Old Yeller Played by Spike, a Lab/Mastiff Mix

Old Yeller, or the dog that played Old Yeller, was a homeless dog Old Yellerfound in a shelter in Van Nuys, California.  The dog’s real name was Spike.

Spike almost didn’t get the part in the movie about Old Yeller because everyone thought he was too much of a sweetheart.

The Story of Old Yeller

The 1957 Walt Disney film, Old Yeller, was based on a book of the same name by Frank Gipson. The movie was about a boy and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas. With the father away on a cattle drive, the two sons, Travis and Arliss, do the best they can to keep up with all the tasks on the family farm. 

Old YellerMeat is being stolen from their smokehouse and some animal has been disturbing the hens. The boys soon find that the culprit is a stray, yellow-colored dog. Travis, the older brother played by Tommy Kirk, tries to drive the dog off, but Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) protects the dog he calls Yeller.

One afternoon Arliss is trying to capture a black bear cub by offering it food.  As the cub comes closer and closer to Arliss, the little bear’s mother arrives, angry and determined to get her cub back.  Old Yeller appears unexpectedly and drives the bear away. By saving Arliss, the entire family embraces Yeller.

After this, Yeller remains on the farm, always ready to protect the boys. More trouble brews, however, when a neighbor stops by to report that animals are dying in the area from rabies.

One night a rabid wolf nears the house and attempts to attack the family. Yeller is there putting up a strong defense but the wolf keeps coming. Travis finally shoots at the wolf but before the wolf falls he lunges, biting Yeller.

The boys quarantine Old Yeller, hoping that he won’t become ill, but one day as they go out to take him dinner, and he has changed, snarling and growling at the boys. With that, Travis has no choice but to shoot him. It is one of the saddest moments in movie history.  (To see a trailer for a re-release of the movie, click here.)

The Dog Old Yeller

Spike was located in the Van Nuys Animal Shelter by a friend of Old YellerHollywood dog trainer Frank Weatherwax (1902-1991). The Weatherwaxes were prominent animal trainers for the movie industry. One of their most successful lines of dogs played Lassie in all the various movies and TV shows starring Lassie.

Frank’s friend liked Spike’s look and called Frank to come down to the shelter. Frank did so and thought the dog seemed trainable. Frank paid $3 to bring him home with him.

The dog responded well to Frank, and soon he was looking like a dog with real potential. It just wasn’t clear how Spike was going to fit in to Hollywood. In the meantime, Spike was doing well in training, and otherwise enjoying the life of being among the Weatherwax family of dogs, complete with children to play with.

One day Frank Weatherwax’s wife, Connie, was reading The Saturday Evening Post when she came upon  serialized story called “Old Yeller” by Frank Gipson (it later became a book).  She loved the story, and the description of the dog made her think of Spike.

Old Yeller bookLater that year the Disney company announced that they had purchased movie rights to Old Yeller, and Frank Weatherwax made a call—he wanted to bring Spike in to audition for the role.

When Spike arrived at the studio, the Disney people saw a flop-eared, very friendly, goofy dog with huge feet…. How was this going to be the Protector Dog who saves the Texas family from all types of threats?  Spike had been raised around children and loved people of all ages.  The dog just didn’t look vicious.

That’s where the Weatherwax training was put to work.  Frank Weatherwax put Spike through his paces. Spike growled and snarled and was then able to revert to being his normal friendly self.

Spike soon had the part.

Huge Success of Old Yeller

Though Spike was in several other films and appeared on television, he will always be remembered for his part in Old Yeller, one of the best boy-and-his-dog films as well as a film with one of the saddest endings.

Spike also appeared in other movies. He was in A Dog of Flanders, and The She-Creature as well as The Silent Call.  On television he made appearances on The Mickey Mouse Club and The Westerner with Brian Keith.

Spike spent his retirement years in the Weatherwax household where he lived for several more years after becoming famous.  He also had offspring that did well in show business.  His son was the dog in Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964) and his grandson appeared with Steve McQueen and Robert Preston in Junior Bonner (1972).

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27 thoughts on “Old Yeller Played by Spike, a Lab/Mastiff Mix”

  1. I remember crying at the end of this movie as a child. Even today, I still enjoy this movie! It’s a classic.

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  3. As a young girl (born in 1954) we lived in Thousand Oaks ca where many films we made. When I was about 3 a yellow dog adopted my family, especially me. It was around the time “Old Yeller” was being filmed. We thought she might have been a fill in for the film since no came to look for her…We called her ” “Yeller” neighbors would call her yellow, guess they thought we didn’t know how to enunciate her name correctly. She was with the family intil she passed at the 18….I loved that dog and still think of her often.

  4. Thank you! That’s a lovely memory. How lucky that dog was to have found your family.

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  14. You are so right…or more great dog stories! The stories themselves shine a light on the animals and the people who love them. Thanks for posting.

  15. Spike lived until 1962. His offspring continued to work… The TV series, High Chaparral, was filmed starting in 1967, so the dog wouldn’t have been Spike, and I’m not finding information on that. Anyone know?

  16. Old Yeller was one great movie! Every time I cried so hard and so long! One of the best movie I ever saw!

  17. My family shared the reading of Old Yeller to help me earn a cub scout merit badge. By the end of the story we were all in tears.

  18. What a sweet story about your family…it was probably best that you were all together! Thank you for posting.

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  20. Kathy SCHLENDORF

    I saw “Old Yeller” in 1957 when I was ten years old. I am now 75. I’ve never forgotten the movie and especially the dog. Is there a way to see the other movies he played in? Are they available for rent? “The Silent Call” for example?

  21. I looked around to see what I could find to help out. TV Guide seems to have a website that helps you find movies you want to watch. https://www.tvguide.com/movies/the-silent-call/2030041824/ That’s the link for Silent Call, but you could also hunt around on YouTube. You would be amazed at how many things show up there. You might also see if Amazon has anything you can stream (for a price).
    Good luck…I hadn’t known about Silent Call. Sounds great!

  22. You know, it’s quite possible. I can’t find any listing for the name of the dog that played the part of the night watchman’s dog on episode 8. Spike was born in 1952 and would have only been 6 or 7 years old then. He also belonged to the Weatherwax family…they were well-known Hollywood animal trainers.

    Thanks for reading!


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