From the earliest days of film to today, famous dogs in movies have lit up the silver screen and warmed our hearts in a way that few other actors and actresses ever could.
These dog actors are some of the best-trained dogs in the world—able to complete all sorts of actions and tricks on cue. They play roles ranging from plucky sidekicks to front-and-center protagonists. There’s just something about the ability of a canine to add depth and relatability to a story that never gets old.
Famous Dogs in Movies: Our Top Canine Cinema Stars
Here, we take a look at some of the most memorable dog movie stars and famous dog characters across multiple generations of film, paying homage to their natural abilities and the rigorous preparation that make them stand-out successes.
Blair, The World’s First Dog Movie Star
“Rescued by Rover,” a 1905 British silent film, is widely credited with helping establish cinema as a true art form. It’s also recognized for introducing the world to the very first known dog actor, a Collie named Blair who played the titular role of Rover.
Blair’s career was borne from happenstance, as he was the family dog of the film’s famed producer, Cecil Hepworth. A prolific worker, it’s believed that Hepworth may have featured Blair in dozens of films throughout the early 1900s. While the majority of Blair’s filmography has been lost with the passage of time, “Rescued by Rover” remains preserved in the public domain, giving movie (and dog) fans a chance to see how the concept of a “dog movie” first began.
Strongheart, The German Shepherd Who First Played White Fang
Born Etzel von Oeringen, Strongheart was a male German Shepherd who was initially trained in Berlin as a police dog and served in the German Red Cross during World War I. After arriving the United States and finishing third in a popular dog show, Etzel was scouted by a popular film director, Laurence Trimble, who saw potential for the dog’s on-screen presence.
Trimble took it upon himself to train Strongheart for his films, and featured him in four of his works, including the first film adaptation of Jack London’s “White Fang.” Strongheart captured the hearts and minds of fans throughout the early 1920s, and helped popularize the German Shepherd dog breed in the United States.
Rin Tin Tin, A Dog Movie Icon
Rin Tin Tin is one of the most famous dogs in movies with perhaps the most prolific body of work. He appeared in over 25 films across his impressive career.
Rin Tin Tin’s story began when he was rescued by an Army Corporal, Lee Duncan, during World War I. After arriving home and spending time with a New York based breeder of police dogs, Rin Tin Tin moved with Duncan out west and appeared in a popular dog show, where he impressed. Believing his dog may have talent to be the next Strongheart, Duncan pursued Hollywood opportunities, eventually landing successful screen tests that would launch his career.
Rinty was a star in numerous silent films, but unique to early canine stars appeared in “talkies” as well. The popularity of his work is often credited with saving major studio Warner Bros. from bankruptcy in the early 1920s.
Pal, the Collie Who First Played Lassie
To this day, Lassie remains one of film’s most famous dog characters, beloved by multiple generations of fans and instantly recognizable to the majority of the movie-viewing public. Lassie’s icon status is in large part thanks to the first dog who played him, Pal, and his performance in 1943’s “Lassie Come Home” from MGM.
Pal’s big break actually came thanks to his own bad behavior. As the story goes, his original owner, Howard Peck, brought him to then famous animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax for help reigning in Pal’s uncontrolled barking and his nasty habit of chasing motorcycles. Weatherwax curbed the barking…but couldn’t break the motorcycle chasing. Upset with Weatherwax, Peck left the dog with him as payment instead of money. The rest is movie history.
Spike, The Mastiff/Labrador Retriever Mix Who Played Old Yeller
At over 60 years old now, “Old Yeller” remains one of the most iconic (and heartbreaking!) dog movies of all-time for fans of all generations. Spike, the famous dog who portrayed Old Yeller, remains as iconic as the role he played.
Spike was a shelter dog who caught his big break the moment he was rescued by famed actor and animal trainer Frank Weatherwax. Weatherwax, along with his brother Rudd, was already the owner and trainer of another famous movie dog, Pal, who played Lassie.
