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From Rags To Riches, Rescue Dogs Star in Marshall Movie

Max was a sick, emaciated puppy full of bug bites when his owner surrendered him to a shelter in Los Angeles. One year later, this loyal, smart, energetic Yellow Lab played the leading role in the movie “Marshall The Miracle Dog.”

Max (left) makes friends with Max and Ben on movie set.

Max (left) makes friends with Marshall and Ben on movie set.

At only eight weeks old and four pounds, Zeke suffered from a painful skin disease and was minutes away from being euthanized when given a second chance in life. Six months later, this sweet, intelligent Terrier Mix played a part in the hit show “Glee,” appeared in television commercials, and landed his first starring role in the movie “Sox” before joining the Marshall cast.



Zeke in Sox movie

Zeke stars in Hollywood movie.

Wylie was abused and scared when he ended up at the high kill animal shelter in LA County, which was known for having dogs with the contagious Parvo virus. Today, his portfolio includes a national Target commercial and several television shows.


These top dogs are among the incredibly talented canine cast of the soon-to-be-released family film “Marshall The Miracle Dog.” The dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and quirky personalities. But one thing they have in common—they are all rescues. Not only that, some of the lucky dogs participate in a nonprofit program called Dream Fetchers, which brings lovable movie dogs and sick children together for a powerful experience.

The rags to riches stories of these animals are as inspiring as Marshall himself, the real life Yellow Lab who was rescued from an animal hoarder in Missouri in 2010 and was so badly malnourished and injured that he died three times on the operating table, and the veterinarian had to amputate his leg. Today, Marshall travels to schools to encourage children to prevent bullying, never give up, and believe in miracles, an important message that resonates with every adorable pooch in the movie.

Movie Poster

“Once we rescued Max, we got him back into shape, socialized him with the world, and put intensive training on him to get him ready for the big screen. Doing his first feature film at only one year old is very impressive, and he is well on his way to becoming a remarkable movie dog,” said Debbie Pearl, founder of Paws for Effect, a LA-based full service animal company that rescues dogs and teaches them basic behaviors to land roles in commercials, movies, and favorite television shows on Nickelodeon, Disney, and more.

Debbie, founder of Paws for Effect, and some of her movie dogs.

Debbie, founder of Paws for Effect, and some of her movie dogs.

“When Marshall’s owner Cyndi Willenbrock contacted me about needing dogs in this movie, I knew I wanted to be involved because we share the same mission, which is to never give up, be kind to one another, and have courage to stand up for what is right in this world,” said Pearl, whose son was bullied in middle school. “This movie really hit home for me because of what my son went through, and it’s a huge problem in our society.”

Max the dog and Cyndi 2

Max and Cyndi.

An animal lover her whole life, Pearl started Paws for Effect in 1995 in her hometown California and has since expanded with branches in Los Angeles, New York, New England, Illinois, and Michigan. Located in the scenic mountains above the Santa Clarita Valley and the Antelope Valley, the main headquarters is more than a kennel—it’s a doggie paradise. Currently about 40 dogs roam freely in a beautifully landscaped four-acre ranch that features a big log cabin, wading pools to splash in, lots of toys to play, and even fire hydrants to, well, mark their territory.

What a Life

Home sweet home.

Big Kennel

The big dogs kennel overlooks mountains.

Hangin out

Getting plenty of exercise.

Lots A Dogs

A trainer works with the dogs.

The Gang 462

It’s a dog’s life on the ranch.

Log cabin at the "Paws for Effect" ranch.

Debbie and trainers stay in the log cabin.

Ranch flowers

Beautiful flowers decorate the landscape.

A welcome sign in the shape of a dog bone hangs on the front door and says it all: “This home operates solely for the comfort of the dogs.”

By the looks of these happy and health animals, Pearl makes it her business to pamper these pooches, including many who would otherwise be scavenging food in the streets, or worse, be put to sleep.

The Group 045

Pampered pooches.

“People dump dogs in the desert where my ranch is, and I believe that no animal should be homeless, I mean, no other animal is so devoted to man. Our goal is all about giving them the best life they can have. Our place is set up for them to run and play all day. They don’t live in a kennel and come out only when they have an acting job. I’ve spent a lot of time, money and effort to create this beautiful dog park, and I have three full time kennel girls and three full time trainers who love and care about these animals like they were their own. The animals come first and if they make a living, that comes second. Their well being is most important to me,” said Pearl, who originally wanted to be a vet, but became a private dog trainer instead.

