Georgia's Uga mascots through the years

Bulldog Blues: UGA mascot could see changes amid breed worries

That next dog? He may not look like his old man, Uga X. Young Uga XI could have a smaller head, maybe a slightly longer nose. His legs may a bit longer; his chest, not quite so broad.

Charles Seiler, the son of the man who 60 years ago started the whole Uga line, wants to change UGA’s bulldog to make it look more like the Ugas of yore. It’s a matter of health, if not aesthetics.

The bulldog, some veterinarians say, is in crisis, its genetic pool fouled by poor breeding choices. It can barely breathe. It can hardly walk. It is prone to heat stroke — Ugas have been known to lie on blocks of ice. It cannot bear puppies without a C-section. It cannot breed without a lot more human intervention than nature intended.

“The breed is kind of reaching the end of the road,” said Dr. Niels Pedersen of the University of California-Davis, who released an alarming new study on bulldogs earlier this summer.

Seiler has heard those warnings. He’s not taking any chances. He’s lined up a female bulldog with physical characteristics that he hopes will whelp an Uga XI more capable of handling the rigors of mascot duty.

“You don’t want an unhealthy dog,” Seiler said one recent morning as the long wait for UGA’s football season dwindled to a handful of days. The football drought ends Sept. 3, when the Georgia Bulldogs play the North Carolina Tar Heels in Atlanta. As he has for five decades, Seiler will be at the season opener with UGA’s mascot.

“It’s important for us to have them healthy,” Seiler said. “They (breeders) want to keep the gene pool clean.”

A clean pool means more genetic diversity. Uga, like nine relatives before him, is an English bulldog. He’s a big-headed member of Canis lupus familiaris, the scientific name for all domesticated dogs.

“Bred into a Corner”

Criticism of bulldog breeding is not new. “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” a 2008 BBC documentary, concluded bulldogs and some other breeds had been bred for squat bodies and short snouts, creating breathing difficulties and a range of other maladies. A 2012 study from the Royal Veterinary College essentially reached the same conclusions as the BBC documentary. The Humane Society of the United States has called the bulldog “the poster child for breeding gone awry.”

The latest warning sounded in July, when Pedersen, who has taught veterinarian medicine for decades, said the line had been “bred into a corner.” His findings appeared in a UC-Davis news release disseminated across the digital universe.

The bulldog, he said, needs help — fast. Some fresh blood, he said, may be the only thing that can save this imperiled canine. His advice extends past Athens, too. About 40 other U.S. colleges and universities have bulldog mascots. So does that bastion of hard-chargers, the U.S. Marine Corps.

The American Kennel Club, the nation’s pre-eminent authority on purebred dogs, begs to differ. The AKC sets size and weight standards for that dog, as well as a host of other breeds. The bulldog, says the organization, is just fine.

The AKC never has promoted unhealthy bulldog breeding, said its chief veterinarian, Dr. Jerry Klein. In a recent interview, he disagreed with his veterinary peer on the West Coast. The latest study, he noted, looked at just over 100 bulldogs — hardly an exhaustive survey.

“It’s not doomsday scene (for bulldogs) by any indication whatsoever,” Klein told the AJC.

People who say the bulldog is imperiled, he said, forget a truism about all dogs — and humans, for that matter. “Certain breeds have certain issues,” Klein said. “No one, and no dog, is ever (guaranteed) not to have problems.”

And, Klein asked, if the bulldog is in such sorry shape, why is it the fourth most popular breed in America?

A party, an icon

The Uga saga begins in 1956. You may be surprised (or not) to learn that it got started at a frat party. A young law student, Frank “Sonny” Seiler, took his dog to that gathering. Hood’s Ole Dan, for that was the dog’s improbable name, had been given to his wife by one of her former sweeties. Ole Dan was a hit with the brothers. Seiler, who was working part-time for the athletic department, upped the ante: He took Ole Dan to UGA’s home-opener football game. Final: UGA 3, Florida State 0.

A few days later his phone jangled. It was Wally Butts, the football coach. Seiler gulped. The coach, he was convinced, was about to fire him for bringing a mutt into the stadium.

It was a rare miscalculation on the part of Seiler, who went on to a successful career in law. Butts, apparently a keen judge of canine as well as gridiron talent, had a request: Could you bring the dog to more games?

He sure could. Cecilia Seilers went to Woolworth and bought a red kid’s T-shirt. She got some black felt, cut out a “G” and glued it to the makeshift jersey. A nip here, a tuck there, and it was ready.

Early photos show Ole Dan — suddenly, Uga I — in that shirt. With his long legs and big muzzle, Uga I looks ready to eat anything that comes in his path — a gamecock, a war eagle, a gator. Especially a Gator.

