A friend once told me, after we spent a little time talking back and forth about the best movie dogs, that "I don't care when the people die, but when they kill the dog I just start bawling for days."
I feel a lot of people may feel the same way. You talk to people years after seeing some film or reading a book, and they always go "I cried like a baby when the dog died."
That got me thinking about how really important dogs are to a narrative. Dogs can be companions, partners, even enemies – and yet we never forget our favorite puppies in cinema. There are a lot of movie dogs, but only the best movie dogs will be gathered here for your puppy loving pleasure.
Who could forget this little slice of childhood trauma?
Old Yeller is the titular character of that book every middle school kid cried while reading (along with Where the Red Fern Grows and Sounder) where – spoilers – the dog dies. That's depressing, but what makes it even more depressing is how you really get to love that adorable Labrador/Mastiff mutt. There's a reason why everyone regards Old Yeller as one of the best movie dogs – or, hell, best dogs in literature, too.
There's a rustic quality to the film that really makes it feel genuine, like a childhood dream. It's nostalgic in the same way that A Christmas Story or Stand By Me is nostalgic.
It's also really, really sad.
So Old Yeller is our main character's favorite hunting dog, going out on adventures with him, until the dog saves the kid from a rabid wolf. But – oh no – while Old Yeller saves his family, the wolf bites him, and he has rabies. So now Old Yeller is foaming at the mouth, and ready to tear his owners apart due to the madness that has overtaken his doggy brain. So, naturally, the young boy has to shoot his own dog to put it out of its misery.
I think that's one of the reasons why this dog death is so memorable. He has to shoot his own dog. To save it from a fate worse than death, yes, but he still has to kill it. That's kinda traumatic.
I'm gonna be honest. Part of the reason I'm writing this list is because I just recently rewatched Bad Moon, and thought "Damn, that is one awesome dog!" I kid you not, this is easily one of the best movie dogs.
Bad Moon is a semi-obscure werewolf movie from the mid-90s. The concept is simple: a family visits their uncle, who happens to be turning into a werewolf. The family dog, Thor, notices something is off about the uncle, and, from there, starts a die-hard quest to stop the werewolf from hurting his family.
And yes, you heard me right, this is a werewolf movie where a dog tries to protect his family from a werewolf. This dog basically holds stakeouts for the werewolf, tries his best to investigate the mystery, and even, in the finale, fights the werewolf head-on. This dog is awesome!
The movie is worth watching if you're a fan of monster movies, but I'd have a hard time recommending it to non-horror fans, as, unlike other werewolf films like The Wolf Man or An American Werewolf in London, it is sort of just a gory horror film. But if you want to see a dog defend his family from a bloodthirsty werewolf, you need to watch Bad Moon.
This is the tear-jerking true story of an Akita who loves his master very much, and waits for him to leave the train every day he comes home from work. And, even after his master dies, Hachi keeps going back, waiting for his master to return, faithfully and eagerly, for his master to return.
And yes, this is another one where the dog dies at the end. Dies in the snow, waiting for his master to return –
Just writing that is making me get teary eyed. Honestly, when I was recommended Hachi: A Dog's Tale from a relative, I was told "Watch it! It's a really sweet movie." They didn't tell me it would destroy me emotionally, and leave me a blubbering wreck on the sofa, hugging my Yorkie for comfort as my poor dog struggled to escape.
What makes this movie even sadder is that, yes, this really did happen and that, yes, there really was an Akita named Hachi who did wait at the train for his master to return, even after he died. This was in Japan, and a Japanese film from the 80s called The Tale of Hachiko exists, based on the same story. If you want to emotionally destroy yourself, watch it. This isn't just one of the best movie dogs around – this pupper is one of the best dogs ever in the history of ever.
I need a minute. No, I'm not crying. You're crying!
