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Marley, the Mentor Dog

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By Alyce Barry

My parents didn't want to own a large pet, so my siblings and I grew up owning only the smaller variety: fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, turtles and parakeets.

Most of these small creatures met tragic ends in our household, I'm sorry to say, which probably did nothing to encourage Mom and Dad to consider adding a dog or a cat.

I'm pretty sure their choice came from a desire to avoid the added trouble and expense. They had enough to do raising five kids on a tight budget.

Particularly the added trouble. I find it impossible to imagine my dad putting up with a pet who scratched our furniture some of which Dad had made himself or gave us slobbery kisses or smelled bad or chewed up our slippers. To tell the truth, I can't imagine him taking a dog for a walk either, or scooping a litter box.

As an adult, I'm sure I would find a destructive or smelly dog hard to take, too. So I've often wondered at friends who tell me their "pet disaster" stories of dogs plunging through screen doors, throwing up birthday cake, and defecating in inappropriate places. Why, I've asked myself, would they put with the mess and the smell? Is owning a dog really worth it?


In February, I came across a copy of Marley and Me, columnist John Grogan's memoir of his slobbery, destructive Labrador retriever.

Grogan is a journalist and not prone to revealing his deeper feelings. His style is candid, reflective and quietly good-humored, and I was relieved to find the book free of the kind of exaggeration that James Herriot sometimes engages in: Grogan doesn't manipulate the story in order to get the biggest laugh. His stories about Marley make enjoyable reading but never strained my credibility.

Reading the book has given me a much better understanding of why someone would choose to own a dog like Marley. This is despite its subtitle: Life and love with the world's worst dog. Marley's destructive, uncontrollable and even phobic behavior tests the patience of Grogan and his wife, Jenny, in almost every way imaginable.

Only at the book's end does Grogan wax philosophical on Marley's role in his life. And it's here that I find a common frame of reference that goes a long way toward answering my question on whether it's worth it, as Grogan reflects on Marley's role as mentor.

"As teacher and role model. Was it possible for a dog—any dog, but especially a nutty, wildly uncontrollable one like ours—to point humans to the things that really mattered in life? I believed it was. Loyalty. Courage. Devotion. Simplicity. Joy. A dog doesn't care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his. It was really quite simple, and yet we humans, so much wiser and more sophisticated, have always had trouble figuring out what really counts and what does not."
As I read this paragraph, the word "devotion" leapt off the page at me. It's the word that author Jamie Sams uses to capture the symbolism of dog in the Lakota tradition of Native American animal medicine, in Medicine Cards, a book I refer to frequently.

I've heard many times from dog owners, of course, that they prize their dogs' devotion. I even read in TIME Magazine recently that American consumers spend billions of dollars each year to buy "unquestioning devotion" from their pets. ("We'll even pick up the poop.") But I'd never before heard a dog owner say he learned about devotion from his dog's example— dog as teacher and mentor.


By devotion, I don't just mean devotion to Grogan and his wife and children but to opportunity for fun and adventure and pleasure. Grogan's frank descriptions of Marley's uncontrollable zest for life make it clear that Marley had a deep devotion to life, to living, to seizing the day.

Devotion to life and to living strikes me as a good lesson right now for me, and perhaps for others as well, who like me are undergoing financial tough times. What is it worth to witness unquestioning devotion to life?

Quite a lot. When you've unintentionally taken out the screen door, it helps to remember that it was your passion that moved you through it with such force. When you've left an unpleasant gift in the middle of the floor, it helps to remember that your Master knows all too well that mortals make mistakes and are still worthy of unconditional love.


Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, on's Bestseller list of books about Jungian psychology for more than a year, available in paperback and on audio CD. Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in 2009. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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