Bull Terrier

By | Posted: Fri Dec 20 00:00:00 PST 2002

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By Marry Sorensen

A bizarre-shaped head emerges from the murky waters of a rural Pennsylvania pond. Before you grab your camera and dial the highest-bidding tabloid, take a closer look.

This creature from the black lagoon is really Double Dash, a 4-year-old, tri-colored Bull Terrier carefully camouflaged from head to toe in algae that can't quite hide the gleam in his eyes or the smile on his face. This is one of the many ways Dash entertains his owners, Eddie and Mary Ellen Karam. Luckily, they share a sense of humor with their beloved pet.

Write that down. Requirement No. 1 for prospective Bull Terrier owners: a fine-tuned funny bone.

Don't see the humor in the dog's antics? Mary Ellen Karam explains the game Dash plays during the steamy summer months outside her Unionville farmhouse: "Dash will play ball with a friend's Jack Russell Terrier, then go into the pond and wallow in the muck. He sticks his head down in the algae and comes out with the stuff dripping from him. My husband is a real heebie-jeebie kind of guy and it freaks him out. Dash just loves the attention, and I have to admit it's hilarious to see that big head come out of the water."

Regular Clowns
Dash isn't an anomaly. Bull Terriers tend to be attention seekers that will do anything for a laugh. "These dogs are very into being funny," said Mary Remer, a professional dog trainer in Villa Nova, Pa., who has bred for more than 20 years and competes with her Bull Terriers in obedience and agility. "You might come home and find one on your couch, with all four feet in the air, snoring away. Your slippers might be beside it. Does the dog scramble to get off the couch when you walk in? Not a chance. It cuts you a sideways look that says, 'Well, where else did you think I'd be? This is the most comfortable spot in the house.' Or maybe you go outside after leaving the hose on to water something. Chances are, now you have a mud hole with a Bull Terrier in it up to its knees, having a perfectly delicious time. These dogs are players in the game of life."

That's all well and good, but step back a moment. Did somebody say playing ball with a Jack Russell Terrier? Bull Terriers don't play with little dogs. They eat them, don't they?

Twenty years ago that might have been true, but breeders have refined the Bull Terrier's temperament. "I remember being at the show ring 30 years ago and having the dogs around me snapping and snarling and being quite dog-aggressive," said Winkie Mackay-Smith of White Post, Va., an American Kennel Club judge and a breeder since 1967. "You almost never find that these days. The temperament is much more mellow."

A quantum leap since the 19th century, when English dogfight enthusiasts developed the Bull Terrier once known as the Half and Half or the Bull and Terrier because Bulldogs were crossed with terriers to create early specimens to combine the power and mass of the Bulldog with the speed and feistiness of a terrier. About mid-century, enthusiasts looking to perfect the emerging breed crossed out to the White English Terrier and the Dalmatian. The result: a white dog with a fighter's build and a penchant for play. Later, the Colored Bull Terrier was introduced through outcrossing with the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

The first Bull Terrier Club in England formed in 1888 and the AKC recognized the Bull Terrier Club of America in 1895.

Bull Terriers have held steady at around 1,000 dogs registered annually for years and breeders are comfortable with their middle-of-the-road ranking. Without the pressure to produce a lot of pups for an eager market, they can concentrate on health, conformation and temperament.

Continued careful breeding is important because the Bull Terrier's killer looks pose a problem in this era of highly publicized dog attacks. The ideal muscular, symmetrical body, big-boned legs and strong shoulders send people crossing the street as Mary Ellen Karam walks with fun-loving Dash. "Those who don't cross the street ask if he's a Pit Bull, whether he's a fighter," she said. "It's really too bad."

Get to know the Bull Terrier and your tune will change. Despite its hard exterior, the Bull Terrier is a marshmallow inside, craving human companionship and going to pieces if left alone too long. Dash, who accompanies Karam on business trips, wins new Bull Terrier fans with his gentleness and devotion. "He goes with me everywhere, and everywhere I go everybody now wants a Bull Terrier," she said.

