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Which Pop Culture Dog Is Best in Show?

Both the big and small screens have a rich history of canine excellence. But only one pooch can stand above the rest ...

Alycea Tinoyan

The Ringer hereby declares this Wednesday, August 19, 2020, to be Dog Day. We have no concrete reason for doing so, other than the fact that dogs are great and ought to be celebrated. We hope you agree.


There are a lot of TV and movie dogs. Unlike cats—unknowable beasts who make for difficult protagonists—dogs wear their emotions entirely on their faces, making them the perfect vessels to communicate everything from joy and excitement to loss and mourning. They are human in so many ways, but adorable in so many ways that humans are not. They can be used as heroes, sidekicks, villains, allegories, plot devices, basketball players—the list goes on and on.

The Ringer has dubbed today, August 19, Dog Day, and so it seems only right to stage a dog show for these pop culture pups. (Why did we dub today Dog Day? Well, first of all, August 19 is one of the last days of the Dog Days of Summer, a real thing apparently. But second of all, why does anyone do anything? 2020’s cultural calendar has been practically wiped bare and if we wanna dedicate a full day to dogs, I don’t really see why that needs further explanation.) This dog show will work similarly to the Westminster Dog Show: Each pop culture dog will be sorted into their appropriate groups—which are Hound, Toy, Non-Sporting, Herding, Sporting, Working, and Terrier—and the judges (read: me, and only me) will then select Best in Show from the best of those groups. However, this dog show will differ from the Westminster in the sense that we are not a cabal of poodle-obsessed snoots, the canine equivalent of that guy in the record store who makes fun of you for liking radio hits. Mainstream dogs will get their fair due; they will not be cast off like Daniel the golden retriever was in February. (If you’re wondering whether I’m still bitter about a ruling made in a dog show six months ago, the answer is absolutely I still am.)

A few other notes and ground rules:

  • I tried to limit selections to three per breed. There are a ton of beagles, Jack Russell terriers, Labs, and golden retrievers in popular culture—measures had to be taken to ensure wide representation across the dog landscape.
  • Dogs were judged on four criteria: Utility, Cuteness, Relevance, and Intangibles. I’m looking for dogs that are useful, adorable, and pertinent to their plots, while also having a certain “it” factor.
  • Dogs were mostly judged based on the fictional characteristics displayed in their shows or movies. However, I have to be honest: The dogs that have played multiple roles—such as the Westie from Widows and Game Night—were definitely given preferential treatment.
  • Legendary dogs were left out of the competition. That means dogs like Lassie, Snoopy, Old Yeller, Shiloh, Wishbone, Otis, and Lady and the Tramp. They’re already legends, you know? They’re in the Dog Hall of Fame; they needn’t deign to compete in a measly internet-based dog show.
  • The direwolves from Game of Thrones were not considered. They are not dogs; they are wolves. It’s right there in the name.
  • This last one might hurt to read, so if you’re that kind of person (you know who you are), maybe take a deep breath. Ready? OK: Over the past decade or so it’s become en vogue to lavish praise on each and every dog. All doggos are perfect. Such cute. 13/10, would pet. But I’m here to take a stand and say it: Some dogs are bad. Some dogs have ear-piercing barks; some eat their own feces; some bite children’s faces. I really, really love dogs, and the majority of them are wonderful creatures, but there are some dogs that I would not pet. I say all of this just to prepare you for the fact that within this exercise some dogs will be criticized. There will be winners, and therefore losers. I promise you it’ll be OK. The dogs, which are all fictional, will be fine.

Now that I’ve established my bona fides as a dog lover/judger, let’s move into the group stage.

The Hound Group

John Wick’s Puppy

Beagle, John Wick

Look at this. There isn’t much more I need to say, beyond also noting that this little guy is a spiritual stand-in for and parting gift from John Wick’s late wife. He is all John has to live for. I, too, would hunt down Theon Greyjoy and go on an unceasing, series-carrying rampage if someone hurt this dog.

Fred

Basset hound, Smokey and the Bandit

There’s a part in this movie when Jerry Reed (country legend/villain from The Waterboy) and Fred just … go swimming. It’s delightful.

