Rufus the wonder-dog retires into therapy

LOS ANGELES — 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 United States.

Rufus

Rufus

LOS ANGELES — 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 United States.

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.

Rufus is a coloured 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.

“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 can just love him,” she said.

At hospitals or cancer centres like the Ronald McDonald House in New York City, “people think he’s stuffed. He just lays there buried under 20 kids,” 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 honours. 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 will be 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.

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.

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. 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.