From big-time flicks to buzzed-about commercials, “man’s best friend” is a fixture on film. After all, cuddly canines are almost as fun on-screen as they are off. But some Hollywood hounds had humble beginnings, being “discovered” in shelters and war-torn towns. Click through to meet the most famous rescue dogs and read their inspiring stories.
Perhaps one of the most beloved movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz featured several memorable characters, including the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and, of course, Toto, who never strayed too far from on-screen owner, Dorothy. In real life, Toto (born as Terry, a female pup) was owned by Carl Spitz, founder of the Hollywood Dog Training School. Spitz first met Terry when the pup's original owners, a married couple, sent him to Spitz for training. Once housebroken, the owners neglected to pick up Terry from the kennel. Spitz kept her for himself and started taking her to auditions. Terry landed her first role alongside Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes. Five films later, the canine was cast as Toto.
If there’s any time to get a message out to TV viewers, it’s in the middle of the Super Bowl. And 2012’s big game introduced over 100 million football fans to Nugget, better known as Weego, in a commercial for Bud Light. Rescued from a California shelter, the clever canine fetched bottles, six-packs and even kegs of the popular beer when partygoers in the commercial called, “Here, Weego!” The beer company used the ad as a platform to raise awareness on animal rescue, particularly former Oakland Athletics manager Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF). The commercial encouraged viewers to “like” Bud Light’s Facebook page, and in turn, the beer giant donated a dollar to ARF for every new fan. They raised thousands! Well done, Weego.
Returning to New York City’s Broadway in October 2012, the Annie revival will feature a special furry friend for the play’s title character. While searching for the perfect pooch to play Annie’s canine companion, animal trainer William Berloni came across Sunny, a terrier mix who was set to be euthanized. Berloni saw star potential in the golden-haired beauty, and sure enough, the pup landed the Broadway role. This isn’t the first time that Berloni lent a hand to deserving dogs. He once spent $7 to save a dog from being euthanized. The animal went on to star in over 2,000 performances when Annie first premiered on Broadway in 1977. In fact, every dog that’s played Sandy on Broadway has been rescued from a shelter. To help other hounds, Pedigree will donate $2 to an animal organization for every Annie ticket purchased from opening night through the end of 2013.
Based on John Grogan’s hit book, Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog, the Hollywood flick starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson followed the journey of a couple and their rambunctious pet, Marley. Animal trainer Larry Madrid handled 22 different pups to portray the pooch in the movie—and six were rescues, according to the movie’s DVD. Rudy, one of the A-list dogs, was spotted by Susan Woolley and Dean Kagawa at the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida. Then injured, the dog was about to be put to sleep by local animal services. They adopted Rudy and were later ed by Madrid, who was seeking a rescued Labrador for the Marley role.
Before catapulting into fame from playing the lead in Benji, Higgins resided in the Burbank Animal Shelter in California. The fluffy mixed breed caught the eye of well-known dog trainer, Frank Inn, who had co-trained Lassie and other Hollywood dogs along with Rudd Weatherwax. Inn adopted Higgins in 1960. Once Inn branched off on his own, shelters were his first stops when searching for animals for movie and TV roles. After acquiring Higgins, the hound first made TV appearances in Petticoat Junction and Mooch Goes to Hollywood. He made his film debut as Benji in 1974.
Although several dogs have played the role of Rin Tin Tin over the years, the original Rinty had a rise to fame that’s cinematic in itself. Born in a litter of five puppies during World War I in what’s now France, Rin Tin Tin and his siblings were found by American soldier Leland Duncan, who discovered them in a badly damaged kennel near the battlefield. Keeping two out of the five puppies, he named them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette. Unfortunately, Nanette died of pneumonia soon after they arrived back in the United States. Duncan had no intention of turning his hound into a Hollywood sensation until a friend captured Rin Tin Tin on a camera he created. Following the sight of Rin Tin Tin on film, Duncan began molding him for stardom. Four years after Duncan discovered him, the pup landed his big break in The Man from Hell’s River.
Even with A-listers like Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in June 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, rescued pooch Aleister still stole the spotlight. The terrier mix played Sorry, who helped Steve Carell’s character, Dodge, find his life’s purpose once again. Alesiter’s own life changed when he was rescued from a shelter in California in 2008. Previously starring in commercials, the flick marked Aleister’s big-screen debut. As a prominent character in the movie, three other dogs were needed as stunt doubles and stand-ins. They were all shelter pups, too.