After a particularly rough day of competing in novice obedience with his chocolate Labrador Retriever, Bob Fullum, of Staten Island, New York, got out a pen and wrote three words: Never Give Up. He slipped the phrase into the armband number he was wearing for his dog, Hershey, and smiled into his eyes. “You’re amazing, Hershey,” he whispered. That was when he first thought that Rally might be a good alternative to obedience and agility, which seemed to stress his dog out.
Not long after, however, Bob decided to retire Hershey — just one leg away from earning his Utility Dog (UD) obedience title. It was a difficult decision, he says, looking back. But Hershey was stressed. He was having seizures. And for Bob, the health of his dogs has always been more important than titles.
But with Hershey out of commission, he was itching to compete again.
Last of the Litter
In 2012, Bob was taking Hershey to physical therapy with a woman named Petra Ford, who also owned a Lab — a national obedience champion who just happened to have a litter of puppies.
So when she suggested Bob take a look at the puppies, he was intrigued. People come from all over to buy dogs from Rhumbline Retrievers.
He hesitated. Quickly, “there are three dogs left” turned to “there are two dogs left,” until there was only one.
One day, Petra asked him: “Would you like to take him outside?” She motioned toward the lone black pup with a yellow ribbon around his neck. Bob took the last remaining puppy out to play, snapping photos on his flip phone. When he showed the photos to his wife, Roseann, she said: “Call the breeder.”
Zorro was destined for success from the beginning. He came from a family of winners, and from the very first moment, Bob said he knew there was something different about him.
It was only later, when Zorro started his training, that the owner at Top Dog Obedience School revealed she almost took Zorro herself. There was just something she saw in him. At their first lesson together, Betsy Scapicchio said, “You got my dog!” Bob smiled, thankful fate left Zorro with him.
Three hundred breaths. That’s how many times 33-year-old Oliver had to breathe in and out on Aug. 30, 2018, before he finally calmed down. He was dying. And he was so afraid for the legacy he was about to leave behind.
In 2015, at the Rally National Championship in Missouri, 30-year-old man named Oliver Coulson reached out to Bob and told him he was looking to get a Lab.
“When he approached me, it was instant friendship, like I had known him all his life,” Bob says of that first meeting.
The two men quickly became close and Bob learned that Oliver had battled cancer for most of his young adulthood, but was ready to get back to his passion for showing dogs.
Bob says he is always eager to help anyone in the dog world, but he saw something special in Oliver. Two days before Christmas 2017, Bob picked up Oliver from Newark airport and drove him to his house on Staten Island. The next day, they talked and talked, all the way through Long Island to Rhumbline Retrievers.
There were two puppies for Oliver to choose from. Oliver tried to prod Bob: “Bob, why don’t you just take one, and I’ll take the other?”
They drove home with just one puppy: Carley.
Oliver was one of the few people Bob told when he decided he and Zorro were going to be the first in the world to earn a Rally Champion title (RACH), a title released in November 2017. Bob’s wife thought he was crazy, but Oliver began telling everyone that Zorro and Bob would soon be champions.
Reaching Toward a RACH
Oliver wasn’t the only one who recognized how capable Zorro was.
Fellow competitors began calling Bob “Mr. 100” and the “Rally Guru.” Bob and Zorro were getting perfect scores multiple times a week, and exhibitors began asking him for tips and advice.
Even judges knew Zorro. “What’s the matter with Zorro?” they would ask, sometimes even when he was scoring 100s. They knew him inside and out and could tell when he was a little off.
But as Zorro got closer to earning his RACH (pronounced ROCK), Oliver’s cancer came back, and he started going downhill quickly.
Toward the end of August, Oliver knew he was going to die.
Three hundred breaths. In. Out. In. Out. Had he left a legacy? In. Out. In a month he’d be 34. In. Out. Carley was one week away from getting her Junior Hunter title. In. Out. And Bob and Zorro were about to earn a RACH. In. Out.
In the final days of his life, Oliver wrote:
“I don’t know if ghosts exist, but I’m hoping so because I’ll be a good, fun ghost! – OJC”
“If at all possible, I’d love for you to join Zorro and me in the Rally Master ring when we earn our RACH. I’ll know you’re with us if Zorro is over-the-top focused, happy, and spot-on in every exercise, and we get a perfect score. We won’t be hard to find. I’m the guy with the fabulous black Lab, and I’ll be wearing my true #OliverStrong colors.
One more thing, make sure you stay on my left shoulder, so our heeling is impeccable. Thanks pal.”
The First RACH
On Nov. 3, at the Port Chester Obedience Training Club AKC Rally Trials, Bob looked into Zorro’s eyes and smiled.
That’s Bob’s top tip for anyone in Rally: smile with your eyes. Let your dog know he is good. Tell him he’s awesome. He will sense your confidence, Bob says.
Zorro had just come off of six perfect scores at his last nine trials, all outdoors. This meant Bob needed two perfect scores at each of his runs today to earn the Rally Champion title.
At the end of the second run, Bob asked a judge: “Did you mark anything off?”
She looked up. “Why?”
“Because if you didn’t, and I got a perfect score —” Bob paused. “Then this is my RACH.”
The judge smiled. “You got a perfect score.”
Bob froze. He had never felt anything like this. Pure happiness. And even a few tears. His mind started to race. The first thing he thought of was Oliver. He was the one who encouraged him to go further. And Carley. She would be joining his pack. And Oliver’s mother. He decided then that she would be the first person he told.
Someone was outside the ring holding an orange cone with RACH written on it, ready to hand it to Bob. But he knew if he grabbed it, he could be disqualified. So he contained his emotions in the ring as best as he could. Anyway, there was already someone in the ring celebrating with him; he was sure of it. Oliver.
“What did you do today to make this world a better place?”
That was Oliver’s motto.
For his memorial service, Bob created a wreath of red, white, and blue ribbons from AKC competitions. On one of the white ribbons, he wrote Oliver’s favorite phrase.
Bob thought, “Can you imagine the impact one person can have?” And he decided to make Oliver’s motto his own.
Dozens of dog-loving friends came to Oliver’s memorial service. One of them, Rachel Husband, met Oliver through dog shows. Rachel has a rare health condition and competes with her service dogs while she’s in a wheelchair. Oliver and Rachel both understood what it meant to want to compete, despite setbacks.
Rachel’s goal is to participate in a Rally trial in all 50 states. She’s competed in 14 so far, and in March she will travel to Bob’s house so he can drive her to two nearby trials in New Jersey and Delaware. He hopes to help her get to even more.
Every morning, when Bob gets home, he has a routine. Hershey is 10 now and puts his graying snout between Bob’s legs. Zorro stays in the bedroom until he hears the second collar come off of the coat rack. And now, there’s a third collar for Carley, who is full of energy and ready to sprint out the door.
These early morning routines are moments of reflection for Bob, who has been a truck driver all his life and now works night shifts. There aren’t too many people awake in the wee hours of the morning. In those yawning hours, Bob was Oliver’s go-to guy. Whenever he couldn’t sleep, Oliver would text Bob.
There are some mornings, after he walks his three dogs, that Bob comes through the kitchen and just smiles. There are no words, he says, for being the first RACH in the nation. Especially not when it means so much more than competition.
He thinks of Hershey’s armband: Never Give Up. And his wife, who is sometimes too nervous to watch him compete. And Zorro, the last of the litter, now the first in the country. And finally, Carley.
Then, before falling asleep while the rest of the country wakes up, a question he ponders often: “If everyone in the world had one friend like Oliver, could you imagine how much better the world would be?”