25 Shelter Dogs Who Made It Big
If you've been thinking of adding a four-legged friend to your brood and are deciding whether a shelter dog is right for you, consider this: Some of history's most amazing pooches—from four-legged movie stars to heroic rescue dogs—were found in animal shelters. In honor of Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, here are 25 shelter dogs who made it big.
Old Yeller may be one of Disney's saddest movies, but the backstory of its canine star is anything but: Spike, who played the title role, was adopted from a Van Nuys, California shelter when he was still just a puppy by animal trainer Frank Weatherwax for a fee of just $3. When Weatherwax's wife, Connie, read part of Frank Gipson's classic novel in The Saturday Evening Post, the author's description of the dog reminded her of Spike. So when Disney announced that they'd be adapting the book to the big screen, Weatherwax got Spike an audition. But there was a problem: The lop-eared yellow Mastador was just too sweet. So Weatherwax went to work on training the lovable pup to snarl and growl on command. Spike nailed the part, and went on to have a fruitful acting career (he even made a few appearances as one of Lassie's buds).
In 1995, FEMA worker Mary Flood met Jake: a 10-month-old black Lab who was taken in by a shelter after he was found roaming the streets with a broken leg and a dislocated hip. "But against all odds he became a world-class rescue dog," Flood, who works as part of a federal search-and-rescue team that has searched for human remains at both Ground Zero and following Hurricane Katrina, told CNN.
Following the events of September 11, Jake was officially hailed as a "hero" by the City of New York. In addition to his own acts of heroism, Jake helped train other rescue dogs and worked as a therapy dog at nursing homes and at a camp for burn victims. On July 25, 2007, Jake died of cancer; his body was donated to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, who were studying the long-term effects of 9/11 on the health of the rescue dogs.
Frank Inn was a dog lover through and through: Though he made his living as a professional animal trainer, he was also an enormous advocate of shelter dogs. He'd regularly adopt pups who were at risk of being euthanized, then attempt to train them; if they weren't into the whole acting thing, he'd find loving homes for them through friends and family. One of his greatest success stories was Higgins, a mutt he found at California's Burbank Animal Shelter, who proved to be a natural in front of the camera. After making his onscreen debut on Petticoat Junction, his real star-making turn came in the first Benji film. According to the Humane Society, Higgins's history as a shelter dog led to the adoption of 1 million more because of Benji.
In 2010, Eric O'Grey—a Silicon Valley-based sales rep who worked from home and spent much of his day on the phone—was taking more than a dozen different medications to control a range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression. "It was a day-to-day existence of me and myself and really, the phone and the internet," the 58-year-old told Metro in 2017. His diet consisted of takeout food and he would sometimes eat up to 10,000 calories per day; eventually, he began to lose contact with many of his friends and stopped leaving the house altogether. Then a doctor made a seemingly odd suggestion: Get a rescue dog.
That's when O'Grey met Peety, an overweight, middle-aged Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix at the Humane Society Silicon Valley. Together, they began taking twice-a-day walks and eventually worked up to three miles. Within 10 months, O'Grey had lost 140 pounds (and Peety had dropped 25). Today, O'Grey is running about five marathons a year and just released a book, Walking With Peety: The Dog Who Saved My Life, about how Peety changed his life.
5. RIN TIN TIN
In 1918, American corporal Leland Duncan stumbled upon a bombed-out dog kennel near Lorraine, France, where he found a German Shepherd mom tending to her litter of newborn puppies. Duncan rescued the dogs, and brought two of the puppies home to California with him: Nanette and Rin Tin Tin. Though Nanette passed away, Rin Tin Tin became a huge star, appearing in more than two dozen silent films. Today, you can visit his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
6. AND 7. PICASSO AND PABLO
If it weren't for Liesl Wilhardt and the devoted dog lovers at Luvable Dog Rescue, the world may never have been introduced to Picasso. In 2017, the Eugene, Oregon animal shelter rescued the 10-month-old pit bull-corgi mix and his brother, Pablo, from a high-kill shelter in California. The brothers had been surrendered by a breeder who couldn't place them—in Picasso's case, because of a misaligned snout that made him look like a Pablo Picasso painting (hence the name).