Uga served with distinction for a decade, stepping aside at UGA’s 1966 homecoming for a muscled brute named Old Dan’s Uga — Uga II, the first mascot’s son. He was meatier than his dad, with a barn-door chest and fencepost legs. His jaws looked like they could grind cinderblocks into pebbles. He wore the red and black through 1972.

From there, the bulldogs begin to look, well, flabbier. Seiler credits his mother for the change. She picked the puppies, he said.

“She liked them wider and lower,” Seiler said. “She said she wanted them to look like football players.”

That look may have come at a cost to at least one in the Uga line. Uga VII — aka Loran’s Best — served one full season as the Bulldogs’ mascot, dying of heart-related causes in November 2009. Photos depict a dog with immense jowls, a wide and low body. He was a marked contrast from that lean beast of ‘56.

Uga VIII took over in 2010. His tenure also was short-lived. That dog contracted canine leukemia and died in February 2011.

In recent years, said Seiler, he’s been trying to streamline the line, just a bit.

‘Our dog’

Uga X awoke with a surprised grunt when he heard his master’s footsteps. The big dog had been asleep on the concrete floor of the den where he spends most of his indoor time. The room is a shrine to Ugas past and present. Look on the walls and you’ll see photos and portraits of every dog in the Uga line, as well as other UGA paraphernalia. It’s an impressive sight.

Uga, also known as “Que,” raised a head the size of a small watermelon and blinked a couple of times. He walked in that waddly, bulldog way and snuffled Seiler’s hand. He cast a guarded glance at Seiler’s visitor.

“He’s only 3,” Seiler said. “He’s still shy.”

Still growing, too. Uga tips the scales at 60 pounds. Seiler expects the big dog to get a little bigger with age.

It takes someone with a little size to look after Uga, too. That’s been Seiler’s job for the last 10 years, when he took over most of the Uga duties from his dad.

The dog is not allowed to jump on furniture — a good rule, no matter the hound — nor can he walk up or down stairs. Seiler doesn’t want Uga to strain his ACL, the ligament connecting the bone above the knee with that beneath the knee. Uga IX suffered an ACL injury trying to jump on a deck. Uga IV hurt his, too.

“There’s nothing more pitiful looking,” Seiler said, “than a bulldog limping around with a hurt foot.”

If there is an activity at which bulldogs excel, it is that which takes place lying down. Bulldogs love to sleep. When Uga flies, he usually conks out before the plane takes off. The only time he awakes is when he hears the rustle of cellophane — sandwiches, set aside for the two-legged Dawgs.

Seiler has a mate picked out for Uga X. Booley, from Texas, is not big, as bulldogs go; Seiler hopes she’ll deliver some some slightly smaller Uga contenders that hearken to that earlier mascot. Not a year old, she’s biding her time at an undisclosed location. Seiler prefers not to say where. Popularity, he said, comes with some security concerns.

He nodded at Uga, who’d gone back to sleep. “I’ve had drunks offer me $20,000 … for that dog,” he said.

And Uga, he said pointedly, is, first of all, a pet. His son, Cecil, likes playing with the big-headed beast.

“I’m grooming him” to take over the job of Uga’s keeper, he said. Cecil has time to learn. He’s 8.

The kid will inherit a lot of work. Bulldogs don’t do well in heat. Anyone who’s been to a September game at Sanford Stadium knows what that’s like. Uga has an air-conditioned dog house that he prefers when temperatures exceed 75 degrees. Don’t forget those bags of ice: He, and his predecessors, have lain on them. Two generations of Seilers have made sure they had them.

Sometimes, if the game’s not close, Uga will go in the doghouse and snooze. Photographers like that.

Would the Bulldog Nation like a new (and presumably improved) Uga? Linda Fernekes, what do you think?

“I think he’s a tradition,” said Fernekes, who graduated from UGA 11 years ago and now heads the Colorado chapter of the UGA Alumni Association in Denver. This is no small deal. She presides over a chapter, 1,500 miles from Athens, that boasts more than 2,000 members — each, presumably, in love with Uga.

“I can understand why they want to do so,” said Fernekes, a physician’s assistant. “But it kind of changes the image we’re all accustomed to.”

That’s an image Seiler can control only so far. Uga is a family pet, yes. But he is, in effect, Georgia’s dog.

He cast another glace at Uga, who shifted in slumber. The dog had taken a stroll in the yard, and his breathing echoed in the cool room like an idling diesel engine.

“People will come up to me and say, ‘How’s our dog? Is he ready for another year?”

Seiler believes he is.

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