In anticipation of the Marley & Me movie coming out Christmas Day, the editors at USA WEEKEND asked me to write about our new Lab, Woodson, whom we adopted from the movie set. Woodson is just about the most beautiful dog I have ever seen, even more handsome, I believe, than Marley. And that’s saying a lot. Beside that, he has a delightful personality — a wonderful mix of joyful mischief and loyal affection. He has fit into our family seamlessly, and our other Lab, Gracie, acts like a puppy again with her new playmate. Our new pup makes us all laugh and we love him beyond words.
But Woodson has a back story I had not before written or spoken publicly about. When I accepted the USA WEEKEND assignment, I knew I couldn’t tell his story without telling the entire story. Below is the piece, which ran yesterday in newspapers across the country:
FROM USA WEEKEND, December 21, 2008
Woodson & Me
The best-selling “Marley & Me” author shares the secret of his “celebrity” puppy.
By John Grogan
Sometimes amazing gifts come in small packages, and sometimes they come wrapped in soft white fur. So it was with Woodson.
He came into my life at a most unexpected time — as I stood with my wife and 11-year-old daughter on a movie set outside Philadelphia counting my blessings that the comically mischievous canines lined up to portray Marley, “the world’s worst dog,” were not my headaches to worry about.
After all, I’d already paid my dues on that front. I’m the guy who lived with the real Marley for 13 years and who wrote the book “Marley & Me,” on which the upcoming movie is based.
But as we stood off camera watching Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston prepare to film another scene from our life, in walked Mark Forbes, the movie’s chief animal trainer, and with him was a little white fur ball with a black nose and bright eyes. Woodson was one of several puppies drafted into service to portray the young Marley, and at the ripe age of 15 weeks, his acting career was over.
My daughter’s eyes brightened, and Forbes asked, “How would you like to take this little guy home with you?” She looked at me with the most hopeful expression I have ever seen. I knew the offer was coming and already had told the movie’s producers my family would be honored to provide a home for one of the fluffy canine actors.
What we did not know that day — what no one knew, not the trainers or the producers or the breeders — was that Woodson was, indeed, special. And not just because he had enjoyed a brief run as a movie star.
From the start, Woodson adopted his new family with gusto. He joyfully knocked over the trash, stole shoes, chewed eyeglasses, attacked pillows and dumped his water bowl just for fun. He was calmer than our famous bad boy Marley, but equally mischievous. It was hard to stay mad at him. Just as he stole our socks, Woodson quickly stole our hearts.
But as the weeks passed, we noticed that our pup seemed unable to do the things Lab puppies do so effortlessly — leap onto furniture or hop into the back seat of the car. The stairs were almost impossible for him. At first we thought he was clumsy, but with each passing week the signs became harder to ignore.
The veterinarian delivered the news we knew in our gut was coming: Woodson was suffering from a severe birth defect. Both rear hips were so malformed, the balls and sockets did not connect. With each puppy step, bone was scraping bone. No wonder our little actor hobbled around like an arthritic senior citizen.
I called the breeders, not to complain, just to inform. They were mortified. I told them what the vet told me, that it was no one’s fault, that sometimes nature delivers surprises. Silently, I counted my blessings that our surprise came with a puppy and not one of our three kids.
“Just bring him back,” one of the breeders said, “and we’ll swap him out for a new puppy, your pick of the next litter.” I have to admit the offer was tempting, like turning in a lemon automobile for a gleaming new model. But dogs are not commodities to be discarded when they break, and I assumed that if Woodson were returned, he would be euthanized.
My wife and I thought about it overnight before realizing there was really nothing to consider. Woodson was part of our family now. I got on the floor with our special-needs dog and placed my lips against his snout. “You’re not going anywhere, Woodsy,” I whispered. “We’re in this together.”
And we are. With the help of an excellent orthopedic specialist at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school, we have Woodson on a special diet and a regimen of cartilage builders and medicines. We lift him into the car for rides and up the stairs for bed. Surgery might be in his future, but for now he’s comfortable and enjoys his life as a pampered house pooch.
Woodson will never go hunting or hiking or even on long walks, and that’s OK. Some dogs are put on this Earth just to love you.