What Kind of Dog Is Benji? Breed Information, Pictures and Facts

mixed breed dog
© iStock.com/USGirl

Written by Kellianne Matthews

Updated: October 26, 2023

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Benji is one of the most lovable dogs in Hollywood and has starred in several movies and TV shows. With his scruffy fur coat and deeply expressive eyes, this undeniably adoptable pup has captured the hearts of millions of viewers all around the world. Whether he’s playing with the neighborhood children or rescuing cougar cubs, Benji is an inspiring canine hero. But what kind of dog is Benji? Let’s take a closer look at the beloved character of Benji and learn more about what makes him such an incredible dog!

Who is Benji?

Benji is a fictional canine hero with a heart of gold. He is an adventurous and lovable pup who seems to always be in the right place at just the right time to help others. The character of Benji was created by Joe Camp in the 1974 film Benji. Since then, this beloved canine has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide. 

In the beginning, however, no one wanted to produce Camp’s film. So, Camp put together his own production company to independently produce the film — and Benji ended up making a staggering $45 million! The film earned an Oscar nomination for its unforgettable theme song. There was even some discussion about nominating the canine actor behind Benji for an Oscar as well! Since the original Benji film in 1974, the incredible canine has been the star of five additional movies from 1977 through 2018.

Mixed dog breed

Mixed-breed dogs have their own distinct physical and behavioral traits that set them apart.

©iStock.com/Emma Murphy

What Kind of Dog is Benji?

Benji is a mutt or a mixed-breed dog. He is a small and charming canine covered with scruffy golden hair. A mutt, also known as a mixed breed dog or a mongrel, is a dog with a curious blend of various dog breeds, some of which might even span several generations. Unlike purebred dogs, a mixed breed lineage is often shrouded in mystery. 

However, that’s exactly what makes these dogs so extraordinary and unique — no two mixed-breed dogs are ever the same! Each dog has their own distinct physical and behavioral traits that set them apart. Some mixed-breed dogs can be goofy and energetic, while others may be calmer and laid back — each one is completely individual and unique! In addition, mixed-breed dogs usually have fewer health issues than purebred dogs. Since mixed-breed dogs have a wider gene pool, they are less susceptible to the genetic diseases and health issues that plague purebred dogs. 

The canine actors who have played Benji throughout the years have all been mixed-breed dogs, just like their on-screen character! The first dog to take on the role, a special pooch named Higgins, was actually discovered when he was just a puppy living at the Burbank Animal Shelter in California. Frank Inn, a Hollywood animal trainer, specifically sought animals from shelters due to the unique qualities of mixed breeds, as well as to help raise awareness of the numerous dogs in shelters that need homes. When he saw Higgins’ soul-piecing eyes at the shelter, he knew the dog had the makings of a star.

The Canine Star Behind the Legendary Benji

Benji (portrayed by Benjean) in 1979Press conference with film dog Benji in the Amstel Hotel in Amsterdam

Benji had many canine actors in the role but once Higgins retired, his daughter Benjean, shown here in 1979, stepped into the role.

©Croes, Rob C. / Anefo/Public Domain – Original / License

Throughout his 14-year Hollywood career, the talented pooch acted in various television shows and movies alongside stars like Vincent Price, Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Edgar Buchanan. He even won a PATSY award and was featured on the cover of TV Guide Magazine! 

Higgins was a truly spectacular canine actor and could open containers, climb ladders, and even yawn or sneeze on cue! However, Higgins’ top skill was his astounding emotional range: he could convey any emotion through his facial expressions and big puppy-dog eyes. Even though Inn had trained thousands of animals, he was adamant that Higgins was by far the smartest dog he’d ever worked with!

Although he retired at the age of 14, Higgins returned to Hollywood one last time when he was 16 years old, starring as the legendary Benji in the 1974 feature film, Benji. That’s right folks, this incredible canine was 16 years old and still going strong! 

Benji was such a hit with audiences that an additional five movies were made about the amazing mixed-breed pup. However, Higgins had retired again, so his daughter Benjean starred in three of the additional Benji films: For the Love of Benji (1977), Benji the Hunted (1987), and Oh Heavnly Dog (1980).

Higgins passed away just a month shy of his 18th birthday — a testament to the health and sturdy nature of a mixed-breed dog! He had touched so many lives, including his trainer’s — who, despite having trained thousands of animals, had grown especially fond of this little golden hair mutt. Inn had Higgins’ body cremated and kept the pup’s ashes in an urn on his mantelpiece. When Inn passed away in 2002, he requested that Higgins’ ashes be buried alongside him. 

