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The Greatest Dog: Rufus von Schmufus

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NOBLE RUFUS: The winner of the Greatest Dog in Arkansas contest poses with his master, Charles Zook. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • NOBLE RUFUS: The winner of the Greatest Dog in Arkansas contest poses with his master, Charles Zook.

The Greatest Dog anywhere, to anyone who has a dog, is that person's own dog. We who love dogs love them immoderately. We let them lick our faces, sleep in our beds. After all, they catch our ducks.

So just because the Arkansas Times is naming the Greatest Dog in Arkansas doesn't mean your dog doesn't deserve the title. Every dog has its day. What it does mean is that readers of the Times voted in our first-ever contest to identify a great dog and came across a photograph of a red and white border collie named Rufus von Schmufus, read his story, and fell in love.

One hundred eighty-eight dogs were entered in the Times' contest, which ran June 14 to July 4. Little dogs, medium dogs, big dogs. Thoroughbreds and mutts. All had a modicum of greatness:

Little Daisy Claire "has a way of getting the Hillcrest/Heights roaches belly up." Benelli "can cover a couch in dog hair in under 60 seconds." Smuggly B. Park Waller "regulates the sleeping hours at our house." Clever Eddie escaped a bad home for Little Rock, taking the Main Street bridge. Zeus (his owner claims) "once lifted a burning car to save a basket of kittens." Wolfman Hotdog is "the best at what he does, and what he does is stupid." Plus, "he's woke." Gentle Oliver, found tied to a porch at a meth house, is now healthy, happy "and shares his positive outlook and philosophies on life" with his friends on Facebook. Bulldog Ember is "a whole lot of woman."

But it was apparently the story of Rufus von Schmufus' devotion to helping his master navigate life in a wheelchair — along with his handsome and intelligent face — that made more than 1,000 people cast their votes for the service dog as the Greatest Dog in Arkansas.

Rufus was born in Tennessee 11 years ago come August. He was a rescue dog, brought to Arkansas from Memphis by trainer Joe Laughlin. Laughlin thought he might make a good member of his flyball team — a racing sport for dogs.

But, unlike most border collies, who Laughlin joked "only have one speed," Rufus was a little laid back for flyball.

Charles Zook, who is in a wheelchair because of a fall he took, began to think about getting a service dog about nine years ago, but hesitated because his wife, Kelly Simon, was not a "dog person." But a friend, Georgann Freasier, convinced him and Simon to check out K-9 Camp Laughlin in Mayflower, where Lynda Laughlin and her son, Joe, train dogs.

The Laughlins put Zook through his paces — not everyone is suited to have a service dog — and told him they'd start looking for the right dog for him. It took a year.

Joe Laughlin put Rufus through some tests, too. He was taller than most border collies, so he could reach Zook easily. He didn't mind cats. He didn't mind other dogs. "If there was a confrontation [between other dogs], he didn't want any part of it," Laughlin said. The Laughlins agreed: Rufus and Zook might be a good match.

Zook met Rufus at the Laughlins' place in Mayflower. "He cocked his head and looked at me. Then he plopped down and started licking the front wheel of my wheelchair," Zook said. "It was an emotional experience."

Still, the Laughlins warned him, there could be "deal-breakers" down the road, while Rufus was in training. Joe Laughlin took Rufus to his home in Maumelle, got a wheelchair, and trained the collie, always from the wheelchair, for six months.

Training a service dog is an expensive proposition, but Zook got some help with that, thanks to Drs. Kendall Stafford and Chad Rogers, who work at Arkansas Children's Hospital and knew Kelly Simon from her time there. They put together a fundraiser, "Raise the Rufus," and brought in enough that there were funds left over to help with another dog's training expenses.

Laughlin took Rufus to Zook's house for bonding time, so that when the time came, Rufus would stick by Zook. It was hard on Zook's wife, Laughlin said, because here was this handsome, sweet red and white border collie and she couldn't "love on him."

Since then, Rufus has accompanied Zook to his substitute teaching jobs at Central High School and Parkview Magnet High School. If Zook drops a pen or a pencil, Rufus picks it up and places it in Zook's lap. Rufus can pick up Zook's phone (he mouths it gently) and his car keys. He can push the panic button at home. "Whenever Rufus does something awesome, which is daily, [Zook] will give me a call," Laughlin said. Zook dropped his credit card at a restaurant and people started to get it, but Zook said, no thanks, I have a dog for that. Rufus picked up the credit card and "handed it to him," Laughlin said. Rufus is also a public servant — he and Zook pick up trash at Allsopp Park.

Zook said his students at Central don't try to pet Rufus — you don't want to distract a working dog — though "occasionally a kid will try to whistle or see if they can mess with him. But he's too focused. ... It's the teachers" who want to pet him. "He has these classical markings and a really loveable face, and that has made it more challenging" to keep people from interacting with Rufus, Zook said. But Zook has run over Rufus' foot in his 500-pound wheelchair because someone in a restaurant has tried to get Rufus' attention, causing Rufus to squeal and the restaurant to turn and look at Zook like he's cruel. "People will say, it's OK, I'm a dog person," but it's not OK.

Until Rufus came along, Zook got other "super awkward" comments from perfect strangers. "They'll find a cure!" and so forth. But now, the first thing people notice when Zook comes around is Rufus. "Once you get a service dog, that's the focus. They don't even see the chair. It's very liberating to go through your day and have positive interactions with the majority of people you encounter."

FLEET: When Zook saw Rufus run to him across a baseball field, he saw a happy, fast dog. Here, Rufus runs near Rebsamen Golf Course. - CHARLES ZOOK
  • Charles Zook
  • FLEET: When Zook saw Rufus run to him across a baseball field, he saw a happy, fast dog. Here, Rufus runs near Rebsamen Golf Course.

Rufus does get playtime, which is important for a service dog who is constantly on alert for his owner's needs. "After dinner, he kills Mr. Bill or the ducks," Zook said. "He loves his toys."

Zook learned that Rufus is as swift as the wind. At a park near his home, Zook told Rufus to lie down as Zook went to the other side of a baseball field from the dog. Then he called Rufus, and the dog flew to his side. "Just watching him — he was so happy. He's really fast." They also have a trail to go to where Rufus can run. "That's part of his greatness," Zook said.

But if Zook says, "Lie down," Rufus does immediately, even in mid-chase after a cat.

"I ran track and cross country growing up," Zook said. "I was a mountain biker, hiker. ... When he runs, it's like I'm running."

Rufus, at 11, is near retirement age. Zook is thinking of retiring, too. That way, Rufus can slow down.

"You can feel helpless when your health is a house of cards. ... He helps me keep things in perspective. He's silent and he demands my best every single day. His benevolent nature and his focus are the guiding forces in my life. I am blessed beyond belief. My wife and I both are."

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