QUINLAN, Texas - David Hartwig's beloved dog, Skidboot, had died, but the phone kept ringing with performance requests.
Skidboot's legacy continues
Bring your other dogs and do your routine, they told him. We love it.
But Hartwig wasn't in the mood. His new batch of Australian blue heelers were just "average dogs of average intelligence."
They were no Skidboot, the miracle dog who wowed crowds with tricks at the State Fair of Texas, was crowned Animal Planet's "Pet Star," and appeared on national TV programs, from TheOprah Winfrey Show to The Late Show With David Letterman to The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
Fans kept calling, however, and Hartwig eventually caved in. Now his trio of doggies - Tie Down, Bois d'Arc and Little Skidboot - entertain audiences in the spirit of Skidboot, who died in 2007.
"I had to let the public convince me it was still worthy," he said. "They said, 'You have something, and we want it.' "
Hartwig can't stop comparing his young blue heelers to his old friend.
"If you had never seen Skidboot, you'd think this was a real smart dog," he said, talking about one of his new charges. "But compared to Skidboot, this dog has a bad case of dumbworms."
But the new dogs are talented, and audiences can't get enough of them.
Hartwig is trying many of Skidboot's stunts - including the signature stuffed-toy trick - on his younger dogs. One morning at his Hunt County ranch, Hartwig tossed a stuffed hot dog toy in the dirt and instructed Little Skidboot:
"When I say three, I want you to get that toy, but don't get it until I say three."
The dog was eager but didn't budge.
"One, two," Hartwig said. "Four!"
Nope, the dog didn't even flinch.
"Seventeen! Twenty-one. Three!"
Little Skidboot raced to the toy, picked it up and ran back.
"Good boy!" Hartwig said.
Later, as the heelers climbed stairs, Hartwig yelled "Wait!" and the dogs came to a halt. They played dead - and stayed dead. Hartwig gave each dog a biscuit, but they only looked at the snacks as their owner prayed and didn't devour the treats until he said "Amen."
Hartwig now feels it's his duty to continue entertaining. Skidboot wouldn't want him to quit.
The dog, which Hartwig named, was a Christmas gift he gave his wife in 1992. "Skidboot" refers to the padded leather boots used to prevent horses from getting hurt when they stop.
Skidboot chased horses and cows and killed chickens. But the dog was incredibly receptive, so Hartwig taught him tricks.
That led to his stardom at the State Fair and his crowning achievement as Animal Planet's "Pet Star" in 2003, which earned him $25,000. Besides appearing on various TV shows, Skidboot has his own book, children's video and Web site.
When Skidboot flew - he traveled to 38 states - he got his own boarding pass.
But he eventually went blind, and his health was in decline when he died.
At his funeral, the other dogs played with a pair of tied-up socks, Skidboot's favorite toy.
"I felt like his spirit had passed on to them," Hartwig said.
Skidboot is buried on the ranch, under a canopy of oak trees. A life-size cutout of Skidboot - ears up, a bandana hanging around his neck - rests nearby.
"Skidboot had 14 1/2 of the greatest years a dog could ever have," Hartwig said. "He worked hard to make people laugh and smile and feel good. I don't think he'd want anybody to cry."
Hartwig is heartened that so many people have named their pets after his dog and are showing off their animals' Skidboot-like tricks online. It's his legacy.
Hartwig, 53, wants to produce a movie featuring the blue heeler's life.
"What better way to spend a midlife crisis than to do a movie about your famous dog?," he said.
There's something else on his wish list.
"All these heelers are kind of mild," he said about Tie Down, Bois d'Arc and Little Skidboot. "I want another one who's real hard-headed, who's got that drive."
In other words, a dog like Skidboot.