Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2012 by Jim Gorant.
In the summer of 2004 Roo Yori and his soon-to-be wife, Clara, were helping out at an animal shelter in Rochester, Minn., when they met a pit bull named Wallace. Smart and energetic but unfriendly toward other dogs, Wallace struggled with shelter life, and his behavior deteriorated to the point that the low-kill facility was considering putting him down. Roo and Clara stepped in at the last minute to save him, and in an effort to find an outlet for his unending drive they stumbled into the world of canine flying disc (Frisbee) competitions. Their lives were never the same.
It started simply enough, with a kid and his dog. In this case, a nineteen-year-old kid from Ohio named Alex Stein. As a student at Ohio State, Stein received the dog as a gift, a male whippet that he named Ashley, or more formally Ashley Whippet. He took Ashley everywhere, and they did everything together. It was the early seventies and the Frisbee craze was taking off around the country, especially on college campuses, and Alex discovered that Ashley could catch discs like no other dog around. Alex and Ashley weren't the first man and dog to play catch with a disc, but they started playing regularly and before long they became the most famous disc team ever.
Ashley was so good in fact that Alex decided they could make it in showbiz. So one summer he and Ashley made their way out to L.A. He tried approaching talent agents and even Wham-O (maker of the Frisbee), but no one was interested in Alex and Ashley. Alex took matters into his own hands.
On August 5, 1974, Alex smuggled Ashley into Dodger Stadium. Between the seventh and eighth innings of a nationally televised Monday-night baseball game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds, Alex launched Ashley over the fence and onto the field, jumping the rail right behind him. He hit the ground and pulled out a few discs. He began throwing them and Ashley began catching them. The crowd was instantly enthralled. Most people had never seen anything like what was happening on the field, and they cheered every catch.
Ashley was a sight to see. Whippets, thin and fast, are not typically great disc dogs, but Ashley was rocket quick and a great leaper and he catapulted himself into the air, twisting and arching to snag discs, to the delight of the people in the stands. When security appeared to stop the intrusion, the crowd booed so forcefully that they stepped back and let Alex and Ashley go at it.
They were still going when the broadcast returned from commercial and analyst Joe Garagiola began doing commentary as the cameras captured what was happening on the field. Finally, after eight minutes, security took Alex away. He was arrested, but in a remarkable stroke of luck, a man named Irv Lander, who worked in promotions for Wham-O, had been at the game. He bailed out Alex, but he didn't solve Alex's biggest problem: Ashley was missing. Alex spent three days in a near panic until finally he received a call from a family who had been at the game and found Ashley roaming the stadium parking lot.
Man and dog were reunited and with Lander's help, and a sponsorship from Alpo, they founded a world championship for canine disc in 1975. The first year saw only a handful of entrants but the sport grew quickly. Ashley won the first three world championships, and a few years later the event evolved into a circuit with the championship named after him: the Ashley Whippet Invitational, or AWI. Alex and Ashley went on to perform at numerous events, including the Super Bowl, and on The Tonight Show and Merv Griffin.
Nothing has been as simple since. For a variety of reasons the world of competitive disc dog has continued to splinter and re-form itself since the early eighties. Besides the AWI there are at least five major circuits, including Skyhoundz, the Flying Disc Dog Open (FDDO), the United Frisbee-Dog Organization (UFO), the U.S. Disc Dog Nationals (USDDN), and the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge (IDC).
Each offers its own world or national championship. For years many players considered AWI the top prize, but that perception has faded somewhat and the question of which title is most prestigious depends on whom you ask and when you ask them. Roo didn't have much preference. He'd compete in any of them. He made most of his decisions about where to compete based on the travel requirements.
Still, he had some goals. The AWI had the Lander Cup, and each year the winner's name was added to it. Roo thought it would be cool to have Wallace etched on the sport's oldest prize. And he was drawn to the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge. He liked that it was mostly an invitational, which meant you had to be considered a top performer to even make it there, but even more so he liked that the finals appeared on national television. As he became more aware of the politics surrounding pit bulls and Wallace's ability to help change attitudes, the idea of appearing in front of a national audience with his dog, showing the breed in a positive light for a change, had great appeal to him.
At the start of 2006, something else caught his attention: the Cynosport World Games. For whatever reason AWI, UFO, and FDDO all decided to hold their championships over one weekend in September in Arizona. Each would crown its own independent champion, but at the end of the weekend the dog with the best composite finish among the three events would be given a separate overall award and named the Cynosport World Champion. It was the closest thing the sport had to a unified title, and Roo wanted to win it.
The first year on the circuit had been about proving Wallace had been worth saving, but this year would be about proving that a pit bull could be one of the best disc dogs in the country.
On his trips to Indianapolis and Atlanta, Roo noticed that the rage in canine disc seemed to be vaults -- tricks in which the dog uses the human as a platform to launch itself high into the air on the way to catching the disc. Roo and Wallace didn't have any vaults in their routine; Roo knew that to compete for the top prize they'd have to add a few.
Roo suspected that vaults would never be their strong suit. He had begun a weight-loss program for Wallace, hoping to take him from fifty-eight pounds down to somewhere around fifty, but even if Wallace could lose the weight and master vaults, Roo wondered how good a fifty-pound pit bull would look soaring through the air and landing.