Preparing all these dogs for the Marshall movie was a lot of work, but for Pearl it was worth it because the message is so personal to her. She and her assistant trainer Tasha drove a dozen dogs 1,800 miles, from Los Angeles to Illinois, inside an 18-passenger van with the seats pulled out. Their three-day journey was more like a comedy because they had to sneak all the dogs into pet-friendly motels without attracting any attention. “We had to be careful nobody noticed us, so we used the back entrance and tried to quietly run down the hallway,” said Pearl, who also doesn’t’ mind a bunch of dogs hogging the blankets in her bed.

dogs in bed-bios

The dog bed is comfy.

Pearl chose a special group of dogs who were up for the challenge of this action-packed movie, which was recently filmed in Edwardsville and Troy, Illinois, as well as some scenes in St. Louis. When not on the set, they stayed at the ultimate doggie daycare Traveling Tales Inn, in Edwardsville, where they were spoiled rotten and played all day with their friends.

The canine cast of "Marshall The Miracle Dog."

Visions By Carol Photography, in Edwardsville IL, captured their personalities!

“After reading the script I handpicked the dogs with a good variety of shapes, sizes and looks,” said Pearl, who grew up with poodles because her parents wanted non-shedding dogs. “We needed mellow dogs who were real game players and could go with the flow when we did a scene with food all around them. Not being aggressive or territorial with food was a huge catalyst in the selection process. In the attack scene, for example, the dogs had to rush out of the barn all excited and wound up and then scramble for treats that we threw on the ground. We were able to get some great shots because I picked a really easy group who all got along. Plus, they had to be kissy and lick meat-flavored baby food off the dog hoarder’s face and clothes,” said Pearl, who used to compete in AKC dog shows and race Siberian Huskies across the country.

“I’ve been active my whole life and whatever dog breed I owned at the time, I wanted them to do whatever they were bred to do. Since Huskies were meant to pull sleds, they relied on me to run behind them when the going got tough. We did sprint races in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Northern California. It was a great bonding activity,” said Pearl, who stays in shape as a cyclist, sometimes riding 250 to 300 miles a week when not working on a film. “It was not unusual for me to ride 170 miles in one day, from my house in Huntington Beach to San Diego and back,” she said.

Pearl works and plays hard, just like her dogs. While it takes a special breed to be a movie dog, it also takes somebody special to train one. That somebody is Pearl.

“Once we adopt a dog, we start the training process to get them ready for the big screen, and that can take years and be pretty intense.

For example, in the movie Zackary portrays a puppy who gets away from his owner. In this particular scene, he runs down the sidewalk and Max steps in to block him from going into the street. “We had to train this two-pound dog to stop at the edge of the sidewalk and look up at Max. I was pretty impressed that a 16-week puppy hit his mark and was able to be so accurate,” said Pearl.

Max, who plays the main character Marshall, also had to learn many skills. In fact, he had to convey real feelings—sad, depressed, neglected, and abused.

Max pretends like he is sad and hurt.

Max looks sad and hurt.

max learning to limp

Tasha trains Max how to limp.

 “Those emotions are difficult to portray in an animal. It’s hard to tell a dog to be sad in the moment, so we have to somehow create the illusion of that feeling. Tasha was Max’s main trainer and taught him the command ‘head down,’ which meant hang his head low to the ground to depict that he had been beaten on. Max also learned how to hold up his paw when she told him the key word, ‘broken.’ The training process is done in stages and takes a lot of effort and patience on the part of the dog and trainer.”

Max holds up paw and responds to command "broken."

Max responds to command “broken” and holds up his paw.

Another example of how imagination works in the movie is when Ben portrays a bully dog, when in reality he’s a big baby.  “Ben doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, yet we had to make him look mean,” said Pearl.  “Weighing 145 pounds,  his size alone intimidates a person even though the Mastiff breed is a gentle giant. He also has big jowls and when he barks, his mouth gets foamy, which can look scary. With the right camera angle and sound effects, he looks like he’s going to bite off your head even though he’s really wagging his tail and barking for a treat.”

Buddies Ben and Zackary resting on the set.

Buddies Ben and Zackary rest in between scenes.

Interestingly, Pearl uses a special technique to get dogs to look a certain way. It’s called a “bate stick” or “watch stick,” which is a long pole with a dog treat on the end.

“The dogs will watch and follow the stick with their eyes, and that’s how I keep their eye line where we want it to be, left or right, up or down, like an extension of my arm with a treat. We use a treat or a real piece of meat, depending on how hot we want the bait to be,” she explained.

