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.
By Croes, Rob C. / Anefo –  Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.05 Bestanddeelnummer 930-1617, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, Wikimedia Commons
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 earlier this month. 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. Earlier this year, 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 has 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 will remain under Luvable’s care while Picasso undergoes dental surgery to correct an issue with his snout (which can cause him pain). If you’re interested in following their progress, check out the group’s social media feeds.
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 PeopleMagazine.
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.