What Kind of Dog Could Benji Be?

When Higgins found himself at the Burbank Animal Shelter, he had been labeled as a border terrier mix. However, Inn believed the dog was a unique mixture of cocker spaniel, schnauzer, and miniature poodle. He also theorized that maybe Higgins had some Tibetan terrier DNA in his genetics as well. So, let’s take a closer look at the possible dog breeds behind the legendary Benji!

Cocker Spaniel

Benji’s long wavy hair and expressive eyes are traits in common with the cocker spaniel

Benji’s long wavy hair and expressive eyes are traits in common with the cocker spaniel.

©Aneta Jungerova/Shutterstock.com

The cocker spaniel is a very elegant and sophisticated-looking dog breed. These dogs come in a wide range of colors from black to silver, buff, brown, red, gold, sable, cream, and even a mix of colors as well. They were originally bred as skilled hunting dogs, but today cocker spaniels are also excellent companions with charming personalities. They are the perfect-sized dogs — not too big but not too small. Cocker spaniels grow 13.5 to 14.5 inches tall and weigh between 25 to 30 pounds.

They have long and luxurious skirted coats and curly-haired ears. These dogs have a lot of hair, and their hair has a lot of body, so they require constant grooming to avoid mats. Benji’s long wavy hair is right in line with that of a cocker spaniel! On average cockers live around 10 to 14 years of age.

Cocker spaniels are one of the sweetest dog breeds. They can make any heart melt with their big expressive eyes — just like Benji! Despite their sophisticated appearance, however, they are energetic and lighthearted dogs that love to play. They are also very affectionate toward their family. Cocker spaniels are great with young children as well as other dogs, and easily get along with everyone. They are very smart and have a gentle and happy nature that makes them easy to train. The sweet demeanor of Higgins and his ability to work so amiably with his co-stars could easily be due to having cocker spaniel DNA in his genetic makeup!

Schnauzer

Schnauzers are good with children much like Benji

Schnauzers are good with children and other people, much like Benji.

©everydoghasastory/Shutterstock.com

There are three sizes of schnauzers: the miniature schnauzer, the standard schnauzer, and the giant schnauzer. They can be as small as 12 inches and weigh 11 pounds, or as large as 27.5 inches and weigh up to 60 pounds! Unlike cocker spaniels, schnauzers have shorter, wiry hair, and are typically silver, black, or salt and pepper. In addition, schnauzers have rather unique facial hair that looks like a beard and prickly mustache.

However, like the cocker spaniel the Schnauzer was bred as a medium-sized sporting dog and is extremely intelligent. These dogs are not aggressive, but they are high-spirited and need plenty of exercise and playtime. Schnauzers are good with children and other people, much like Benji and Higgins. They are also incredibly smart and easy to train. However, they are also quite crafty and easily get bored with repetition. 

Schnauzers typically live between 12 to 15 or 16 years. Higgins lived to be nearly 18 years old, so perhaps he got some of the longevity DNA from his schnauzer ancestry!

Miniature Poodle

Like Benji, miniature poodles are intelligent and easy to train

Like Benji, miniature poodles are very responsive and highly intelligent dogs making them easy to train.

©Korneeva Kristina/Shutterstock.com

It’s very possible that Benji would have some miniature poodle DNA as well, as this breed is extremely intelligent. Miniature poodles come in every color of the rainbow and have beautiful and hypoallergenic fur coats. They do not exceed 15 inches in height and usually weigh only 10 to 15 pounds. These athletic dogs are confident and stylish, with an impressive and distinguished appearance. However, they were originally bred as water dogs to retrieve game while hunting with their humans. Their fancy fur coats are super curly, dense, and water-resistant. 

When it comes to personality and behavior, it is very probable that Benji’s ancestry includes the miniature poodle breed. Miniature poodles are typically healthy dogs and can live 10 to 18 years, just like Higgins! They are also very sociable, energetic, and protective of their families. Miniature poodles are very responsive and highly intelligent dogs. They are easy to train and love showing off their tricks! However, they are also quite sensitive and can be shy around strangers at first. If they are properly socialized though, miniature poodles can get along with humans, children, and even other dogs. 

Tibetan Terrier

Beautiful Tibetan terrier dog resting on wooden bench

Tibetan terriers are good-natured, clever dogs that make very loyal companions.