The plot of Smokey and the Bandit is truly nonsense—a rich man and his mini-me pay Burt Reynolds and Reed to transport a truck full of Coors across the South, just for shits???—but it doesn’t matter. Why ask questions when it leads to a scene featuring a glorious basset hound in a pond?

Pluto

Bloodhound, Disney

A very impressive dog that often walks on its hind legs for extended periods of time. Though the power dynamics at play among the classic Disney characters ought to be noted: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy are all animals, just like Pluto. However, Pluto is the only one not allowed to wear human clothes. I don’t know when the others evolved to wearing full outfits—or in Donald’s case, just tops—or when it was decided that Pluto was specifically PROHIBITED from doing so, but I do know that something fucked up is going on here. Still, Pluto’s a great dog.

Santa’s Little Helper

Greyhound, The Simpsons

Per The Ringer’s Alan Siegel, the biggest Simpsons fan I know: “Santa’s Little Helper is the quintessential American dog: painfully stupid and unfailingly loyal. He’s been around since the very first episode The Simpsons, when Homer and Bart rescue him from the rundown greyhound racing track (is there any other kind?) Springfield Downs. The father of 25 puppies has been an important part of the animated family ever since, and will continue to be until the greatest sitcom of all time is finally put to sleep.”

Hubert

Bloodhound, Best in Show

Hey. Hey, judge. Look at me.

I am, Hubert. I am. (Hubert should’ve won Best in Show in Best in Show.)

Winner: John Wick’s Puppy

This is a strong category, but John Wick’s puppy is the only one that launched a surprisingly successful, shockingly gory action franchise. I have to admit that I’m also biased because the rest of these dogs got to live full lives; giving the puppy the win is the least we can do.

The Toy Group

Chloe

Chihuahua, Beverly Hills Chihuahua

There are 149 million reasons (on a $20 million budget) Chloe is a finalist.

Frank

Pug, Men in Black

OK, so technically Frank is an alien. Is he an alien who assumed the form of a pug, or an alien that literally inhabited the body of a preexisting pug? I guess I’ve never thought about it, and I wish I never did. Anyway, this “pug” was the vehicle for some of Tommy Lee Jones’s greatest work.

Verdell

Griffon Bruxellois, As Good As It Gets

One-half of an iconic movie poster, Verdell is the key to Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) becoming a better person. In that sense, he is responsible for the millennial notion that self-improvement can be achieved merely by purchasing a dog. Huge influence.

Bruiser

Chihuahua, Legally Blonde

From what I can tell, Bruiser was one of the first dogs in the trend of humans bringing their dogs to work in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. To all the WeWork employees forced to pick up poop across the world, thank Bruiser, sort of.

The Taco Bell Dog

Chihuahua, Taco Bell

Now here’s where I blow your mind: Gidget, the Chihuahua who famously played the “Yo quiero Taco Bell” dog, WAS ROOMMATES WITH THE DOG WHO PLAYED BRUISER IN LEGALLY BLONDE. So much Chihuahua talent under one roof. Must have been suffocating.

Winner: Frank

Here’s the thing: I don’t find Chihuahuas to be that cute? So that trims down the field pretty substantially. And in the faceoff between Frank and Verdell, the former takes the cake because of his staying power (a franchise > one movie). Also, don’t forget about that scene in Men in Black II where he wears a suit and sings “I Will Survive.”

The Non-Sporting Group

Chance

American bulldog, Homeward Bound

Most notable quality: curiosity, which is why he ended up getting wrecked by a porcupine.

Colossus

English bulldog, Van Wilder

Most notable quality: huge testicles.

Rhapsody in White

Poodle, Best in Show

Most notable quality: the cosmic ability to spur a lesbian relationship that will then spawn the magazine American Bitch.

Sonny

French bulldog, Due Date

Most notable quality: is a French bulldog.

CatDog

???, CatDog

Most notable quality: is half cat. Also? Has no butthole.

Winner: Chance

First of all, can I just say that the Non-Sporting Group is wildly underrepresented in pop culture? I mean, seriously, I had to throw in a horrifying half-cat, half-dog evolutionary abomination just to fill things out. We’ve got terriers and retrievers for days but can’t get a Lhasa apso into a major motion picture? How has the Shiba Inu—anecdotally the most popular dog in Lower Manhattan—only starred in one random Richard Gere movie? Do better, Hollywood.

