Spike from Old Yeller
Whether you prefer purebreds or mutts, here’s one that’s made practically everyone cry. The Old Yeller featured in the book was most likely a Black Mouth Cur, although the breed is never mentioned by name in the book. In fact, the breed hadn’t been officially named or established at the time the book was set.
Regardless of the dog’s depiction in the book, the pooch that starred in the film adaptation was most certainly a mutt. Animal trainer Frank Weatherwax discovered the Labrador retriever/mastiff mix in the Van Nuys animal shelter when the pup was still a youngster. Eventually Spike grew to be Weatherwax’s star pupil and one of his largest stars –literally, Spike weighed about 170 pounds when he was full grown!
Aside from making us all cry in Old Yeller, he also made plenty of people cry in 1959’s A Dog of Flanders. Not all of his roles were tearjerkers though. Spike also appeared in the schlocky 1956 B-movie The She-Creature and on The Mickey Mouse Club.
Higgins from Benji
Perhaps the next most famous mutt in the world also was adopted by a professional animal trainer from a shelter in Los Angeles. Trainer Frank Inn was a big fan of adopting animals that were on death row from the animal shelter and then seeing if he could get them to act. If they didn’t take to training well, he would then work to get one of his friends or fans to take in the critter.
He happened to run across a spaniel mix named Higgins at a shelter in Burbank and was immediately taken in by the puppy’s expressive eyes. Inn never once had to consider finding a new home for the pup as Higgins was the ideal student and had an incredibly expressive face. His first role was on Petticoat Junction and the pooch did so well that he appeared in six out of the show’s seven total seasons. One show wasn’t enough for Higgins though, so he also made cameos on Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies.
According to Inn, Higgins was not only the most skilled dog he had ever worked with, but he could also learn a new routine every week. He could climb ladders, open mail boxes and even yawn on cue. His last role was supposed to be Mooch Goes to Hollywood in 1971, but he actually came back out of retirement four years later to star in Benji. When he died three years later, his legacy lived on, as his daughter, Benjean, continued to star in the Benji sequels.
Maui from Mad About You
Aside from starring in a sitcom, Maui also appeared in a number of commercials and as a stand-in for the star dog in the movie Bingo.
Aside from playing Harvey, Sykes also appeared in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Other Boleyn Girl, Young Victoria, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Clash of the Titans and other blockbusters.
Bobbie the Wonder Dog
Of course, fame doesn’t always come from TV and movie appearances. Bobbie was just a family pet when he was separated from his owners during a family road trip in 1923. Amazingly, the Scotch Collie/English Shepherd mix was able to find his way back to his home in Oregon all the way from Indiana –that’s a 2,550 mile trip across desert, mountains and plains! It took Bobbie six months, but his family was shocked to find the pet they never expected to see again sitting on their doorstep, scrawny, mangy and with feet worn down all the way to the bone.
After the papers and film crews got wind of Bobbie’s ordeal, he soon gained the nickname “the wonder dog,” and even earned a place in the archives of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!. He was soon cast to play himself in the 1924 silent film, The Call of the West. When he died in 1927, Rin Tin Tin even laid a wreath at his grave.
Stray dogs were considered ideal for the project not only because they had no owners who would miss them, but also because they were used to experiencing extreme cold and dealing with long bouts of hunger. Laika was pulled off the streets of Moscow when she was about three years old. She was only about 12 pounds and while no one knows her exact mix, most people agree that she was at least a little bit husky and a bit terrier. Two other strays were also chosen to go through training, but Laika was eventually selected to be the occupant of Sputnik 2.
The little pup was fitted with sensors to monitor her bodily functions, provided with seven days worth of food and strapped in tightly, so she could only sit, stand and lay down. She was then shot into space on November 3, 1957. Laika survived the launch, but when the thermal control system failed to operate properly, the cabin over heated and the pup died shortly after entering orbit. Five months later, the ship re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated, along with Laika’s ashes.
While Laika's story is a sad one, she did play an important role in the history of both science and animal rights -dog owners everywhere were outraged when they discovered that she was sent to space only to die. The issue became a turning point in discussions about the use of animal test subjects in science. In the end, Laika may have become the most important stray dog in modern history.
Here’s a fun fact: up until the early 2000’s, only one member of the U.S. Coast Guard was the subject of a biography –and that member happened to be a mutt named Sinbad. No one knows exactly what Sinbad’s mix was, but Martin Sheridan might have summed it up best when he described Sinbad in a Life Magazine story as "liberty-rum-chow-hound, with a bit of bulldog, Doberman pinscher, and what-not. Mostly what-not."
Chief Boatswain's Mate A. A. "Blackie" Rother of the USCGC George W. Campbell originally got Sinbad as a gift for his girlfriend, but she couldn’t keep him because her apartment didn’t allow pets. So Rother enlisted him into the service, even signing the pup’s paw print on the official paperwork –which meant that he wasn’t Rother’s pet, but a full-fledged member of the Coast Guard. Soon enough, he proved that he had all the fittings of a proper sailor, he liked coffee, whiskey, beer and, most importantly, he really took to life on a ship.
While the most famous pictures of Sinbad show him sitting atop a cannon, the dog was never actually allowed above deck when the cannons were being fired, for fear that the sound might damage his hearing. Sinbad served for 11 years and was included on many combat missions during WWII.
At one point, his ship sank after ramming a German sub. Sinbad was left on board when the ship was towed to Canada for repair because Captain James Hirschfield believed that as long as the pup was on board, nothing could happen to the ship. That’s why these days there is still a statue of Sinbad in the mess hall of the ship.
By the time he retired, Sinbad earned an American Defense Service Medal, an American Campaign Medal, an European-African-Middle-Eastern Campaign Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, a WWII Victory Medal and a Navy Occupation Service Medal. He also became quite popular in the media and soon became a national celebrity. After retiring in 1948, the pup lived another three years on shore, even becoming a regular at a local bar. He was said to enjoy staring out at the sea, watching passing ships, all the way up until he passed –a true sailor at heart.
If you love reading about successful pooches that came from sordid backgrounds, then don’t miss out this older Neatorama article about famous dogs that were adopted from shelters or off of the streets –a few of the dogs are even mutts that reappeared in this article. Happy Mutt's Day everyone!