When Luvable began posting photos of the pair on their Instagram and Facebook pages, they turned into internet stars practically overnight. The organization reportedly received inquiries from hundreds of people around the world who are interested in giving a home to the brothers—who will only be adopted as a pair—but they remained under Luvable's care while Picasso underwent dental surgery to correct an issue with his snout (which can cause him pain). Sadly, Pablo died suddenly of a brain aneurysm a couple of months later, and Wilhardt couldn't bear the idea of Picasso being on his own. "When Pablo died, it was absolutely heartbreaking," Wilhardt said. "They were so close. They had always been together."
Wilhardt decided to adopt him herself, and Picasso began training to be a certified therapy dog. "I love this boy so much, and he's had a hell of a rough life so far," Wilhardt said. "I want the rest of his life to be amazing."
In 2008, Aleister—a 5-year-old terrier mix—was rescued from an animal shelter in California. Four years later, he was starring alongside Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Lorene Scafaria's 2012 dramedy about two strangers who meet in the final days before an asteroid strikes Earth and obliterates everything and everyone on it. The pooch played "Sorry," an abandoned dog that ends up giving Carell's character a reason to live when death is imminent.
In 2009, Pabst—a then-4-year-old boxer mix with an extremely pronounced underbite—was named the World's Ugliest Dog, becoming the first pup who wasn't a Chinese crested to claim the title in seven years. The title brought him $1600 in prize money plus a modeling contract from House of Dog. While Miles Egstad, who adopted Pabst from a shelter in 2006, appreciated the accolades, he didn't necessarily agree with the description. "I don’t think he's that ugly!" Egstad told People Magazine.
A professionally trained pooch is the dream of any filmmaker who decides to work with a dog, but sometimes not even the most talented of canine performers tick every box for a director. That was definitely the case for George Miller, who auditioned more than 100 dogs to play the part of Dog, faithful companion to Max Rockatansky in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. The filmmakers had just about given up on finding their Dog when they came across an Australian cattle dog that was scheduled to be put down at the local pound. Miller threw a rock and the dog retrieved it, which was enough for the director to cast him as Max's furry pal. When filming ended, he was adopted by Max and Dale Aspin, the film's stunt coordinator and animal trainer, respectively.
11. WHEELY WILLY
Originally found abandoned in a cardboard box suffering from both spinal injuries and a cut throat, Willy—who was then just a puppy—was rescued and received the medical attention he needed, though the injuries left him paraplegic. After spending more than a year in a shelter, he had still not found his forever home, and was scheduled to be euthanized. That's when pet groomer Deborah Turner took action, and brought him home.
In order to help Willy walk on his own, Turner spent a lot of time trying to come up with new ways to help his mobility, then learned about K-9 Carts, a special kind of wheelchair for dogs. With his fancy new wheels, Willy began attracting lots of attention, which eventually led to him becoming the subject of a pair of bestselling children's books where he was rechristened Wheely Willy. When he wasn't posing for the cameras, Willy—who passed away in 2010—helped raise public awareness about animals with disabilities and visited hospitals, where his tenacity regularly inspired patients.
In Annie, the red-headed orphan finds a kindred spirit in Sandy, a streetwise stray dog she adopts as her own faithful companion. Since the musical's original Broadway run, animal trainer and behaviorist William Berloni has filled the role with shelter dogs. In 1976, he paid just $7 to save the original Sandy from being euthanized and trained him to appear on Broadway; he ended up stealing the show in more than 2300 performances. It started a bit of a trend; when Annie was revived for the stage in 2012, Berloni put a shelter dog named Sunny to work for the part.
In 2016, Mochi "Mo" Rickert was awarded a Guinness World Record for The Dog With the Longest Tongue, with an official measurement of 7.3 inches. "With this record, we hope to bring attention to how much joy rescued animals can bring to their new family," Carla Rickert, who adopted Mochi from a South Dakota rescue with her husband Craig, said of the accolade. "Mo is resilient, comical, loving, and eternally grateful and loyal to us—her forever family. This once abused and neglected pup has taught us that it's okay to be different. We are proud of her unique feature."
