Marshall the Miracle Dog earned his name by dying and coming back to life — three times. It was September 2010, and Humane Society of Missouri had rescued more than 60 dogs, including him, from a hoarding situation.
The yellow Lab had a large hole on the left side of his face and bite marks all over his body, signs that he had been regularly attacked by the other dogs. His left front leg was broken and infected to the bone.
Dr. Steven Schwartz fought hard to save the two-year-old dog, resuscitating him again and again and again during the surgery to sew up his face and amputate the leg. Once he recovered, Marshall was put up for adoption.
Cyndi Willenbrock first saw him on the St. Louis organization’s website while checking out potential siblings for her black Lab, Mooshy.
“I saw his video and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this dog does not deserve to be without a home for one more day.’ I made my decision right then,” she says.
Willenbrock brought Marshall home and soon learned that his emotional scars were as severe as the physical ones. He had night terrors, was not comfortable with anyone but her and Mooshy, and even had a panic attack one night when the episode of Confessions: Animal Hoarding that included his rescue finally aired.
It was a few months after his adoption, she recalls.
“My boyfriend and I were watching and just didn’t think. Marshall was in the room in a deep sleep, but as soon as the dogs started barking he got up and started running around the house. He recognized the voices. I was yelling, ‘Turn it off, turn it off,’ while trying to calm him down. It was unexpected but made sense.”
To help Marshall get over his fears, Willenbrock tried with him what gets her through difficult times: service work.
“It gives me a sense of purpose,” she explains. “I wanted to see if it would help Marshall heal.”
They underwent training at HSM to become one of its humane-education teams that visits classrooms and other settings to teach kids about caring for animals. Marshall soon began to recover emotionally, as well.
“It gave him such confidence and joy,” Willenbrock says. “So I had him trained and certified as a therapy dog, and that was the best choice I have made in my life.”
His transformation inspired her to turn the journaling she did after the adoption into a children’s book called Marshall the Miracle Dog. The tale of resilience and hope was published in September of 2012, and requests for their time came flooding in.
Through the Marshall Movement Foundation Willenbrock created, they have visited nearly 300 schools and spoken to more than 100,000 students in the state, weaving his story into topics such as peer pressure, bullying, and abuse while promoting acceptance, tolerance, and kindness.
The nonprofit organization also has launched Marshall’s Mentors, which empowers high school juniors and seniors to share his message with middle and elementary school students. The program recently partnered with 4-H to expand the program statewide.
Marshall has become a bit of a celebrity over the past four years — he even threw out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game on Bullying Prevention Night — and his star will only shine brighter in 2015 when the movie inspired by his life comes out.
A professional canine actor named Max portrays Marshall in the movie, but he was on set throughout filming and does appear at the end.
“Real-life pictures of Marshall with kids and with me and with Dr. Schwartz roll with the credits. It’s really well done,” Willenbrock says.
She also has a children’s TV series about Marshall in development. Willenbrock says, though, that continuing to meet with students remains their top priority; doing so fulfills Marshall.
“He gets upset if I take him to a school and he doesn’t have the opportunity to have all of the kids pet him on the way out,” she says with a laugh. “He just cannot wait to be around people now. He is so welcoming and present. He is beautiful.
“It just goes to show that you can remain in a place of fear or grow from it. Marshall inspires us to take tragedy and use it to help others.”
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