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History’s Most Famous Dogs

It’s been said for centuries: “A dog is a man’s best friend.”

Don’t get us wrong, cats, birds, reptiles, and other companions are great, but canines are still “top dog” when it comes to pets. With over 36% of households owning a dog, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), pups are the number one pet choice in the United States. And dogs are so much more than cute faces, warm fur, and fun exercise partners.

Dogs have incredible qualities, like long-term memory, which keeps them in tune with their connections and allows them to learn from past experiences, like to never take food off the table again because they’ll get a newspaper to the snout. Ever-loyal, their short-term memory works in such a manner that they will not hold that newspaper swat against you because moments later they’ll be begging you to go play ball.

Dogs motivate you to get up and enjoy the little things in life, such as walks and a good laugh when they’re barking at their own tails. Best of all, they’re always by your side. Did your friends cancel plans? Is your family too busy? Your canine companion will be more than happy to spend time with you! Add in incredible instincts and a protective nature, and you can see why dogs are such beloved companions.

Not only that, dogs can be movie stars, caregivers, and heroes, going above and beyond to assist their humans. Here are some of our favorite stories that show why dogs are forever man’s best friend.

The Presidential Pooches

Regardless of your political affiliations, there are certain Oval Office residents that you can’t help but love: the presidential pooches.

To date, thirty-two U.S. presidents have owned at least one dog while in office. Even the first American president, George Washington, was a dog owner, with three American Staghounds and four Black and Tan Coonhounds.

Here are a few of the “First Dogs” who captured the hearts of America (check out a more detailed list here).

Veto, the hero dog. A name with real meaning, this Newfoundland was owned by James Garfield, the 20th U.S. president. He named the dog Veto to let Congress know that he might not be signing all of the bills it passed. But Veto was more than a message — he was a hero. He once barked nonstop to alert people that a barn was on fire and, on another occasion, he held the reins of a rampaging horse until help came.

Laddie Boy, the first celebrity dog. Owned by Warren G. Harding, the 29th president, Laddie Boy was an Airedale terrier who accompanied the first family everywhere. He joined the president on golf outings and even attended cabinet meetings, sitting in his own special chair. Because of this, Laddie Boy received an enormous amount of media coverage. There was an official portrait painted of him, and a life-sized sculpture of this special pup is part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History collection.

King Tut, the happiness dog. Herbert Hoover, the 31st president, had a less-than-optimal public image of being rather stiff, stern, and severe during his run for the presidency. That image was quickly softened when a photo was taken of him with his Belgian Shepherd, King Tut, who brought out a rare smile from the president. Hoover’s campaign officials had thousands of copies made of that photo and circulated them throughout the country, hoping the image would make Hoover appear more personable. The strategy worked – Hoover was elected president, and the New York Times wrote that it was “one of the happiest pictures ever made” of Hoover.

Fala, movie star and constant companion. Always with his beloved owner, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd president, Fala was a black Scottish terrier who slept in a special chair at the end of FDR’s bed, accompanied him on trips of all kinds and by all modes of transportation, and met some very important people. His popularity was so huge that he actually received thousands of letters from people, and in 1942 a movie was made about his life. There were references made to Fala in some of the biggest media sources of the time, including the New York Times and Reader’s Digest. He’s also mentioned in several books about Roosevelt. A statue of Fala stands next to a statue of FDR in Washington, DC.

The Movie Stars

“Never work with children or animals.”

That famous quote, attributed to W.C. Fields and echoed by many other actors over the years, came about because of the unpredictable nature of children and animals and the way they often upstage their on screen counterparts.

Dog lovers can certainly relate to and appreciate those unpredictable canine antics — anyone who’s ever had a dog probably has plenty of funny stories to share, and surely the actors who have worked with some of the most famous dogs in movie history would have plenty of anecdotes too!

Here are a few of our favorite dogs from the silver screen (see the full list here).

Marley. The lead dog in the film Marley & Me was played by a three-year-old yellow Labrador retriever whose real name was Clyde. Like most dogs, Clyde’s number one love was treats, and according to his trainer, Mark Forbes, his favorite star in the film was anyone who was holding a treat. In the movie, Clyde had to “kiss” his human co-stars from time to time, so the lucky recipient of Clyde’s kisses had to put a small smear of ham-flavored baby food on their cheek to get the kiss. Why ham? Because it was closest to the color of the actors’ skin.

