Whether you’re a dog-lover or just a fan of the ones you see on screen, it’s easy to see why our furry friends have long been hailed as man’s best friend. What other animal will bound up to you in utter ecstasy every single time you walk in the front door? Who else will occasionally pittle on your brand new rug only to lick your face off moments later?
Even when they get into trouble, we can’t help but love dogs for the joy and companionship they bring us. Here are the best dog movies of all time you can enjoy with or without your tail-wagging sidekick.
Lassie Come Home
The film that launched countless tales of dogs trying to find their way back to their owners, Lassie Come Home was based on the novel of the same name by Eric Knight. First released in 1943, it tells the story of a poor family in Yorkshire, England, who must sell their rough collie Lassie to a rich Duke. Lassie, however, will have none of this, and eventually escapes so she can be reunited with her owner, a young boy named Joe. Lassie’s bravery knows no bounds as she battles the elements and evades potential captors on her long journey home. Her debut film led her to become one of the most famous dogs of all time, appearing in other films, TV shows, comic books, toys, and other media. Not to brag or anything, but she even has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Talk about a cultural impact.
Lady and the Tramp
The film that forever changed how we looked at a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, Lady and the Tramp was also the first Disney animated film to center entirely around dogs. Lady is a cocker spaniel who lives a comfortable life with Jim Dear and Darling while Tramp is a stray mutt who spends his days eating scraps and hiding from the dog catcher. They have nothing in common, but as their paths cross and they spend more time together, they begin to fall in love, sharing plates of spaghetti and battling terrifying rats the way all happy couples do. Minus the racist “Siamese Cat Song” — which Disney Plus has pointed out was wrong then and is wrong now — Lady and the Tramp was an early example of love defying all odds, be they class, dog breed, or otherwise.
One of the most beloved dog films of all time, Old Yeller packs a heavy emotional punch. Based on Fred Gipson’s novel, it tells the story of a family that discovers a stray yellow dog who proves that he’s not just a mutt, but a helpful new member of the family. The relationship between Yeller and 15-year-old Travis gave the film its “boy and his dog” feel and was among the first movies to capture the connection between humans and their pets. While the ending is among the saddest in cinema, it became one of the most famous film finales of all time, making Old Yeller a favorite of baby boomers and cementing it as an important work in animal film history.
A star was born in 1974 when Joe Camp wrote, produced, and directed Benji, the first in a long line of films about a friendly mixed-breed dog who loves to help people. The 1974 original finds Benji aiding two young children who are being held captive by robbers that are seeking to extort their father. Our four-legged friend proves that even the smallest and unlikeliest of heroes can save the day, and his bravery earned him the title “America’s favorite dog” and a Netflix remake in 2018. Despite being one of the cutest on-screen canines around, Benji’s story almost didn’t make it to the big screen. Every studio in Hollywood initially turned the film down, prompting Camp to distribute it himself. It is now an Oscar-nominated classic, proving just how much of a difference one little dog can make.
Oliver & Company
Even though Oliver is a cat, the “& Company” part of the title refers to the lovable dogs who initiate him into their gang and ultimately help him find a new owner and home. Loosely based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, Oliver & Company is a love letter to New York City and a celebration of its many canines (except for the Doberman Pinschers). Dodger and his pals prove to be the best of friends to their bumbling owner Fagin, who causes more trouble than they do, and exactly the kind of dogs you want around when you have to save yourself from a menacing loan shark. Featuring the vocal talents of Huey Lewis, Billy Joel, and Bette Midler, Oliver & Company is a musical feast with hits like the Golden Globe-nominated “Why Should I Worry?” and a Millennial forever-fave.
All Dogs Go to Heaven
It’s the dreaded question all dog owners ask: do dogs actually go to heaven when they die? The title of Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven seems to give us an answer, but the film is actually about a dog named Charlie that dies and almost goes to heaven only to return to earth to seek revenge against his killer. Along the way, he meets an orphan girl named Anne-Marie who wants to be a part of a real family. It’s lucky that she can speak to dogs, because Charlie decides to help her, and the two go on a series of adventures along with Charlie’s friend Itchy that teach them about the meaning of friendship. It’s a little dark in parts for a kid’s movie, but the film and its sequel give us hope that our cherished canines do get to see the Pearly Gates when they pass and that with any luck, we’ll be able to reunite with them someday.
Not all dogs can be cute and cuddly. Some are ginormous and wreak havoc wherever they go, like the infamous 185-pound St. Bernard, Beethoven. The disaster dog’s first film finds him sneaking into the home of the Newton family, where father George wants nothing to do with this potential terror. Unfortunately for George, it’s up to him to save the slobbering pup from a dastardly veterinarian looking to perform dangerous experiments on Beethoven. For better or worse, Beethoven has secured himself as a fixture of the Newton family forever and went on to star in seven other adventures. While other cinematic dogs are known for having big hearts or going on big adventures, this one’s just big — a comedic treat (and cautionary tale) for audiences even if he isn’t so fun for his owners.
Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey
90s cinema, as it turns out, was the decade of loved ones getting left behind. Just like Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, the pets in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey find themselves separated from their family, believing that they’ve been abandoned. Unlike Kevin, they are the ones that have to make their way home, and together, Shadow (a golden retriever), Sassy (a Himalayan cat), and Chance (an American Bulldog) travel through the Sierra Nevada mountains so they can be reunited with their owners. Many cats and dogs tend to not get along in films, but here they have to if they want to survive the likes of mountain lions, bears, and Mother Nature. The final scene will reduce you to a puddle as you’re reminded just how much dogs actually mean to us — not to mention sassy cats!
If you’ve ever walked through New York City’s Central Park, chances are you’ve seen the most famous and oft-visited statue in the park: that of Balto, the Siberian Husky who famously led a team of sled dogs on the final leg of the 1925 transport of diphtheria antitoxin. Although hundreds of dogs assisted in this effort, Balto became the most famous, and his status as a celebrity canine led Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment to give him his own solo film in 1995. Balto is an animated husky-wolf hybrid in the film, and despite its many other historical inaccuracies, it succeeds in immortalizing Balto and his fellow pups who collectively saved the town of Nome, Alaska, from the diphtheria epidemic. In addition to the first film, two sequels were made, further immortalizing Balto as a furry friend worth remembering.
Whether you’re watching the live-action adaptation or the original animated film on which it’s based, 101 Dalmatians is one of the more suspenseful stories in the Disney canon. While the original has stylistic animation and famous songs like “Cruella de Vil,” the 1996 version features eye-popping choreography involving real dogs, horses, pigs, and even skunks. The fact that the filmmakers were able to train the animals to do such complex stunts and were then able to capture it all on film is a feat in itself, and the result is a remarkable visual journey that demonstrates both the intelligence and lovability of animals. The live-action version also features a deliciously evil performance from Glenn Close as de Vil, which will live on as one of her most memorable.
Speaking of talented pooches, the world’s most famous sports dog got his start in 1997’s Air Bud. In the film, Buddy is a circus-performing golden retriever with a cruel owner who runs away and befriends Josh, a lonely kid who likes to play basketball. When Josh discovers that Buddy is good at shooting hoops too, he tries out for the school team and shows them what Buddy can do. Drama ensues when Buddy’s former owner catches wind of the media attention Buddy is getting and wants him back. Air Bud was a totally original idea that launched over a dozen additional “bud” films featuring talented goldens playing other sports like football, soccer, baseball, and volleyball. Nothing tops the first one, but prepare yourself for at least one scene that will break your heart before Buddy puts it back together again.
Because of Winn-Dixie
Beethoven isn’t the only mischievous dog out there. When young Opal and her father move to a new town in Florida, Opal finds a Berger Picard wreaking havoc inside a Winn-Dixie grocery store. In order to prevent the dog from being sent to the pound, she claims him as her own and names him after the store. Because of Winn-Dixie tells the story of how the lively dog helps Opal make new friends and come to terms with the mother who abandoned her when she was a little girl. Just like the character from the book it’s based on, Winn-Dixie is an example of how one dog can amplify the lives of many different people, even in the face of life’s sadness.
Marley & Me
Lay down, Beethoven. There’s a new bad dog in town and his name is Marley. His story begins when he’s a puppy and follows him as he grows into the always-rambunctious pet of John and Jennifer Grogan, who learn to love him despite his every move resulting in some kind of trouble. Based on a true story, Marley & Me is a relatable crowd-pleaser for dog owners that is as comical as it is sob-inducing. It’s a gut-punch of a reminder to enjoy every moment with your furry friends while you still can. All good things must come to an end, but at least with Marley you can watch his story play out repeatedly in both his debut film and its prequel, Marley & Me: The Puppy Years.
A Dog’s Purpose
If you’ve ever wondered what your purpose in life is, you’re not alone. The main character in A Dog’s Purpose wonders the same thing, only his destiny spans multiple dog breeds, owners, and lifetimes. Voiced by Josh Gad, Bailey is a golden retriever pup on the verge of heatstroke when he’s rescued by a boy named Ethan. His life as Ethan’s dog is only the first part of Bailey’s tale — he’s reincarnated again and again, first as a German Shepherd, then as a corgi, a Landseer, and a St. Bernard/Australian Shepherd mix. When he re-enters Ethan’s life as the latter, the story comes full circle and Bailey’s true purpose is revealed. It’s a film that reminds us of the impact dogs can have in our lives and that their spirits stay with us long after they’re gone.
The Art of Racing in the Rain
The most recent dog film to tear out our hearts and stomp all over them, The Art of Racing in the Rain is the beautiful tale of a golden retriever named Enzo who knows that he was born to be a race car driver. His life with owner and best friend Denny is charted from start to finish, with Enzo believing that if he prepares himself properly, then he’ll be reincarnated as a racer in his next life. The book on which the film is based is told from Enzo’s perspective, and Kevin Costner’s narration in the film adds an extra heartwarming dimension to the already lovable character. Enzo proves that dogs can teach us a great deal about humanity and that the only way to weather the storms of life is with love in our hearts and our canine pals by our side.