Dog. Man’s best friend, and also his greatest muse.
Since the beginning of film history, humans have found a way to put a puppies and canines on screen. One of the very first British movies was the 1905 silent short “Rescued by Rover,” about a Collie leading her master to their kidnapped baby. That film launched the career of Blair, the first canine onscreen actor, and defined how dogs would be depicted in cinema for centuries: loyal, smart, resourceful, and lovable.
From there, canine actors began appearing at a steady clip throughout film history. They appeared in comedies like Charlie Chaplin’s “A Dog’s Life” and teary dramas like “Old Yeller.” And kid-friendly companies like Disney churned out film after film centering dogs, like “Homeward Bound” and the “Air Bud” franchise. The dog movie is maybe not the most well-respected genre in the history of film, but it’s hard to deny how strong a reaction it provokes from audiences: anyone who didn’t cry watching “Marley and Me” or other sad dog classics is made of pure stone.
The appeal of the dog movie goes further than cute and fluffy puppies — although that’s certainly a bonus. The pure, uncomplicated love people have for their pet pooches makes them perfect vessels to explore human foibles and struggles. At their best, dog movies aren’t entirely about dogs at all; instead, they’re saying something about humans, and our relationships with the world around us.
In honor of “Strays,” the new raunchy twist on the lost dog movie formula featuring the voices of Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx, IndieWire gathered together the best dog-themed movies in cinematic history. Read on for our list of the 10 greatest dog films of all time. Entries are unranked and listed in alphabetical order.
“All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989)
Way darker than you would ever expect an animated movie starring dogs to be, Don Bluth’s “All Dogs Go to Heaven” focuses on unscrupulous German Shepherd conman Charlie B. Barkin (voiced by Burt Reynolds), who dies and goes to heaven after getting betrayed and killed by his business partner. Even though all dogs are innately good enough to go to heaven, Charlie is bored of paradise, and manages to sneak out with his friend Itchy (Dom DeLuise) and get back to Earth — where he abducts a young girl named Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi) and uses her power to speak to animals to make a profit and open his own casino. Essentially, it’s a story of crime, greed, and vengeance, played relatively straight for a kid’s movie.
“All Dogs Go to Heaven” initially flopped on release, mainly due to the fact that it came out the same day as “The Little Mermaid.” But VHS profits helped the film — and its surprisingly emotional story of redemption and the connection between humans and dogs — find a wider audience.
“Amores Perros” (2000)
Literally translated to “Loves Dogs” (but can also mean something roughly like “bad loves” in Spanish), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s feature directorial debut “Amores Perros” consists of three independent stories most directly linked by a car crash that unites the ensemble briefly. But another way the stories are threaded together is by the importance of dogs to each of the protagonists: Octavio (Gael García Bernal) uses his Rottweiler Cofi to become a star of the local dogfighting scene, model Valeria (Goya Toledo) loses her dog and nearly destroys her relationship while trying to find him, and professional hitman El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría) expresses his softer side by caring for several mongrel strays. Many dog films focus on the positive relationship that humans have with animals, but “Amores Perros” looks at it from a darker angle, examining the mistreatment dogs can experience, and what that says about humanity in the process.
“Best in Show” (2000)
Easily Christopher Guest’s best film, “Best in Show” focuses on the annual Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, where dog owners gather each year to sign their highly bred pets up for a variety of pageant challenges. The film is a sharp mockumentary classic for many reasons, including the fabulous cast featuring several Guest regulars like Eugene O’Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, and Fred Willard. But part of what elevates the film into greatness is the genius casting of the dogs themselves, which are just as memorable and hilarious as their owners. All of the pooches reflect their owner’s personalities in some way — like the distressed and gawky Weimaraner owned by neurotic yuppies Meg (Posey) and Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock), or the droopy Bloodhound owned by southern ventriloquist Harlan (Guest) — and cause antics and mischief that turn the competition upside-down. It’s one of the few films about dogs to really capture how pet ownership can drive a person crazy, best seen in the iconic sequence where Meg and Hamilton turn the hotel upside down after losing their precious dog’s “Busy Bee” toy.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” (2023)
The “John Wick” franchise has long been synonymous with dog lovers, after the original film’s revenge spree was kicked off by the titular assassin’s pet pooch getting murdered by rival hitmen. But the series didn’t introduce a truly great cinematic canine until its fourth entry, which sees Keanu Reeves’ hero cross paths with the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson). A bounty hunter outsider of the franchise’s crazed crime world, Nobody is assisted by his strong and competent pet dog, whose powerful bite gets his owner out of various tough scrapes and leads to some of the best action sequences in the frenetic film. And ultimately, Wick’s decision to spare the hound brings Mr. Nobody to his side, proving there’s nothing that brings people together more than their shared love of dogs.
