Between acting and athleticism, this guy has a bulging portfolio

Pigs don't fly, but Gabe soars. Here, he clears a hurdle en route to earning his first Utility leg in a recent Oregon bulldog specialty show.

Photos courtesy Cheryl Knapp and Jerry and Lois Photography

By Ranny Green

What’s your idea of a perfect balance of actor/athlete? Chances are it isn’t a 5-year-old, 65-pound, rock-solid bulldog.

Gabe may be just the guy to change your mind once you see this versatile guy on film and in the competition ring.

“He’s a natural showman, a fun-loving clown who loves to cater to a crowd,” says owner Cheryl Knapp, of Bellingham. “He also has a competitive, can-do attitude and believes he can do anything. He has incredible balance, coordination, as well as structure and movement. Couple that with a winsome expression and you ‘have a face people would pay money to see,’ says ‘America’s Got Talent’ judge Howie Mandel. It’s not often that non-bulldog owners think this breed is attractive, but I am constantly being complimented on what a beautiful animal he is.”

Gabe deals with one challenge after another on the agility course at the Seattle show.

Adding to the well-rounded dog’s numerous competition titles, film and video credits, are two equally impressive credentials: Therapy Dog International and Canine Good Citizen (American Kennel Club) certifications.

Bulldogs have been called by some as one of the least trainable breeds because of their independent and stubborn proclivities. Knapp strongly disagrees. “It is a very intelligent breed, and as such attempts to outsmart its owner. Bulldogs respond well to motivational-type training, though I do believe in a firm hand when needed.”

The majority of Knapp’s training is upbeat, fun and rewarding, but she adds, “This breed won’t work for free, hence you must be certain to make it worth its while.”

With their massive head and shoulders, heavy bone and flat face, bulldogs can easily overheat in performance competition. Knapp puts it all in perspective: “A bulldog athlete is simultaneously weightlifting while running its course, so conditioning is imperative. Gabe is a structurally-sound animal and a good breather. I keep him at a good, healthy weight, and regular exercise helps him stay toned and fit for all of the activities we engage in.”

Gabe double-dares you to take one of his "jolly balls."

Knapp has owned, trained and titled eight bulldogs, earning multiple titles in several pursuits. “Once trained, they don’t forget and can be ready to go into the ring with minimal practice,” she says. “I recently met Gabe’s sponsor, Jeanne McClelland, in Oregon for some specialty shows, where I took his two daughters, Angel and Gabby, into the Rally Novice ring after not seeing them for six months. Both easily earned their final RN legs with scores of 97 and 95, after only a few minutes to warm up and review their training.”

Traveling to competitions throughout the West is expensive, however. As a sponsor, McClelland helps pay Gabe’s entry fees, agility and tracking classes, equipment, hotel and travel costs.

Knapp, a dental assistant, has always had dogs around. “We ended up with Pugs when I was young and I became involved in 4-H work. That’s when flat-faced breeds stole my heart,” she says. She has owned bulldogs for 22 years, loving their humanlike characteristics and fun-loving personalities. Her first bulldog, Rosie, was also her first competition obedience entry, earning CD and CDX titles within a year, then becoming a second-place winner on “America’s Funniest People” TV show, later appearing on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” most popular dog montages, riding her rocking horse.

Who me stressed? An unflappble Gabe rests his head on owner-handler Cheryl Knapp's shoe moments before they enter the agility ring at the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show in early March.

As the photos here capture, Gabe is your consummate showman. Hence, he and Knapp receive numerous invitations to enter video contests. Money, challenge and notoriety all play into her decision whether to pursue an invite. “With my full work schedule, it is impossible to participate in every one that comes up,” she explains. “While I have a very understanding boss, sometimes the demanding, last-minute fickleness of the show-business scene does not coordinate with real life.”

Because Knapp works near home, it allows her to return home, eat lunch and carve out a few minutes to practice a new trick or routine with Gabe. “Training has to be more of a way of life rather than a large chunk of time,” she says. “As a result, most of my practices occur around feeding times.”

This, she emphasizes, establishes a regular training time that also teaches them learning is fun and rewarding – and that they must earn what they received. Once she begins putting all the various pieces of the competition puzzle together, she takes the young dogs to different settings to simulate ring conditions.

If an opportunity for a TV or media appearance is presented, Knapp puts all other activities on hold to focus on that. “Gabe is pretty adept at performing his tricks,” she adds, “and just a few minutes here and there of polishing gets him ready to go on stage again. I usually have to put his toys away or he’ll wear himself out trying to show off, however.”

Knapp gets in some field practice with Gabe, who is working toward a Tracking Dog certification.

With one exception, Knapp and Gabe have operated without an agent, noting that her fellow bulldoggers and other dog lovers are quick to inform her of show-business opportunities. She worked with an animal agent in Canada for the 2010 family comedy, “The Dogfather,” starring Chris Parnell.

She was urged to contact the individual by an acquaintance who was making a set of scent articles for Gabe. They had just returned from Hollywood, where Gabe took top honors in the Worldwide Fido Awards in 2008, winning $15,000. Shortly after being introduced, Knapp received a call from the agent who had just been contacted by a director looking for a white, male bulldog to play the lead in “The Dogfather.”

“How often does that happen that a script is written centered around your dog?” asks Knapp, “And you just happen to be in that right place at the right time. “

Last summer Gabe and Knapp were quarterfinalists in Season 6 of “America’s Got Talent.” Then in the fall they performed live in Times Square on “Good Morning America,” where he was crowned GMA’s Top Dog in its canine competition. Earlier this year he was featured several times on a new Animal Planet show, “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

And, yes, just in case you’re wondering: Gabe has his own web site to showcase what he’s been up to lately. So far he’s done four commercials: an online high school (Insight Schools); Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl”; Barleans Organic Oils (Olive Leaf Throat Spray) and PetHub (PetHub ID tags). You can check out all of them on Knapp hopes to launch Gabe’s official fan club soon with memorabilia and other perks for members.