Like many celebrities in retirement, Rufus, the colored Bull Terrier who won the coveted Best in Show title at the Westminster Dog Show in 2006 is writing a tell-all book about his life as one of America’s top dogs. He intends to use his fame to make a difference and be a great ambassador for his much-maligned breed.
Sadly Bull Terriers, along with other popular breeds such as American Pit Bull Terriers, American Bulldogs, Olde English Bulldogges, and Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldogs are often collectively given a bad rap by the public. They have been labeled the Bully Breeds, an image which certainly tarnishes their true temperament and personality that characterizes them to be affectionate, trustworthy and loving dogs.
“Many of the Bully Breeds such as the American Pit Bull Terrier are no more vicious than Golden Retrievers, Beagles or other popular dogs,” says Donna Reynolds, the Executive Director of an organization called Bad Rap (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible about Pit Bulls) based in San Francisco, Calif.
Reynolds cites breed statistics published by the American Temperament Testing Society (ATTS) that indicate that Bull Terriers like Rufus had a 91.5% pass rate. American Pit Bull Terriers achieved a pass rate of 84 % even superseding one of America’s favorite dogs, the Golden Retriever with a pass rate of 83.2%.
In his ambassadorial role to promote his breed in a positive light, Rufus and his doting owner Barbara Bishop of Holmdel, NJ have made dozens of public appearances to hospitals, retirement centers and schools and done a great job showing people that it’s not the dog, but how the dog is raised that is the real issue.
IT’SALL ABOUT BREEDING
“It’s definitely all about good breeding,” confirms certified animal behavior consultant Darlene Arden of Framingham, MA, author of the new book Rover, Get off Her Leg! “It’s like one delinquent teenager giving all the kids on the block a bad reputation.
“And sadly, aggression begets aggression,” explains Arden. “There are still backyard breeders who deliberately set about creating a strain of mean and hostile dogs. And as long as there are drug dealers and gangsters who insist on keeping these dogs to promote their own ruthless image and abuse them by using them as their personal weapons, this negative reflection will persist.
“On the other side of the coin, good breeding will produce dogs with a wonderful friendly and sociable temperament. Further, if you treat them kindly and train them with positive re-enforcement techniques, there’s no question that such a dog will be a lovable companion and adored family member.”
Bishop agrees. “People who meet Rufus are always surprised to learn that this champion show dog is in fact an affectionate family pet who loves children. His favorite pastime is lying around the house after a bath in his doggy bathrobe. I am particularly proud of all the appearances we’ve made at schools. It’s given many children a great opportunity to build confidence around a dog.”
Another champion show dog that has done a lot to promote the true identity of bully breeds is the white Bull Terrier named Smudge who has won celebrity status as the canine face in the Target print and TV advertisements.
“Initially I think he was chosen because of the shape of his head and his smooth short fur made it easy to apply make-up and turn him into the Target logo,” confesses his owner Linda Lithin of Long Beach, California. “But along the way this media campaign has done a lot for the breed in general. After all, a company such as Target would never associate its image with a dog that was considered a mean fighting machine.”
Whenever possible, Lithin makes a point of applying Smudge’s “Target make-up” and taking him to public events to give people the opportunity to meet him and see what a friendly sociable dog he really is. He is a popular participant in the annual Belmont Shore Christmas parade in Long Beach, Calif. and even rides in his own float – a shopping cart.
GOOD TRAINING PROMOTES A GOOD CANINE AMBASSADOR
If you want your dog to become a dog ambassador its essential to train him from puppy hood and to begin literally the day after you bring him home,” advises Arden. “The public have a very different perception of a well-trained dog that listens on command.”
“It’s important to choose what I call a ‘default behavior’. This has to be the most important thing you want your dog to do. Something like ‘sit’ or ‘settle’ or ‘lie down’. So choose it carefully. If you are out in public and you have a dog by your side that sits on command and waits for you to tell him what to do next, people notice. It’s all a part of developing good PR for your dog and his breed.”
“I love clicker training to teach basic behaviors,” says Arden.
“This technique works on capturing the behavior by clicking a handheld clicker every time the dog gets it right and immediately giving a treat. This positive training technique makes it easy for a dog to learn quickly. It’s also a good idea to get family and friends to do it too and in different locations around the house and the yard.
“Once the dog has learned the behavior reliably, then you can add a verbal command such as ‘sit!’ to the action. Now you are ready to go out in public.”
BODY LANGUAGE COUNTS TOO
A lot of people are afraid of dogs and the bully breeds in particular simply by association to what they’ve read in the Press and seen on TV. So the owner’s body language is important too. If you appear casual and relaxed with a dog by your side that sits on command, strangers are less likely to be wary. The dog will also pick up on your relaxed vibe and behave the same way around new faces.
“Teach your dog to do a simple trick – that’s a great ice-breaker,” suggests Arden as this will show people how friendly and smart he is too.
“Something as basic such as shaking hands, or doing a high five or standing up will put a smile on anyone’s face. Instantly you are helping to dispel the myth.”
