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During 1869 in Texas, rancher Jim Coates prepares to leave his wife Katie and their two sons, teenaged Travis and young Arliss, for a four-month cattle drive. After Katie bids him a tearful goodbye, Jim tells Travis that he must now assume responsibility as man of the household, promising to reward him with a horse upon his return. The next day, Travis is working the small corn field with the family mule when a stray dog chases a rabbit into the field. The mule, spooked, rears and runs, ruining the crops and felling the fence. Travis is furious with the dog, and grows even more angry that night when the mongrel eats some of their meat. Despite Travis' attempt to beat the dog, which he dubs "Old Yeller," Arliss falls in love with the mutt and Katie, who hopes the dog will protect the small boy, welcomes Old Yeller into the family. The next afternoon, returning home with a deer for dinner, Travis spots Old Yeller in the drinking-water pond and throws stones at him, prompting Arliss to attack his brother and Travis to dislike the dog even more. That night, the boy hangs the venison low in an attempt to entice Old Yeller into stealing it, so he can banish the dog the next day. He is shocked when Old Yeller spends the night guarding the meat without touching it. Later, Arliss traps a bear cub, and when the mother bear charges the boy, Travis and Katie witness Old Yeller leap to his protection, fighting off the much larger animal. That night, Travis, finally impressed with the dog, allows him into the boys's bed. Soon after, neighbor Bud Searcy visits with his daughter Lisbeth, who has a crush on Travis. Katie tolerates Searcy despite his extreme laziness and tendency to brag, offering him dinner when he refuses to leave. While helping Travis pick corn, Lisbeth reveals that she saw Old Yeller stealing food from neighboring farms, but will never report the dog because he has impregnated her dog, Miss Priss. Pleased, Travis gives Lisbeth an arrowhead, which she treasures, and determines to keep Old Yeller with him at all times, to prevent the dog from stealing. That night, he sleeps out in the field with Old Yeller, hoping to catch the raccoons that have been eating the corn. Travis falls asleep while thinking of his father, but wakes to see Old Yeller faithfully chasing off a raccoon family. In the morning, Katie informs the boy that their cow, Rose, is missing and has probably given birth in the hills. Travis and Old Yeller set off to find the cow, but when Travis discovers the newborn calf and tries to carry it, Rose charges him, prompting Old Yeller to knock her over until she calms. At home, Travis attempts to break the cow, but cannot until Rose spots Old Yeller and becomes docile. Having proven his mettle beyond a doubt, Old Yeller becomes Travis' constant, devoted companion. One day, cowhand Burn Sanderson arrives, revealing that Old Yeller is his runaway dog. Although Travis is devastated, Katie knows she must let Burn take the dog. As he leaves, however, Arliss explodes in anger, throwing a rock that makes Burn's horse rear and throw him. Burn is at first angry but then takes Arliss on his knee and agrees to trade Old Yeller for one toad and a home-cooked meal, which Katie supplies with pleasure. Upon leaving, Burn informs Travis that a plague of hydrophobia, or rabies, is affecting local animals, with telltale signs that include staggering, viciousness and unprovoked attacks. Later, Travis takes Old Yeller, and they follow wild pig tracks until they find a herd. The dog ably corners the pigs, allowing Travis to climb a tree and swing a lasso down to rope one. When the pig falls, however, it pulls Travis down from the tree, where a boar bites into his leg. Old Yeller swiftly attacks the boar so Travis can run to safety, but the dog is severely wounded in the process. Travis hides the dog in a cave and limps home, where Katie dresses his wound and at first refuses to let him return to Old Yeller. When she sees her son's distress, however, she relents, and takes Travis by horseback to find the dog, who is already being circled by buzzards. Although Old Yeller's wounds are deep, she tends to him and brings both home to recuperate. Soon after, the Searcys visit. Lisbeth presents Travis with one of Old Yeller's puppies, but, unimpressed, he hurts her feelings by telling her to give the dog to Arliss. Searcy then informs Katie about the rabies plague, terrifying her that Travis may have been infected and prompting her to demand that Searcy leave. He does so, but leaves Lisbeth behind "to help." Days later, Travis is nearly recovered when Rose falls in a fit. Katie hopes it is a mere fever, but Travis recognizes the symptoms as those of rabies, and shoots the animal, after which Katie and Lisbeth burn the carcass. When a wolf attacks, their screams alert Travis, who runs outside with a gun and sees Old Yeller fighting off the wild animal. Travis is able to shoot the wolf, but not before it bites the dog, and Katie sadly informs him that the wolf, which attacked without provocation, was mad. At the boy's pleading, she agrees to keep Old Yeller penned for a few weeks to chart his progress, hoping he will remain unaffected. At first the dog seems healthy, but one night he growls viciously at Travis, who tries to hide the affliction from the family. When Arliss attempts to release Old Yeller, however, Katie closes the pen just in time and sees that the dog is ill. She prepares to shoot him, but Travis insists on handling the terrible chore himself. His rifle shaking, he finally manages to shoot his friend, putting him out of his misery. The next day, Jim returns home. After greeting an elated Katie and Arliss, he approaches Travis, advising his son to start looking for something good to take the place of the bad turn life has dealt him. Although Travis remains despondent, when the family retires for dinner, he notices Old Yeller's pup attempting to steal venison. Recognizing the puppy's strong resemblance to his father, Travis admires him for the first time, and in return the puppy licks his face joyfully.