Posted: Friday September 7, 2012 8:56AM ; Updated: Friday September 7, 2012 8:56AM
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How frisbee changed the life of a rescued pit bull (cont.)

By Jim Gorant

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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?"

To purchase a copy of Wallace, go here.

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