CANINE GOOD CITIZEN AWARD
When Rufus retired from the show ring, like many former champions, Bishop signed him up for the American Kennel Club’s Good Canine Citizen Program, a certification program that is designed to reward dogs who have good manners at home and in the community. All dogs, including mixed breeds can apply for this certification which promotes the idea that dogs that have a solid obedience education are a joy to live with as they respond well to household routines and also have good manners in the presence of people and other dogs.
This certificate also goes a long way in convincing the general public that the dog is not a menace to society. It’s also great to have on your dog’s résumé to present to a prospective landlord to prove that your dog will be a good tenant and offer assurance that he will be also be good canine neighbor.
TO BE A GOOD AMBASSADOR, GET YOUR DOG A JOB
Dogs get bored when left alone for hours.
“And no dog should ever be tied up,” warns Arden. “That will induce negative behavioral problems even in the most mild-mannered of dogs. To ensure that your dog maintains its good temperament, it needs to be kept active by being taken for regular walks and also be allowed to engage in regular social interaction with both other people and other dogs.”
So consider getting your dog a job to keep him busy and simultaneously promote his inherent good breed traits. Pet therapy work is a great way to show off your dog’s good manners and friendly social skills. And the more bully breeds seen doing wonderful things with people, the quicker and easier it will be to change the negative impression that some people still nurture.
Organizations such as the Delta Society have special programs to train dogs and other animals to be therapy pets so that they can visit hospitals and care centers. The organization links volunteers with facilities in their own communities that request visiting pets. Currently nearly 9 000 pet partner teams operate in all 50 states through this organization.
Apart from being a great PR opportunity for your dog, you are also performing a wonderful community service because studies have shown that pets are a wonderful form of stress relief and increase longevity in the elderly.
A CAREER ON THE FRINGE OF SHOW BUSINESS
Canine freestyle dancing is something all dogs no matter the size, shape or breed enjoy. It’s great exercise, a lot of fun and will ensure that your dog will be welcome at schools, retirement centers and public events where he will be able to show off his skills and entertain at the same time. An American Pit Bull or an Olde English Bulldogge moving to a foot-tapping tempo will once again go along way to change public perceptions.
“After all, you can only be happy when you dancing,” laughs Arden. “It’s impossible to be having so much fun and simultaneously thinking aggressive thoughts! And it’s a great sport for people of all ages too. There is even a division for handicapped pets and handicapped people.”
BE AN AMBASSADOR IN THE DOG PARK TOO
Promoting your dog to be a good ambassador for his breed goes hand in hand with responsible pet ownership wherever you go, especially in the dog park.
Some small dogs are terrified of bigger dogs irrespective of their breed. Arden suggests scouting out your local dog park at different times of the day without your dog to try and gauge when would be the best time for you to visit and allow your dog to interact with others his own size.
It’s important to remember that a dog park is a canine zone so don’t take small children and toys along to play. Dogs don’t understand the difference between canine and human toys and this could lead to unnecessary altercations.
TEACHING OLDER DOGS NEW TRICKS
It’s very easy to set about building a positive image for your bully breed especially if you started when the dog was still a puppy. However, if you’ve adopted an older bully breed dog from a shelter, the chances are he comes with baggage and more than likely has been abused. Consequently it will take longer to gain his trust and build his confidence so that he can put on a positive public face.
“But it can be done,” assures Arden. “Positive re-enforcement works at any age. Just be patient and consistent in your teachings and give lots of love. It takes an adopted dog about a year to understand that he’s safe and that he has a permanent at home.
“Irrespective of breed, love and kindness is the key to winning canine respect.”
What to ask Bully Breed breeders
Old English Bulldogge breeder Marjorie Kelley of Heritage Bulldogges Kennels in Gilman, Vermont advises prospective dog owners to inquire how the puppy has been raised.
“This breed is an excellent family dog especially if the puppies have been raised from birth in a family environment and not in a kennel. All our puppies are born in our living room and handled from day one. So they are very sociable and loving to everyone around them. They are excellent therapy dogs and do well in agility and even freestyle dancing.
The first four months of a puppy’s life is critical. That’s the time to socialize them and begin obedience training and instill the good manners that will ensure they are a good breed ambassador for life.
The Biggest Bully Breed Myth
“The most annoying myth is Pit Bulls are unpredictable and will turn on you,” says Donna Reynolds. “No dog of any breed is unpredictable. A dog that that temperament and behavioral issues is going to give plenty of warning signs that something is not right.”
Typical signs include freezing – dogs tend to freeze before they snap or turning away from you. When a dog turns away he is trying to avoid interaction.
“The words ‘pit bull’ is synonymous with ‘bad dog’. We need to change that perception in the media.” Donna Reynolds Exec Director BAD RAP
Web sites for more information:
BAD RAP: www.badrap.org
The Delta Society: www.Deltasociety.org
The American Kennel Club: www.AKC.org