Dogs are synonymous with companionship. That means dogs tend to make great characters in movies about that very topic. Throughout the history of movies — and, really, if we’re being honest, the history of storytelling in general — dogs have been important to the way we explore concepts like love, loyalty and friendship.
August is National Dog Month, so what better way to celebrate than with a roundup of some of the best, funniest, sweetest, bravest, clumsiest and smartest dogs to ever sniff around the silver screen? Your list may differ, but for our money, these are the dogs that most easily snuggled their way into our hearts over the years.
Hooch in Turner & Hooch (1989)
Hooch, a gigantic French mastiff, really might be the greatest movie dog ever. Many of the movies on this list have dogs at their center, but Hooch gets a starring role in a buddy cop comedy alongside one of the best actors of his generation, Tom Hanks.
The pair team up to solve a mystery after Hooch’s owner is murdered down at the docks one night. Turner reluctantly agrees to care for Hooch when the local veterinarian, Emily (Mare Winningham), insists that it’ll be good for Turner to care for a dog. They develop a sweet bond over the course of the movie. For what’s ostensibly a pretty silly comedy, the end of this movie is pretty darn emotional, and assures Hooch a place on the list of indelible movie dogs.
Old Yeller in Old Yeller (1957)
Old Yeller is not the oldest movie on this list, but it’s probably the platonic ideal of a dog movie. The whole thing is designed to pull on the heart strings of dog lovers as much as possible. It all begins when Old Yeller shows up on the farm of Jim Coates and does some damage in a field. Jim’s older son, Travis, tries to drive Old Yeller off, but the younger Arliss wants to keep the dog around.
When Old Yeller saves Arliss from a bear attack, he wins over the family for good. It’s a cruel world though, and a rabies outbreak looms. Chances are you know where it goes from here, but Old Yeller is a classic; it’s been one of the go-to tearjerkers in cinema for over half a century now.
Chance and Shadow in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)
Homeward Bound, although it features animals, is a pretty standard movie about a long journey home. Chance, Shadow and Sassy — two dogs and a cat, respectively — fear they’ve been abandoned at a ranch while their owners are temporarily out of town, and decide to travel home on their own to reunite with their family.
They suffer many hardships along the way, but really this is a story about a brash youngster (Chance) learning from an older and wiser companion (Shadow). There’s also terrific voicework by Michael J. Fox (Chance), Sally Field (Sassy) and screen legend Don Ameche (Shadow) in the second-to-last role of his nearly 60-year career.
Buddy in Air Bud (1997)
As a true blue hoops fan, I’ll admit I always figured Air Bud was a little beneath me. I finally got around to watching it — pretty much as a joke, really — over the course of the pandemic, and it turns out it’s a really charming little movie.
At the center of it is Buddy the golden retriever, who happens to be an absolute bucket, as the kids say. Buddy can score; Buddy can pass; Buddy is a lockdown perimeter defender with great help instincts. You think I’m kidding, but I’m really not. This movie is full of basketball wisdom, including a scene in which Coach Chaney (a totally dialed-in performance by the great Bill Cobbs) makes the team play without a ball so they can learn how to communicate better. Excellent stuff, as far as I’m concerned.
Benji in Benji (1974)
Benji was such a popular movie dog that he spawned an entire film franchise between the 1974 original directed by Joe Camp and the 2018 Netflix original of the same name directed by Joe’s son, Brandon Camp.
The original — a story of a transient dog looking for a home and foiling a group of literal kidnappers in the process — is really fun. Somehow, this little dog movie ended up crashing the top 10 in the box office for 1974. Plus, Benji is just incredibly cute. Add it all up, and there are certainly plenty of worse ways to spend the brief runtime of 84 minutes.
Skip in My Dog Skip (2000)
My Dog Skip is a movie dripping with nostalgia. It’s set in the 1940s and is the story of a man looking back on his childhood and the very special relationship he had with his dog. Really, it’s a story about the loneliness of growing up, especially as an only child. It features the first major performance from child actor Frankie Muniz, who became famous playing the title character in the show Malcolm in the Middle around the same time.
The movie is based on a book of the same name — an autobiographical story about a man named Willie Morris. Through the use of an extended flashback, and alongside the relationship between Willie and Skip, we learn about life in Mississippi at the time, but we also experience issues of the time like racism and post-traumatic stress from war.
Bruiser in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003)
The original Legally Blonde is one of the funniest movies of the past 25 years, and that’s due in no small part to Bruiser, the hilarious little chihuahua who is Elle Woods’ (Reese Witherspoon) companion. Nevertheless, here we’re shouting out the sequel, because the sequel features Bruiser a little more prominently.
