of luck, though, I found a friend of a friend that moved out of her apartment, so we were able to stay there a few weeks. Predictably, the complex didn’t allow pits, but at this point, it was worth the risk. All this aside, we were taking full advantage of the spring weather in the desert. Penni was starting to reveal her true identity as an adventure dog, and I was doing everything I could to cultivate that!
In May of 2015, we moved into my new house. It had now been just over a year since I first picked her up from the rescue group. Her progress up until this point was nothing less than amazing. The problem, though: I felt like I was completely failing her. Even though she was having the time of her life every time we went on a hike, her behavior at home brought a new meaning to depressing. Whenever I’d get home from work, she wouldn’t even stand up. When I’d call her to my room at night, she wouldn’t budge. When I’d walk up to her, she would start shaking in fear. It was crazy. She had completely transformed outdoors, but she was still a complete disaster indoors. I was having this endless internal debate about whether to offer her back to the rescue group (by the way, I never told them that!). It wasn’t because I wanted to give up – it was simply because I didn’t think she was happy being around me. I spoke to my parents about this pretty often, and they thought I was crazy. Soon, though, they came out to visit from Georgia and saw this first hand. They were definitely surprised about how bad it was. Regardless, we pushed forth. I started integrating treats into our indoor routines. I went overboard in trying to reward every positive behavior. I went as far as sleeping on the floor with her night after night. After a few months, I could absolutely see a difference, but it still wasn’t nearly enough. Penni needed a full-time roommate. She needed a dog to show her how to be more dog.
Several months after moving into my house, I decided to put out an ad to rent out one of the spare bedrooms. Yes, I included a bit about me: my age, my background, my interests. But the bulk of the ad focused on the absolutes: you must love dogs, you must own a dog, your dog must get along with Penni, and you must love Penni. After combing through over 50 applications, I found Griz (and Kate – the human, hah). Griz was half-dog, half-biggest bear. A 170lb Great Dane to be exact. He was a young, clumsy, and very playful young dog. In particular, he was exactly what Penni needed. They spent the next several months together. They destroyed the yard. They destroyed a mattress. They destroyed every toy in sight. And – for some reason – Penni decided to eat holes in the sheetrock whenever she was separated from him. Sure, it cost hundreds of dollars to repair these things. Sure, at times, I was angrier than I’d like to admit. Sure, Penni decided to avoid me and spend all her time in Kate’s room. But – more importantly – this is when Penni learned how to be a dog. And for the very first time in the two years and three months since I first picked her up, I admitted to a friend, “Penni is starting to act like a normal dog.” It’s a simple statement. But there is so much within it. So much effort. So much trial and error. So many hours. I can vividly remember thinking the most relieving thought: “We did it.”
This is when everything started to get awesome. We were hiking somewhere in or around Vegas just about every weekend. If I could slip out of work early enough, we’d squeeze in weekday hikes, as well. It didn’t take long for me to realize she was getting pretty good at it, too. She was becoming incredibly agile. Her endurance knew no end. And there weren’t too many challenges that were too tough for her. More often than not, it was just the two of us going out on our own because I simply didn’t know anyone else doing what we were doing. Slowly, though, I met more and more of the Vegas hiking community. Naturally, most of them were initially hesitant when I mentioned that I’d be bringing my dog along for the trip. Luckily, there was a simple solution for winning them over: I would just show them a few photos of her! The more Penni joined in on adventures, the more I was being encouraged to put her photos out there for the world to see. Little did I know, only a few weeks after creating her account, there would literally be people tuning in from all over the globe to see her do her thing!
I owe several of my friends a big thank you for helping both me and Penni get to this point. There have been countless hours of planning and driving and pushing through pain and….a whole lot more to be able to enjoy our adventures. They all have some pretty astounding pages themselves. Check them out!
A few months after Penni’s account had been live, it started to get real. She made it into USA Today. Daily Mail did a feature. iheartdogs.com did an amazing story. She even made it onto the home page of National Geographic. But what really put her into the spotlight was the short one-minute clip put together by The Dodo. The genuine nature of our story truly resonated with everyone – to the point that it has amassed nearly 50M views at this point! We were fortunate enough to partner with them on two other projects after that, too. But, as with all good things….haters gonna hate. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I’m an animal abuser. Or that I’m so selfish for exploiting my dog for some attention. Or that I need to be locked up for what I’ve done to her. Or (on two separate occasions) that “you should be shot dead.” Seems excessive, right? Fortunately, I never have to worry about defending myself because you all have my back! You all help to suppress that negatively. You all are there to support Penni. And, for that, I thank you.
Penni has changed my life. She has also changed the life of others. She somehow possesses this innate ability to just make you fall for her. She is the kind of dog that turns a cat person into a dog person. Anywhere we go, she seems to steal the show and I attribute all of this to one simple thing: she was finally shown love. From every direction. Love is what has enabled all of this. And what I want people to realize is that this reaction is not unique to Penni. So, so many dogs are willing to give this love. It’s just up to us to bring it out of them. You must be willing to invest your time, energy, and dedication. You must be willing to fight through the frustrations, annoyances and moments of defeat. You must commit to seeing the world through their eyes and know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. If you do all of this, you will receive more in return than you could have ever hoped for. You will have that ride or die partner that wants nothing more than to be at your side. Your life will be forever changed.
Thank you to everyone for reading along. It’s been fun to bring this story to life in a bit more detail. If you think any friends of yours could benefit from reading this, please ask them to follow along. If this story can help save the life of just one dog, it will have been worth every second.