Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. One we will never forget just happened to have four-legs and spotted fur. Wilshire the Fire Dog earned a place in our LAFD family back in 2006, when a little girl took him to Fire Station 29 and begged them to save the young Dalmatian from the dreaded and uncertain fate of the animal shelter. It didn’t take long for “Wil,” as he was affectionately called, to find his purpose, teaming with Firefighter, now Captain, Ryan Penrod for a lifetime of important service, teaching kids and the entire community fire safety lessons, and raising invaluable awareness and a wealth of donations for numerous charities.
Jim Finn was Captain I at Fire Station 29 when the crew decided to adopt Wilshire. They became instant buddies, with Wilshire sleeping at Jim’s feet under the desk in the front office until he was too big to fit. Wilshire quickly learned that he would be treated with a cookie when Jim returned from his morning walk, and if he had to wait too long, he would remind Jim with a paw on his leg that he deserved a treat for waiting so patiently! Once he started learning his fire safety routines, Wilshire would have to perform before receiving his morning treat. “Wilshire holds a special place in our family, and his picture remains prominently posted on our home refrigerator door,” Jim says.
At first, filled with the spunk and vigor typical of his breed, Wilshire needed to learn the house rules, such as not jumping on the table to chow on everyone’s dinner when the crew caught a run! Luckily, Wilshire’s natural star-quality caught the attention of world-famous trainer Cesar Millan, who featured him on an episode of the popular “Dog Whisperer” TV show. Before long he and Ryan connected with animal trainer Clint Rowe, known for his work on films such as “Turner and Hooch,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” and “White Fang.” Wil’s intelligence, boundless energy, and happy-go-lucky nature made him perfect for performance work.
When he wasn’t clocking up to six miles a day running alongside the firefighters, or the station treadmill, he and Ryan spent countless fun hours practicing special tricks designed to teach people how to “Stop, Drop and Roll,” “Call 9-1-1,” “Get Low and Go,” and more. Once word got out, the dynamic duo remained in high demand, presenting at schools, churches, community gatherings, LAFD events, the Firehouse Expo, the mayor’s house, and other such bookings. Supported by the extraordinary personal investments of the Penrod’s and volunteers such as Jan Carver Graf, surviving spouse of LAFD Captain Henry J. Graf, the pair delighted kids and audience members with special Wilshire memento stickers, cards, and other fun giveaways, that also contained educational, life-saving info.
The LAFD is rich in tradition and Wil fit right in, serving anywhere he was needed with integrity and pride. Frank Borden, Director of Operations for the LAFD Historical Society remembers “Wilshire and Ryan became part of the LAFD Historical Society’s educational component early on. As the dog was learning new tricks, Ryan was building props to enhance the educational program. Ryan and Wilshire made several appearances at our Hollywood Fire Museum over the years. They would usually be there for Fire Service Day and our Pancake breakfast to the delight of all that came. It was always a fun experience. We will miss Wilshire, but he served well for many years.”
The definition of the word “hero” includes being admired for achievements and noble qualities. Wilshire certainly earned that admiration. Retired Captain Jim Finn’s wife, Jeannie, and his daughter Jennifer, would visit Station 29 often to play with Wilshire. He was always excited to see them and they became fast friends. Jennifer remembers, “Once, at a fire station grand opening celebration, Wilshire stopped mid fire-safety performance when he heard me laugh at the booth I was running for the LAFDHS. He ran over, put his front paws on my table, barked a quick hello, and, with a quick lick on my hand, ran right back to his mark to finish his performance. He just couldn’t continue without saying, ‘Hi!’ Wilshire definitely has a piece of my heart and I will miss him.”
While he truly was man’s best friend, Wilshire bonded so closely with Ryan that he became an official member of the Penrod family early on and moved home with them. When he wasn’t on duty, Wil enjoyed the love and attention of Ryan’s wife Nicole, and as the years passed, became inseparable with their sons Carter and Kayden, overjoyed by their playfulness, laughter and rousing games of tug-o-war. The entire family frequently came out to lend a hand, and paw, for those in need.
Wilshire’s photo booth became an instant favorite at the annual Hope for Firefighters, benefitting our Widows, Orphans & Disabled Firefighter’s Fund. Co-chair Heather Ross says, “This extraordinary event allows us to honor and celebrate the valuable work of Los Angeles firefighters. Over the years however, the fun, the food, the music, the games…have become a close second for those lining up to see ‘Wilshire the Fire Dog.’ We have been fortunate to have Wilshire highlight our event since he was a puppy in 2008. He and Ryan have had their own special place at Hope for Firefighters, front and center where Wilshire could impart fire life safety wisdom by performing his perfected ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’ exercise, still finding time to pose for a picture with his beloved fans. Kids and adults of all ages loved Wilshire and there will be a huge void at future events. Rest in peace, Wilshire. You gave us so much, buddy.”
Never ones to say no, Wilshire and Ryan frequently drove many miles and several hours to appear at the schools of fellow firefighter’s children, support the “Spark of Love” toy drive, or dazzle the crowds at countless Widows & Orphans and other charity events.
“Wilshire always contributed to the success of the LAFD/LAPD St. Baldrick’s Fundraiser by entertaining the crowd with important fire safety demonstrations and connecting with the children in (his/her) own special way,” says LAFD Captain and L.A. Firemen’s Relief Association Trustee Danny Wu. “At our events we will always think of and appreciate Wilshire, and our thoughts and prayers are with Ryan Penrod and his family.”
His canine charisma also earned him invitations to appear on stage in several productions, including “Annie,” at the Kodak Theatre, “Peter Pan & Tinker Bell, A Pirates’ Christmas” and “The Wonderful Winter of Oz,” at the Pasadena Playhouse, as well as special appearances on the TV game show “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” and NBC’s “Top Fire House Dog.” He graced the cover of L.A. Parent magazine, and adorned the Rescue L.A. charity calendar. He also caught the eye of everyone from Mr. T to Danny Trejo to Layla Ali, who shared a VIP tent with Wil before he took the field at the Rose Bowl to kick off the Move Your Tail and Kids Fitness Challenge 5K run. Encouraging health and fitness also were part of Wilshire’s mission.
To say Wilshire made a lasting impression is an understatement. Wil dedicated 100% of himself in service to others, making it even more special that when Widows & Orphans needed to create a charity logo, Wilshire was called in for the photo shoot. He excitedly hit his mark time after time. Now, he is and will always be the actual dog pictured in the logo, forever dedicated to serving the families of LAFD firefighters in need.
Thank you, Wilshire for bringing bright smiles, memorable moments, and giving so much love to all you met. We are honored by the chance to work alongside you. You live on in our hearts. Until we meet again, dear friend.
By Marlene Casillas