Disney’s 101 Dalmatians is just kid stuff. This year Hollywood was dogged by a case of puppy love so bad it seemed like the ASPCA was in charge of script approval.

”Seeing an animal hurt or killed is simply too brutal for movies these days,” says Dean Devlin, who produced and cowrote Independence Day. Aliens cavalierly fry millions of humans in ID — but when a golden retriever gets caught in the path of a raging firestorm, he makes a slo-mo leap to safety. ”It’s a very heartening development, believe me,” says former Golden Girl Betty White, an animal-welfare proponent for more than 40 years. ”But that doesn’t make 6 billion people dying one bit better.” She has a point. In today’s blockbusters, where people often get no respect, doggies do:

— Twister’s nasty tornadoes make milk shakes of livestock, level Wakita, Okla., and send a bloodied Aunt Meg to the hospital, but her seemingly impervious pup winds up blithely panting alongside the storm chasers.

— As an underwater tunnel rapidly floods, Daylight hero Kit Latura leaves a group of human casualties unattended to descend a rickety staircase and save a dog-paddling pooch.

— A Time to Kill’s Jake Brigance stands stalwart against deadly racist attacks on friends, family, and home, but when it looks like his dog has been incinerated, he crumbles. The mysteriously unscathed mutt eventually comes galloping into Jake’s arms.

— In Michael, a major character drops dead and is promptly buried, but when Sparky gets hit by a truck, folks tearfully beg the archangel Michael to revive him. (He does, even though it saps his remaining energy.)

”Life has become terribly cheap,” says White. ”But we’ve come a long way. Animal activists have certainly raised the conscience of screenwriters.” Then again, the trend, as Devlin argues, could be ”just a simple underscore of the old film axiom ‘You can’t kill the dog.”’ Old Yeller, of course, excepted.