Marley, Rudy and Us

August 26, 2014 | South Tampa Magazine | Categories: Editorial, Pets | Tags: Dean Kawaga, dog from Marley & Me, John Grogan, Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, Marley & Me, Susan Woolley

Marley Rudy and Us

At home with the local Lab that landed a role in the 2008 movie Marley & Me 


The role requirements were straightforward. Six to 8 years old, yellow, obnoxious, energetic.

Susan Woolley and Dean Kawaga had the perfect candidate.

“He counter surfs, he steals, he eats paper,” Woolley said of Rudy, the Labrador retriever the couple rescued from Hillsborough County Animal Services in 2000.

They hadn’t been told what the role was yet, and when they asked, the reply came in the form of a question.

“Who’s the most famous dog in America right now?”

It was 2006, the year John Grogan’s book Marley & Me reached the No.1 spot on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list.

A few weeks later, after the person in charge of casting animals deemed Rudy a perfect fit, the hyper pooch was on a plane bound for California to star in the movie based on Grogan’s book. Marley & Me, which also stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, debuted in 2008 on Christmas Day.


Rudy, who lives in Temple Terrace with Woolley, Kawaga and seven other dogs, was one of 22 Labs that portrayed Marley. Now 10-and-a-half, Rudy was just over a year old and about to be euthanized when the couple fostered him.

When they spotted him at the shelter, they thought he was beautiful.

“He really was a stunning dog,” said Woolley, who works for The Centre for Women in Hyde Park. “We said, ‘Well we can’t leave him here.’ I picked him up and brought him back to work with me and took him in the building, and the first thing he does is lift his leg.”


Woolley never meant to keep Rudy.

As a volunteer with Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida Inc., she already had several other dogs.

“He has this presence and this energy,” she said, “It’s like having six dogs. He had no training. He didn’t have a lot of eye contact and could care less if you were there or not—very atypical for Labs.”

She tried to find Rudy a home. One family from Gainesville adopted him, but ended up returning him because he was so high energy. At one point, Rudy was almost hired as a USDA detector dog. He passed all the tests, but an old leg injury kept officials from signing him.

Eventually, Woolley and Kawaga stopped trying and found themselves falling for his fastidious ways. Somewhere along the line they quit being Rudy’s foster parents and became just his parents.

The movie role Rudy landed couldn’t have suited him more perfectly. Turns out, he and Marley have quite a bit in common. You name it—napkins, ice cream, apples, steaks stolen off people’s plates, videotapes, DVD’s—and Rudy probably has eaten it.

“Anything he could get into it,” Woolley said. “I can’t count the number of mortgage statements we sent in all torn up.”

Now that he’s older, Rudy has slowed down some.

“I’ve noticed that he can’t climb on the bed anymore. I have to help him up. He still counter surfs,” she says, referring to Rudy’s tendency to snatch things off countertops.

Woolley and Kawaga love both the book and the movie, though they admit they’re biased.

“I look at John Grogan and everything they went through with that dog,” Woolley said. “Most people who have a dog like that would just give up and take the dog to a shelter or try and give it away. This family didn’t. They committed to that dog.”

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Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida Inc. is always seeking volunteers, foster parents and donations. For more information go to


In the movie, Rudy plays Marley eating a birthday cake, destroying a snowman, swimming, running around on the beach and playing catch with his fictional parents.