That said, Chance is the clear winner here. He has the voice of Michael J. Fox, he has an infectious, childlike wonder, and he is partially responsible for making me cry as a 4-year-old. An iconic pup.

The Herding Group

The Queen’s Corgis

Corgi, The Crown

I mean, you gotta admit, these corgis are doing a terrific job depicting Queen Elizabeth II’s real-life corgis. At times during The Crown I totally forgot that these were actor corgis; they really disappear into the role.

Fly

Border collie, Babe

A dog of great integrity, who was willing to move on from the selling of her own children, adopt a pig, and then teach that pig how to be a dog. Inspiring stuff.

Einstein

Bearded collie, Back to the Future

Not only the first dog to ever time travel, but the first living being to ever time travel!

Now, is it a little fucked up that Doc Brown loaded his own dog into a car full of plutonium and was like, “Welp, hope this works”? Yes, it is! PETA would have issues! But you gotta remember that Doc Brown is a weirdo who only hangs out with a teenager; that his practices as a dog owner are questionable is par for the course.

Charlie

Labradoodle, A Star Is Born

Charlie, played by Bradley Cooper’s actual dog (also named Charlie), is a gift from Jackson Maine to Ally in 2018’s classic A Star Is Born. And sure, the nepotism behind Charlie’s casting is somewhat galling, but he does a great job, and is responsible for the most moving moment in the film: first happily wolfing down a last-meal steak cooked for him by Jackson, and then mournfully sticking by his owner’s side after he has died by suicide.

A few notes:

  1. Charlie needs to be told to eat the steak! Incredible patience by Charlie; my dog would’ve ripped my hand off in this scenario.
  2. Yes, how Charlie got from inside the house to outside of the garage is unanswerable. No, it does not matter.
  3. I cried at the end of A Star Is Born, and I truthfully don’t know if I would have had Charlie not been in the movie.
Halle Berry’s Dogs

Belgian Malinois, John Wick 3

Just watch this:

Dogs are so dope.

Winner: Charlie

It’s the restraint shown in the face of that big steak that gives Charlie the edge over time-traveling Einstein.

The Sporting Group

Buddy

Golden retriever, Air Bud (and others)

Look, you know Buddy’s bona fides: a multi-hyphenate who overcame being raised by a mean clown to become the best dog athlete this planet has ever seen. But it must also be noted that Buddy subbed in for Comet in an episode of Full House because Comet couldn’t shoot a basketball. That’s how elite Buddy was as a dog/athlete.

Clifford the Big Red Dog

Labrador retriever, Clifford the Big Red Dog

Yes, Clifford the Big Red Dog was a Lab. Do not ask me how he came to be so red. All I know is that there should never be a live-action adaptation of this show.

Mr. Peanutbutter

Labrador retriever, BoJack Horseman

The former star of Mr. Peanutbutter’s House, Mr. Peanutbutter is a careful depiction of a Labrador retriever. He is energetic, incessantly happy, and seemingly a little dumb. But he also contains multitudes that can only be revealed with time and intimacy. “The universe is a cruel, uncaring void,” Peanutbutter once said. “The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”

Spoken like a true dog.

Enzo

Golden retriever, The Art of Racing in the Rain

The only reason I included Enzo is because in the movie version of The Art of Racing in the Rain, Enzo’s inner monologue is voiced by Kevin Costner. Show me a better match between actor and dog breed. I will wait.

Shadow

Golden retriever, Homeward Bound

And now I’m crying.

Winner: Buddy

It breaks my heart to pick a dog over Shadow, but I don’t wanna make this thing a Homeward Bound tribute post. And besides, Buddy got tackled by A HUMAN one time and still managed to get up, and then go on to play soccer, baseball, and even volleyball. (It’s worth rewatching this scene, which exists on YouTube under the cruel title “Air Bud gets it.” It’s truly shocking to see this 180-pound teenager launch himself onto a dog. I can’t imagine what that kid’s ride home was like. Just total silence? Or did he even get a ride home? I wouldn’t be shocked if that kid’s parents disowned him on the spot.)

