By Stan Ratcliffe
His name is Avalon Sparkling Challenge ("Sparky" to his friends), he was born October of 1968 and he is a bull terrier. He was named, and loved, and planned for, some months before he was conceived. We knew him the first time we saw him; he was the first of five bull terrier babies to reach the fence of his enclosure and peer up delightedly at the two strangers who had just entered his life.
His puppyhood was spent with two poodles and a siamese cat. He played with them -- roughly, as a bull terrier -- and to the consternation of his "grandparents" (my parents), he could frequently be seen, after a mock poodle fight, with a rather large tuft of poodle fur hanging guiltily from his jaws.
I wondered about his abilities as a watchdog until, at the age of eight weeks, he demonstrated them. A stranger stopped at the house to ask for directions. I had Sparky outside on his leash at the time, and he saw the stranger before I did. The change was magnificent! Hackles arose in the puppy fur on the back of his neck. The leash went suddenly taut. He barked, he raged, he snarled. I was not aware that he knew how to snarl.
Regardless of how brave Sparky acted toward the intruder, he has known fear. Fear is totally out of character for a bull terrier but Sparky is a strange dog. The first time I saw him show fear was when he met Lad, the big, classically beautiful collie, who lives next door. Lad is about as dangerous as a goose down pillow but nobody told Sparky about that. At first sight of the collie he turned around and returned, at a rapid trot, to the house growling and muttering under his breath every step of the way. Nor would he come out to me when I called him -- he sat on the porch and growled at the collie. I finally picked him up, carried him to the collie and let them sniff noses. He has never again shown fear towards another dog. His one remaining fear in life is the basement stairs.
One of his favorite games is one that I like to call "Kill-the-Cat". The siamese cat that he grew up with is always the victim. The game consists of Sparky dragging the cat around by the ears and the cat yowling for him to stop. It is not as bloodthirsty as it sounds; the cat can get away when she has had enough. Another of Sparky's games involves Duchess, a fourteen-year-old bull terrier bitch. When Sparky first came to live with us, Duchess was almost ten. She had a great deal of curiosity about the little ball of puppyhood that sometimes played near the pen in which she lived. As Sparky grew older, Duchess' curiosity changed to friendly enthusiasm. We got the bright idea to put Sparky in the pen with her during the day, when no one was at home.
Sparky immediately invented the game I call "Running-Duchess-to-Death". He would be at her -- pushing, nipping, chasing -- from the time he was put in the pen in the morning until we took him out at night. This had to be stopped; as I mentioned, Duchess is an elderly lady. The last two games I will mention are "Pine Cones" and "Frisbee". To play these games, Sparky needs human assistance. For "Pine Cones", we will stand facing each other about four feet apart. I toss a pinecone two feet above his head while he does a backward flip, usually catching the pinecone inverted. When "Frisbee" is played, I take a Frisbee in each hand and face Sparky. I ask him if he is ready. By movement, he says yes (he's always ready). I throw one of the Frisbees and he turns around and kills himself trying to catch it. Half the time, he will catch it in flight; I have seen him jump six feet in the air, sail over a five foot bank (do the math -- we're talking about a drop of eleven feet -- I was impressed), and climb back over the bank, tail a-wag, and in his jaws, the Frisbee, caught at the height of his leap. When he returns to me, I show him the second Frisbee and he gives me back the first one.
As a traveling companion Sparky is a complete joy. He loves to ride in the car and will jump in anytime we will open the door for him (or not -- I have seen him jump through an open window onto my wife's lap to get into the car). I have seen him, after hours of driving, sit back on his haunches, prop a foreleg on the armrest, and look for all the world like a human being. On these "Travels With Sparky", we have taken him as far away as Pennsylvania, where he learned about cows and electric fences. Cows, he found, are big but they do not bite. Fences, he found on the other hand, are not but they do.
Sparky is not the only one who travels. Formerly, I had to travel because of my job. With Sparky at home, I could leave with relative peace of mind. Bull terriers are not just "alarm dogs," they are real man-stoppers and Sparky is no exception. Albert Payson Terhune once described the bull terrier as being composed of "whale-bone, steel and snow"; to understand what he meant, just touch one. They are "hard". If an intruder was armed, knew about the dog, and did not miss with his first shot, he might survive; unless my spouse shot him (she is fond of that dog). If the intruder were to miss with his first shot or was unarmed, God help him, Sparky would have him -- for dinner.
How to end the life story of a dog whose life has not yet ended. That is the question. We have planned to get him a mate and start our own line of bullterriers but that is part of that unknown commodity known as the future. I often watch him sleeping at my feet, or curled up beside my wife on the couch and I wonder: what kind of man is fool enough to let himself love a dog? He is only letting himself in for monster heartache in a pitifully short span of years. Many people live too long. Dogs seldom live long enough. A legend I once heard (or read) states that the short life span was Nature's way of punishing the dog for turning his back on his own kind and seeking to serve man. Sometimes, after watching Sparky, my wife's eyes meet mine and I know that we are both thinking of that dreaded day of which we dare not speak. We live with a complete loathing of the knowledge that the day must come; when those eyes that have shone with love for such a pitifully short span of years must close on the cruel secrets of death.
Sparky passed away April 21, 1981 -- to this day he is still sorely missed.
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