The lengths we’ll go to avoid the dread “Melty Face”

When was the last time anyone wanted to push a vacuum around here? How about daily? I know, I was thinking the same thing: we have a vacuum?

What we do have is a new dog. Penny comes without papers, but with just about everything else you’d want in a dog. She’s mellow, rarely barks, doesn’t shed and never jumps on people. She knows about a dozen tricks – more than both our kids put together. She’s about half the size of either of our last two dogs (something I care about particularly after having carted an ailing dog in and out of the house repeatedly over much of the last six months). She tilts her head in a cute way when I make a funny noise at her, which I do a lot. I need to remember to keep the windows closed.

She also happens to be toxic to humans. Well, to one human in particular, something we discovered about four hours after bringing her home, when Mike started wheezing and his face swelled up.

Four weeks prior to that, we were saying goodbye to our aging and ill yellow lab, Gus. For Jack, this was especially hard. Or maybe he didn’t take it any harder than the rest of us, but just displayed his grief more prominently. By that I mean he cried so hard he looked like his face was melting off like he was in a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it had been Jack’s choice to be there when the vet came. And when he held Gus’ head in his lap those last moments, I had melty-face problems too.

This propensity for over-emoting is something Jack and I share, especially when it comes to dogs. We sob at dog movies or dog commercials or at other people’s dog stories. We wave at dogs we pass on the street. We talk about what dogs the boys are going to have when they’re on their own. It’s our weird family thing we try to tamp down when we’re in public.

Gus and his likeness, crafted by Colin
Gus and his likeness, crafted by Colin

With Gus gone, we knew we’d get another dog, but I had half a hope that we’d wait long enough for our stressed-out lawn to recover. We knew we’d have a month or two in between dogs when we applied to an Idaho Humane Society program that places “unadoptable” dogs in a training program with prison inmates.

I know – so many potential jokes in that statement.

Seriously, inmates in the program are trained to handle dogs, and work in teams over a period of months to teach each dog to walk on a leash, heal, stay, sit, come, get in their kennel and potty on command.

… Yes, I did say potty. On command. I know what you’re thinking, but there are plenty reasons it wouldn’t be kosher for them to train your toddler, so don’t ask.

The inmates have to behave well to be a part of the program, and the dogs get attention around the clock, because they’re dogs, and what other productive things do inmates have to do all day except study legal texts, find Jesus or surreptitiously carve things into shivs? I’m just guessing, but the dog thing sounds like more fun.

And the inmates get really into it. Penny was part of the 9th or 10th graduating class in this program that has taken dogs, some with serious behavior problems, or even disabilities, and turned them into success stories. Sure, they’ve taught dogs some things that may or may not ever be used in the real world, like jumping through hoops. One dog was taught to stand with his front legs against a wall and submit to a frisking. Prison humor. A deaf dog was taught to follow commands on a flash card.

Forget the whole potty-on-command thing. They taught a DOG to READ.


There are more people applying to adopt these dogs than there are dogs in the program, so the humane society screens the applicants, and tries to match up dogs that would be better respectively with grown adults, or less active seniors, or active families. Even then there are people who adopt these amazing circus-trained quality dogs and things don’t work out. Largely because the people are lazy putzes who end up leaving the dog in the yard for extended periods of time where they can revert back to the habits that made them unadoptable in the first place.

Penny was matched up with a family with kids who were interested in the program, but not in waiting, as it turns out. They ended up adopting a different dog. So we got a call when Penny was set to graduate the following weekend but had no family to go home to.

In addition to the screening, applicants need to go through a two-hour orientation prior to adopting their dog. I mean, these guys really, really try to weed out the putzes from the adoption process. The orientation includes a seminar where the potential adopter and adoptee meet and the former learns a few basic commands.

Going Home
Going Home

When we went through orientation, we let Jack take the lead, learning how to handle the dog under the tutelage of the most demanding drill sergeant this side of Full Metal Jacket. Jack was willing to stand in the sun and be yelled at as he walked in a circle, stopped, turned and walked the other way with the dog. Penny didn’t tug on the leash or jump at other dogs or get distracted. She looked up at Jack in a way that we could see from 200 yards away was going to give him melty-face. Penny was definitely coming home with us.

By that night, however, we realized Mike was going to have problems.

He started swelling and itching and wheezing. He’d pet her and his hands would start burning. By Sunday morning we had to break the news to the kids: Penny would likely be going back to the pound.

Would returning Penny disqualify us for another dog? We’d always had a dog. This allergy thing was new, but was it permanent, or just with a particular dog? Would we ever be able to have another dog that wouldn’t make Mike miserable? Or would we have a total last minute Brady Bunch moment, where we discovered it was the dog’s flea powder that was the real problem?

The Brady Bunch moment never happened, and on Monday, Mike called the pound and explained things to the woman who runs the program. Turns out she’s allergic too, to each of her five dogs and three cats. She made some suggestions, and Mike decided to suck it up for a while and see if he couldn’t acclimate.

We bought a couple of HEPA air filters for extra large rooms. Even though Penny doesn’t shed, we vacuum almost daily to remove dander from the carpet, and anything she might have rubbed against. We wipe her down with dryer sheets when she comes in from outside. We feed her grain-free food coated with salmon oil to control dander. The boys bathe her with hypoallergenic soap twice a week.