Toto. Who could forget the spunky little Cairn terrier from the classic movie The Wizard of Oz? The cute female terrier was appropriately named Terry and starred in sixteen other movies (including one with Shirley Temple), though The Wizard of Oz was her most famous. Terry, who did her own stunts, made a whopping salary of $125 per week playing Toto, which was more than most of the actors in the film and more than most people earned when the film was made in 1939.

Benji. This mixed-breed male shelter dog starred in several Benji movies and was named Higgins. In later Benji movies, Higgins’ daughter, Benjean, took over for her dad as the star. Before he made it to the big screen, Higgins played in the 1960s television series Petticoat Junction in the simply-titled role of “dog.” He appeared in a few other TV shows as well, and after winning a Patsy Award in 1967, he was featured on the cover of TV Guide.

Buddy. Buddy, the canine star of the movie Air Bud, was a male golden retriever found as a stray by Kevin di Cicco, who took him home and trained him in various sports from basketball to soccer, earning him the nickname “Buddy the Wonder Dog.” He was first seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos, and he also starred as Comet in the TV series Full House.

The History Makers

Dogs inhabit a trusted but secondary position in world events. After all, humans write the history books. Dogs are only interested in making their mark on trees and fire hydrants. But at certain points through history, the dog has taken center stage and made his own mark — in ink that is.

During World War II, dogs were pressed into service as guards and scouts. The most famous was Chips, a part-collie, part-German shepherd. Chips would have gone down as the most decorated dog in history, but his medals caused an uproar among the American public.

A member of General George Patton’s Third Army, Chips waded ashore at Sicily with the other “dog faces” (a somewhat disparaging term used by other branches of the military to describe army soldiers). The soldiers established a beachhead and began moving inland. Resistance was light.
An enemy machine gun nest suddenly opened up, however. Chips, unmindful of his safety, lunged into the nest even though a bullet had already pierced his body. When American soldiers came up to Chips, he had one enemy soldier by the throat. The rest had either fled or surrendered.

The lieutenant in charge of the platoon recommended Chips for a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, citing how “his courageous action in single-handedly eliminating a dangerous machine-gun nest and causing the surrender of its crew had prevented injury and death to his men.”

But the public was outraged. So much blood was being spilled that it appeared unseemly to bestow medals on a dog that couldn’t understand the sacrifices that were being made. Undeterred, members of his unit awarded Chips with a theater ribbon that commemorated his involvement in the Sicily campaign. Chips would serve in seven more bitter battles.

Chips’ glory continued. He helped guard Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It’s rumored that he even took a nip at General Dwight Eisenhower — perhaps the dog was upset at losing his Silver Star after all.

Fast forward a few years, and atomic weapons had rendered war between the United States and the Soviet Union unthinkable. Competition centered in economic and technological arenas.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite. The launch caused hysteria in the United States — the Soviets had beaten the Americans into the space! They pressed ahead with “manned” flights to keep up the string of space “firsts.”

Two months later, Sputnik II carried the first living being into space — the dog Laika. She was wired with sensors and transmitters to let Soviet scientists monitor her condition. Unfortunately, in the rush to send the first earth creature into space, no provision had been made to return Laika.

Laika (Russian for “Bark”) was a stray. Her calm nature and easy-going personality were perfect for the program. She was trained to ignore the roar of engines and the motions of the rocket on which she traveled.

This second launch — with an earth creature no less — was considered another blow to the United States, which was struggling to overcome a string of spectacular failures in its own program. The blow spurred Americans to redouble efforts, and eventually led to the Manned Moon program.

Nevertheless, Laika captured the hearts of Americans because the dog’s fate was hermetically sealed in a capsule traveling 18,000 miles per hour, 900 miles above the surface of the earth. The press called her “Mutt-nik,” and people followed the Soviet reports on her condition. The capsule eventually reentered the atmosphere and burned up.

Subsequent space flights with dogs included a return vehicle, and many did return safely. But Laika was the first. In 1997, Russia unveiled a memorial at the Institute for Aviation and Space Medicine in Moscow.

Resources for History’s Most Famous Dogs

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