The film is based on a true story. While she was living in Hollywood with her husband, writer Romain Gary, actress Jean Seberg brought home a large white dog she had found on the street that seemed friendly and playful. However, when the animal saw her Black gardener, it attacked him viciously, injuring him. Afterward, the couple kept it in the backyard, but one day, it got out and attacked another Black man on the street but no one else. After this happened a third time, they realized that someone had trained the dog to attack and injure only Black people. Gary wrote a magazine piece about it for Life in 1970, which eventually became a fictionalized full-length book.
The major reason the film was buried by Paramount was due to the criticism claims by the NAACP stating the film was trying to push a racist message across in its depictions of the dog's actions while the film was in pre-production. Once a release date was set, the NAACP then threatened Paramount with boycotts which soon scared off executives largely due to the film's subject matter. The film was then limited to a series of limited screenings throughout 1982 in cities such as Seattle, Denver and Detroit and Paramount finally aborted its release in the U.S. and shelved the film soon after. Paramount then tried to bury it for almost 25 years and yet the film was seen sporadically during this time appearing on cable and even a very brief, enjoyable run in art houses around the U.S. Paramount finally acknowledged the film and lifted its studio imposed ban by licensing the film as part of Criterion Collection, which released the film on DVD in 2008, more than 25 years after its intended and aborted release.
Director Samuel Fuller has said of this picture: "Shelve the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It's difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It's like someone putting your newborn baby in a god-damned maximum-security prison forever . . . Moving to France for a while would alleviate some of the pain and doubt that I had to live with because of White Dog (1982)".
The picture was frequently criticized and protested against by various civil-rights leaders and such lobby groups as the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition (BADC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
According to Lisa Dombrowski's article "Every Dog Has Its Day: The Muzzling of Samuel Fuller's White Dog (1982)" published in the Nov/Dec 2008 edition of 'Film Comment' magazine, Roman Polanski was originally hired to direct the picture during the mid-1970s. Before principal photography began, Polanski was charged with statutory rape and subsequently fled the USA thereby halting the production upon which the picture was then put into turnaround.
Jon Davison was brought in to produce the film later on and immediately hired Samuel Fuller, who he knew could rewrite the script and get the film into production within two months, after a recommendation from Curtis Hanson, the screenwriter brought back on. Filming commenced in April 1981.
Thomas Baum and Nicholas Kazan wrote uncredited drafts of the script before Samuel Fuller took over as director. Curtis Hanson, who had been commissioned by Producer Robert Evans to write the earlier screenplay, returned to help Fuller, who's a personal friend of Hanson's, to write a new draft. They spent two weeks together in lengthy 30 to 40 hour sessions to complete the new screenplay.
In the original storylines based on the original script (like the book), Keys deprograms the dog to hate White people instead of Blacks. Once Samuel Fuller came on board, he quickly changed this storyline to simply rid the dog of its racist overtures.
After the distribution problems on White Dog, this proved to be the last film that Director Samuel Fuller would ever direct in the U.S. and he moved to France soon after. Samuel said "Moving to France for a while would alleviate some of the pain and doubt that I had to live with because of White Dog."
Playing Julie Sawyer in this movie, this picture was the second time that actress Kristy McNichol played a character with that first name, as McNichol had recently played Julie Lawson in 1978's The End (1978).
Though this picture is not a war film, director Samuel Fuller is well known for directing Second World War movies, having prior to this film just recently directed 1980's The Big Red One (1980). White Dog (1982) actually extensively features a black-and-white WW II movie showing on the television early on in the picture.
The picture has sometimes mistakenly been said to have been director Samuel Fuller's first Hollywood movie in eighteen years as publicized in the original 'Variety' review and on home video sleeves. However, this is not the case, as Fuller a couple of years earlier had directed 1980's The Big Red One (1980) for Lorimar which was picked up by United Artists for theatrical release in the USA.
The closing credits declare that "this motion picture was filmed under the supervision of the American Humane Association". Moreover, according to the New York Times, "White Dog (1982) was made with an N.A.A.C.P. [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] representative on the set".
The Paramount Pictures studio originally purchased the rights to the films' source Romain Gary novel during the 1970s. The Virgin Film Guide states that this was a decade prior to the movie's production which dates at being circa 1971, about within a year after the book was first published in 1970. However, Wikipedia states that the studio acquired the rights to the property in 1975.
Paramount Pictures studio executives are said to have wanted "Jaws (1975) with Paws" and wanted any racial elements toned down. One exec memo read: "Given the organic elements of this story, it is imperative that we never overtly address through attitude or statement the issue of racism per se".
The movie's production was often delay in development and pre-production for around six years since the mid 1970s with the film at various times being attached to such directors as Tony Scott and Roman Polanski.