For an example of the wide variety of breeds and mixes who compete--and win--in this sport, consider Country*, a Greyhound mix who broke the record four times in 2005, with his longest jump measuring 28 feet, 10 inches. "I think we're his fifth home," says owner Kevin Meese of Fredericktown, Pennsylvania, who readily admits that this breed presents unique training challenges. "I started out by tying deer meat onto the bumper to make him grab it. I used to put my back to him and hold it over my head. He sailed over my head--I'm six feet--which really impressed me. But he has an odd sense of humor. He learned that if he hit me in the head, he could get the deer meat faster."
Despite Meese's overwhelming success with a non-retrieving breed, my husband and I didn't expect our Dalmatians, Darby and Jolie, to jump in such spectacular fashion. But like all of the seminar participants, we hoped our dogs would at least jump.
Our first dock-diving experience was humbling. From land, Darby would go in the water, grab her toy and swim back to us. On the dock, she quivered with excitement like Black Jack, but was reluctant to jump in. Instead, she waited until her toy floated closer to land and then went in to get it. In contrast, Jolie wanted nothing to do with the water, her toy or even me! Despite her confidence in other canine sports and love of swimming, she was unsure in this environment. Breen demonstrated enormous patience with all participants and offered lots of advice and encouragement. Some dogs take time to gain the confidence to jump off the dock, but once they've done it, there's no stopping them.
Like all dog sports, safety is a priority, and competitors take steps to ensure that their dogs remain free of injury. DockDogs recently began using AstroTurf on the docks to prevent slipping. Handlers maintain their dogs' health through a good diet and exercise.
I was concerned about my dog doing a belly flop, which, as most of us know from personal experience, stings a bit. But Breen, who co-owns Rock River Canine Sports & Rehab, LLC, with his wife, Beth Wiltshire, assured me that as the dog prepares to land in the water, his rear legs usually hit the water first. "Some dogs who do a 'Superman stretch' will belly flop, but they don't cringe, and they keep doing it," says Breen.
"In Extreme Vertical, some handlers are concerned that if the dogs misses [the toy], he will crane his neck back as he's going under the object. Dogs' backs are flexible; I've talked to vets about this and it doesn't appear to be an issue. There are dangers, but there are dangers with any sport you do, with dogs or humans. You just try to minimize it by making sure they're in good shape."
Dedicating yourself to the well-being of your dog is a priority for many dog owners. But there are extra benefits to being a DockDogger. "First, it's the greatest thing when I can have a hobby that I can do with my best friend," says Cyndi Porter of Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose Golden Retriever, Murphy, ended the 2005 season ranked 18th in the nation, making Porter the top female handler. "Second is the great people I've met and the friends I've made along the way from all across the country. We really have a great time socializing after the day is done and we can let our hair down and tell tales. A wise friend of mine always makes a toast--'If it weren't for our dogs, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet such wonderful people.' And we all drink to our best friends, two- and four-legged."
*To see Country's record-breaking jump, visit fredforceone.com/WORLDRECORD.html.