If any movie is pure sweet dream fuel, it's The Wizard of Oz. Nothing else is as pure and beautiful as this film. I mean, you have the yellow brick road, all those munchkins, false God-Kings, and flying monkeys that will dismember you on screen. Good times.
Also, the dog doesn't die. Spoiler – Toto lives.
Unlike a lot of the best movie dogs on this list, Toto isn't the main character. She's Dorothy's faithful pet who travels at her side regardless of how much insanity there is throughout the movie.
However, in many respects, Toto grounds Dorothy in Oz, and that's important. In a world of dream logic and unreality, Toto is a reminder of the old world Dorothy has left behind. It's an instrumental, if often overlooked, role in the narrative. Toto is the dose of reality, the one good real thing that keeps Dorothy from going into a full-blown Alice in Wonderland-esque dance into madness.
Or maybe that's just how I saw it.
Either way, Toto is an iconic movie dog – one of the best movie dogs – and a great example of a lovely companion who doesn't die. How is it that, so far, the only movies where the dog lives are the ones with witches and werewolves? Do horror and fantasy writers just like dogs more than "realistic" directors?
...I'm still not over Hachi.
If you grew up in the 90s, you couldn't escape this St. Bernard, nor the countless entries in the Beethoven series. There are eight Beethoven movies. Eight!
There are more movies starring Beethoven than there are movies with Spider-Man in it. No joke, there are as many Beethoven movies as there are Nightmare on Elm Street films (ignoring the remake), and all of those made a lot more money than Beethoven.
The plot of Beethoven – or, really, every given film in the series – is that this lovable St. Bernard burrows his way into a family's life, and, along the way, helps them all overcome their emotional problems. Hilarity ensues.
The Beethoven movies are basically all kinds of family film fodder. None of them are particularly great, but they serve an important role. They offer safe, fun cinema with a lovable dog as the main character. Reading critical reviews of the original is pretty great. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote on the film
This is not the sort of entertainment I scour the movie pages for, hoping desperately for a new film about a cute dog. Nor did I find anything particularly new in "Beethoven," although I concede that the filmmakers secured an admirable dog for the title role.
You can basically see Ebert, grumpily seated next to a Citizen Kane poster or something, going "This film isn't high art... but that puppy was really adorable."
The fact that the only thing memorable about this series – and what has kept it going for so long – is Beethoven himself is enough to rank Beethoven over the best movie dogs.
Do you know what's better than the dog dying at the end of the movie? The dog being dead before the movie even starts!
Look, even walking skeletons need pets, and Zero from The Nightmare Before Christmas is pretty fantastic. I shied away from counting animated dogs on this list, since there are just so many that they might warrant their own list (though I included one other animated puppy that I couldn't in good conscious leave out).
But Zero is just a precious cutie. Granted, I can't tell you what breed of dog one of the best movie dogs even is, being a ghost and all, but he's definitely a cute spectral puppy.
This ghost dog is really the most loyal, incredible dog in anything. For one, he lives in a world of ghouls and monsters, and still stands out for being adorable. His nose literally lights up the foggy night. He helps put Jack's body back together after the military shoots him out of the sky –
You know, I'm starting to realize that maybe The Nightmare Before Christmas is a weird movie.
Look, all I'm saying is how many dogs do you know who is both a perfect Halloween and Christmas icon? Zero. That's how many – er, that's who!
If Beethoven is the Freddy Krueger of the dog movie world, then Buddy from Air Bud has to be the Jason Vorhees. Air Bud was a surprisingly small success at the box office, yet, somehow, after spawning one theatrical sequel, spawned a verifiable saga of cute dog movies. I kid you not, Air Bud has an expanded universe of dog movies.
I know I compared it to the Friday the 13th series with its unusually long list of sequels, but Air Bud, as of 2017, has 14 movies in its series. FOURTEEN! There are 12 Friday the 13th films, making Air Bud one of the longest lasting franchises in cinema history.
And, yes, like Jason, eventually they go to space.
