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Dog: Rin Tin Tin (German Shepherd Dog)

Time and place: 1923, Hollywood

Backstory: By the early ’20s the little movie studio founded in 1913 by the brothers Al, Harry, Jack, and Sam Warner is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. With nothing to lose, the Warners take a chance on a series of low-budget features starring a German Shepherd found as a puppy on a World War I battlefield.

How the dog changed history: Rin Tin Tin became an enormous star and saved his struggling studio from certain ruin. Without him, there would be no Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce, Bonnie and Clyde, and dozens of other Warner Brothers classics. And the screen careers of such Warner stars as Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Edward G. Robinson might never have happened.

 

Dog: A Newfoundland (name unknown)

Time and place: 1815, the Mediterranean Sea

Backstory: A coalition of European powers halts Napoleon Bonaparte’s ruthless conquest of the continent. Napoleon is exiled to the tiny island of Elba, off the Italian coast.

How the dog changed history: Napoleon engineered a daring escape from Elba in an open boat during a raging midnight storm. The weather was so fierce and the night so dark, the boat’s crew failed to notice that their passenger had fallen overboard. But a Newfoundland on a passing fishing boat spotted the little emperor, who couldn’t swim, thrashing about in the sea. The mighty rescuer jumped in and kept Napoleon afloat until his oarsmen fished him out.

Had Napoleon drowned, the historic Battle of Waterloo (which finished Napoleon for good at the cost of nearly 50,000 lives) would have never been fought.

 

Dog: Robot (breed unknown)

Time and place: 1940, near Montignac, France

Backstory: Four boys in search of buried treasure are exploring underground caves with Robot. They’re having no luck—until Robot leads them into a long, dark passage. The boys follow Robot and are stunned by what they see.

How the dog changed history: Robot stumbled upon the Lascaux Grotto, one of the most important archeological finds of all time. The cave contains hundreds of prehistoric paintings, perhaps 17,000 years old. One authority wrote, “The discovery of the monumental Lascaux cave in 1940 brought with it a new era in our knowledge of both prehistoric art and human origins”—knowledge that might still be undiscovered if not for one dog’s canine curiosity.

 

Dog: Checkers (Cocker Spaniel)

Time and place: late 1952, Washington, D.C.

Backstory: Accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions, President Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard M. Nixon, is in serious trouble. To save his political skin and preserve his spot on the 1956 election ticket, Nixon takes the unprecedented step of making a televised speech to clear his name. He tells America that the only thing he ever took from contributors was a Cocker pup named Checkers, and he wasn’t giving it back because “the kids, like all kids, love the dog …” The “Checkers speech” (see below) strikes a sympathetic chord with Americans, and Nixon is again Eisenhower’s running mate in ’56.

How the dog changed history: Without Checkers, there’s no Checkers speech. And without that maudlin but effective ploy, Nixon’s political career could easily have been derailed.

It’s impossible to imagine the 20th century without Nixon—the JFK–Nixon debates, Vietnam, the opening of China to the West, détente with the Soviets, Kent State, Watergate, all made possible by a gift Cocker Spaniel who was too cute to give back.

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