Tacoma resident Mike McKenzie loves dogs, which explains why he hates to see them die. "It's always better to get a new dog before your old dog goes," says McKenzie. So begins the story of Ranger and Blue.
Ranger was a springer spaniel–Border collie mix whom McKenzie selected from a group of 15 quasi-homeless pups corralled in the back of a pickup owned by "a bunch of hillbillies," says McKenzie. Ranger was in pretty rough shape healthwise, but after some veterinary TLC, McKenzie molded him into a proficient Frisbee fetcher, one who performed highly athletic stunts with aplomb.
As he advanced in age, Ranger lost the ability to hear and see. Even in this Miracle Worker state, McKenzie says: "To the day before Ranger died, we'd open the front door and let him out. He was stone deaf, probably 90 percent blind—but he knew that neighborhood. We used to call him the Mayor of 17th Street."
But before Ranger perished at the age of 105 (in dog years), McKenzie, adhering to his credo, had already begun training a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard named Blue, whom McKenzie adopted from a distraught woman on the steps of City Hall.
"I was pushing one of my co-workers in a wheelchair to go out and get some coffee," says McKenzie, an assistant city attorney in the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood. "There was this young lady sitting on the steps of the courthouse. She was looking pretty bummed out, and she's got this dog. Ranger was getting too old to jog with my wife, and I was going to have to start jogging with my wife if I didn't find another dog."
"So I looked at the lady and said, 'That's a really nice-looking dog,'" McKenzie continues. "And she said if she didn't get rid of the dog, she was going to get evicted from her apartment and that he would have to go to the pound."
So McKenzie adopted him on the spot, and molded Blue into a top-flight flying disc dog (as elite Frisbee fetchers are known), touring North America and receiving, in McKenzie's words, "rock star treatment."
"We ended up going to Canada three times," says McKenzie. "Every year, they'd pick us up at the airport in a nice SUV. We had a driver to take us all around, which is an expensive undertaking if you know my disc dog friends. They're eatin' and drinkin' kind of people."
Like Ranger, Blue excelled at his sport, developing a two-minute freestyle routine that involved jumping over McKenzie's back and weaving between his legs, never letting a disc hit the ground.
"He does a great back stall, which means he'll stand up on my back and stay there," says McKenzie. "Our big trick is he will run up my chest and bound off my chest to catch a Frisbee a foot or so above my head. Then I'll catch him in my hands and drop him back down my back."
But one day, Blue and McKenzie were at a disc dog show in Atlanta when the owner noticed his dog laboring a bit in the Georgia heat. That was enough for McKenzie to swiftly guide Blue toward retirement.
"I never wanted Blue to not think it was fun," explains McKenzie. "We'd had a good long run, but I was kind of bummed."
McKenzie sought to cheer himself and his dog up by attempting to get Blue on a cable television show produced by "the guy who used to do [David] Letterman's stupid pet tricks."
"I tried to get Blue on Pet Star with Mario Lopez," says McKenzie, referring to the Animal Planet show hosted by former Saved by the Bell star Lopez. "I was overnighting tapes to the producer. I tried to do it, unsuccessfully, several times."
Undaunted, McKenzie continued to look for opportunities to break his talented pooch into showbiz, and finally hit potential paydirt by impressing a prominent dog bone manufacturer.
"I stumbled onto the Milk-Bone contest and said, 'Sure, let's enter,'" says McKenzie. "I probably sent them four or five pictures [of Blue], sat back, and didn't think much about it. Then I heard he was a finalist."
If Blue receives more online votes than four other finalists before the American Idol–style contest ends on Nov. 6, McKenzie will appear on the box with his dog (one can vote at www.milkbone.com).
"Now," adds McKenzie, "Blue's bid for fame has got new legs."
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