Buddy, in the original film, is a Golden Retriever who somehow manages to learn how to play basketball. This ludicrous concept is accompanied by a goofy array of 90s family film cliches, all of which leave you kind of scratching your head how this innocent, family-friendly concept spawned thirteen sequels and spin-offs.
I am exaggerating a little, as Buddy himself only stars in a limited number of the sequels. The rest of the films star similar dogs and puppies bending logic and expectations. "Puppies in space? Puppies with Santa Claus? That's so cute."
That's the appeal of these films in a nutshell, honestly.
The Mask is one of those classic Jim Carrey comedies that revealed to 90s kids that Carrey really is a flesh-and-blood cartoon character. But, for a lot of kids, aside from Carrey, the only thing we really remember about The Mask looking back is Milo, Carrey's adorable dog. I'm not even sure why. I think it has to do with just how precious and sweet that puppy is.
Honestly, Milo is like Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Not saying The Mask is nearly as good as The Wizard of Oz, but – look, Toto and Milo both ground Dorothy and Stanley Ipkiss in some level of reality.
Perhaps if Carrey's Stanley didn't have Milo, he'd end up as crazy as the comic book version of the Mask. Yeah, The Mask is based on a comic book, and the original character was less living cartoon and more evil Deadpool fused with The Punisher.
"Marley was dead, to begin with."
And I just got over Hachi, too.
Marley from Marley and Me proved that, even decades after Old Yeller, killing the dog off at the end of the movie will make you cry. When this movie came out, the only thing people seemed to remember was that, yes, Marley dies.
But what a lot of people forget is what lead up to Marley dying. The genius behind this movie is less that Marley dies at the end, but, rather, that the rest of the movie is just a life happening. It's just Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston living their life, and Marley is essentially just their puppy who grows up to be their dog.
You're going to find a lot of the best movie dogs die dramatic deaths. In Where the Red Fern Grows (not on this list because the movie is lame, though the book is great), one of the dogs is disemboweled by a wild cat, and great, gory detail in the book is put into the dog's gradual death. In Old Yeller, the dog goes rabid, and has to be put down.
But, in real life, that sort of stuff is uncommon. Even Hachi: A Dog's Story got that right, and – damn it, I'm crying again.
What Marley and Me gets right is that it shows a very realistic story of a man and his dog, one that is at once relatable.
So if Beethoven is Freddy Krueger and Buddy is Jason Vorhees, Lassie is... I dunno, Dracula? How many other dogs have remained culturally relevant for almost 70 years? To date, there have been 11 films, four TV films, three live-action television shows, two radio shows, two cartoons, and, yes, one anime adaptation. And I'm not even going to bother telling you how many books about Lassie there are.
And, quite honestly, I don't even know what to add here.
Lassie is beloved. He is one of the best movie dogs among the best movie dogs. This Collie is known for saving people from wells, sometimes being able to relay messages to people by barking at them a couple times, and – quite honestly, Lassie has become something of a joke over the years. Like James Bond, Lassie has been handled by so many creative minds over the years that the Collie has transformed into a larger-than-life entity.
Lassie even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This dog is crazy.
I Am Legend is the third adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic horror novel of the same name. While the film took several liberties with the source material (most notably the ending), it proved a popular enough film. Fans of the original book (reasonably) drew issues with many of the changes, from the ending to turning the intelligent vampires into brain-dead CGI zombies.
But one issue no one had was expanding the role of the dog.
While the dog exists in the book, his role is super minimal. He basically runs across our main character, raising our hero's spirits, before it turns out "Oh, dog's infected. Better kill him."
But in the film, Sam accompanies Will Smith across the ravaged wasteland. In the film, he really is the morality pet grounding Smith's Dr Neville in the wake of this apocalyptic cataclysm. As the only other character other than Will Smith, you really feel attached to Sam. You get a sense that the world really has died, and Sam is the only last trace of humanity left in this world.
