Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The True Story of Rin Tin Tin

By Linda Cole

Rin Tin Tin is probably the most recognized and famous German Shepherd dog of all time. In the 112 year history of the breed, his bloodline is the oldest continuous line and has remained relatively unchanged over the years. Had it not been for a corporal in the United States Army during WW I, Rin Tin Tin most likely would have perished in France.

Rin Tin Tin was just five days old when he and his four siblings were found in a bombed out dog kennel outside of Lorraine, France. It was September 15, 1918; Corporal Lee Duncan and his battalion were walking through the area when he noticed the damaged dog kennel and convinced the others they should check it out. They found five pups and their mom alive in the kennel. They had survived an aerial bomb drop. Duncan picked a male and female from the litter. The three other pups and mom, Betty, were taken back to camp by the other soldiers, but sadly none of them survived.

Duncan named his pups Rin Tin Tin and Nannette after small French puppets called Rintintin and Nenette that were given to the soldiers by French children for good luck. Corporal Duncan was impressed with how the German war dogs performed, so he started working with Rin Tin Tin and Nannette to train them to perform just like the dogs he had seen. The German Kennel Master in charge of the kennel where the dogs were found had been captured by the Americans. Duncan went to visit him in the prison camp so he could learn more about the German Shepherd breed and Betty and her pups.

After the war, Duncan made arrangements to have his pups sail home with him aboard a ship on a 15 day trip to New York. During the voyage, Nanette came down with distemper. By the time the ship sailed into New York harbor, she was very sick and died before he could get her proper care. Duncan went on to his home in Los Angeles with Rin Tin Tin, the only survivor from the bombed out kennel.

1928 movie ad
Rin Tin Tin began his movie career in 1922. While at an unsanctioned Shepherd Dog Club of America show, he wowed the crowd with his ability to jump a fence 11 feet 9 inches. A man named Charles Jones paid Duncan $350 to shoot Rin Tin Tin in action with a new moving picture camera and afterwards, Duncan decided to pursue a movie career for his dog. Duncan knew his dog was talented. Convincing Hollywood, however, turned out to be challenging.

Rin Tin Tin got his big break after Duncan saw a film crew trying unsuccessfully to shoot a scene with a wolf. Duncan insisted his dog could do the scene in the first take and persisted until the crew gave him a chance to prove it. True to his word, Rin Tin Tin did the trick the first time, which impressed everyone. He was given the role in the 1923 silent movie “Man From Hell's River.” The movie was a hit and moviegoers fell in love with Rin Tin Tin. The studio that produced the film, Warner Brothers Pictures, was in dire straights financially. Rin Tin Tin is credited with saving the studio from financial disaster.

By 1926, Rin Tin Tin was one of Hollywood's biggest stars; he starred in 26 movies for the studio he saved, and earned $6,000 a week. He received 10,000 fan letters a week and ate tenderloin steak prepared by his own private chef. To help his digestion, classical music was played while he ate.

According to rumor, Rin Tin Tin received more votes in the first year of the Oscars than any other actor, but the Academy gave the award to a human to avoid being embarrassed. Warner Brothers referred to Rin Tin Tin as the mortgage lifter and fully understood their success was because of a dark grey German Shepherd born in a bombed out kennel during wartime. Rin Tin Tin provided sound effects for his own 1930 radio show called “The Wonder Dog.”

Rin Tin Tin died in the front yard of his home on August 10, 1932 at the age of 14, his head cradled in the lap of Jean Harlow. Harlow lived across the street from Duncan who had given her one of Rin Tin Tin's pups years earlier. Rin Tin Tin's body was returned to France and he was buried in the Cimetiere des Chiens, a famous pet cemetery in the Paris suburb of Asnieres-sur-Seine.

Some breeders claiming their German Shepherd dogs are direct descendants of Rin Tin Tin are not being truthful. There's only one breeder, Rin Tin Tin Incorporated. To protect the integrity of the lineage of Rin Tin Tin, their breeding program is a “closed program.” Anyone buying a pup enters into a non breeding agreement and their pups must be spayed or neutered. The Rin Tin Tin line is not related in any way to Shiloh Shepherds.

It was Rin Tin Tin II who starred in the 1954-1959 TV series “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” There have been several books written about the story of Rin Tin Tin, including an “official” biography and an unauthorized one. Many of Rin Tin Tin’s old movies are available on Amazon.

Photos courtesy of

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. Actually, the story of Rin-Tin-Tin's birth on a battlefield in September of 1918 very likely is myth. The first story that Duncan told (in October, 1919, to the Los Angeles Times) -- and that three officers of his squadron told -- goes like this: Duncan and his mates found an adult German shepherd male on the battlefield, and Rin-Tin-Tin was one of a litter born to him and a female German shepherd. That means he was born around the time of the Armistice. Evidence shows that story to be the true one. In a photograph taken after the 135th Aero Squadron arrived back in the United States in May, 1919, Duncan sits on the ground with Rin-Tin-Tin in his arms; next to him is another man with Nanette, Rin-Tin-Tin's sister. Rin-Tin-Tin's ears are floppy; Nanette's stand straight up. German shepherd puppies' ears start to stand up when they are five or six months old. (That's also the age the puppies appear to be, not the nine months they would have been had they been born in September.)

    Also it is very unlikely that Rin-Tin-Tin died in Jean Harlow's arms. Though she did live in the neighborhood, it was a few doors down, so she would not have been able to see that he was dying; also that story came out after earlier ones that did not mention her, so it is probably studio hype. See my book, Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star, available on Amazon.

  2. Whatta dog! I got the book by Orleans from the library and one on Winston Churchill. So far, Winston is winning, but I will save Rin Tin Tin until winter reading!

    Rinty was a childhood hero of mine and lots of other kids. Roy Rogers was second.


  3. Well that is all interesting info. Wonder which one is true but it sounds like it all has the same basic grounds. Rin Tin Tin was quite a dog. Take care.

  4. We agree with Marg. No matter what, Rin Tin Tin sure was an amazing woofie!

  5. That is amazing. Again, I enjoy your reads!

  6. We used to watch the TV series as kids. I always dreamt of having my own Rin Tin Tin!

  7. Once again Ms Elwood is attempting to confuse the public. The truth is that German Shepherd Dog puppies ears usually stand long before they are five months old. A GSDs ears are controlled by the loss of baby teeth and if a dogs ears are Not up long before five months it is likely they will never stand. It is really sad that Ms. Elwood continues her assault on RIN TIN TIN and Lee Duncan. For the real truth see the official website at

  8. Rin Tin Tin is a hero! He brought comfort to soldiers on the battlefield, and came to symbolize the best of American values: courage, patriotism & loyalty. He became a beloved pet to all Americans...and if he died in Jean Harlow's arms, he was one lucky dog!


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