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Portrait of a Spinner

From Bull Terrier Quarterly, Fall 1986, pp 9-11, Copyright Jo Turley 1986-2004.

This is the short, sad story of Bulwark’s Melodrama – our rising star who went nova. This is what it was like, living with him; what it was like, watching him die. Those of you who think that “spinners” are NOT born can tell me where things went wrong, and how we could have saved him – because he was bright and incredibly beautiful, and if it could have been done before he lost the essence of Bull Terrier character, I wish I knew how.

A baby spinner starts out chasing his tail – it’s fun and exciting – but not as fun as group play, and not in the class of a goose chase at all. He does it when he’s learning how to crate; or when he’s left in the run on a rainy day. He sometimes does it in the exhilaration of a windy day, or when it’s time for supper and he’s impatient. He doesn’t do it in the car, or in the bathtub, or at the expense of sleep – at first…

Mello was one of nine puppies from a tightly linebred litter with no inbreeding up front (to the third generation). The litter was planned to increase the gene strength from a couple of particular English greats – all leading to Badlesmere Bonaparte. It looked good on paper and by 12 weeks, the puppy results were rewarding. At the time of sale, only one puppy showed signs of tail-chasing; and he was always funny from the start, having been the only one to be born naturally of the nine, and the runt to boot.

We don’t sell early here; at ten weeks we let go the pets, and some of the more promising pups to homes who hope for a potential show dog. Mello left at eleven weeks – an exceedingly placid dog who was to fit in with a Bully bitch and a working couple on different shifts. I would hear from his owners regularly and he would often visit. He got better and better and retained the sweet, calm disposition everybody loved him for.

By the time the litter was four months old we knew we had two spinners and possibly a third. Mello’s people hadn’t thought his occasional tail-chasing was worth mentioning; he was to be the fourth. This is Mello’s story, because, as I said earlier, he was the bright, rising star – and he was the one who died.

When Mello was five months old I went to see him preparatory to entering him in his first dog show. Everyone familiar with the front-on shot of Jacobinia in the front of Tom Horner’s book ALL ABOUT THE BULL TERRIER; Mello was a baby Jacobinia. He was short and deep and wide throughout. He had a profile that made ME, used to great profiles, do a double take. He had massive bone, shapeliness, perfect bite, tiny dark eye and correct ears. He had funny feet. “Oh,” his people said, “it’s from the tail-chasing; he does it all the time.”

I took Mello home for a month to roadwork him on gravel and take him to handling class. His people were in the process of moving, it was going to be awhile before they got their fence up. Mello became one of our family again. He spent most of his day in a paddock with his littersister – both would go for free runs in the horse pasture with me, playing with the goats and being frightened by the gander. In the afternoon my dog-walker would take him for a controlled mile-long leashed walk. At night he was kenneled in an 8 x 4 run in the house, beside his sister. He had long, full days. Once a week he went to handling class where his gentle ways made him a hit with the other Terrier breeds and their owners.

At his first show he went Reserve to our older dog pup out of a big entry. He lacked OOMPH by comparison, but I could tell it was just a matter of time before our older dog was eclipsed by this young star. After the show we worked harder on his conditioning; he was still puppy soft and foolish.

Bulwark's Melodrama at 6 months.
Bulwark’s Melodrama at 6 months.

Meanwhile, I noticed his tail-chasing was getting to be a habit. In the morning his kennel paper was all screwed up and he wasn’t very alert. In the night he must have been spinning for hours. I decided to crate him, and knew that if I put a collar with tags on him, the noise when he spun would bother the other dogs; they would bark, and I could come down and scold him. I had many sleepless nights. I increased his outdoor activities with his sister, and lengthened his walks. As he was never an overly active dog, he was visibly tired in the evenings, yet continued to tail-chase a lot. Except for once again having funny-looking feet, I couldn’t see that too much damage was being done, and hoped he would outgrow it. He was now seven months old. Some stud inquiries were coming in.

It was early spring – the pups could spend more time outside – I often stood out of their sight to watch them play. That was when I noticed that Mello no longer played. When I would put Mello’s sister out the door into the yard, Mello would whine until he, too, was sent out. He would be spinning before his hind feet cleared the doorsill. Once in awhile he would stop and play with his sister; a grand chase with one or the other in possession of an empty plastic jug. Then at some point he would drop out, start chasing his tail, and remain spinning for several hours unless physically interrupted. All of us would drop everything and hurry out to interfere. Once stopped, Mello would be very apologetic. As soon as our backs were turned, he’d start up again. He didn’t spin in a frenzy, and he spun both ways. He pulled some hairs out of his tail tip. If I hadn’t stopped him for awhile, his spinning slowed down to dreamy, spiral drifting until he ended up in a corner of the yard/field/paddock/run -wherever he was.

I stopped letting him out with his sister. I didn’t let him out at all except on leash. I emptied his anal glands, dewormed him, cleaned his ears, salved the bald spot on his tail. The vet did everything over again, plus checked his hearing. No problems, health wise. The vet likened his habit to the “fly snapping” syndrome in Papillons. He thought it was caused by a brain lesion. Lesions are not always static; they sometimes grow. He suggested a course of anticonvulsant drugs, and the plastic restrictive collar. We tried both, with no permanent results. The collar frightened Mello; the drugs subdued him and when he spun he’d sometimes fall down. His front legs were building muscles in strange places, his toes were twisted, and his rear was hocky and tucked under.