In it, Elle Woods ends up fighting for animal rights after learning that Bruiser’s mother is being used for testing by a cosmetics company. Eventually, she secures the release of Bruiser’s mother, and everything ends well for Bruiser, too.
Frank the Pug in Men in Black II (2002)
Another dog who shows up in multiple films across a franchise is Frank the Pug from the Men in Black movies. Frank is, of course, an alien in disguise as a pug here on Earth in order to blend in. Which is hilarious, because he’s a speaking dog.
Frank has only a brief role in the first Men in Black movie, but he really shines in MiB II. He ends up serving as J’s (Will Smith) partner, and gets to do fun gags like singing “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor while riding in the car with J on the way to a crime scene. Plus, it’s just always funny to see a little dog wearing a suit.
Brandy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Brandy might very well be the hero of Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The movie is a kind of historical fantasy that rewrites the events of the famous Manson Family murders of 1969. Brandy, a pit bull, is the incredibly well-trained dog of stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
Brandy gets her moment when she attacks Sadie on Cliff’s command during the film’s climax. The moment is really satisfying — the culmination of a sweet relationship between a dog and her master. It’s all part of a pretty harrowing display of violence, but there’s a kind of sweetness to this fantasy of a world where the people murdered by the Manson Family in 1969 get to live on.
Baxter in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Baxter is a little miracle of a dog in the hilarious 2004 comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. We meet Baxter early on in the movie, when we get to hear about how he “ate a whole wheel of cheese” and get to see how he sleeps in the same pajamas as Ron.
Later, in a bizarre case of road rage gone way too far, Baxter is “punted” off a bridge by an angry motorcyclist (Jack Black). That event leads to Ron Burgundy’s downfall, and he loses his job and slips into a depression. Of course, things get resolved when Ron manages to save the day in the bear pit at the San Diego Zoo, but even that is mostly due to Baxter, who shows up — having miraculously survived — and manages to communicate with the bears. On the spectrum of heroic acts by dogs on this list, Baxter’s exploits rank him near the top.
Marley in Marley & Me (2008)
Another tearjerker about the relationship between a dog and a family, Marley & Me follows a dog throughout his entire life. We start when John (Owen Wilson) and Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) relocate to South Florida. They decide to get a dog in an attempt to see if they’re really ready to start a family, and they name him Marley after Bob Marley.
From there, we follow Marley through his life with the family. He becomes indispensable in all kinds of ways. Of course, the family loves him, but his hijinx also becomes the subject of John’s successful newspaper column, which is the backbone of his career. As with all movies that follow a character over the course of an entire lifetime, it’s pretty devastating when we get to the end, but this movie will absolutely warm your heart before it wrecks you.
Beethoven in Beethoven (1992)
Beethoven is another movie about a family and a dog, and it was so successful — it made nearly $150 million on a budget of less than $20 million — that it spawned seven feature film sequels and a brief animated television show. The original is the golden standard though, and adds in some pretty high stakes to the usual family movie formula.
Beethoven himself is a gigantic Saint Bernard, and the movie’s high stakes are that Beethoven’s veterinarian Dr. Varnick (Dean Jones) is actually involved in doing a bunch of evil experiments on dogs with large skulls. Beethoven’s family, the Newtons, end up saving the day, led by George (Charles Grodin) who overcomes his initial reluctance to Beethoven to finally fall in love with the dog.
Lassie in Lassie Come Home (1943)
Lassie Come Home is basically the prototype for many of the other films on this list. It’s about the love between a boy and his dog, it’s about the importance of dogs as emotional companions during difficult times, and it’s also an adventure movie about a dog who goes on a journey. Its DNA is everywhere in the history of movies about dogs.
The basic plot is that a family has to sell their beloved dog, Lassie, to a rich Duke during the Great Depression in England. Lassie continually escapes to get back home, until finally the Duke moves to Scotland, but his granddaughter lets Lassie escape after realizing that the dog is miserable. Lassie braves a long journey to finally make it to her true home.
Beyond this original film though, you may remember Lassie from the long-running TV series (1954–1973) or one of the countless other movies and books about the sweet Rough Collie.
Winn-Dixie in Because of Winn-Dixie (2005)
Based on a children’s novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, this film by the great director Wayne Wang is a charming family story about a scruffy dog who’s named Winn-Dixie after the supermarket where he’s found. It features AnnaSophia Robb in her first film role as main character Opal Buloni.
Opal and her preacher father (Jeff Daniels) move to a small town in Florida, and Opal claims Winn-Dixie at the supermarket in order to keep the dog from being sent to the pound. Through Winn-Dixie, Opal meets all kinds of people in town including a sweet old librarian (Eva Marie Saint), a recovering alcoholic (Cicely Tyson) and a shy ex-convict musician named Otis (Dave Matthews). In the end, it’s a sweet story about the way dogs bring people together.
