Paws of giving: how one grateful dog changed lives


Karl the grateful dog, writers Jeff Ousley and Penny Wagner insist, is no ordinary dog.

The golden lab rescue is the titular character in a story of the same name penned by the two authors. Published in 2014, “Karl the Grateful Dog: A Story of Rescue” follows the fateful spring night in 2011 that Ousley was tasked with picking the lab up to transport him to a local SAFE (Saving Animals from Euthanasia) shelter in St. Augustine. Through a series of hijinks, the lovable pup manages to cause some major trouble for everyone he encounters throughout the course of the evening. But soon-to-be owner Ousley sees something worth saving in his amber eyes and drooping head: a dog who needed love, and who wanted to give love in equal measure, whose very presence has touched the lives of many.

By story’s end, Ousley and Wagner beg the question: who is saving whom?

Empowered by the dog’s seemingly restorative powers, the two began toying with the idea of writing a story about Karl not long after they’d first met. Since that winter five years ago, Wagner said she knew Karl’s story was bigger than they were.

“Karl isn’t just about a dog that was rescued,” she said. “He’s about an attitude or a feeling about life. It’s hard to imagine what he must’ve gone through in the first few years of his life but we’re certain it wasn’t pleasant. But he put all that aside when Jeff came and offered him love. He’s about giving … and so this story is about human rescue, too.”

Touched by the unconditional love Karl had shown everyone he met, the compulsion grew.

“We felt that it was a story that just needed to be told,” Ousley said. “When it comes to rescues you’re really … giving them a second or third or fourth chance. You never know just what they’ve gone through. It was something we felt others needed to hear, that we had to tell.”

So they did. In 2014, Wagner and Ousley set out to write the first in a series about Karl the Grateful Dog’s adventures. The first story was published that same year with the help of Ousley’s brother, Chris, a commercial cartoonist who illustrated the pair’s adventures.

The kindness of serendipity

Wagner doesn’t hesitate to assign their meeting to fate. The former teacher and writer said she connected with Ousley, a touring guitar technician for Ann and Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart, at a time when she had a lab of her own named Kingsley. When he unfortunately died, Wagner said Karl worked to erase the hole left behind.

“Karl worked to fill an empty spot at that time,” she said. “I really believe it was God given.”

Recognizing the healing power of animals, she and Ousley began taking Karl to others in need of love. The certified service lab dons his vest and visits senior and nursing homes, children and friends offering a bit of the pet therapy methods that are increasingly adopted in the Northeast Florida area. Karl works in small ways just about every day, and Wagner and Ousley are determined to see his purpose to new heights.

With the support of the series, they’ve set ambitions high to build a home for senior’s dogs, a mission borne of Karl’s visits to people with serious needs. Wagner and Ousley realized that many of the seniors Karl visited had pets of their own – some of whom were the last of their living “family” – and unfortunately had to surrender them. Understanding the significance of giving up a furry friend, they’re determined to make the home happen.

“Somewhere along the line there will be a senior home for senior dogs with Karl’s name above the door,” said Wagner. “We felt how much Karl meant to them because, in their eyes, it was sort of the spirit of their own dogs within Karl. So we decided we could build a home for dogs that were surrendered from certain facilities and provide an opportunity for a safe haven for them.”

The charitable goals don’t end there; Wagner also said she’d like to establish a program that helps at-risk or incarcerated youth by exposing them to the love of an animal and allowing the responsibility of its care to be an integral part of healing.

As for the not-so-distant future, Wagner feels that Karl acts as an example of kindness that everyone can look up to – and she and Ousley both hope his message is received during the most wonderful time of the year.

“People can learn so much from Karl during the holidays,” Wagner said. “Whatever capacity he’s in, it’s better because he’s there. The purpose of the book is not to commercialize Karl but to make people experience an unconditional love that dogs surrender so easily – the truth is his message needs to be read.

“Everybody and everything needs a place to call home,” she continued. “We’re not looking to make money, we’re looking to make a difference.”

Karl’s adventures don’t end with book one – Ousley and Wagner have “soft-released” its sequel, “Karl the Grateful Dog: Karl in Koncert,” chronicling the adventures Ousley and Karl share on the road. Most recently, an audiobook of the first story was released on Amazon and Audible featuring narration by Nancy Wilson of Heart.

Karl and Wagner will also make an appearance at St. Augustine’s Barnes and Noble, located at 1930 U.S. 1 South throughout the afternoon on Sunday, Dec. 11.

To learn more about Karl, Wagner and Ousley, visit their Facebook page at and their website at