This makes it when he inevitably is infected by the virus even worse, and, even more disturbing, Smith has to put the dog out of its misery for both their sakes. For many, this is the most disturbing scene in the whole movie – though maybe it wouldn't have been if they kept the original ending!
I really don't have too many jokes about this one. Sam really is one of the best movie dogs, even if you forget the dog's name was Sam.
80s Tom Hanks. This was before Tom Hanks became walking Oscar bait for his amazing performances in Philadelphia and Forest Gump, where he starred mainly in family-friendly films.
In this 80s classic film, Hanks, playing a police detective, stars alongside a dog, and the two of them solve mysteries. It's basically a buddy cop film, with Hanks being kind of a neat-freak, and Hooch being an adorable pupper full of bounce and joy and energy.
Again, I can't say this film is particularly great, but Hanks brings a charm to the film only outmatched by his costar. Hooch is one of the best movie dogs, in part because, seriously, how many movie dogs can solve mysteries? Hooch is awesome!
Again, the ending you see a mile away, but it's the journey there that's really great. It really does feel like it's a buddy cop movie with a dog as the partner. It's at once silly but also really charming. And Tom Hanks is in it. Tom Hanks even makes bad movies fun, and if you put him up next to a dog? Even better.
How many dogs can get drop-kicked by Jack Black, navigate its way back home, and then talk down a bunch of bears?
Baxter. Baxter from Anchorman.
Anchorman, depending on who you ask, is a stupid Will Ferrell movie, the best Will Ferrell movie, or both. The whole film is surreal and odd, following its own comedy logic that really doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but is awesome all the same.
And while Baxter may be out shined by all the insanity around him, there is something just so awesome about a dog who literally survives being drop kicked off a bridge and goes on an adventure. Yes, it's a comedy, but it's kind of refreshing seeing a dog look like he's going to die, only to bounce back.
Look, all I'm saying is that if Hachi went to the underworld to bring his master back from the dead, that would have made a much better movie. Maybe I'd actually watch that film more than once.
But speaking of the underworld...
This is it. The other animated dog. Look at this puppy.
Yes. One of the best movie dogs. A giant puppy with three heads who guards the Gates to the Underworld, a hell-beast that literally terrifies Gods and condemned souls alike.
Cerberus may not have been referred to by name in the film, nor is he really given a huge role in the film, but it's a giant three-headed dog that can scare Gods! I mean, say what you will about Harry Potter's Fluffy. That dog is based on Cerberus.
I don't know if you can tell, but I have an affinity for scary things. I mean, I don't know if all the Freddy Krueger references gave that away, but – look, all I'm saying is that Cerberus is awesome. He's barely in the film, yet leaves such a massive impact.
And, yes, technically the Greeks really did believe Cerberus guarded the gates to the Underworld, and, yes, they truly were terrified of him. Doesn't make Cerberus any less awesome. In fact, maybe it makes him cooler.
True fact: Stephen King was so drugged out writing Cujo he has no memory of writing it. This is a shame, since Cujo is one of King's best stories. The set-up is very simple: family dog, a lovable St Bernard, gets rabies, and tries to kill his family. It's like if you combined Old Yeller and Beethoven, and just let the dog go wild.
The film actually changes the end of the book a little. And, by a little, I mean the kid lives in the film, whereas in the book he doesn't. Oddly enough, the dog dying bothers me more. Is that weird, feeling more upset about a puppy dying?
Whatever. Point is that Cujo is a short book by Stephen King, and the film adaptation really distils that terror into a concentrated dose of puppy terror. The St Bernard is at once adorable and terrifying, and the film captures Cujo at his sweetest and most vicious moments.
Really, it's telling that whenever I think of rabies, I think of Cujo. That's how memorable this dog is. So yes. Best movie dogs. Cujo. One of the best. Top 10 material. Cujo. Read it. Watch it. Love it.
Best movie dog.