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Old Yeller Day (& What Kind of Dog Was Old Yeller?!)

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Perhaps no other fictional tale has taught generations of children more about the loyal heart of a dog, and the pain of losing a four-legged friend, than Old Yeller. Decades after the story was unleashed in book form, dog enthusiasts are still vicariously visiting the Coates family and their canine companion not only through the pages of the Fred Gipson novel or by watching the classic Disney movie, but also by making a pilgrimage to the author’s hometown–Mason, Texas– for Old Yeller Day. Let’s look at this special day–and explore that old question: what kind of dog was Old Yeller?

When is Old Yeller Day?

An annual tribute to Fred Gipson and the beloved characters he created, Old Yeller Day takes place each September in Mason, a cozy community set in the Texas Hill Country.

Old Yeller statue in front of Mason library

The event includes a screening of the Disney classic, a pet parade, Travis and Old Yeller look-alike contests, adoptable dogs from a local shelter, a 10K run, and, as an homage to the courageous dog, a free rabies clinic.

Old Yeller Day takes place on the last Saturday in September.

What Kind of Dog Was Old Yeller?

What kind of dog is Old Yeller? Well, that depends on if you’re talking about Old Yeller in the book or Old Yeller in the movie!

In the book Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, Old Yeller is described as a “yellow cur dog.” The term “cur” generally refers to a mixed-breed dog, so Old Yeller’s exact breed composition is not explicitly detailed in the book. It is depicted as a courageous and loyal dog with a mix of traits from various breeds. It’s often visualized as a large, rugged, yellow-haired dog with a strong and protective nature.

“He was a big ugly slick-haired yeller dog, one of the biggest I ever saw. A people wouldn’t know it to look at him, for he had a good build and he wasn’t fat. But it was all in the way he stood and the way his muscles bulged out and made lumps on his ribs and shoulders.”

Old Yeller, Fred Gipson

And Old Yeller is described as cur:

I remembered, then, how I’d been kind of disappointed when I first saw the big yellow cur. I’d figured any dog of his size and looks would surely be part wolf.

However, there’s been some talk that author Fred Gipson was influenced by the Blue Lacy breed–developed by the Lacy brothers in the same county where Gipson lived. The Blue Lacy is now the Official State Dog Breed of Texas. (We live about 90 minutes from where Fred Gibson lived–and I can tell you that Blue Lacy dogs are not common to see here or in other parts of Texas.)

And while Blue Lacy dogs can be red, most people believe Old Yeller was a Black Mouth Cur.

We called him Old Yeller. The name had a sort of double meaning. One part meant that his short hair was a dingy yellow, a color that we called “yeller” in those days. The other meant that when he opened his head, the sound he let out came closer to being a yell than a bark.

― Fred Gipson, Old Yeller

In the movie Old Yeller, the titular dog was a Labrador Retriever/Mastiff mix. The dog who played Old Yeller was named Spike, and he was a rescue dog before being trained to appear in movies. The mix of breeds gave him a unique appearance that helped to make the character of Old Yeller so memorable.

More Fun Facts About Old Yeller

In celebration of this pet holiday, we’ve fetched a few interesting facts about Old Yeller so you can celebrate this timeless tale of dog devotion no matter where you live:

Old Yeller is a work of fiction, but a true tale told to Gipson by his grandfather about a dog named Rattler served as inspiration for the story.

A former shelter dog named Spike portrayed Old Yeller in the Disney dog movie. He was discovered by animal trainer Frank Weatherwax, who– by paying a $3 adoption fee– gave the Labrador Retriever/Mastiff mix a new lease on life.

Hollywood animal trainer Frank Weatherwax not only taught Spike the abilities he needed to step into the role of Old Yeller, he also trained the dog who portrayed Asta from The Thin Man film franchise. Fun Fact: Frank Weatherwax’s brother Rudd Weatherwax trained Pal, the original Lassie.

In 1957 Old Yeller’s author Fred Gipson was the recipient of the coveted Newberry Medal, which is presented annually to the best children’s literature published in the previous year.

Fred Gipson headstone Texas State Cemetery, Austin

Fred Gipson is buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. It is not unusual for visitors to leave a dog treat on his headstone.

What I mean is, things like that happen. They may seem might cruel and unfair, but that’s how life is a part of the time. But that isn’t the only way life is. A part of the time, it’s mighty good. And a man can’t afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts. That makes it all bad.

― Fred Gipson, Old Yeller

Fans of the iconic novel and its Disney adaptation can learn more about the writer who brought Old Yeller to life in his home town, where a statue of the devoted dog and his favorite human stands guard outside of the Mason County M. Beven Eckert Memorial Library.

The building houses an exhibit about the life of the author which includes old movie posters, photos and clothing that belonged to the author, and items that bring to light Gipson’s other literary offerings, from novels to articles written during his days as a journalist.

Old Yeller Statue

Old Yeller Day

Lubbock, Texas-based sculptor Garland Weeks captured the essence of Travis and his faithful canine companion in the Old Yeller statue in front of the library.

The following segment of Texas Country Reporter offers a look back at the unveiling of the Old Yeller statue:

If you ever visit Mason, be sure to stop by the library for a not-to-be missed photo opportunity!

Irie in front of Old Yeller Statue, Mason
photo opportunity in front of Mason Texas library Old Yeller

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