The term “hot,” by the way, refers to the intensity of the response Pearl wants to solicit from the dog.

“We use steak, chicken, or even sausage leftover from breakfast for ‘super hot’ bait if the dog starts to lose attention or gets tired. If I don’t want the dog to react overly excited in a scene, I will use a plain dog treat,” said Pearl, who hopes that “Marshall The Miracle Dog” leads to future projects.

“I met amazing people while working on this movie for three weeks, and I hope the experience and friendships we made will carry on and create awareness and do good in the world.  Working with animals is what I can do to make a difference, its plain and simple, that’s what it’s all about,” said Pearl, who just finished another family film with kittens called “Santa Claws.”

“There are no coincidences in this world, we were brought together for a reason.”

Take a virtual tour of the California ranch right here!

And watch a short clip about Paws for Effect on Oprah’s OWN network!


Sure, the movie Marshall the Miracle Dog features a talented ensemble of Hollywood celebs, including Matthew Settle (Gossip Girl, Band of Brothers) , Elizabeth Shannon (American Pie, That 70s Show), Lauren Holly (NCIS, Motive, Dumb and Dumber), plus many St. Louis-bred actors who I will profile in an upcoming blog. But the true Hollywood stars, the ones who really steal the show, are the dogs.

Meet Max, Zackary, Ben, Zoe, Zeke, Owen, Aimee, Bobby, Jami, Harlan, Wylie, and Heidi.

Max: This 83-pound Lab plays the lead role in the movie, but he doesn’t let his fame go to his head. Max’s performance is so believable in the movie that you’ll think he is the real three-legged Marshall.  He is loyal, goofy, smart, bull headed, stubborn, and has the most playful personality.

Max Index

Zackary: This adorable two-pounder is actually a pure bred Yorkie whose previous owner couldn’t keep him. Her loss is our gain, because this outgoing little boy with a big brave attitude appeared in two scenes in “Marshall The Miracle Dog” and won the hearts of everyone in the cast.

Zackary Index new

“We had Zackary at 12 weeks and trained him in four weeks to do a scene in the movie—that’s fantastic. He learned how to do multiple basic behaviors at one time and quickly got used to working with distractions, cameras, people, flags, animals, and a boom over his head, which looks like a big raccoon on a stick. It takes a lot of time and years of training to become a really seasoned performer, and this adorable spitfire is one show stopper already,” said Pearl.

“Zackary is amazingly smart and super brave for such a tiny tot, and I have huge plans in the works for him already. He is the mascot for the new Pet Cooler Carrier and will soon be participating in my Dream Fetchers program.”

Zackary is new mascot for Pet Cooler Carriers.

Zackary is new mascot for Pet Cooler Carriers.

Ben: This 145-pound English Mastiff plays the bully in the movie, but in real life he is a big softie.  He doesn’t have a sad story like the rest of the rescue dogs in the cast.  At six months old, he came from a breeder at a show kennel in the Antelope Valley, and Pearl decided to use him as a movie dog instead. Ben is most famous for his award winning Doritos Superbowl commercial, check it out!

Ben 2

marshall-bigdog with zakary

Ben & Zackary

Zoe. This 11-pound black and tan Terrier Mix has a feisty personality that can sometimes get annoying, but her high energy, silliness, and affection makes everyone laugh. She loves everyone and is very friendly, but she also can be “tough as nails,” said Pearl, “and she likes to steal the show.”

In fact, she boasts the most jobs on her resume, including the leading role in “Cupid Dog” and two more movies around the corner. “Zoe is an amazing dog, almost human, and it’s mind boggling the things she has pulled off on the set, like I was talking to a human and she understood.   At four years old, Zoe has brought many smiles to children in Dream Fetchers.



The three Z’s, Zackary, Zoey, and Zeke live with Pearl at her beach house, a couple hours from the ranch.

Zackary, Zoe, Zeke?

Zeke:  At only eight weeks old and minutes away from being euthanized, Zeke got a second chance in life. “My friends who rescue large breed dogs were at a shelter to pick up a Great Dane when a volunteer came running out with this four-pound puppy and begged them to take him. They brought him home, but after four weeks of rehab, he was so sick with the skin disease manage they called me to help. Well, the rest is history, and Zeke hasn’t been away from my side since,” said Debbie.

