If you've seen a skateboarding bulldog, chances are that it's Tillman. Tillman is the star of a 2007 viral video that shows him skating around a Santa Monica park; a video that propelled him to a reality show career, a Guinness World Record for fastest skateboarding dog, honorary U.S. Marine status, and so many personal appearances that seven years later, the details blend together for Ron Davis, Tillman's owner and chauffeur.
When I speak to Davis, he's driving through Central California on a Saturday afternoon, to a pet store the name of which he can't immediately recall, while Tillman sleeps in the back seat. At nine years old—an aspirational age for the ill-conceived experiment that is the English Bulldog—Tillman's vigor and vanity have helped keep him healthy, even if he doesn't know it.
"Tillman's a freak," says Davis. "He's not normal. He was the runt of the litter and not the biggest guy, but he's tough, and all he wants to do is ride." When he rides for a crowd, as he is set to do on this day, Davis says, "He's a total ham. The more people, the better. He's been the star of a reality show, and he's skated in Times Square, and nothing seems to faze him. I get more nervous than he does."
In the seven years since the viral video that landed Tillman in a commercial for the first iPhone, Davis has seen his very good dog improve into an even better one. Looking back, he can't help but cringe. Compared to the wizard he is today, Tillman was "absolutely horrible in it," he says, bemusedly. "He sucked."
If this is true, it only underlines how special Tillman is to the small and awesome community of skating English Bulldogs and their owners. Tillman isn't the first English Bulldog to shred, but he was the first to do so in the YouTube era, and the star every other owner of a skater dog name-dropped. He was, and remains, the best.
If he has competition, he comes from Lima, Peru, where every Saturday at 3:33 p.m., Kelly Cronin and her husband bring their two-year-old doggie, "El Biuf," to a local park for what they call a Bulldog skateboarding school. Biuf was his own viral sensation in Peru last year, and is something of a Tillman-in-training, boasting the world's best skateboarding bulldog website.
One of the features of the excellent site is a step-by-step guide to getting one's own dog to skateboard, even if, Cronin told me, Biuf basically taught himself to ride. The same was true for Tillman and all of the other dogs whose owners I spoke to, which is to say that despite the site's how-to list (or a similar,majestically illustrated one on wikihow.com), it's ultimately up to the bulldog to decide whether or not it will skate.
What's equally clear is that, like anything else, practice makes perfect for skating bulldogs. Once a straight-ahead skater like early Tillman, Biuf has quickly added variety to his skill set. "He maneuvers like a total professional," Cronin says. "He goes around obstacles, makes 90 degree turns, and even does U-turns when necessary."
Cronin is effusive in her love for Biuf, and the website cheekily notes that "it is physically impossible not to smile when seeing a dog on a skateboard." Reached for comment by VICE Sports, Physics confirmed this. It's that joy that has stuck with Patrick Clemens, a self-described "crazy dog person" even as his skateboarding meatball, Beefy, has semi-retired and fulfilled the New Yorker's destiny of hanging it up and heading to South Beach.
Beefy learned to roll in Levittown, Long Island before taking to Astoria Park's new skate park in 2009 and causing a scene. "Everyone who saw him that day was laughing or smiling. It was so cool, so positive, and it started a ride I couldn't have dreamt of," Clemens says. Beefy appeared in a Jimmy Choo advertisement, received a custom-made deck and sponsorship from Blue Sky Longboards, and skated on Good Morning America, Clemens' favorite morning show. It has made a lasting impression on his owner. "I'm not going to say my life is complete because of this," says Clemens, unconvincingly, "but we've gotten to do some great things."
With Beefy out of the Big Apple, the title of most visible skateboarding bulldog in New York goes to Cartman, a three-year-old dude owned by Johnny Nguyen, both of whom I met in a mobbed Central Park on a recent Saturday. Cartman is a straight-ahead skater (and avid soccer player) who has a little trouble getting up on his board, at least in the chaotic park. Stopping and turning aren't really his specialties either, but with alittle help and free space, he can put on a show.
Nguyen is busy enough that they don't get to skate that often, and keeping up with a dog that can't really maneuver himself, especially in a crowd, is hard. There is a lot of sprinting involved and plenty of water breaks ostensibly meant for the dog, but really for the owner. He's dealing not just with a perfectly headstrong dog but, inevitably, about 20 hands at any given time wanting to pet it. After about 30 minutes, I'm exhausted of it too, and headed for the train.
When I get off, the block is totally deserted except for a woman walking an English Bulldog, which gave me a goofy smile, even without the skateboard. That's the whole point of these dangerously scrunched up faces—they look human specifically to evoke this response. I pass them, then U-turn, and ask her if she had ever thought about getting him on a board, at which point she blows a relentlessly wheezing, 50-pound hole in my goofy joy, reminding me that not every bully is Le Biuf James in waiting.
"No," she says, without hesitation and with the studied patience of someone who's had to answer the question before, "that's dangerous." She can see her answer hit me in the gut, and continues, politely but firmly, with her practiced response meant to quickly end such foolishness—his fragile life is gift enough. He is her dog, he is a good dog, and that alone will do just fine.