The subtitle of Jim Gorant’s “Wallace” is “The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls — One Flying Disc at a Time,” and it makes the dog sound like a superhero.
He is, at least to his owners, pit bull fans, and admirers of canine athletes around the world.
Gorant, also the author of “The Lost Dogs,” a remarkable book about the dogs confiscated in the Michael Vick dog-fighting case, has penned another touching and truthful story. “Wallace” tells the tale of a talented dog and his dedicated human partner, but it’s also about living with the frustration of public perception of a much-maligned group of dogs: pit bulls, a catch-all label for the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Terrier, and various mixes.
Despite the fact that pit bulls were once considered the ideal family pet and have found much success in therapy and assistance work, search and rescue, law enforcement, and movies, the mere mention of these dogs frequently elicits a negative reaction from citizens, landlords, insurance companies, the media and local governments. Communities, including many in our area, frequently ban any pit bull-type dog.
Gorant spotlights this issue while also telling the very personal story of Roo Yori, his wife Clara, and their dog, detailing Wallace’s journey from the day he was discovered abandoned in a house, to his world-wide fame as a canine athlete.
The couple first met the young dog when volunteering in their local animal shelter. Over time, when Wallace’s behavioral problems became so severe that the shelter manager considered euthanizing him, Roo and Clara lobbied to foster him.
Roo worked hard with Wallace, exercising him for hours a day to channel his energy, often using creative methods such as installing a spring pole for the dog to jump at and grab on to (a method employed by dogfighters, he later learned to his chagrin) or attaching tires to a harness so that Wallace could drag them around the yard.
Eventually, Wallace became manageable. However, because he still was not without issues, and because they’d become so attached to him, the Yoris decided to keep the dog lest he end up in the wrong hands.
Knowing that Wallace was a tremendous athlete, Roo entered him in weight-pull competitions, a popular sport for pit bulls. Wallace was successful, but things really started happening when Roo discovered his aptitude for catching flying discs — aka, Frisbees. The two worked together tirelessly, developing free-style routines and forming a partnership that took them to the top of a sport usually dominated by more agile, lightweight dogs.
In one beautiful passage, Gorant describes a night-time game of fetch in the park: “Roo threw the disc again and the process repeated itself. The experience felt surreal, disc and dog disappearing, Roo standing alone, isolated, listening, and Wallace reappearing, almost materializing out of the wet clouds,” he writes. “Visual cues were impossible and Roo dropped most of the verbal ones, too. Still, they connected and fell into a rhythm.”
In addition to the typical challenges encountered by athletes, the Yoris and Wallace met their share of obstacles, many of them personal. But they also faced down communities with breed bans and fellow competitors who shrank in fear from the dog when they learned he was a pit bull.
They became tireless advocates, speaking out against misconceptions and prejudices and holding up Wallace as an example of a pit bull success story. They began to change people’s minds.
Wallace and Roo went on to earn flying disc championship titles at the 2006 Cynosport World Games and the 2007 Purina Incredible Dog Challenge National Championship.
When the duo won the Cynosport title, Roo called his wife with the good news and contemplated their journey.
“Their dog, the dog that no one wanted, the pit bull that a ‘no kill’ shelter had wanted to kill, had outrun, out-jumped, out-hustled, and out-hearted all the herding dogs and retrievers and shepherds,” he thought. “Wallace was a world champion.”
Wallace and Roo began to slow down a little after those big wins, competing less but still continuing their advocacy work by appearing at conferences, schools, and public events.
Sadly, Wallace has since been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive cancer. The Yoris are choosing to treat him holistically, knowing his body can’t handle the stress of chemo and radiation, and are working on checking items off a Wallace “bucket list.” So far, according to his Facebook page, Wallace remains happy and healthy.
No one knows for certain how much time Wallace has left, but his legacy will be felt for a long time to come.
Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.