In late February Roo took advantage of some unseasonably warm weather to try finding out. As soon as Roo picked up the discs, Wallace's body wiggled and his tail went stiff. He leapt up on Roo, trying to get at them. Roo pushed him away and let one fly. Wallace jetted after it with an intensity that was impressive even by his usually high standards. Roo made another throw and despite how fast Wallace ran, the disc sailed far ahead of him. But Wallace never gave up. He lowered his head and kept charging. As his face, the disc, and the ground converged, Roo could see Wallace wouldn't make it, but Wallace wasn't constrained by things like the surface of the earth. The ground was still soft after the thaw, and at the last second Wallace plowed his face into the dirt, burrowing underground to grab the disc just as it landed. He trotted back to Roo, dropped the disc, and coughed up a big chunk of sod. He looked up with a muddy grin that Roo could only interpret as, "How's that?"
Roo figured his dog was ready.
Roo had already taken to the Internet, watching videos and querying on forums, to learn how to execute vaults. He and Wallace had started to work on them toward the end of 2005, so they had something of a head start. After Wallace ran through his stable of old tricks, Roo began to work on the vaults. He turned over a large plastic bin and then held a disc on the other side. "Take," he said, giving Wallace the cue that he should grab the disc and hoping Wallace would jump on the bin, then leap to get the disc.
Wallace, being Wallace, plowed right through the bin and grabbed the disc. Roo reset the bin and tried again. Same thing. After a few more failed attempts, Roo held the bin in place with his foot, and instead of running through it Wallace began to jump over it. That was progress. After each try Roo attempted to correct Wallace and he would tap on the bin to indicate he wanted Wallace to jump on top of it.
Finally, Roo held the disc up so high that Wallace couldn't get it. Roo tapped on the bin. Wallace jumped on the bin, then launched himself into the air and grabbed the disc. "Good boy," Roo said, and let Wallace chew on the disc, since getting the toy was the reward he coveted most. A few more repetitions and they were off and running. Within days all Roo had to do was tap on the bin and Wallace would jump up on it. Then Roo could tap on his thigh or his back and Wallace would use one of them as his launching pad.
It wasn't always easy or pretty. There were some successes; there were some wipeouts. Roo took those as confirmation of his initial thought. The team could work in one or two vaults just to show they could do them, but for the most part they'd have to come up with something else� a different style for a different type of dog. Exactly what that would be, Roo didn't yet know, but he liked the idea of innovating.
As they played he took particular delight in watching Wallace. It wasn't simply that the dog excelled at catching discs; it was that he loved it. The thrill of the chase made him so happy. Wallace continued to compete in weight pulls and� he'd become quite good� but he never derived the joy from it that playing disc seemed to bring him. That enthusiasm led to the next breakthrough.
Typically, after Wallace caught a disc he would run back toward Roo at breakneck speed. One time, as Wallace charged toward him, Roo thought, If I jumped in the air, I bet he would keep going right under me. So Roo jumped, and Wallace went under. Roo threw another disc, and as Wallace charged back Roo leapt up and did a sort of scissor kick. Wallace buzzed underneath him.
Roo had another idea. He threw a disc. Wallace caught it and charged back, and as the dog approached Roo jumped, but not straight up. He sort of dove up and forward, as if he were launching himself off a diving board. Wallace raced under him and Roo canted toward the earth headfirst. At the last instant he tucked his head, rolled directly into a somersault, and popped up onto his feet. This, he thought, could be it. This could be their signature twist. It felt right.
He and Wallace continued to work on all their new tricks� the vaults, the new throws, the jumps and dives� for the next week or two. Then Roo hooked up with disc mentor, Josh, to get a second opinion. He ran through all the vaults and the other small improvisational changes he'd made. Josh nodded his approval. "Pretty sweeeet," he droned. Finally, Roo tossed the disc and when Wallace returned he did the dive and roll, popped up on his feet, and did another toss that Wallace ran and caught.
He looked over at Josh. His buddy stood silent for a moment. Then he burst out laughing. "What the hell was that?" he said at last.
"That's our new move," said Roo.
"Well," Josh said, "it's either awesome or ridiculous." It was certainly new. No one had ever done anything like it as far as either of them knew. Roo ran through a few variations on the trick. The more Josh saw, the less outrageous it seemed. As they talked about it, they realized Roo's jumping and rolling could create the perfect mix. Wallace would bring the drive, power, and disc-catching prowess, while Roo could accent their athleticism and "wow" factor. It was a different approach, but the judges didn't grade only the dogs; they assessed the whole team.
As March began, Roo felt great about their competitive odds. His dog's health had stabilized. He had a new twist for his routine and two months to hone it before the competitive season started. On top of all that, he had sent a tape of himself and Wallace to The Late Show with David Letterman and the duo had been invited to appear on a "Stupid Pet Tricks" segment in May.
One night he sat in the basement watching videos, hunting for ideas and inspiration. Wallace sat next to him and dug his nose into Roo's thigh, seeking attention. Roo reached down and began petting Wallace. As his hand passed over Wallace's front right shoulder he felt something, a slight indentation. Roo looked closer, moved Wallace into a different position, and rechecked. He was right. There was an indent, not much larger than a quarter, but unmistakable. Maybe it was supposed to be there. Maybe it was always there and he'd simply never noticed before. He checked the other side, felt the other shoulder up and down, side to side. No indent. There was nothing on the other side. Roo felt his heart sink.
"Clara," he yelled. "What's up with Wallace?"