“Old Yeller” (1957)
The dog tearjerker, “Old Yeller” has had its devastating conclusion — wherein the lovable yellow stray gets rabies and is put down for his own sake by the family —spoiled for decades. It’s a heartbreaking finale that’s difficult to watch, and traumatized many kids over the years. But it doesn’t take away from how lovely the rest of the film — about an 1860s Kansas family who takes in the stray Old Yeller after he saves their younger son from a bear — is, with its slice of life storytelling capturing the joys of pet ownership like almost no other movie. And the film’s very last scene, in which teen son Travis (Tommy Kirk) accepts a new puppy sired from Old Yeller as his new companion, is a heartwarming depiction of how people can move on from the heartbreak of a dog death to find new animal friends to love.
“One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961)
Disney has put out quite a few animated films about dogs; see “The Lady and the Tramp” or “Oliver and Company,” for starters. But their best is the stylish and effortlessly charming “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” which certainly features the most dogs in a Disney film. Rod Taylor and Cate Bauer star as Pongo and Perdita, the loving dogs of British couple Roger (Ben Wright) and Anita (Lisa Davis), who sire 15 adorable Dalmatians together. But when Anita’s former school chum Cruella (Betty Lou Gerson) steals their pups in order to skin them for her fur collection, the two canines embark on a quest to rescue them — and the other 84 Dalmatians that Cruella has locked up. Featuring one of the best Disney villains in the devilish but fabulous Cruella, and one of the best Disney songs in Roger’s piano ballad about her, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” is a rewatchable classic, and a tribute to the irresistible appeal of an adorable pup or two (or three or five or 10 or 101).
“The Thin Man” (1934)
Ostensibly a murder mystery, “The Thin Man” and the series of sequels it spawned is really just an excuse to luxuriate in the shared pleasures of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who play free-wheeling married couple Nick and Nora Charles. The actors’ witty banter and crackling chemistry makes for a terrifically enjoyable romp, but their charms are matched by the scene-stealing acting canine Skippy, who plays their loyal (but not particularly brave) Fox Terrier Asta. Skippy’s performance in the film — including memorable reaction shots like covering his eyes with his paws — proved a breakout role, and he would star in the five sequels with Powell and Loy. The success of his role in the films also helped him land a supporting part in classic screwball “Bringing Up Baby” — certainly the best leopard film of its time.
“Wendy and Lucy” (2008)
Sometimes, the best thing an owner can do for their dog is let them go. That’s the devastating lesson learned in “Wendy and Lucy” — Kelly Reichardt’s intimate drama starring her frequent collaborator Michelle Williams and her own dog, Lucy. Williams’ Wendy is a homeless woman in dire straits who travels to Alaska to find work at a cannery. But a series of mishaps during her journey results in her losing her beloved companion, who gets rehomed by a pound. And although Wendy is heartbroken, she realizes she needs to leave Lucy behind where she’s better cared for, while she heads off to get herself back on her feet. Williams’ performance in the film is one of her most quietly affecting, capturing the simple but relatable grief at saying goodbye to someone you love. As for the adorable Lucy, she unsurprisingly took home a Palm Dog Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance.
“White God” (2014)
The story of a stray dog finding his way back to his owner is a classic tale seen in beloved films like “The Incredible Journey” and parodied in “Strays.” But that simple arc is turned into an epic fantasy in “White God,” Kornél Mundruczó’s R-rated film about a mixed breed dog who is thrown out by his owner Lili’s (Zsofia Psotta) father, due to a tax the Hungarian government imposes on non-purebred dogs. As Hagen attempts to return to his beloved Lili, he endures cruel mistreatment from humans around him, before starting a stunning uprising of the canines in the city against the humans who have mistreated them. 250 dogs were trained for the film’s epic final sequence where the dogs are let loose in the city, making “White God” perhaps the film with the most dogs in it of all time. But the film’s epic scope is contrasted with its personal stakes, as the film considers both the ugliness and the beauty in mankind’s connection with their favorite animal.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
Is there a single dog in cinema history more iconic than Toto? As the fearless companion to Judy Garland’s wistful Dorothy, canine actor Terry is an adorable mascot for Victor Fleming’s legendary adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy novel. Toto bravely follows Dorothy to the land of Oz, where he’s instrumental in saving his master from the Wicked Witch of the West by leading their traveling party to the castle where she’s imprisoned. Sure, he does nearly strand Dorothy in Oz when he chooses to abandon the Wizard’s hot air balloon, but anyone who loves a dog has to put up with some bad behavior.