updated 09/14/2009 AT 3:00 PM ET
•originally published 09/14/2009 AT 2:30 PM ET
Amid the singers, dancers and entertainers that took to the America’s Got Talent stage this year, one duo in particular won our votes: dog trainer Tony Hoard and his 7-year-old Australian Shepherd, Rockin’ Rory.
With one of the season’s more heart-warming storylines – grandfather Hoard quit his day job to compete on the reality show – the pair made it to the semi-finals, but were eliminated Sept. 3.Despite the loss, Hoard, 54, tells PEOPLE Pets that he and his pup had a great time. “It was fantastic, and amazing to be a part of the show,” he says. “Getting to perform with my dog on national TV was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
A friend encouraged Hoard to audition for Talent earlier in the spring. “She kept after me,” he says. “I didn’t have anything to do the weekend Chicago auditions were going on, so Rory and I went, and it all snowballed from there.” The pair were soon whisked away to Los Angeles and afterward, Las Vegas.
“I don’t think I’d trade the experience for anything. It’s something not a lot of people ever get to do.”Hoard and Rory earned high marks for their Frisbee routines, which the trainer says Rory was “born to do. He was put on this earth to perform – and he’s one of those dogs that does better under pressure than when goofing off. He covers my mistakes and reacts well.”
Though they had a “strong” final performance, Hoard believes his own errors cost them a shot at the finals. “Rory didn’t miss a single disc – it was miles better than our performance the week before,” he says. “I take full blame for anything that went wrong. But the crowd was into us, and it was a positive way to go out.”
Now back home in New Castle, Ind., Hoard is hoping his run on Talent brings exposure to his burgeoning dog-training career. “You leave a job in manufacturing you’ve been at for 25 years, and it’s a major leap of faith,” he says. “With the way the economy is, it’s scary. But in March I started a journey on America’s Got Talent, and even though that journey is over, I’m hoping that I’ve started a new adventure, and want to have fun doing so. I’m not looking at this as ‘the end’ at all.”
As a grandfather to two little boys, Hoard is also happy to be back with his family. “They missed us. And they were very supportive. This whole experience really brought our community together, and that makes me proud.”
As for Rory – one of Hoard’s five pups – his career is far from over. “I do Frisbee shows with my dogs when I can. I have a big Chevy van that I pile the dogs in, a trailer for our equipment, and we’re off to perform wherever and whenever we’re hired,” Hoard says. “And Rory, he’s changed my life forever. I hope I can repay him somehow, someway.”
Read about more Hollywood dogs on PEOPLE Pets:
Mischa Barton: My Dogs Keep Me Grounded
Hills Star Stephanie Pratt’s Animal Past: I Had a Rat!