So we currently have a dog that gets more attention, and more stuff, than any newborn that ever entered our home. Mike starts a regimen of allergy shots next week. We might actually have to rent her out to the circus to pay for all of this.

Penny has a lot to get used to around here. She doesn’t understand mirrors or the reflection in the glass door, which makes her a little paranoid some family with a dog is casing our house. She’s interested in chewing anything that’s left out – which has resulted in everyone keeping their crap picked up.

The boys, whom she wakes up early every day, are in charge of feeding, bathing and walking her. They have found out where we keep the vacuum and how to use it.  I am really digging living in a space where everything is picked up and put away and the carpet is clean. So what if we spend more on food for the dog than our entire college beer budget?

Meanwhile, Mike’s face burns less often and he seems to be breathing better. He’s not going overboard on the martyrdom thing nearly as much as I would, and for the kids, the effort he’s making has catapulted him to superhero status.

While we wait to see if things continue to improve, Penny is becoming unmistakably ours, which of course makes us vulnerable to angst and heartache and melty-face; our ultimate fate anyway whenever we take on a new pet, or a new friend, or anything worthwhile. We don’t know if Mike will continue to improve, or if, when when we’re all socked in for winter, things will take a turn for the worse. We’re in a holding pattern. An expensive, time-consuming holding pattern. For a dog.

But she’s a dog that does tricks.


Give Penny a little love. Vote.


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  1. This story is clever, funny and also, mad me cry (a happy cry). It is so refreshing to have owners that care so much not only for their family but for a canine that has oviously won their hearts. Going the extra mile for Penny is what this is all about and for that sacrifice, I can only hope that she will continue to give you many more years of affection and unconditional love. Penny is indeed a lucky dog that ended up in just the right home.

  2. Hi,
    I am with Angel Dog Rescue. Penny came to the prison program from us. Aprille one of our volunteers rescued her when she was dumped and hungry on a country road. We feel in love with her she was the sweetest girl. Aprille spent a lot of time with Penny and I would love to put you in touch with her. I can\’t begin to tell you how happy we are that she has found her way to you and your loving family! I wish all our dogs could find families like yours! Keep up the great work!

    1. Anna,
      Thank you, and give our regards and a great, big hug to Aprille. She has such a huge heart. Penny is doing well here and is easy to shower with love. Mike\’s allergy symptoms seem to be improving, although he has to wash his hands after petting her, and can\’t walk around on the carpet barefoot without his feet starting to burn. We\’re all dog people and willing to go the extra mile – but he is quite the superhero.

      YOU guys are great. Thank you for all you do.

  3. I did the allergy shot thing years ago. The thing about allergy shots if you have to keep taking them…forever I took them for years. Then stopped when my roommate\’s cat died. Fast forward 20 years and we took in a stray cat, which caused sneezing and wheezing in me. I finally got rid of my cat allergy in 1 session with my chiropractor using something called Total Body Modification. Here\’s the site in case you want to check it out for Mike. Kudos to all of you for not just dumping the dog.

    1. Thanks for the info, Trish. Mike\’s been warned too that the shots are effective for the dog allergy only about 70% of the time, and they do have to go on forever. He\’s also allergic to about a billion other things too.

      We appreciate the recommendation and will keep it in mind.

  4. I have just taken time to read this ! I found Penny one day on a county rd that i travel once or twice a week looking for any animals that may have been dumped. I found her, she was on the really thin side, she was friendly but hesitant at first, I put up a dog house for her, contacted neighbors to help me look out for her, as i had no fosters, we already had dogs in boarding at vet due to lack of fosters. I visited her everyday! She was in her first signs of heat,I called Susan our director, We have to move this dog now! We took her to the vet where she was spayed and stayed there until her heat cycle was over and we had a foster open up. I named her Penny because of her copper coat and my boyfriend\’s mother is named Penny al so. i love this woman and she has such a sweet mannerism and disposition about her and that is what I saw in this gorgeous dog! And Penny was next to a cow pasture by the way and she made best friends with those big critters! Every afternoon when I pulled up i could see her in the pasture and she would look up at my car and come running! Ya\’ll are truly amazing to change your lifestyle for her…Now only if I could clone you all !!!!!

    1. Oh Aprille, I\’m so happy you took the time to save this dog (and others). She has been such a delight. She loves everyone, including other dogs, but we have found that she is especially fond of chickens (the only time we\’ve ever had to scold her is when she got a hold of one of Mike\’s mom\’s chickens – and came away with a mouthful of feathers).

      Because of Mike\’s allergies, we feed her a grain-free dog food to help keep the dander down, and her coat is even more of a beautiful, shiny color as a result. She is learning to play with the boys and loves rushing up and down stairs and chasing after her toys. She has been trained well and we are trying to practice with her every day. Sometimes she is so excited to see someone, she\’ll try to do all her tricks at once to impress them. She is a great running buddy for me and has gotten to know all the neighbors on our runs. Everyone knows she doesn\’t bark or jump on anyone and thinks she is so well behaved. How could anyone have given up this fabulous little girl?

      Thank you for all you do, and for your caring heart. We\’ll be sure to give Penny a big hug from you.