The Working Group

Beethoven

Saint Bernard, Beethoven

Beethoven saved a child from drowning; Beethoven saved countless dogs from the brutal experiments of a mad veterinarian; Beethoven saved Ryce (there was a girl named Ryce in these movies) from sexual assault by dismantling an entire lake house; Beethoven saved Charles Grodin from a life of unhappiness. I love Beethoven with all of my heart.

Hercules

English mastiff, The Sandlot

The myth, the dog, the legend. All of the horrifying stuff about the Beast is amazing—the ease with which he destroys an erector set is stunning—but what makes Hercules a top-level dog are his sensitive, ulterior motives. He’s really just a big softie who likes baseball and wants to be loved.

Fang

Neapolitan mastiff, Harry Potter

Speaking of softies! Fang is a wonderfully sensitive beast of a dog who makes for the perfect pet for Rubeus Hagrid. He doesn’t do all that much—in fact, he has a reputation for running away—but his vibes are appreciated, and he’s undoubtedly a good hang.

Brandy

Pit bull, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

One of the more recent entries into the Good Dog textbook, Brandy is both adorable and integral in Once Upon a Time. There’s the moments in which Brandy is content to just eat a brick of Wolf’s Tooth and roll around on the floor with her owner Cliff Booth—and then there’s the moments in which Brandy can rip the arm off a Charles Manson acolyte and change the course of history. Get you a dog who can do both.

Champion

Pit bull, Parks and Recreation

Fact: Parks and Rec gets a thousand times better when tripod dog Champion is thrown in the mix.

On a show with a great number of iconic duos, no duo is more iconic than Andy and Champion.

The Winner: Beethoven

The Working Group is by far the most stacked group in this dog show. Any of these dogs could be worthy for Best in Show. I can’t explain how deeply it pains me to choose one above the other. But Beethoven must move on.

The Terrier Group

Baxter

Border terrier, Anchorman

Once ate a whole wheel of cheese; once survived getting punted by a biker played by Jack Black; once learned how to speak bear; once saved an entire San Diego–based news team.

Olivia

American West Highland white terrier, Widows and Game Night

Within a calendar year, this dog played a dramatic role in Widows—getting threatened by a very mean Brian Tyree Henry—and a comedic role in Game Night, in which she was partially responsible for the funniest scene in the movie.

The range!

(For you sticklers out there: Yes, I realize that this is the only instance in the entire competition in which a real-life dog’s body of work is being judged, rather than its specific roles. Do I care? Not at all.)

Skip

Jack Russell terrier, My Dog Skip

In My Dog Skip, Skip is the main reason that Willie (Frankie Muniz) realizes that racism is bad, which is pretty huge. But mainly, it always amazed me that Skip took a shovel to the face and survived. That is all.

Toto

Cairn terrier, The Wizard of Oz

Shout-out Toto, the only creature in The Wizard of Oz who is impervious to gaslighting. We could use more Totos today.

Eddie Crane

Jack Russell terrier, Frasier

For more on the greatest sitcom dog actor ever, I defer to the rest of the cast of Frasier, who talk about Eddie like he’s Marlon fucking Brando.

Winner: Olivia

Sorry to all the other terriers here (another stacked group, by the way), but in 2018, Olivia had the best year a dog has ever had.

Best in Show

The Finalists
  • John Wick’s Puppy, John Wick
  • Frank, Men in Black
  • Chance, Homeward Bound
  • Charlie, A Star Is Born
  • Buddy, Air Bud
  • Beethoven, Beethoven
  • Olivia, Widows and Game Night
And the winner of Best in Show is …

Taking into account the criteria of this dog show—Utility, Cuteness, Relevance, and Intangibles—I have no choice but to award the top prize to the winner of the Working Group, Beethoven. As previously discussed, Beethoven is supremely useful. He is also supremely relevant—he is the star of the movies, which are all named after him. He has shown the supreme ability to warm the hearts of cold dads (and also the supreme ability to make David Duchovny flip over a fence). And, of course, he’s supremely cute. Look at this big ol’ boy:

Just astonishing. Absolutely magnificent.

Congratulations to Beethoven. To all of the other dogs who competed, I love (most of) you.

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