©Slavica Stajic/Shutterstock.com

If you look at Benji’s long and wavy hair, it’s easy to see how he could be related to the Tibetan terrier. Also known as the “Holy Dog of Tibet”, these dogs have a thick and wooly double coat underneath a long and wavy top coat. In addition, Tibetan terriers have very large paws that are often referred to as “snowshoe feet”. Such large paws were very helpful to their ancestors, who were sheepherding dogs in the snowy mountains in Tibet. 

Tibetan terriers come in many different colors and patterns. They are usually 14 to 17 inches tall, weigh 15 to 30 pounds, and usually live between 15 to 16 years. Not only are they beautiful dogs, but these ancient watchdogs are extremely loyal and affectionate. Their ancestors were common companions of Buddhist monks in Tibetan monasteries. Tibetan terriers are very smart, clever, and alert, although they are also always ready to play. They are good-natured dogs, although they can be reserved around strangers. With their own families, however, Tibetan terriers are very loving and loyal. 

Border Terrier

Like Benji, border terriers are very affectionate and caring dogs

Much like the character of Benji, border terriers are very affectionate and caring dogs, but they are also tough and adventurous. 

©Andreas Gradin/Shutterstock.com

The folks at the Burbank animal shelter had originally listed Higgins as a border terrier due to his personality and appearance. The color of Higgins’ fur was very similar to that of a border terrier, as well as the shape and color of his nose and snout. However, Higgins had much longer and softer hair than you usually see in a border terrier. 

Border terriers usually have a wiry fur coat. They grow 12 to 15 inches tall and weigh 11.5 to 15.5 pounds. These dogs also have small, “V”-shaped ears that are often darker than the rest of their fur — much like Benji’s ears, although Benji’s were much longer. Border terriers were originally bred as hunting dogs, with small bodies and long legs. They are small enough to maneuver in tight spaces, but also very fast enough to keep up with their quarry. 

Although border terriers have a tough, no-nonsense work ethic, when it’s time to play these dogs are nothing but happy and affectionate. They are extremely adaptable dogs and can live in family homes, apartments, farms, or in the city. Border terriers are friendly and get along with children as well as other dogs, but they do struggle with small animals like squirrels or cats due to their hunting instincts. Much like the character of Benji, border terriers are very affectionate and caring dogs, but they are also tough and adventurous. 

Final Thoughts

Higgins was a stray found in an animal shelter and was not of any specific breed, much like the stray but loveable character of Benji. Despite his background and humble beginnings, Higgins found his own loving family with Frank Inn, who recognized the incredible potential of this special mixed-breed mutt and paved the way for a successful career in show business.

The story of Higgins and his on-screen character of Benji prove that adopting a shelter dog is a great option if you are looking for a new canine companion. Shelter dogs come in all shapes and sizes and have unique, one-of-a-kind personalities that can make them excellent companions. Both the real-life story of Higgins and the on-screen tales of Benji show us that adopting a shelter pup can transform many lives. You never know — there might just be another amazing canine out there waiting for you!

What Kind of Dog is Clifford?

The Vizsla is one of the many breeds that Clifford the Big Red Dog is thought to be modeled after.

©Tomas Maracek/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Benji wasn’t the only famous dog in Hollywood. Another dog that has become one of the most beloved characters is Clifford, also known as Clifford the Big Red Dog. Clifford is one of the most popular children’s books and has been used in helping children to read, which has propelled him to an even more well-known level, both nationally and internationally. Just like Benji, Clifford got his start in books, there are 188 different titles, and eventually made his way to the big screen, first as an animated film, Clifford’s Really Big Movie (2004) then as a live-action film, Clifford the Big Red Dog (2021).

While there might be some debate on what kind of dog Clifford is exactly, it is said that he may be a variety of dogs, from a Labrador Retriever and a Great Dane to a bloodhound, but one of the most often mentioned breeds, due to his red color is a giant Vizla, a breed that originated in Hungary as a hunting dog. While the Vizla breed generally averages sizes of between 45 and 65 pounds, and heights of only around two feet tall, Clifford is not your average Vizsla. He tops out at over ten feet tall, although his weight is not known.

Whatever breed he may be, one thing is for certain, he is a large, lovable dog that is adored by many people throughout the world.

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About the Author

Kellianne Matthews is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on anthrozoology, conservation, human-animal relationships, and animal behavior. Kellianne has been writing and researching animals for over ten years and has decades of hands-on experience working with a variety of different animals. She holds a Master’s Degree from Brigham Young University, which she earned in 2017. A resident of Utah, Kellianne enjoys creating, exploring and learning new things, analyzing movies, caring for animals, and playing with her cats.

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