Black Labrador Retrievers are the welcoming “Mr. Rogers” of the canine world. The big friendly eyes, the smiling face with bright pink tongue ready to lick a welcome greeting, and a tail, wagging hard enough to topple a small child, all seem to ask, “won’t you be my friend?” 

Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog (Harper), by bestselling author Jenna Blum, is a heartfelt tribute to her best friend, a Black Lab, and “best dog ever” in a deft blending of biography, memoir and love story. The dedication reads, “For Woodrow and for anyone who’s ever loved an old dog.” This life story, spanning from puppyhood to super-senior dog, is warm and relatable; it’s also guaranteed to make you smile, weep and recall the fondest memories, as well as the grief, sustained from your own losses of treasured pets.

A LASTING RELATIONSHIP, ALL BARKS AND NO BITES

Woodrow Jones, aka “Kooks,” was a few weeks old when adopted, and he lived the rest of his extraordinarily long, happy life with the author. Blum shares, bittersweetly, that their time together lasted longer than any of her relationships with men. This Boston urbanite, a successful, busy, apartment-dwelling writer, had no thought of acquiring a dog until her then-boyfriend surprised her with a day trip that ended at the picturesque farm of a reputable dog breeder. Her heart instantly melted at the sight of a wriggling mass of five puppies, but it was love at first sight when she spotted the plump and squiggly one soon to be named Woodrow, a furry valentine with large paws.

Woodrow is described by his devoted “Mommoo” as being the “George Clooney” of dogs; devilishly handsome, extremely charming and fond of beautiful ladies. It’s not to say he disliked her male friends, but he displayed a clear preference for women. During the course of his lifetime, he had his own Facebook and Instagram pages and acquired a diverse, wide-ranging fan club of humans and animals.

Once past the challenging initial puppyhood stage, Kooks and his Mommoo settled into a comfortable routine. The two were constant companions through the success of Blum’s first book and years of traveling together on book tours and speaking engagements. Highlights for Woodrow included swimming, running, retrieving sticks, playing with toys, eating well, vacations, parties and visiting with friends. But Woodrow’s consoling presence also helped to ease the trauma when Blum lost her mother to cancer along with the disappointment of broken relationships endured throughout their time together. It was the best possible life for them both. 

A WELL-DESERVED GOING AWAY PARTY

The stairs in their second-story apartment became daunting during Woodrow’s final year, and the ever self-sufficient Blum learned to accept help in carrying or maneuvering her sweet senior, who weighed almost as much as she did. Their daily routine involved getting Woodrow down the stairs and across the street to what became his designated bench. There they would stay, weather permitting, until late afternoon. Woodrow would hold court during his waning months, receiving human and animal visitors in between naps. His doting mistress sat on the bench as he lay beside it and became acquainted with his legion of fans.

This successful author put her own life and work on hold for the final five months of her precious dog’s life to become his full-time caregiver. Labradors typically live 10-12 years, but excellent care, diet and exercise kept Woodrow in good health until his 14th year when he went into congestive heart failure. Unlike many pet owners who would choose to euthanize, Blum opted for medical treatments that extend life but, as she stated, cost “the price of a car” with an equally formidable and expensive daily prescription regime. All of this brought Woodrow to his blow-out 15th (roughly the milestone 100 in human years) birthday celebration, and from there, he continued to embrace his circumscribed life with gentle tail-thumping enthusiasm.

IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE

While the Labrador Retriever is the number one favorite dog breed in the United States — partly due to its gentle nature during rough-and-tumble play with children and a demonstrated high tolerance for ear and tail pulling — their highly active, energetic nature is not for everyone, as a large number of Labrador Rescue Sites attests. (Within a day’s drive from my own residence alone, there are 23 rescue locations.) If you are contemplating adopting a Labrador you might consider visiting one of these rescue sites or an animal shelter in your area. Providing a forever home for an adopted pet can bring happiness and a sense of wellbeing to both human and animal companions. 

Old dogs, like Woodrow, can teach their humans many lessons: unconditional love, loyalty, friendship, devotion and trust. Blum also learned it can be a blessing to accept the kindnesses and assistance generously offered by friends and strangers. After reading this story, Book club members may wish to discuss their opinions about family pets and to what lengths they would be willing to go for their furry friends.

Responding to a negative remark concerning animals in the afterlife, humorist Will Rogers wrote, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” I am sure Blum would agree.

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About Jenna Blum:

Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us, The Stormchasers, and The Lost Family; the novella “The Lucky One” in the collection Grand Central; and memoir Woodrow on the Bench, about her senior black Lab and what his last seven months taught her, available from Harper Collins on October 26, 2021.

Jenna is one of Oprah’s Top Thirty Women Writers, with her work published in over 20 countries, and is cofounder/CEO of literary social media marketing company A Mighty Blaze. Jenna’s New York Times and internationally bestselling first novel, Those Who Save Us, won the Ribalow Prize, awarded by Hadassah Magazine and adjudged by Elie Wiesel. Jenna is a public speaker; for her 1st novel, she visited over 800 book clubs in the Boston area alone.

Jenna is based in Boston, where she has been running master fiction and novel workshops for over 20 years; she earned her M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University and was the fiction editor for AGNI Literary Magazine. For more information about Jenna and to share her real-time adventures, please follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.