Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present two chapters from You Lucky Dog, an uplifting compilation of true stories about homeless dogs that somehow survived and thrived to become local or national celebrities.
YOU LUCKY DOG! takes us through the historic triumphs of many beloved American dogs, and beautifully recounts the dire adversity each of these amazing creatures faced en route to a grand, serendipitous destiny. Purchase the book at Amazon for your Kindle at the unbelievable price of $2.99 and read the story to your dog.
Here are two excerpts from two chapters – about two loveable dogs – Benji and Shep.
SHELTER DOG TURNED MOVIE STAR
The lovable mixed-breed dog that was to become Benji was discovered in 1960 by veteran Hollywood animal trainer Frank Inn (1916-2002). Inn always looked first at shelters for the animals he needed for various show requests. The Burbank Animal Shelter was where he found and fell in love with the shaggy brown dog, known as Higgins, that was to be his biggest star.
Who Was Frank Inn?
Inn was born to a Quaker family in Camby, Indiana, and his original name was Elias Franklin Freeman. He left home at age 17, intent on making a name for himself in Hollywood. Two years later he was seriously injured in a car accident and was convalescing at a friend’s house at a time when the family dog had just had a litter of pups. Frank discovered he had a knack for working with animals. His ability soon landed him a job with Rudd Weatherwax, who trained Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin.
After 14 years working for Weatherwax, Inn went into business for himself and moved his family to an isolated area in the San Fernando Valley to accommodate his growing menagerie of more than 100 dogs, cats and exotic animals. A few years after going on his own, Frank Inn acquired Higgins.
Higgins, who eventually starred as Benji, was originally seen on television as the nameless dog in Petticoat Junction. Inn noted that Higgins successfully mastered a new trick each week for the television show, and his looks and ability made him a natural for a bigger role.
Benji, the Movie
When the movie, Benji, was being cast, there were few signs that it would be a big success. The idea for the film came from Joe Camp, a fellow who made his living producing commercials in Dallas. Camp wrote the script, and began contacting people in Hollywood, only to receive rejection after rejection.
Camp was not going to be discouraged; he still loved his “dog picture ” idea. In 1971 Camp and a partner decided to produce the movie independently and then try to get a distribution deal. That, too, proved to be an unreachable goal; Camp and his partner formed their own distribution company and released the picture themselves from their offices in Dallas. Camp personally developed the marketing strategy, wrote the advertising copy and press releases, and supervised each and every booking worldwide.
In spite of the many obstacles to getting the film made, the audiences loved Benji. Variety reported the picture was the #3 grossing movie of the year.
Success Equals Sequel
The success of the movie led to a sequel, but by this time Higgins, who was 14 at the time the original movie was filmed, was now too old for a full-time commitment. Higgins’s daughter, Benjean, played Benji in For the Love of Benji (1977). When the time came for a third Benji, another of Higgins’s offspring filled in.
In 2002 Joe Camp was contemplating another Benji feature film; Frank Inn had just passed away, so Camp decided the thing to do was to undertake a nationwide shelter search for a new Benji. The publicity would be good for the brand, and in the 1970s the Humane Society had attributed a million additional adoptions to the news that the original Benji had come from a shelter. Camp thought this was a great opportunity to draw attention to the millions of abandoned dogs in shelters nationwide.
Joe Camp and his company undertook a nationwide search, looking at animals from Los Angeles and Detroit to points east and south. The field was narrowed to three candidates that were then put through a “Benji boot camp” run by Camp’s wife. Ultimately, the new Benji was a dog from a shelter in Gulfport, Mississippi. The runners-up were taken care of, too. One was placed with a family, and the other was cast as Benji’s sidekick in the film, Benji, Off the Leash.
Benji reminds us that anyone thinking of adopting a new pet, should remember to check with local shelters.
SHEP: FAITHFUL DOG OF MONTANA
If you have ever visited Fort Benton, Montana, then you have seen the monument to “Faithful Shep” that sits above the river alongside the train tracks.
The most often-told version of the story notes that in 1936 a dog was first noticed at the Great Northern Railway station in Fort Benton one day when a casket was being loaded on to a train going east from Montana. The dog kept greeting incoming trains for years afterward.
In the late 1930s, conductor Ed Shields pieced together more details of the story, and more recently, Fort Benton historian Ken Robison has written about it, making the story much more understandable. Robison writes that the dog was first spotted outside St. Clare Hospital in Fort Benton; an ailing shepherd had come in for care earlier in the day. The shepherd did not live long, and his family requested the body be sent east to them. A nun arranged for the casket to be picked up and taken to the train.
Robison reports that people noted that a dog watched as the body left the hospital, and he followed the truck carrying the casket to the train. When the casket was placed inside the rail car, the dog whined and pawed at the door.
The Vigil Begins
The dog remained at the station, sleeping under benches most of the time but coming out each time a train pulled in. Only over time did he begin to warm to the station employees; they fed him and watched out for him, calling him “Shep” since he was clearly a herding dog. Shep actually became quite famous and was even mentioned in Ripley’s Believe It or Not column. Though there were offers from people all over the country who wanted to adopt Shep, the station employees knew that the dog wanted to remain at the station on his vigil.
Shep grew older, and on January 12, 1942, Shep did not seem to hear an oncoming train. The engineer saw the dog on the track but was unable to stop, or Shep may have slipped on ice or snow in trying to get off the rails in time.
Shep’s funeral was held two days later, and the entire town was said to have come to honor Shep. Pall bearer duties were split between station employees and several boy scouts. Shep was buried on the bluff overlooking the station.
Shortly after Shep’s death, Ed Shields, the conductor who uncovered details to tell the story, began to sell a booklet about the faithful dog. He wanted something good to come as a result of the dog’s unwavering loyalty to his original owner.
Fort Benton was the location of a Montana School for the Deaf and Blind, and Shields decided that supporting this local school was a fitting way to use the funds earned from the booklet. People were also invited to donate money in Shep’s honor; it is estimated that the Shep fund had brought in over $100,000.
I called the school recently, and the fund is still active. Donations in memory of Shep can be made to:
Montana School for the Deaf and Blind
3911 Central Avenue
Great Falls, MT 59405
Kate Kelly resides in Los Angeles, CA. She is the successful author of more than 35 nonfiction books, and a contributing blog writer to The Huffington Post. Her website www.AmericaComesAlive.com and monthly eLetters celebrate Kate’s love of American history and America’s dogs. During July and August Kate publishes three new stories of American dogs each week. She is an engaging speaker and has appeared on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, The View, CBS Early Show, CNN and MSNBC.