From 1992 to 1999, Maui—a collie mix who was adopted from a California shelter by animal trainer Boone Narr—played Murray, the lovable pooch of Paul and Jamie Buchman (Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt) on Mad About You. "Maui is very sweet and takes direction well," Betty Linn, who trained Maui for several years, told Mutt News in 2008. "He's completely spoiled by everyone and consequently loves to go to the set when we begin a new show on Mondays."
In 2016, Petunia—a tan and brown mixed breed pup—found her forever home after being adopted out by the Delta Animal Shelter in Escanaba, Michigan following years of abuse (she arrived at the shelter with broken legs and ribs). A year later, the pup (now known as Peanut) returned that kindness by helping to save a 3-year-old girl.
In March 2017, Peanut was clearly distressed; the normally quiet pooch was running up and down the stairs and barking at her owner. Sensing that something must be wrong, Peanut's owner took her outside, where she immediately ran into the field behind the house. It's there that Peanut located a young girl curled up into a ball, wearing no clothing, and shivering from the cold. "By the time the ambulance and police arrived, the little girl could only say one thing—'doggie,'" Peanut's owner wrote in a letter to the shelter. "Thanks to Peanut, a little girl's life was saved."
16. AND 17. CLYDE AND RUDY
In 2005, readers fell in love with Marley & Me, John Grogan's loving tribute to the many years he and his family spent living with Marley, a destructive yellow lab who Grogan deemed "the world's worst dog." When the book was adapted into a movie starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in 2008, the filmmakers had to employ a total of 22 dogs to play Marley at various stages of his life, and six of them were rescue dogs.
Of all the pups, Clyde—who was rescued from a breeder—had the most screen time (and managed to earn a Teen Choice Award nomination for Choice Movie Liplock alongside Wilson). Then there was Rudy, who managed to find an adopter just 24 hours before he was set to be euthanized. He was adopted by Susan Woolley and Dean Kagawa, who regularly take in strays. When Woolley, who volunteers with the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida Inc., learned that Rudy was going to be destroyed, she stepped in and tried to find him a new home. But his energy level proved to be too much for many potential adopters.
"We kept him because nobody wanted him," Woolley told the Tampa Bay Times. "He's a hoot," Kagawa added. "You rarely get a dog like him. He's just nuts. He's very smart. Very stubborn. Loves being the center of attention." When Woolley learned that the makers of Marley & Me were in need of just such a pup, she told them: "I have the perfect dog."
In 1988, Denice Shaughnessy—then a soldier in the U.S. Army—fell in love with Chanel, a 6-week-old white dachshund she adopted from a shelter in Newport News, Virginia. More than 20 years later, Shaughnessy noticed that there was no current Guinness World Record holder for World's Oldest Dog, so she submitted Chanel's information. In 2009, Chanel (who was often seen wearing goggles because of cataracts, in sweaters because of a sensitivity to cold, and being pushed in a stroller because of the difficulty she had walking) was the center of attention at a big birthday party held in her honor in New York City, where her Guinness World Record distinction was announced. Sadly, Chanel passed away just a few months later, at the age of 21 years and 114 days.
In 2012, animal control officers in Connecticut came across a homeless 10-year-old shih tzu and brought her to a shelter, where she was named "Stinky" and sat for several months until Shirley Braha discovered her. After taking the dog home, Braha renamed her new four-legged friend Marnie, and began posting pictures of the unusual pooch, whose head tilts to one side, likely due to a previous illness. Today, Marnie is a bona fide celebrity with her own book and app and more than 2 million Instagram followers.
Like Marnie, Tuna the dog went from homeless to internet sensation—though in his case, it seemed practically overnight. After being found on the side of a road in California, Tuna was made adoptable by a rescue group, which is how Courtney Dasher came across him in 2010. He was then just 4 months old, and Dasher decided to foster the Chihuahua/Dachshund for a week—but was quickly charmed by him and his adorably odd appearance.