At six months, Zeke’s first job was a small part on the hit show Glee, and then he did a commercial before landing his very first starring role in the movie Sox. He is described as sensitive, submissive, gentle, loving, loyal, extremely smart, and protective. No wonder Pearl makes Zeke one of her personal pets at home.

“Zeke is amazing, and is still one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever trained. He can carry a show on his own. I expect great things to come form this special man, including being on the Dream Fetchers team,” said Pearl.

Zeke Index

Owen:  This four-year-old , 40-pound Terrier Mix has a crazy, playful personality. He is also naughty, bouncy, scrappy, and independent. When Pearl first laid eyes on this stray at the Castaic Shelter in LA County, no one seemed to care about him.


 “I’ll never forget the day I went to the shelter to see what was there. As I walked down the aisles, I came across this dog jumping from the ground to the top of the kennel like a yoyo! I thought, wow that’s my kinda dog! When I asked the kennel attendant to see him, he looked at me and said in a very sarcastic tone, ‘HIM?’ The rest is history, said Pearl.”

Owen has since starred in the independent film, “Dog Bowl,” directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brother, and he participates in Dream Fetchers.

Aimee: This kissy Bearded Collie Mix weighs in at 35 pounds and is excitable, sweet, energetic, and loving.  At 2 ½ years old, she started her career off with commercials, television shows, and even co-starred with her idol Harlan in the feature film “Lucky Dog.”  Soon she will join her buddies at Dream Fetchers.

Aimee Index

Bobby: This four-year-old, 50-pound Border Collie Mix is laid back, sensitive, sweet, handsome, and gentle. He was found wandering the streets before the rescue group Half Way to Home gave him a second chance.

“As soon as I laid eyes on him, I thought what a beautiful dog he was, and he was so dapper,” said Debbie. Since then, he has appeared in many children’s television shows, commercials, and music videos. With a kind and gentle soul, Bobby has a huge fan base and his easy going ways make him very popular with the children on the Dream Fetchers visits.

Bobby Index

Jami: This six-pound, three-year-old Terrier Mix wins the cute-ugly award because of her silly Mohawk. She is a survivor, found running in the streets and starving before she was adopted from a rescue group called Half Way to Home, which takes in strays from the street, or dogs dumped in the desert, or owner turn ins. “She is a real pistol and will eat take off your fingers for a treat,” said Pearl. “She also will jump through a ring of fire if it means a special yummy is involved.”  

Jami has appeared on many television shows and commercials. Her favorite project was working opposite Don Johnson in a pilot that didn’t get picked up. A real entertainer, Jami will soon be bringing laughs to many children in the Dream Fetchers program.

Jami 2

Harlan: This five-year-old, 65-pound Laberdoodle is one of the more seasoned dogs in the cast and has performed in multiple feature films. He can take direction and switch behaviors on a dime, which makes him a real asset to have in a movie because scenes will inevitably change direction at the last minute.  This darling lover is a thinker, very smart, sweet, and gentle, almost human.  Harlan has an interesting origin because he came from an animal shelter in the Midwest and was transferred South as part of the RollingRescue program,  in which volunteer truck drivers transport rescue animals and their cargo to destinations where people will adopt them.  The trucker and dog keep each other company on the road too, so it’s a win-win situation.

Harlan Index

Harlan was handed over to Debbie at a Michigan rescue shelter, and she recognized his star quality right away. Nicknamed “Harlan Darlin,” he has starred in “Grown Ups,” “Chilly Christmas,” “Lucky Dog,” plus many commercials  and television shows, which makes him popular with Dream Fetchers.

Chilly Christmas Lucky Dog Poster

Wylie: This one year old, 25-pound Terrier Mix is happy all the time, despite his horrific past. He was rescued from a high kill shelter in LA County that was known for dogs suffering from contagious Parvo disease.

“I could tell by his mannerisms when we got him that this little guy was probably hit on a regular basis by people who previously owned him. Despite the abuse he endured, Wylie has a heart of gold, is super smart, and loves everyone he meets. In fact, his career started right out the gate with a national Target commercial and a few television shows before he landed a role in the Marshall movie,” said Pearl.

Wylie index new


Heidi: This shy little girl was adopted from a shelter and is very soft and submissive. She is confident and works well in a group. Even though she appears in two scenes in the Marshall movie, she doesn’t have what it takes for a solo act. So, she is enjoying an early retirement and is now the personal pet of one of the movie producers, Pamela Evans.

Once again, another happy ending. 



  For more information on Paws for Effect, visit www.pawsforeffect.net. 

Paws For Effect