Even the Bull Terrier's distinctive egg-shaped head can endear in time. A perfect head should be oval in outline and free of any hollows or indentations. Ears should be small, thin and closely set. Eyes should be sunken, small, triangular and as dark as possible with a piercing glint typical of the breed. Conformation judges disqualify dogs with blue eyes.

If you plan on bringing home a Bull Terrier pup, brace yourself for a little mayhem. "Getting a Bull Terrier is pretty much like adding a 2-year-old child to your family," Remer said. "They are very active puppies. They have a big chewing stage. They are independent and have ideas of their own about what the daily routine should be, and those ideas are probably a little different from what you had in mind."

Off to School They Must Go
For those reasons and because early socialization is crucial to raising a pet that isn't dog-aggressive and responds well to a variety of people, enthusiasts sing the praises of puppy kindergarten classes for this breed. "There are challenges and there are responsibilities to owning a Bull Terrier," said David C. Merrian of Upland, Calif., a longtime breeder, board member of the Bull Terrier Club of America and AKC board chairman. "When you get a Bull Terrier puppy, you have to socialize it and acclimate it from the very beginning. It should be out walking and meeting other dogs and interacting with people."

Independent thinkers that they are, Bull Terriers require a firm but creative training hand. "They're not particularly biddable dogs," Mackay-Smith said. "They like to work with you and not for you. They'll do anything for you as your friend, but there's not a whole lot they're going to do for you as your slave."

Short practice sessions and reward-based training work best. "A lot of times people take their puppies to a standard obedience school and are given a six-foot leash and a choke chain collar and are told to make them heel for 15 minutes," Remer said. "Soon the Bull Terrier is walking with its head down and its tail between its legs. It doesn't work that way with them."

That doesn't mean owners allow dogs to rule the show. "They absolutely can be headstrong," Remer said. "They're a rough-and-tumble breed and they need to be educated that they are little powerhouses. Otherwise, in their enthusiasm and joy at interacting with people, they can hurt someone. Just one paw on a toddler can knock them down. The dogs' jaws are extremely powerful, and they need to learn bite inhibition."

Properly socialized and supervised, Bull Terriers typically love the companionship of dog-savvy children. "I raised all three of my children, who are now full-grown and have children of their own, around Bull Terriers," Mackay-Smith said. "Now my six grandchildren are in and out of the house all the time and the dogs are wonderful with them."

Energetic pups slow a little with age, but owners must spend time channeling energy and strength throughout the dog's life. A fenced yard filled with toys is a good start, and daily walks provide exercise and stimulation. Many Bull Terriers excel at agility, which allows them to think, have fun and, most important, spend time with their owner.

This need for stimulation and human interaction partially accounts for why the Bull Terrier is n't campaigned as heavily as some breeds in the show world and consequently doesn't produce as well as some others in the Terrier Group. "They are not a dog a handler could keep in a crate and truck around from show to show," Mackay-Smith said. "They won't respond to that kind of care. It's not because it's bad care but because they need a lot more companionship and a lot more activity."

Shown in moderation, the Bull Terrier's unusual looks spice up the Terrier Group. "They're an extremely odd hybrid," Mackay-Smith said. "There is no size standard in the breed standard; there's no height or weight limit, so they can be very big or rather small. The idea is to have the perfect combination of the Bulldog, which has the bone and the substance, and the Terrier, which has the fineness and the grace. We want something right in the middle. I like a dog that is well-made and active and agile not a great big, heavy, clunky thing or a little spindly thing."

Though generally healthy and hardy, the Bull Terrier comes with its share of genetic health concerns. Deafness, both unilateral and bilateral, remains a serious enough problem that responsible breeders give all pups a brain stem auditory evoked response test before placing them. Puppies between 5 and 8 weeks of age are wired to a machine that determines neurological response to sound waves.

Breeders and the Bull Terrier Club of America are working to eliminate the limited incidence of genetic-linked kidney, heart and skin problems (primarily in whites) and patellar luxation, a dislocation of the knee.

With Dash the picture of health if not cleanliness, the Karams plan to add a second Bull Terrier to the household. "They get into your heart," Mary Ellen Karam said. And tickle your funny bone.

Marry Sorensen is a freelance writer based in Costa Mesa, Calif.

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