I just read Wallace, by Jim Gorant, subtitled The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls–One Flying Disc at a Time. In summary, Wallace, a pit bull, was rescued from a shelter by a young couple named Roo and Clara Yuri. Roo had hoped to be a professional soccer player, but by the time they adopted Wallace, he had given up that dream. Wallace, with his incredible drive and energy and problems with aggression with other dogs, as well as his breed, was considered a problem dog at the no-kill shelter where Clara worked and where she and Roo had gotten to know Wallace. In fact, the shelter personnel were initially uncertain that they would let Wallace be adopted. and he could easily have been euthanized. Instead, with Roo and Clara’s help, Wallace became a frisbee champion and ambassador for pit bulls.
I’ve never worked with a dog that was anywhere near as challenging as Wallace was described to be in his youth. Jim Gorant describes Roo’s handling and training methods in some detail. Some of them–in particular Roo’s ability to tap into and work with Wallace’s drive–are very aligned with natural dog training, others less so, and I couldn’t help thinking while reading that if only Roo and Clara had known about and been able to work with Wallace with natural dog training methods, they might have been able to save themselves and Wallace a lot of stress and trouble.
Regardless, the story of how a pit bull, with his heavy, muscular body and large head, ends up succeeding in a sport where lighter, more agile, swifter dogs usually win, through a combination of Wallace’s intense drive, Roo’s creativity, and the dynamic relationship between them is a fascinating story.
Two quotes: first, the Your Dog is Your Mirror moment: “Roo loved playing disc with Wallace. He loved how much Wallace loved it, and he loved how it showed that Wallace had been worthy of their effort to save him. … In a deeper way… he’d come to identify with Wallace. As a soccer player he’d been discounted and overlooked, too…. most coaches looked at him and saw only a kid who was a step slow and about three sizes too small and worte him off…. Roo knew about being prejudged based on appearances and assumptions and left for dead.”
The second quote I wanted to share is from Roo’s sometime training and competing partner, Josh. In addition to competing in singles freestyle events with Roo, Wallace also competed in pairs freestyle events with Roo and Josh. Gorant describes one of their early pairs competitions thus: “The music kicked on, the discs began to fly, and Wallace did the rest… As the routine progressed, Roo felt that sensation, that connection and singularity of purpose that had struck him during the earlier competitions. He could sense that Josh felt it too, and the three of them worked in perfect synchonicity, sharing an instant, almost nonverbal communication…. [Later, Josh told him] `That last round with Wallace… That was one of the greatest experiences of my life.’”
I’ve never competed in anything with my dogs. While some of my dogs have had athletic talent–Pundit was amazing when he was young, and who knows, maybe he could have competed in a freestyle competition–I’ve never had anywhere near the athletic ability to be able to carry out the person side of a frisbee routine. Nevertheless, Josh’s statement resonated with me. Some of the greatest experiences of my life have been moments with my dog. My husband and I moved to New Haven the same fall that my mother-in-law died very suddenly from cancer. We were grieving in the midst of settling into a new city, with new friends, new work, new routines. It was a hard fall. But we had our dog, Ubi, then in the prime of her middle age, who had happily moved with us from New York to Minneapolis to New Haven. I remember walking along some of the quiet Yale campus lawns in early night that fall and winter, playing ball with Ubi. I would throw the tennis ball into the darkness and watch her take off, following its arc until it disappeared in the night. Then I would see flashes of her working the field, nose to the ground, tail high in the air, until she honed in on the ball, grabbed it, and raced back to me so I could throw it again. We played night ball that year in a quiet, intense, joyful connection. It is one of my happiest memories of that sad time. Dogs offer that to us–you don’t have to compete at the highest levels of a sport, as Roo, Josh, and Wallace did, to experience synchronicity with your dog.
Finally, here’s a video clip of Wallace and Roo competing. Gorant does a good job of describing the intense quality of Roo and Wallace’s routines, but there is no subsitute for actually watching one. I like how this video (it’s easy to find more by googling ”Wallace the Pit Bull,”) highlights how Wallace races back after catching the frisbee with equal enthusiasm and speed as he runs out to get the frisbee, in complete commitment to the game. Gorant describes this as one of the key features that sets Wallace apart from the other competing dogs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1qXdfGXHKI&feature=relmfu