LINCOLN (AP) — At the park, Little Bear's owner is wearing his red “Team Little Bear” T-shirt.
And Little Bear is wearing his camo — the dog sweater his owner bought him at Walmart.
“I figured it would keep him warm down in Alabama between jumps,” T.J. Yoakum told the Lincoln Journal Star.
The 23-year-old is taking the 65-pound pit bull he rescued two years ago — a half-starved, abandoned puppy running down a river road in western Nebraska — to the Super Retriever Series Crown Championship in Huntsville.
The Big Dog of DockDog competitions started Friday. It's a simple concept: fetch and retrieve. Throw a buoy as far as you can into a tank of water and the dog follows.
Longest jump wins. Super Fly, they call it.
Lots of the champion jumping dogs have pedigrees, trainers and paid handlers, T.J. says.
And most of them are retrievers, traditional duck-hunting dogs.
“Then there's me and my hillbilly brother showing up with this pit bull.”
It's all new to T.J., a Lincoln High grad who works long hours as a network technician for a telecommunications company and spends his weekends fishing, boating and hunting.
T.J. was on a weekend fishing trip in 2011 when he turned onto a gravel road and found three pit bull puppies rushing his way.
One jumped right into his arms when he got out of his uncle's truck.
That one's my dog, T.J. told his fishing buddies.
And he had the perfect name for the red bundle with the black face and nose.
Little Bear, for Grandpa Harold — the big guy who earned the nickname Bear back in the day, says T.J. (He already had a bloodhound, Harold, named for the same grandpa.)
The barely weaned puppies were the size of loaves of bread. And round as cantaloupes, bloated from malnutrition.
His cousin kept one puppy, and his uncle took the lone female home and turned her into a pheasant hunter.
And at the time, T.J. didn't have much of a soft spot for pit bulls.
“Honestly, I didn't like 'em.”
But this dog was so sweet, so eager to please.
He trained Little Bear in “kindness,” T.J. says.
And he's trained him to love the outdoors.
Like a proud dad, T.J. shows off the photos: Little Bear in the woods. Little Bear on a river bank. Little Bear under a blanket on a camp chair.
“That's pretty much his whole life right there.”
On a mushroom hunting trip a year ago, T.J. discovered Little Bear could do more than keep watch over catfish.
He and his brother were making their way down a steep ravine and up the other side when, whoosh.
Little Bear leaping across.
“He actually biffed it the first time,” T.J. says. “Then he went back around and tried it again.”
That's when he knew: Little Bear was a natural.
One day, T.J. tossed a Gatorade bottle into the lake. In went Little Bear.
And late this summer, when T.J. heard about a DockDog competition in Omaha, he figured, why not?
Little Bear competed in the amateur division and won.
Little Bear competed in the professional division and won.
That first time he landed more than 22 feet from the edge of the dock. The second time, 22.5 feet.
And last month, when T.J. and Little Bear drove to a competition in Ponca State Park, the rescued pit bull crouched like a kangaroo and sprang, stretching for 25 feet-plus.
Another gold medal.
T.J.'s reward: “My dog bought me a fishing reel.” (The first competition came with a cash prize.)
Little Bear's reward: “I buy him a quarter-pound cheeseburger on the way home.”
But T.J. figures his pup would do it for nothing.
“He balls-to-the-wall loves to jump.”
And, so far, the crowds seem to love the jumping pit bull.
Denise Want is one of his fans. The Walton, Neb., woman was in Omaha with her golden retriever when the pair showed up.
“He was just a kid with his dog, and I could tell he didn't know the rules. It was, 'Oh, just a pit bull jumping, who cares?' ”
But she stood at the end of the 40-foot tank when the pit bull took off like an airborne refrigerator.
“I had tears in my eyes.”
T.J. and his brother and Little Bear are making the 20-hour drive to Alabama.
And Denise is trying to help find sponsors. Americom, where T.J. works, has put up some money. Pheasant Haven in the Elkhorn area is chipping in. A relative with a screen-printing company in Texas designed those red T-shirts.
It's because she likes T.J., says Denise, and she knows he doesn't have big pockets.
And she likes Little Bear.
And she can see their bond.
“That dog loves his owner to no end; he's so driven to please him.”
And she knows why: “That dog knows his owner saved his life.”
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