Looks can be deceiving, and this was never more true than with the bull terrier. Presumed by many to be standoffish dogs thanks to their muscular build, the affectionate bull terrier actually thrives while spending time with (and getting pats and scritches from) bonded humans.
"Bull terriers are cute clown dogs," says Pam Nichols, DVM, president of the American Animal Hospital Association. "They have a funny sense of humor, but are also very [willful]. They aren't super interested in pleasing their parents, although they are very sweet dogs."
While they are low maintenance on the grooming side, they are quite the handful when it comes to training and supervision. Bull terriers are busy dogs from the time they are puppies until middle age, earning the nickname "the kid in a dog suit." They love company and are very playful, but can also be mischievous, especially when left to their own devices. Bull terriers always keep life interesting for their owners.
The bull terrier has a face like no other. Their heads are long and egg-shaped, sloping down into a Roman nose and topped by pointed ears. Fun fact: they're also the only registered breed to have triangle-shaped eyes.
When it comes to their size, bull terriers can really vary. Some can be on the smaller side at just 35 pounds, but beefier males can bulk all the way up to be 75-pound bullies. There are also miniature bull terriers, who were recognized as a separate breed in the 1990s and weigh less than 30 pounds.
Big-boned dogs, their gait shows off their strength and agility. Their coats are made up of short, flat hairs that appear shiny and feel hard to the touch. Bull terriers can either be white—even solid white—or colored with various markings, with more than 20 different combinations.
While bull terriers may seem tough and intimidating thanks to their unique looks, they are a sweet and gentle breed. Bull terriers are goofballs, the class clown of the dog world, and owners delight in their funny personalities. They love to play and get into trouble in equal measure. These extroverted pups are always happy to see you and meet other people, often feisty and excited in their greetings.
"Bull terriers are playful, fearless, energetic, loving, and social," says Sarah Wooten, DVM, veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance. "These dogs can be real comedians."
They definitely have some personality quirks. Because they are full of fire and spunk, their dominant personality can be a handful. They might become easily jealous if you're paying more attention to another animal (or even a human!), and develop compulsive behaviors, Nichols says, including pacing or obsessively chasing their tail or shadow. Talk to your veterinarian if you notice any of these behaviors becoming prevalent.
If you socialize your bull terrier puppy when they're young, provide loving and consistent training, and make sure he gets lots of physical and mental exercise, you won't find a more loyal or entertaining pup. These dogs benefit from spending as much time as possible with you so they can thrive and might do best with an experienced dog owner. Their love of people even extends to strangers.
"Well-socialized bull terriers are social dogs," Wooten says. "They enjoy meeting new people and giving them lots of love."
One thing to know about bull terriers: they eat anything. So your home should be bull terrier-proof to keep him from snacking on things he shouldn't and avoid emergency veterinary surgery.
These energetic dogs can play rough, so adding a bull terrier to a family with children needs to be considered carefully.
"Bull terriers are excellent family dogs for families with older children," Wooten says. "Bull terriers are energetic goofballs and aren't the best option for families with young children, as they can accidentally knock them down." Older kids who know how to interact with the bully—never teasing them or pulling their tail—can definitely help bull terriers burn off their energy.
Bull terriers will thrive as an only fur child, but Wooten says they can live well with other dogs, especially if introduced during puppyhood. "Bull terriers do have a strong prey drive," she says. "Which means they like to chase small animals. They can be good with cats if they are socialized with them at a young age."
Because the bull terrier's coat is short and glossy, it requires little grooming. Brushing once a week with a soft-bristle brush helps to remove dirt and loose hairs. Those signature ears do need to be regularly checked and cleaned as needed. Bull terrier nails should be kept short so they aren't uncomfortable when walking. They don't need frequent bathing—unless they've gotten into a stinky mess—and can be washed with either dry shampoo or wiped with a damp cloth.
Keep in mind: their coat doesn't keep them warm in colder weather, but they don't mind donning a cute sweater or coat when the weather's a bit chilly. They will be more comfortable in warmer weather, but never leave them outside unsupervised for extended periods of time. Like all dogs, bull terriers don't sweat like humans do and need plenty of water, shady spots, and AC to keep cool. But you can skip the ice cubes!
Because they were bred for both sport and companionship, it's ideal to take your bull terriers on a daily 30–60-minute-long walk. Their strength and dexterity means they are also skilled at obedience training, tracking, and agility courses—which are all great ways to challenge their energy. But go easy with puppies who are especially bouncy; high-impact activities—such as jumping on furniture, long jogs, or playing Frisbee—can damage their developing joints. They need to exercise their mind along with their body, and love the challenge of interactive toys.
Be patient and be willing to laugh through the bull terrier training process. Because of their terrier 'tude, they put a bigger emphasis on play than work ethic. So when it comes time for any training, ensure it's fun for your bully. They respond well to positive reinforcement, so bring on the treats and toys!
The typical bull terrier lifespan is 12–14 years, and, as with all dog breeds, there are a few health issues they can develop, according to the Bull Terrier Club of America.
Hereditary nephritis is a severe form of kidney disease that can be found in bull terriers even from an early age. The disease causes the kidneys to malfunction, and often a dog suffering from this affliction will not live to be older than three.
Because they have a piebald coat, bull terriers can have hearing issues ranging from partial to total deafness. They can still lead relatively normal lives with special training and handling. Their unique coat, especially for all-white bull terriers, can also lead to contact allergies and other skin issues such as rashes, sores, and irritations.
As mentioned, bull terriers are likely to deal with obsessive compulsive behaviors that manifest as spinning, pacing, or chasing their tail for hours on end if left unchecked. It may be treatable with medications such as phenobarbitol, anafranil, or Prozac for extreme cases—or, for milder cases, by simply eliminating boredom.
"To ensure a puppy is free of genetic problems, ask the breeder if they test their breeding animals for genetic disorders and … ask to see the results of those tests," Wooten says. "Additionally, ask for a health guarantee."
Bull terriers were first bred in the 1830s as fighting dogs, likely by crossing a bulldog with the now-extinct white English terrier and the Dalmatian to increase their size, according to The Bull Terrier Club. They were considered gladiators in the dog-fighting ring, prized for their strength and tenacity.
In the 1860s, as dog fighting was outlawed and finally lost popularity, bull terriers were bred to be all white as a fashionable companion for gentlemen. The "New Bull Terrier" first appeared at a dog show in 1862 and was shown by James Hinks, who is credited as the original bull terrier breeder. They earned the nickname "White Cavalier" thanks to their courageousness, their courtliness towards people, and their sweet disposition.
There are many notable bull terrier owners, including General George S. Patton, actress Dolores Del Rio, author John Steinbeck, and President Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps the most famous bull terrier is Patsy Ann, the official greeter of Juneau, Alaska. Patsy Ann sat on the docks in Juneau during the 1930s greeting sailors and taking photos with tourists. Her spirit lives on in Juneau thanks to a commemorative statue commissioned in 1992.
- Spuds Mackenzie, the sly-grinning bull terrier used in Budweiser commercials in the late 1980s, helped increase the popularity of the breed.
- Target decided to use a bull terrier as their official spokesdog, too. They introduced Bullsye in 1999 with the Target logo appearing as a spot on his eye—thanks to non-toxic dye.
- Bull terriers have also been popular in books and on the big screen. Bullies are featured in Oliver Twist, The Incredible Journey, and the Nancy Drew book series. In fact, Jumanji and The Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg includes a bull terrier named "Fritz" in each book he writes. As for movies, bull terriers have appeared in Toy Story, Frankenweenie, and Next Friday to name a few.