For Rufus, winningest bull terrier in breed history, life as a retired show dog is still busy
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Rufus is the most decorated bull terrier in the history of the breed, a celebrity ambassador and one of the busiest therapy dogs in the country.
With his enduring popularity and hectic schedule of public appearances at age 10 (that’s 70 in dog years), he’s like the Betty White of the dog world, although at 88, she still has a few years on Rufus.
Rufus is a colored bull terrier with a head like an egg and a body like a torpedo, explained David Frei, director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club.
Owner Barbara Bishop of Holmdel, N.J., rejects words like ugly and weird, settling on different to describe Rufus. His sad look, funny eyes and big nose draw people in, she said.
‘He’s approachable. A lot of people might be afraid to approach Brad Pitt, but they would come to Adam Sandler. Anyone can pet Rufus. I think that’s part of his charisma. You don’t have to worry about touching Rufus because he’s a wash-and-wear kind of guy. You can just love him,’ she said.
At hospitals or cancer centers like the Ronald McDonald House in New York City, ‘people think he’s stuffed. He just lays there buried under 20 kids. People can’t believe he is so used to it,’ Bishop said.
Rufus, whose registered name is Rocky Top’s Sundance Kid, started his show career when he was 11 months old. He received dozens of best in show honors. But nothing prepared Bishop and her husband Tom for the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006.
That’s the season Rufus and handler Kathy Kirk won the triple crown of U.S. dog shows: The National Dog Show Presented by Purina, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and the Morris & Essex Kennel Club show, which is held only once every five years. As reigning champ, Rufus was on hand for the 2010 show on Oct. 7. He also won the Canadian championship, the Mexican championship, the world championship and the Championship of the Americas.
‘For a bull terrier to rise in the ranks in shows like that is unheard of. A bull terrier is a working-class dog. We were quite shocked,’ Barbara Bishop said.
Rufus’ historic sweep came 87 years after a white bull terrier won at Westminster.
The Bishops retired Rufus as a show dog, but he was too social to sit at home, so they took him for his canine good citizen test and his therapy dog test. He aced them both, of course, and now works for Therapy Dog International and Angel on a Leash, an organization founded by Frei.
The same things that made Rufus a good show dog make him a good therapy dog and a good pet, Frei said. ‘He’s a big, beautiful, burly dog that loves everybody,’ he said.
At Westminster and the National Dog Show, all finalists are near perfect specimens, exceeding the standards of the breed, Frei said. That’s when the judges turn to a dog’s charisma, presence and personality.
In the show ring, a dog creates a moment for himself, Frei said. In a therapy session, a good dog creates a moment for somebody else.
‘When he walks into the room, the energy changes, people look at him, they smile, they get up from bed and go over to hug him,’ Frei said. ‘His impact with children and seniors is in the moment and may make somebody’s day at a time when they might not have very many good days.’
The Bishops got Rufus when he was 10 weeks old. ‘Bull terriers make wonderful pets if you have a lot of patience and a sense of humor. They are into everything, they are very nosy, very mischievous. They can be their own worst enemy,’ Barbara Bishop said.
To her, Rufus was a clown and a perfect puppy. ‘He had a great attitude, a beautiful head, beautiful feet, his bite was good, he moved like a dream. He was a wonderfully made puppy.’ It was like he was destined to be a show dog, she said.
Rufus is also a New York Yankees fan (‘because Mama is a Yankees fan’). He has a limited wardrobe -- a generic Yankees uniform (if he had a number it would be shortstop Derek Jeter’s), a tuxedo and a ‘Cat in the Hat’ outfit he wears when he goes to library readings.
Frei believes Rufus’ biggest effect has been on the breed itself. Rufus, who has been mistaken for a pit bull a time or two, belongs to one of those breeds sometimes singled out and banned. ‘It’s a gentle loving breed and should not be discriminated against,’ Frei said. ‘He’s been a great representative for Westminster and for dogs in general. He’s been an incomparable representative for bull terriers and related breeds.’
As an ambassador for the dog world, Rufus spends a lot of time on the go.
It’s up to Steve Griffith, general manager of Vizion Group Public Relations, to arrange Rufus’ schedule. The dog has a weekly date at a Holmdel senior citizen center and makes side trips to places like the Ronald McDonald House and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He’s a regular at Westminster and the National Dog Show, and he attends dozens of library readings, news conferences, personal appearances, parades and other events every year.
The Bishops make it easy, Griffith said, and Rufus makes it rewarding. ‘He is just a wonderfully agreeable dog who captivates people.’
-- Sue Manning, Associated Press
Top photo: Rufus at a table at Sardi’s in New York City after his Westminster win in 2006. Credit: Shiho Fukada / Associated Press