Tuna's extreme overbite and misaligned jaw earned him some instant online love; in addition to his nearly 2 million Instagram followers, Tuna has his own book and is doing his part to raise awareness (and money) for rescue organizations that have a soft spot for unconventionally cute would-be pets.
In 2005, a lovable Border Collie named Castor was having trouble finding a home. Just as his longtime foster, Lori, was getting ready to offer him a forever home, the mother of a 4-year-old girl named Melorah who had daily seizures decided that Castor just might be the perfect service dog for their home. They were right. "Castor is now Hobo, and he is a seizure alert dog for Melorah," Lori wrote in a blog post. "He alerts Melorah's mom when a seizure is on its way, and her mom actually gives her medicine when Hobo predicts a seizure.
“The medicine can lessen the effects of the seizure. He has done his job for many years now. He has been all over the U.S. He has also spent many nights in hospitals in Melorah's bed comforting her when she was scared and away from home. He has ridden the carousel at Disney World, he has ridden on trains, subways, and even in an ambulance. Melorah's mom now speaks at large events on the benefits of service dogs."
22. MR. WINKLE
It's hard not to fall in love with Mr. Winkle, a tiny toy dog who is believed to be a mix of Chihuahua and Pomeranian, but looks more like a teddy bear. That's exactly what happened when renowned photographer Lara Jo Regan met him, and why she adopted him. Immediately, she began dressing Mr. Winkle up and posting photos of him in all sorts of settings and costumes. Next came a line of merchandise, including books and calendars, that endeared Mr. Winkle to the world.
Pit bulls can get a bad rap, but time and again, they've proven to be an amazing breed—saving and changing many people's lives in the process. Case in point: Lady, who found her way to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS).
"She's just one of those dogs who was very overlooked," BARCS's communications director Bailey Deacon told The Dodo in 2016. "She was loved by our staff and volunteers. But she wasn't getting a lot of chances for people to get her out and see how wonderful she really was. People weren't picking her. Everybody just walked by the brown and white pit bull." Then she met Mandy Weikert and Chris Kimple, who immediately connected to Lady's fun-loving spirit and brought her home.
But Lady wanted to do more: Weikert, who is a nurse at a cancer treatment center in Pennsylvania, brought Lady to work with her one day, and the pup immediately got to work cheering everyone up. "She makes people laugh and makes people smile and makes people forget why they are there," Weikert told People. "When they are with Lady, they are not cancer patients anymore. They are just people who are happy."
By the time Murray, a 2-year-old beagle, was rescued by Georgia's Alcovy Pet Rescue from the Northeast Georgia Animal Shelter, it was clear he had had a tough life. In addition to being severely underweight and beat up, his tail was injured and he was missing half of one of his ears. But, "He was very eager for love and very eager for attention," Tammie Jourdanais, the shelter's director, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in early 2017. Murray was also smart and eager to please, which is how—about one year later—he found himself joining the elite crew of agriculture detector dogs at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where he ensures that no harmful foods or pests make their way into the U.S.
"The dogs we're looking for are working dogs that really need something to do," Kathleen Warfield, a training specialist at the National Detector Training Center, told the AJC. "They need to keep busy and be active … Murray is the happiest dog you will ever meet. When he's at the airport, he just loves being in that environment."
25. CHARLIE GRAY
Beginning in 1979, Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers portrayed Jonathan and Jennifer Hart on the show Hart to Hart, about a married couple who regularly find themselves embroiled in some sort of weird mystery that forces them to play amateur detectives to solve it. Helping them in their investigations is Freeway, a stray Löwchen they found roaming the freeway (hence the name). In real life, the story of Charlie Gray—the dog who portrayed Freeway—wasn't too different. Charlie was close to being euthanized when Hollywood animal trainer Bob Blair found him. "I went down to the shelter, just down the road from here and there was this little dog, looking at me and saying 'When's my call to go to the studio?'" Blair recalled. "I brought him back, and he turned out to be a great little dog."
This story was first published in 2017.