If you open the cover of Marley & Me and turn to the very first page, you will read about Shaun, the gold-and-white mutt I brought home when I was 10 years old. Shaun was such an easily trained and naturally well-behaved dog, we nicknamed him Saint Shaun. He followed me everywhere, rarely on a leash, and made me the envy of my friends by happily pulling me rickshaw-style around the neighborhood on my Schwinn Typhoon. “He was with me when I smoked my first cigarette (and my last) and when I kissed my first girl. He was right there beside me in the front seat when I snuck out my older brother’s Corvair for my first joyride,” I write in the preface of Marley & Me. Shaun was with me for fourteen years, giving me the childhood every kid deserves.
Shaun was at my side, and often in my arms, for 14 years.
Marley got a book written about him, one that has been read by millions around the world, so there’s not much to add. His reputation precedes him. I will say this: Marley was memorable. The same crazy qualities that made him such a challenge — his seismic energy, attention-deficit hyperactivity, thunder terror, wild incorrigibility — also made him that special dog of a lifetime its owners will never forget. Marley came into our lives when Jenny and I were just starting out together, trying to figure out what that shared life would be. He changed us in ways he would never know. On his last day, as I waited with him for the veterinarian to arrive with the shot that would set free his indomitable spirit, I found the words I had never once said to our big bad boy. “Marley,” I whispered, my forehead against his. “You are a great dog.”
The snapshot that inspired a book cover.
Nine months after we buried Marley in the backyard, we brought home a red-gold female Labrador retriever puppy who would prove herself the polar opposite of her predecessor. Unlike Marley, Gracie came from carefully selected hunting stock. Her parents and grandparents were all proven gun dogs, singularly dedicated to the pursuit of prey. As Gracie grew into adulthood, she proved herself quiet and calm, intelligent and intensely focused. Maybe a little too focused. Most of her energy went to hunting rabbits and woodchucks and stalking our backyard chickens. She also was pressed into service repeatedly to pose in photos with me as I promoted Marley & Me’s release, culminating in her traveling via limousine with me to New York City for an appearance on Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer. Proving herself the anti-Marley, she behaved beautifully, calmly curled at my feet — until she decided she’d had enough and simply walked off set on live national television. At the way-too-young age of six, Gracie contracted a rare complication from Lyme disease that compromised her kidneys. Our local vet told us there was nothing that could be done, but we were not about to throw in the towel without a fight and headed for the University of Pennsylvania’s world-renowned veterinary hospital. In the end, we should have listened to our doctor. Despite a week of intensive efforts at the hospital, Gracie died at home on January 14, 2011.
Gracie ended up in a lot of Marley & Me publicity and media shoots. (Adam Nadel photo)
Of all the dogs we have owned, Woodson is easily the most beautiful. Which makes sense because he was bred to have movie-star good looks. Woodson was one of several puppies that had roles in the Marley & Me movie. In one scene, Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, playing Jenny and me, go to the dog breeder’s to pick out Marley. They climb into a pen filled with newborn puppies. Woodson was one of those puppy actors. His other big scene was leaping out of the car upon arrival at his new home and promptly squatting and peeing in the grass. Ladies and gentlemen, you haven’t seen acting this nuanced since Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. On set, we must have fawned just a little too excitedly over the squirming puppies because at the conclusion of shooting, the director, David Frankel, and producer, Gil Netter, presented Woodson to us as a gift. (We’d made it abundantly clear we’d be thrilled to give any of them a forever home.) By the ripe age of three months, Woodson’s acting career was behind him, and he happily retired to the Pennsylvania countryside with us to dig holes and chase butterflies. Woodson inherited beauty, but he did not do well with genetic health. Early in his life he was diagnosed with dysplasia in both hips, an affliction he dealt with stoically his whole life. In middle age, he lost his vision and spent his last several years in darkness. Again, stoic acceptance. He would bump around the property undeterred, and if he ran into a couch or wall or shrub, he'd simply change course a few degrees and continue on. Then his hearing went too. Despite all those infirmities, Woodson almost made his full life expectancy. In August 2020, unable to get up without a lift from one of us and barely able to hobble outside to do his business twice a day, he let us know it was time. On a beautiful summer day, we said our goodbyes, kissed his snout, and hugged him one last time. Woodson is buried on the edge of our meadow, right beside Marley and Gracie.
(To read my sendoff to this very special dog, please see my blog entry dated Aug. 9, 2020.)
If Woodson is the most beautiful dog we’ve ever had (and Gracie the smartest and Marley the craziest), Wallace is the sweetest and most sensitive. We brought him home in 2011 from the same Ohio breeder who provided Woodson for the movie. Right from the start, he proved himself most eager to please. I can’t say he’s the best-trained dog, which is more a reflection on us as owners than on him, but he fixes his brown eyes on us and tries to intuit our wishes. Often, I only have to point my finger toward the laundry room and cluck my tongue, and off he trots straight into his crate. Good behavior just seems to come naturally to him. When we catch Woodson, an inveterate thief, in the middle of a food grab, we can count on Wallace to be nearby with a look of deep pain on his face, as if he’s trying to say, I tried to tell him this was wrong, so terribly wrong. But what people notice first about Wallace is not his sweet demeanor but his diminutive size. He’s exactly half the size of our big bruiser Woodson, who weighs in at 110 pounds. And that is by design, the breeders selected a small-framed sire out of concerns that the pups in their line were getting too large. Wallace is all Lab, and a beautiful, muscled specimen at that, just in a compact package.