Meanwhile, he was on behavior modification training and almost always on a leash, underfoot. When he had to be crated I tied his head to the door with a bit of slack. We curbed his actions somewhat, at great expense: the drug was very expensive; the amount of time involved was wearing us down; the puppy was restricted far more than I liked to see; I thought he was getting withdrawn. I sent him home to his people – drug, routine, and problem. After a month at home I heard that Mello was under control. His episodes were infrequent, and he was back to his sweet awareness of things. They had discontinued his drug and were relying on voice restrictions to which he was responding well. Could he come and board while they got married and went on their honeymoon? He was nine months old.

Mello arrived very clean. It showed all the pink spots where he’d worn off hair. He had a raw, oozing sore on his haunch. His tail was almost bald along the edges and the tip was raw. He had been tail-chasing in his crate, and crated a lot. It was true that when they yelled at him, he’d stop. When they were sleeping, or out, there was no one to yell at him, or distract him with food and praise. We put him in the big paddock and stood watching. I noticed he had lost weight. After the usual dog strut and leg lift, Mello started to spin. His owners both yelled “NO!” and he did stop to look at them before the twisting took over. We all watched in silence. Several nearby dogs also watched. The donkey watched. Mello waltzed oblivious to all and sundry. I walked his owners back to the house and we had a very serious discussion. Breeding was out of the question. Showing was out of the question. I didn’t put any faith in docking and neutering. I would do what I could until the honeymoon was over, and then they could say good-bye to a dog that had virtually ceased to be one except for looks. They agreed. In the meantime, I was to try some perhaps strange solutions – I had nothing to lose, and it was hard just to let him go on with his bizarre and lonely and destructive dance.

The first afternoon I placed him with our cranky Golden Retriever bitch. She didn’t suffer fools, obnoxious young males, nippy puppies; they got short shrift from her, and emerged wiser and with some manners. Mello had a moment of happy recognition – he gave her a sniff and a “hi” but then began to spin. The Golden Retriever body checked him, baring her teeth. He ducked his head, and removed himself to the back corner and resumed his actions. She rushed him again, but now he disregarded her. When she hit him hard, he’d fall off balance, get up, dirtier now, and go somewhere else. The Golden went to bed. I called to Mello, but he didn’t stop. I yelled, banged the water bowl on the doghouse roof, slapped the leash on the ground. He didn’t stop. I went after him and he tried, while spinning, to keep out of reach. When I caught him and leashed him, he sat down and it seemed he smiled in an idiot way. He no longer wagged his tail, jumped on people,-or kissed faces. He was in a lethal grip – it didn’t hurt – he hurt himself, and didn’t notice or mind.

That night I thought of something else. His sister was in full season. I would see if a baser instinct would come to the fore. It didn’t; he liked her smell, but didn’t bother her. I think she’ll have a complex now – she sleazed all day to no avail; Mello was beyond baser emotions.

Now I didn’t know what to do. When Mello was in his crate, with his head tied to the door, he slept like a dead dog; no twitching, no tremors, no dreams. I wondered if I could keep him alive the duration of his board without severe measures of restriction. My husband asked why I should want to. He had ceased to be a dog, a pet, a companion. Beautiful and well-bred as he was, he had long ceased to be thought of as a stud force or a show dog. He had become a package of meat with reflexes and the shape of a thin, too-muscled Bully.

The next day it rained buckets. I kept Mello inside, crated. By evening I felt sorry for him and thought that if he was left outside he would take shelter in his doghouse, and when night fell, he would go to sleep, hopefully less assured in the dark and less likely to stay awake spinning. I was wrong. It was a mistake that led to the final, heartbreaking decision.

That morning when I went to feed Mello I thought that somehow a coyote had got into the pen with him. It was foggy from the heavy rain – I saw a hunched, trembling grey shape in the corner of the fence. It didn’t look at me, though I was banging the spoon on the bowl as I usually do. White Mello was covered with filth – sand, grass stains, excrement. He was in a self-made pit and had flung dirt and loose stool in all directions. He must have fallen many times. Now he stood and shook and didn’t look at me. When I leashed him, he staggered as if coming out of anesthetic; it took him a long time to get to the house. I put him in his crate and went to call his owners. They said to end his misery. I called the vet. I went to get Mello and rubbed him dry. When the dirt fell off, it showed where he’d abraded both sides of his face and his eyes were puffy and hidden in his swollen head. His ribs and haunches had open sores. His hocks and feet were raw, as was his tail. He was stiff under my hands – he could hardly stand up. My ministrations had no affect on him; my voice was unheard. I carried him to the car and his only motion was of his torso twisting – my God, was he still trying to spin?

He lay semiconscious on the front seat while I drove. I stroked his battered face. When I arrived at the parking lot and hauled him out a young boy stopped his bike to watch. Mello hung limp and stiff at the same time from my arms. The boy asked if he’d been hit by a car. I said yes – I took Mello into the office.

On the table I propped him up into a sitting position. The vet talked to him. Mello didn’t respond. His eyes were opaque – what showed. I raised the vein and the fluid went in through an unfelt needle. He slid out of my arms without a sound; I was the one who whimpered.

So that was what it was like from our point of view. How Mello felt, what caused his spinning, what spinning did for him – who knows? He never looked distressed, or anxious, or nervous. At the last he must have known pain, exhaustion, and frustration to an extent that it surpassed bodily awareness and became just a state, a limbo there was no way out of. If I didn’t choose the right way out for Mello, at least it was quick and merciful. His world ended, “not with a bang, but a whimper” and the whimper was mine, not his.

Jo Turley
Alberta, Canada