Dogs in History: Rin Tin Tin, the Dog that Saved Hollywood

The story of Rin Tin Tin might not have been in textbooks, but there have been a multitude of people who wrote about it. He’s one of the lucky ones amongst the other dogs in history. 

From being a rescued puppy in a French village to signing paw-tographs in Hollywood, Rin Tin Tin’s life is probably one of the most well-documented ones amongst celebrity dogs.


A dog that was considered to be a lucky charm was found along with his siblings in a severely damaged kennel by Corporal Lee Duncan, an aerial gunner of the U.S. Army Air Service.

After the success of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, he was sent to a small village to see if the area was suitable for his squadron. Upon his arrival, he saw that the area had been subjected to aerial bombing and artillery fire. While exploring it, that’s where he found Rin Tin Tin’s mother, a German shepherd dog dying of hunger with a brood of five puppies. The eyes of her litter were still closed and were barely 2 weeks old.

Concerned for the well-being of the dogs, he decided to rescue them and bring them back to his unit. When the puppies were ready to be separated from their mother, he thought it best to entrust the dogs to friends since he cannot take care of all six (6) of them. The mother dog was given to an officer and three puppies were given to soldiers. He kept two puppies, one male, and one female. 

In France, children often gave soldiers dolls for good luck before setting off to battle. Duncan wanted to honor that in a way, so he named the two puppies Rin Tin Tin and Nanette. According to the soldiers, these dolls symbolized lucky lovers who had survived a bombing attack. (But the dolls were actually designed in the late 1913 by Francisque Poulbot before the war to look like Paris street urchins

Determined to bring the dogs along with him on his way back home, he snuck them in a ship that headed to New York. When he got to Long Island for re-entry processing, he put his dogs in the care of a Hempstead breeder named Mrs. Leo Wanner, who was experienced in raising police dogs. 

It was found out that Nanette had Pneumonia and it was recommended that she stayed in Hempstead. He then traveled by train off to California with his new pup and Rin Tin Tin. Sadly while this was happening, Nanette passed away. In her memory, the new puppy was named Nanette II.


After a hunting trip with his friend, Duncan realized that Rin Tin Tin could be taught various tricks which would possibly garner him awards and a career in dog shows, as well as being a valuable source for puppies to be sold for profit. This then led him and his friend to form a club called Shepherd Dog Club of California. 

Here’s where things take a subtle turn for the worse…

At the club’s first show, the audience was less than pleased with how Rin Tin Tin behaved. He was aggressive and was growling and snapping. Disappointed with how his performance went, Duncan didn’t think that anything worse could top that. Until something did. 

On their walk home, a heavy bundle of newspapers was thrown off a delivery truck and landed on the poor dog, breaking his left front leg which had to be nursed back for quite some time. Rin Tin Tin’s career that just started had to be put on pause for ten agonizing months. 

They immediately entered a dog show in Los Angeles once Rin Tin Tin was fully healed. It was a complete 360! Rin Tin Tin performed exceptionally well and it was captured on the slow-motion camera of Duncan’s acquaintance. Upon seeing the clip, a new idea sparked in his mind, the dog could be the next successful film star.


Duncan was persistent. He was unashamed about getting Rin Tin Tin in a film — talking to anyone in position just to get a role, even if it was a small one. Fortunately, luck was on their side when a film being shot at the Warner Brothers film studio was having problems with a camera-shy wolf. Rin Tin Tin, resembling a wolf with his features, was suggested to replace the wolf and that’s what kick-started his road to fame.

The film, The Man from Hell’s River, was a great success and much of it was because of Rin Tin Tin. Not only did he contribute to the film, but also to the Warner Brothers’ escape from bankruptcy.

It was followed by 24 more screen appearances. All were extremely successful. People then started calling Rin Tin Tin “The Mortgage Lifter” because of how much revenue the films were getting.

Throughout his career of being a celebrity dog, Rin Tin Tin starred in multiple films, mostly as a wolf. Directors found it much easier to just work with a dog than an actual wolf.

From endorsement deals with dog food makers to receiving thousands (yes, THOUSANDS) of fan letters being sent to the Warner Brothers studios, this dog was sought after with an unstoppable career.

The world was in love with this dog. There have been multiple tributes, adaptations, and even imitations of him. 

In their life together, Rin Tin Tin and Nanette II produced at least 48 puppies; Duncan kept two of them, selling the rest or giving them as gifts.


After about 10 years of stardom, Rin Tin Tin died on August 10, 1932, at Duncan’s home on Club View Drive in Los Angeles. 

Being a celebrity, his death was sensationalized and was even twisted into fabricated stories. But, Duncan wrote about the death in his unpublished memoir saying that he heard Rin Tin Tin bark in a peculiar fashion so he went to see what was wrong. He found the dog lying on the ground, moments away from death.

In the United States, his death resonated with the nation. It was reported on the newsletters and, the next day, an hour-long program about him was broadcast.

After a funeral ceremony in the US, Rin Tin Tin was eventually brought back to his home country, France. Duncan brought his best friend to the first cemetery for animals in Europe, Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, which opened in 1899, which is located to the northwest of Paris.

Long after the death of this beloved dog, people still paid tribute and found ways for his memory to live on and impact a whole generation of filmmaking. Rin Tin Tin is one of the many dogs in history that lived only to make the world a better place.

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