How Frisbee changed the life of a rescued pit bull -- and his owners
Wallace, a down-on-his-luck pit bull, was in danger of being put down
He was rescued by a couple, who gave him an outlet by chasing discs
Wallace was a natural and soon he was doing tricks and winning competitions
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.