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Pet Diaries: The Hollywood Dog That Taught Me the Meaning of Gratitude

Introducing Pet Diaries: Life lessons learned from our pets. This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®, and explores how having a pet can change your place in your neighborhood, community, and beyond. Check out more stories at the GOOD Pets hub.

When I was a kid growing up in Colombia, I was a natural with animals. People brought me injured birds, dogs, rabbits, chickens —even a bear and an alligator once—and I’d fix them up and try to teach them a few tricks.

Every night when I got home from school, I’d hurry to tend to my animals and then run to the roof of our house, where I’d lie on my belly looking down on them all in the yard as I studied their behaviors. I came from a big family and we didn’t have much money but I dreamt of going to America one day and working in Hollywood with animals.

Chasing the American Dream wasn’t as easy as my family hoped and we struggled at first. I helped my big brother street perform by training his dog co-stars. I branched into commercials and movies, sometimes joining my animals in front of the camera. I eventually settled in Miami just before Hurricane Andrew hit. I refused to evacuate if it meant leaving my dogs, so I sat it out. When we emerged to see what was left, it looked like the end of the world. I never wanted to experience that again, so I picked myself up and started over—this time in Los Angeles with a Jack Russell puppy who’d been found barely alive in the hurricane debris. I named him Andy after the hurricane, and thus began my love affair with Jack Russells.

Ten years and a lot of hard work later, I heard about a naughty young Jack Russell named Uggie who was destined for a California pound after he’d killed a cat. I took him in and started to train him alongside Andy and my best animal actor (up until then), a Jack named Extreme Pete. We began with some basic street entertainment on Santa Monica Boulevard.

It quickly became apparent that Uggie had bigger dreams and he soon grew bored of our routines of hoop-jumping, skateboarding, or collecting dollars from customers. He staggered me with his wit and intelligence and developed his own comic timing. If one of the other dogs slipped up, he’d jump off his stool and steal the limelight (and the cash). Small and good-looking, everybody loved Uggie. Sensing his natural talent, I channeled his energies into more advanced training. He was my fastest learner; watching my every move and needing little encouragement to play dead, walk on his back legs, and act out numerous other remarkable behaviors. Highly food-motivated, he started off working for treats, but after a while he worked to please me—and then, I think, just to please himself.

Uggie and I preparing for a scene in Water for Elephants

Before I knew it, Uggie was my most wanted animal actor, getting role after role in commercials and movies such as Mr. Fix It and Water for Elephants. One day a French director came along and picked him for a small role in a silent black and white movie called The Artist. Uggie was the little dog that became a global phenomenon during awards season, when the The Artist went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture.

From our humble home in the San Fernando Valley, we were flown first-class to places like New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., London, and Paris. We met countless major movie stars, politicians and celebrities along the way. We appeared on major network shows and dined with the superstars of the stage, sports, and screen. Uggie has published a best-selling memoir with Simon and Schuster in six countries and has his own iPhone app. He is the first dog to have his paw prints immortalized on Hollywood Boulevard and we even took part in the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day—something I watched on TV as a kid, along with the Oscars. I was humbled in the face of his new-found stardom and the way he sucked the air from a room with his terrier presence. With more than 30,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, he became as much of a celebrity as any A-lister, but his fans aren’t intimidated by his fame the way they would be with a human. Everybody wants to meet him, hold him, kiss him and be licked by him, and he happily obliges.

Uggie on Hollywood Boulevard, Photo courtesy of Rupert Thorpe

Through numerous charity events, donations, and the auctioning of signed books and pawtographs, Uggie and I have raised thousands of dollars for animal shelters and put smiles on the faces of millions. I could never have imagined that one little dog could be the catalyst for so much good in my life, those of his fans, and the countless shelter animals that he now officially represents in his worldwide Adopt Don’t Buy campaign.

Being in his calming presence night and day—in hotels, limos, and airline lounges—I’ve watched Uggie closely and learned more than I ever thought possible from him. Back at home we have a large and loving family of seven other rescue dogs, three cats, and a troupe of performing doves. I try to be a good husband and father, but I often work seven days a week to keep a roof over our heads. Life is crazy busy and I sometimes feel as if I’m chasing my own tail, but when I look at Uggs, I see how tail-waggingly accepting he is of everything around him. He doesn’t care how much I earn, what kind of house we live in, fancy cars or vacations. Uggie’s American Dream is simply to be with me, my wife Mercy, and our daughter Terry.

When I studied my animals back in my native Colombia I thought I would be teaching them something. Uggie has made me realize that our animals have far more to teach us. Now that he has just turned 10 years old and is retired from show business, I hope to spend the final years of his life following his shining example. This year, instead of attending the Oscars, we cuddled on the couch watching it and I rubbed his ears as I silently thanked my lucky dog star that Uggie came into my life and taught me the most invaluable lesson of all—gratitude.

Photos courtesy of Omar Von Muller

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