As the young boy and his dog headed down the dock, it was hard to tell which was more nervous. The boy, apparently in need of reassurance, peered often at his family on the sidelines. The dog-a small, scraggly-looking Jack Russell terrier-quivered from head to paw. The crowd went wild. "Oh, isn't he cute!" "And look at that adorable dog!"
Once the toy tossed and the terrier stationed at the starting point, it was time for the big jump. The boy leaned down close to the dog. "All right, Scruffy. You do it just like we practiced, okay?" The dog yipped in seeming agreement.
The boy stepped aside and Scruffy bounded down the dock, coming to a screeching halt just inches from the edge. "Jump, Scruffy," encouraged the boy. The dog poked its head over the dock's edge, its tail wagging a mile a minute. It danced from side to side, ran around in a complete circle, looked back at the boy, then peeked over the edge again, yapping excitedly the entire time. The crowd erupted in delighted laughter.
The dog started the cycle: peeking, dancing, circling, peeking-and, of course, yapping. "Come on boy," pleaded the boy. "Jump." The dog danced yet again, and peered over the edge yet again, this time leaning just a little further out than before until-more by accident than intent-it tumbled into the water.
"Yes!" exclaimed the boy, jumping up and down and pumping his fist in excitement as the crowd clapped and cheered. "I knew you'd do it."
The "world's premier canine aquatics competition" all started back in 2000 when a Dock Dogs Big Air contest was promoted as a "filler event" at the ESPN Great Outdoor Games. That filler event, as it happens, turned out to be a major hit as thousands of spectators flocked to see the dogs in action. Indeed, traffic to the Big Air contest was so congested that in places, it came to a complete standstill.
Since that initial unexpected success, DockDogs has taken off, starting with its 2001 debut at Lake Placid. New events have been added: extreme vertical in 2005, speed retrieve in 2008 and, more recently, iron dog. Its popularity soaring, the number of scheduled DockDogs competitions has increased accordingly, with 40 in 2004, 100 in 2006 and, more recently, around 300. Several have been featured on ABC, ESPN, the Outdoor Channel and various cable broadcasts.
These days, DockDogs has gone international, with competitions in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Competitions in Russia and Eastern Europe are soon to be added to the mix. In addition, there are plans for sanctioned DockDogs training facilities in all 50 states and a mobile app is in development.
Maybe it's time for you to get on the bandwagon.
Types of Events
DockDogs sponsors four types of events.
Big Air, often referred to as "a long jump for dogs," was the first DockDogs event, and to this day it is still the most popular. In this event, the dog's handler can, if he wishes, throw a floating toy such as a bumper, ball or Frisbee into the water to encourage the jump, but there is no requirement to do so. The dog is free to make its leap from the dock after being released (sent) by its handler.
Jump distance is measured from the edge of the dock to the spot where the base of the dog's tail hits the water.
Extreme Vertical, as you might guess, is based on the height of a jump. In this event, the dog starts from the 20-foot mark on the dock and, when released (sent) by its handler, runs and jumps to grab an object suspended over the water and eight feet from the end of the dock.
Start height for Extreme Vertical is four foot six inches. That height is raised in two-inch increments as the competition progresses.
Speed Retrieve is a timed event. Each dog must jump from the dock, swim and retrieve a bumper toy, which hangs two inches above the water at the far end of the pool. The toy itself is rigged to a starting light. When the light turns green, the handler releases his or her dog with a verbal or sounding device command, and the game is on.
The rules of Speed Retrieve are simple. The time clock stops when the dog pulls the toy from its bracket. The fastest time wins.
Iron Dog is like a triathlon for dogs. Once dogs have qualified and been registered as an Iron Dog, their best scores from Big Air, Speed Retrieve and Extreme Vertical events at a single competition are combined and scored using a points table. The goal, of course, is to achieve the highest point totals.
So You Want To Compete
If you're interested in competing in a DockDogs event, the basic rules are pretty simple: A competition team consists of one dog and one handler. Dogs must be at least six months old, and the handler must be at least seven years of age. All breeds of dogs, including mixed breeds, are allowed to compete. Pre-registration is online or through the DockDogs website at www.dockdogs.com, or onsite on a first-come, first-served basis.
To even the playing field, competition teams are assigned to classes and divisions. Youth handler teams, for instance, are for those teams with handlers between the ages of seven and 15. There's a veteran class for those whose dogs are 8 to 10 years of age during the season, a legend class for those whose dogs are ten and older, and even a lap dog class for those whose dogs measure less than 17 inches or less from shoulder to ground. Divisions ensure that the dogs are competitive within their current jumping level. In the Big Air event, for instance, there are six divisions, starting with the Novice division for those dogs who are most likely to jump a distance of between one inch and nine feet eleven inches. If you have a Pekinese, a Chihuahua or a young pup entered in its first event, this is probably the place to start.
Training Your Dog
Getting your dog to leap off a platform and into the water is a must if you want to participate in a DockDogs event. While some dogs take to it naturally, others may have to be encouraged-some of them quite a lot. There are two basic techniques for encouraging that dock-to-water leap within a competitive event: If your dog is unlikely to wait or stay on the dock unless you're holding onto it for dear life, you'll want to use the "Place and Send" technique. Here, you'll walk with your dog to the end of the dock, and hold it in check as you throw a floatable toy. Return to the starting spot, and when you're ready, release (send) it to retrieve the toy.
If, on the other hand, your dog stays put quite nicely, have it wait at the starting spot as you walk to the end of the dock with the toy. Call your dog and throw the toy out over the water, to a spot just over and in front of its nose. This technique is known as "The Chase," and the purpose is to get your dog to launch up and out from the dock to get the greatest distance. It's not an easy technique for the handler to master, so if you're having trouble with it, opt for place and send instead.
Of course, if you're starting from scratch with your dog training, and the little guy has never been in the water, you're going to have to work up to leaping off the dock. There's an excellent article on just this subject at SportMutt. Click on the training button to summon a list of articles, then click again on "Getting Started." Dock jumping trainer and handler extraordinaire Tom Dropik guides you from the day one of training as he recommends you "start by playing with [your dog's] favorite toy on dry land."
You'll also want to check out the blog on the DockDogs website, which offers some amazing training tips to help you along. Find them by clicking the "Latest From the Dock Button" on the DockDogs.com home page. This takes you to the Dock Blog page. On the right is a series of categories-the subjects covered on the blog. Click on "Training Tips."
You might start with the video "Getting Started with DockDogs," by Kristi Baird of Puget Sound DockDogs. This almost 13-minute film offers a ton of tips, tricks and techniques, starting with the basics of introducing your dog to the pool. Then proceed to the articles. You'll be glad you did.
And now it's up to you and your dog. If this sounds like something that would interest you, take in a DockDogs competition or two, do some reading and begin training your dog. Come on in, as they say, the water's fine.
Lead photo by Jim Zelasko courtesy of DockDogs