In addition to playing Old Yeller, Spike appeared in other major television and film productions, including The Mickey Mouse Club and the 1959 rendition of one of the most famous dog novels and films of all time, “A Dog of Flanders.”
Terry, The Cairn Terrier Who Played Toto
“The Wizard of Oz” continues to resonate with fans across generations, with the portrayal of Toto by Terry the Cairn Terrier remaining one of the film’s most unforgettable performances and Terry’s most famous dog movie role.
Owned by Hollywood trainer Carl Spitz, Terry had already appeared in several films before “The Wizard of Oz.” The Hollywood pedigree commanded a salary during filming of $125 a week…which was more than some human actors at the time! While Terry received accolades for his performance, the work put in on “The Wizard of Oz” was some of his most harrowing, with the dog suffering a severe foot injury on set while filming.
Higgins, The Original Benji
“Benji” captured the hearts and minds of mid 1970s American film fans. The family film followed the story of a stray dog turned family member who wound up having to save his adopted family after they were kidnapped.
“Benji’s” widespread success was thanks to the performance of Higgins, who tugged on just the right heart strings to make this movie incredibly popular with fans, even after every major Hollywood studio had turned it down. For his film roles, Higgins was trained by Frank Inn, a renowned trainer who worked with several animals across television and film, and earned high praise for his unique ability to convey emotion through his facial expressions.
Chris, The Saint Bernard Who Played Beethoven
In the early 1990s, Saint Bernard’s enjoyed massive popularity thanks to “Beethoven,” one of the decade’s many feel good dog movies. Chris, the dog actor who portrayed Beethoven, cemented his legacy by capturing the hearts and minds of audiences who praised the film (even if critics didn’t).
Chris’ fit for the role was in large part thanks to his laid-back temperament. But he did receive professional training to be able to complete the agility-based scenes. He worked with trainer Karl Lewis Miller, who had a rapport working with dogs on other previous films.
Rattler, The American Bulldog Who Played Chance in “Homeward Bound”
“Homeward Bound” represents the quintessential early 1990s dog movie, and remains to this day a popular, feel good family classic. The film follows the journey of a cat and two dogs who’ve become separated from their family, and navigate together through the wild to find their way back home.
Rattler, the dog actor who played the lead role of Chance (voiced by Michael J. Fox), worked with his fellow animal actors for up to seven weeks prior to the shoot, responding to specific voice commands but also getting acquainted with his feline and canine counterparts.
Buddy, The Golden Retriever From “Air Bud”
“Air Bud” chronicles the story of a dog who bonds with an adopted family member over an unusual shared love of sport. “Air Bud” wasn’t a darling of any critics, but the dog remains iconic, especially among those raised in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Buddy, the Golden Retriever who played the film’s protagonist, had very little acting to do for a role he was seemingly tailor-made for. In his early life prior to any film or on camera appearance, he had been trained by his owner Kevin Dicicco to play basketball, baseball, football, and a few other sports.
Mushu, Frank The Pug from “Men In Black”
When the summer extra-terrestrial-based blockbuster “Men In Black” hit the silver screen in 1997, a small pug named Mushu with perfect comedic timing wound up stealing the show from A-listers Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
To get into character for his role as Frank the Pug, Mushu underwent frequent training sessions with his owner, Hollywood animal trainer Cristie Miele. According to Miele, Mushu was new to film and considered “green,” but was special in the sense that he loved to act and took the work he did seriously.
Uggie, From “The Artist”
“The Artist” was a critically acclaimed 2011 silent film that followed the Hollywood relationship of a director and a young actress as silent cinema began to fall out of style.
Uggie, in a role that catapulted him to pop culture stardom, was lauded for his performance, which was widely seen to upstage those of the film’s human actors. Fans had even begun a campaign asking the Academy to consider Uggie for the Best Actor Oscar.
Prior to “The Artist,” Uggie was known to have a favorite trick—riding a skateboard—and had training that he’d applied on previous commercial and film work. But “The Artist” proved Uggie’s ability to put in a deep performance, especially difficult given the silent nature of the film.