Toto in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Where to begin with Toto, Dorothy’s (Judy Garland) legendary companion in the classic Victor Fleming film The Wizard of Oz? It’s impossible to think of Toto without conjuring visions of Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West shrieking, “I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little dog, too!”
Besides being an amazing little companion, Toto has a key role in the film. He’s the one with the curiosity of spirit to pull back the curtain and reveal the fact that the Wizard is really just an ordinary person using tricks of machinery to project a huge, ghostly image of himself. Without Toto, maybe we’d still be cowering in fear; it’s an important reminder.
All the Sled Dogs in Eight Below (2006)
Eight Below is a survival drama starring the late Paul Walker as a sled dog guide named Jerry who’s working at a research station in Antarctica. When a scientist needs help getting to a site to find a rare meteorite, Jerry has to take him in spite of dangerous weather conditions. Things go awry when the scientist breaks his leg; the humans are able to be evacuated, but the plane that’s supposed to return for the dogs can’t make it.
From there, it becomes mostly a movie about dogs. They survive by taking care of each other. Wordlessly, we get to watch them do their thing, persevering in the face of incredibly difficult conditions. When the surviving dogs are reunited with Jerry at the end, it’s one of those moving moments only dogs can elicit in an audience.
Hachi in Hachiko: A Dog’s Story (2009)
This film is a remake of a 1987 Japanese film called Hachikō Monogatari. It’s also a retelling of a true story of a dog who would accompany his person to the train station every morning and be there to walk him home in the evening.
The story is told in flashback by a young boy in school. It’s the story of his personal hero, his grandfather’s dog, Hachiko. When his grandfather (Richard Gere), a professor, suffers a fatal stroke in the classroom one day, the dog continues waiting for him day after day. In the end, the dog is the boy’s hero for teaching him the importance of loyalty, and of remembering the people (and animals) you love.
Lucy in Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Wendy and Lucy is a quiet and devastating drama by the great independent director Kelly Reichardt (First Cow). Possibly the most heartbreaking movie on this list, it’s a story about a woman, Wendy (Michelle Williams), traveling to Alaska in the hopes of finding work. When her car breaks down in Portland, she’s stranded with her dog Lucy — she has no money and no place to go.
Out of desperation, Wendy attempts to steal food from a grocery store, but she’s caught and arrested. When she’s finally released, she returns to find Lucy is gone. A security guard helps Wendy track Lucy down, and it turns out Lucy was taken to a pound and rehomed. Crushingly, Wendy has to leave Lucy there, but promises to return someday.
The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019)
The Art of Racing in the Rain has the unique distinction of being a film told in flashback by a dog. Many of the movies on this list are flashbacks of people remembering the special relationships they had with their dogs, but this one is the reverse.
Kevin Costner provides the voice of Enzo, the dog of a race car driver named Denny. At the beginning of the movie, a dying Enzo begins to tell us the story of his life, and we follow him through his life alongside Denny. Based on the 2008 Garth Stein novel of the same name, this 2019 movie — and its main character Enzo — immediately became a classic in the canon of movie dogs.
Verdell in As Good As It Gets (1997)
Not a lot of movies on this list got attention from the Academy Awards, but this one did. It was nominated for Best Picture, and its two stars, Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, won for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively.
But in many ways it’s the sweet little Brussels Griffon named Verdell who really steals the show. Nicholson plays a writer named Melvin Udall, notorious for being a jerk to basically everyone around him. When his artist neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear), is assaulted, Melvin is pressured by Simon’s agent to care for his dog, Verdell.
There’s a love story going on in which Melvin becomes infatuated with Carol (Hunt), a waitress at his favorite restaurant. She’s the only person who can put up with Melvin, and eventually her influence makes him a better person. Really though, Melvin’s care for Verdell is the first hint we get that there’s good in Melvin, and that makes Verdell a central character as far as I’m concerned.
Every Single Dog in Best in Show (2000)
We’ll wrap up by shouting out Christopher Guest’s comedic mockumentary masterpiece, Best in Show. The 2000 film follows a series of contestants in a prestigious dog show, and we learn that the strangeness of these humans doesn’t even begin to be matched by the strangeness of their dogs.
Every dog in this movie is completely perfect. You can’t help but be cracked up at the truth of the old adage that people end up looking like their dogs. My favorite, however, is pictured above: Christopher Guest himself as Harlan Pepper, the bloodhound trainer, with his beautiful dog Hubert. Obviously, I love all dog movies to some degree, but this one is probably my favorite.