Marshall The Miracle Dog—The Book, The Movie, The Movement
One look at the yellow lab mix named Marshall, and you know this dog has a story. He hops around town with three legs, and a jagged baseball-size scar dents the side of his face. Nobody gawks at his appearance or makes fun of his disabilities—quite the contrary. People of all ages adore Marshall, who comfortably rests his chin on the leg of anyone who sits beside him on the floor and strokes his silky smooth fur.
Marshall makes friends wherever he goes, not despite his differences, but because of them. His chocolate brown eyes speak a thousand words. Among them are kindness, forgiveness, love, acceptance, faith, trust, hope, fate, and, above all else, miracles.
Marshall is a survivor. For years he suffered abuse and neglect in the filthy backyard of an animal hoarder in Marshall, Mo., where more than 60 starving dogs fought everyday over meager amounts of food. Whenever Marshall scrounged for a morsel of nourishment, the other dogs brutally attacked him. He was the weakest one in the pack, and he spent most of his life in fear. His bed was the hard dirt ground, where he cowered in a corner and hid from the others dogs.
When the Missouri Humane Society finally rescued these poor animals—and they were all victims—Marshal was barely clinging to life. His injuries were so severe, the veterinarian was forced to amputate his leg. Marshall was the worst cast of animal abuse the doctors had ever witnessed. During his dramatic rescue, Marshall died more than once on the operating table. Every time he was resuscitated, he proved his will to live. Marshall’s courage to beat the odds is the first miracle in his story. The second miracle is what happened next.
Marshall found a forever home and began a new chapter in his life that would inspire all around him. To start with, he is the subject of a best-selling children’s picture book, Marshall The Miracle Dog.
Marshall is also the inspiration for a successful character education curriculum called The Marshall Mentor Program, which teaches students about bullying prevention and making positive choices to help them navigate through the challenging adolescent years. And now, Marshall is a Hollywood movie star, not to mention a media celebrity. That’s right, Marshall’s story is being made into a major motion picture named after him, Marshall The Miracle Dog. This family movie, currently being filmed in Illinois and St. Louis, is described as a cross between “Dolphin Tale and Marley and Me” and features a cast of celebrities, including Matthew Settle (Gossip Girls, Band of Brothers), Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie, That 70’s Show), and Lauren Holly (NICS, Motive, Dumb and Dumber). Stay tuned for more details about the movie, which is slated to open in theaters next year.
“Marshall’s message is to not give up five minutes before the miracle,” says Cyndi Willenbrock, who adopted Marshall in the summer of 2010 after learning about him on Animal Planet’s Confessions: Animal Hoarding. “The Marshall movie is all about friendship and courage.”
“When I first saw Marshall’s face on television, I felt an immediate connection. I related to his story, and I knew I had to meet him. Even though I already owned another dog, and I had no experience taking care of a special needs animal, I knew Marshall and I were meant to be together,” says Cyndi, whose demanding career as a medical supply salesperson left her with limited free time.
When Cyndi was able to finally bring Marshall home to meet her other rambunctious black lab mix named Mooshe, she didn’t know what she got herself into. Marshall was haunted by nightmares of his horrific past. He would wake up in the middle of the night terrified and shaking. Night after night, Cyndi held him in her arms and comforted him, assuring Marshall that he was safe and loved. They cried in each other’s arms until the bad dreams went away.
“Growing up, I sometimes felt alone and bullied by other kids, so I somehow understood Marshall’s pain. In the middle of the night, I started to jot down my thoughts in a journal, and before I knew it, I had written a children’s book. That’s how ‘Marshall The Miracle Dog’ was born,” she remembers.
Their friendship and bond grew stronger everyday. Clearly, they rescued each other. Immediately after adopting Marshall, Cyndi had him trained as a certified therapy dog so he would get used to being around other people and not be afraid to socialize with the world.
Cyndi also was determined to share Marshall’s story, and being an ambitious person who doesn’t take no for an answer, she made it happen in record time. She found an agent, who introduced her to a prominent children’s book editor, and they fell in love with Marshall’s true inspirational story that was definitely marketable in the book industry.
At first her agent advised Cyndi not to quit her day job because most authors don’t make a living selling books, but that soon changed. Marshall was in demand to appear at local schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and special events, meeting thousands of people on their whirlwind book tour.
“It wasn’t long before I decided to give up my six-figure salary and devote my life to spreading Marshall’s universal message. I use Marshall’s story to teach about the prevention of animal cruelty, as well as promote kindness and tolerance of others. Marshall has a unique way of connecting with people. It makes me feel so good to witness an autistic child who rarely socializes, or an Alzeimer’s patient who never communicates, reach out to Marshall and interact with him. Marshall gives me a real purpose in life.”
Marshall touches people’s lives in different ways. For me, I first learned about Marshall two years ago when my daughter came home from Rockwood Valley Middle School and showed me a flyer that advertised Marshall and Cyndi’s upcoming anti-bullying pep assembly. As a writer and a dog lover, I’ve always been interested in working on a children’s book with a dog as the main character, so I was eager to meet the two of them. My daughter Sari was in eighth grade at the time and had no intention of letting me visit her school and embarrass her, so I gave her a check and asked her to buy the book for me and have Cyndi autograph it.
That evening after dinner, instead of watching TV, we sat at the kitchen table and took turns reading a page of the book. The story, written in such a real, emotional human context, grabbed our attention right away. By the time we got to the second page, we started to feel a lump in our throat and could barely speak the words. Marshall’s story resonated the kind of empathy that many kids have become numb to because of all the glorified violence and hatred in news and entertainment these days. We were engrossed in the story about how Marshall was bullied and tortured by other dogs, how he was afraid of rejection after he was adopted, how his bravery set an example for anyone facing adversity, and, finally, how love conquers all. The beautifully detailed illustrations capture each moment and enhance the story, thanks to the colored pencil drawings of artist Lauren Heimbaugh.
The happy ending left us hopeful, but Marshall never left my mind. As I cleaned the dishes and Sari started her homework, I felt compelled to reach out to Cyndi, so I wrote her a thank you note. In my email, I thanked her for giving my daughter and I a special moment together. The last time we read a book out loud together, she was in kindergarten, and now she was about to start high school. Marshall’s story gave us a sliver of time to share something special.
To my surprise, Cyndi responded to my email later that same night and suggested we get together for lunch later that week. Well, needless to say, we hit it off right away. We told each other about our projects and passions, and she shared with me her big plans for Marshall, including a children’s book series and movie that she wanted me to be a part of. Are you kidding me?! I felt like I hit the jackpot! Marshall’s story was so worthwhile–how could I say no? Since then, I’ve enjoyed working every minute working with Cyndi, a dynamo and avid runner fueled by Starbucks coffee and power bars. Cyndi’s unstoppable energy and enthusiasm makes me believe that with a lot of hard work anything is possible.
“All Marshall wants is to be loved and to give love,” says Cyndi to crowds of people who showed up for the movie casting call last month. “If we all can be like dogs, this world will be an amazing, perfect place. To see Marshall story come to life on the big screen is a dream come true.”
And I’m honored to be a part of that dream.
In my next blog, read about my movie debut as an “extra”—let’s just say it involves at least 30 takes pretending to eat salad in a restaurant scene and drooling over a hottie.