How Old Yeller Went From Shelter Dog To Movie Star

The boy and his dog trope is a Hollywood favorite. Warm to the hearts and often tear-inducing, this type of cinema introduces a different kind of love than one would usually see on-screen. It is the love that humans have for animals.

According to Science Direct, the human-animal bond runs deep, to the point where pairing patients with pets can help induce "a sense of unconditional positive regard," ultimately ending in more positive social interactions across the board. Furthermore, National Geographic reports that dogs, of all animals, possess the natural ability to interpret human gestures and behaviors. This is true even for stray dogs who have never in their lives resided with human beings.

While this bond in real life is understood, capturing it on film is quite the feat. Arguably, the movie that managed to get it just right was the classic 1957 hit "Old Yeller," featuring a scruffy stray dog cavorting through the cornfields of a fictional Texas town. Originally believed to be a "good-for-nothing mutt" (via IMDb), movie-goers would soon learn through a series of heartbreaking plot twists that Old Yeller truly was the "best doggone dog in the West."

Old Yeller was found in a California animal shelter

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of the film "Old Yeller" was the parallels it drew upon from real-life situations. Much of the plot of the movie, from a teen growing into his role as man of the house, to a family trying to survive the perils of the Western frontier, all the way down to the prospect of a stray dog becoming the string that brings the full picture to life, was equally true off-screen.

The original beloved canine movie-goers would come to know as Old Yeller (pictured above, left) was, in fact, playing out a role so close to his actual life that the film translated as extremely realistic. According to America Comes Alive, the Labrador retriever/mastiff mix breed dog that wound up as the star in Old Yeller was a stray living out his days at the Van Nuys Animal Shelter in sunny California. When a friend of famous Hollywood animal trainer Frank Weatherwax spotted the lovable pup, he automatically felt that he was looking at a superstar. It wouldn't take long before the whole nation would share in this sentiment.

His real name was Spike

According to IMDb, in the film, the scraggly pup gets his name from the dingy hue of his coat when the oldest teen boy in the house, Travis, first catches a glimpse of him. From this point forward, the actors continue to refer to their beloved pet as Old Yeller or simply Yeller. This eventually becomes the dog's official name. In the 1942 novel by Fred Gipson upon which the film is based, the name Old Yeller is a reference to the dog's bark, which is described as sounding a bit like a yell. (Gipson is also credited with contributing to the screenplay.)

What vintage film enthusiasts might not know is that the dog's actual name was Spike (perĀ America Comes Alive). Weighing in at 170 pounds (via IMDb), the massive shelter pup named Spike was surprisingly good-natured and easy to train. Under the tutelage of renowned dog trainer Frank Weatherwax, Spike would move forward in film, taking on multiple screen names. But again, much like the film, Old Yeller would become the name that stuck.

His lovable disposition almost cost him his blockbuster role

America Comes Alive reports that while Spike's easy-going spirit made him easy to train, it ultimately almost cost him the role of Old Yeller in the famous vintage film. While it was easy to imagine the lop-eared, benevolent pup in a heartwarming role, it was extremely difficult to see him as a protector of a frontier family, let alone the snarling beast that rabies would eventually turn him into at the end of the production.

Here is where Frank and Rudd Weatherwax's training saved the day, and also the dog that played Old Yeller (via NPR). With some rigorous training, Spike managed to convincingly transition back and forth from snarling canine to lovable pup before the watchful eyes of casting directors. Had this not been the case, the image of the boy and his dog trope would likely have looked much different from what we see in modern movies.

Spike trained among other Hollywood elite animals

Animal enthusiasts who haven't dug deep enough into vintage crates to uncover "Old Yeller" might still be familiar with another dog that was the product of Weatherwax training. That dog was none other than Lassie. According to NPR, Hollywood dog training was, and incidentally still is, a Weatherwax family tradition. While America Comes Alive reports that Frank Weatherwax purchased Spike for the bargain price of just $3 and turned him into a household name via "Old Yeller," Frank's brother Rudd is credited with doing the same thing for Lassie, America's favorite fictional collie.

In an off-screen setting, many of Hollywood's most elite animals played, trained, and even retired from their careers in the Weatherwax family household, among playful children and animal lovers. Such was the case for Spike, who lived out his years of retirement under the care of the Weatherwax family. There, he even built a family of his own. Be on the lookout for Spike's spirited son Junior (via IMDb) who starred in the 1964 adventure flick "Island of the Blue Dolphins," and his grandson, who graced the screen in "Junior Bonner."

He went on to star in other feature films

The riveting story of Spike, who rose from the depths of the California shelter system to the IMDb database of celebrity animals (via IMDb) is one that could, itself, be a major motion picture. Much like in the movie "Old Yeller," this rescue pet went from stray to hero to family staple, all the while leaving his paw prints on the reels of the film industry (per America Comes Alive). In the list of renowned animal actors, he will not soon be forgotten.

In addition to finding a forever home and passing down a legendary acting career, Spike also went on to star in other feature films and television shows. You might remember him as Lassie's furry friend Barney or perhaps you recall his role in "What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice." For most, he will always be "the big yeller dog" who lost his life to save the soul of the American Western frontier.