We need to be dogmatic here.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that any discussion of cinema must begin with D.W. Griffith. Good enough. Any article on the animated dog must start with Pluto.
He was the gentle pup who started a revolution. For film historians, he’s remembered as a breakthrough in character animation, the first cartoon personality actually to register thoughts and share inner feelings. But for dog partisans, he is (or should be) the canonical cartoon canine, the first animated character to move and breathe like an actual dog.
During Pluto’s long heyday in the 1930s and early 1940s, he redefined the way cartoon animals could be portrayed. His famous predecessors, whether Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, were never meant to represent actual creatures. Their behavior and situational gags had nothing to do with the way mice, cats or rabbits actually behaved. But Pluto not only moved like a dog—four paws on the ground, his only sounds barks and growls, his main preoccupations sniffing, scratching and exploring—he actually seemed to think and react like a dog.
To watch Pluto battle a magnetized plate in Donald and Pluto or contemplate a gaggle of chicks in Pluto’s Quinpuplets is to see an animal go from dumb curiosity and mild surprise to anger and panic, and to understand all the while what is going on in the dog’s head.
Even more than that, Pluto made the cartoon world safe for dogs. Before Pluto, dogs kept getting the short end of the brush. In a feline-friendly world led by Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat and all their many clones, then turned upside down by Mickey Mouse and all his imitators, the animated dog was the stigmatized Other—doomed to play either the bullying villain or the bland two-legged sidekick when he wasn’t banished to bit parts as a nondescript member of the barnyard repertory company. As a personality, the canine ranked somewhere between the cow, the pig and the horse.
Not that animators didn’t try to make him a star. As early as 1928, with the arrival of talkies and Mickey Mouse mania, rival studios recognized that they needed strong characters to compete, and turned to dogs as a logical alternative to the overused celebrity cat of the silent era. So, for instance, the Fleischer studio, already famous for Koko the Clown, decided to upgrade Koko’s sidekick Bimbo, a generic cartoon puppy, and star him in a series of his own. Nothing worked. Then Fleischer started over with another kind of dog—a sexy French poodle with long ears, huge dewlap jowls and canine teeth that were joined to the bosomy body of a femme fatale. Damned odd and damned ugly. Only when Fleischer animator Grim Natwick started losing the dog parts, turning the ears into earrings, making the mouth girlish and giving her a button nose did a classic emerge: animation’s first bombshell, Betty Boop.
If anything, the dog trials at Disney got even weirder. In the wake of Mickey’s stardom, the studio had been creating friends to flesh out Mickey’s barnyard universe. And in 1932, they experimented with a cartoon hound named Dippy Dawg. Dippy started as a country hick buried under whiskers and spectacles who ate peanuts and laughed a distinctive hiccup guffaw. Weak and (except for the laugh) nondescript as a dog, Dippy was eventually redesigned by master animator Art Babbitt, who worked from a more compelling model: Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.
Jo-Jo was a famous Barnum and Bailey circus freak attraction whose keepers thought he looked like a Basset. And, as historian Mark Langer was the first to notice, Dippy became a Jo-Jo caricature. He acquired Jo-Jo’s two widely spaced buck teeth, his harelip and his hang-drop jaw, which, combined with ex-circus clown Pinto Colvig’s chortling voice, turned him into a bashful, guffawing dimwit. Thus emerged Goofy: Dog as sideshow mutant.