On a drizzly Midwest morning my husband and I joined a small group gathered at the edge of a pond to watch one of the country's top dock-diving dog teams in action. Handler Dave Breen of Oregon, Illinois, and his awesome Lab/German Shorthaired Pointer mix, Black Jack, are pioneers in this young sport.
Breen asked Black Jack to sit and stay at the dock's end closest to land, then walked to the opposite end and turned to face his dog. Black Jack, quivering with excitement, could barely contain himself. Breen released him and, as a galloping Black Jack approached the edge of the dock, threw his toy into the water. The big dog leaped and landed with a splash. He grabbed his toy and happily paddled to Breen, now back on shore. Just as Breen reached for the toy, Black Jack gave a mighty shake from head to tail, spraying water everywhere. At that moment, I realized that I was going to get just as wet as my dogs.
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Dock diving was invented in 1999 by Shadd and Melanie Field for ESPN's Great Outdoor Games and has grown in popularity ever since. In 2005, an association dubbed DockDogs (dockdogs.com) started organizing events and offering competitive titles; fans of the sport are known as DockDoggers. According to DockDogs CEO Grant Reeves, 24 dock-diving events occurred last year. "This year, with a combination of national and club events, we'll have 100 events," says Reeves. "Our database has [grown to] over 4,000 dogs since 2000."
Up and Out!
There are two categories of dock diving, Big Air and Extreme Vertical. The former debuted first. The dog runs the length of a regulation dock, which must be 40 feet long and two feet above the surface of the water, to gain speed. The handler encourages the dog to leave the dock as close to the edge as possible because the jump is measured from the end of the dock rather than from where the dog leaps. So if a dog leaves the dock two to three feet from the edge, that two or three feet do not count toward his total total jump distance. The end of the jump is electronically measured by the "V," or the point at which the base of the dog's tail hits the water.
The handler also throws a toy as motivation for the dog to stretch out and leap as far as he can; the toss is timed to coincide with the moment the dog leaves the dock. Usually, handlers use a plastic retrieving bumper, but DockDogs generally allows any floating, retrievable object. In fact, one participant threw a corn cob for his dog, but DockDogs eventually asked him to use something else, because bits of corn floating in the water distracted the dogs who followed.
Extreme Vertical, also known as "The Launch," was introduced two years ago. A floatable retrieving toy hangs in the air eight feet from the dock. The dog takes a running leap from the dock with the goal of jumping up instead of out to grab the toy. The height of the toy is gradually raised.
In competition, teams vie to achieve the longest distance in five or six waves, or heats, per event. The last wave is known as the "Finals." Both Big Air and Extreme Vertical offer different divisions--from novice to elite--to ensure that dogs of comparable jumping ability are grouped together. Plus, there is a veterans' division for dogs eight years and older, a lap dog class from small dogs (measuring 17 inches or less at the withers), and a junior handler program for kids. Participants can go on to compete for nationally recognized titles.
Last year, Breen and Black Jack were invited to compete at ESPN's Great Outdoor Games and placed fourth in Extreme Vertical with a 6-foot, 6-inch jump. Also in 2005, the achieved a personal best in Big Air with a 21-foot, 10-inch jump. For nearly four years, black Labrador Little Morgan, owned by Mike Jackson of Shakopee, Minnesota, held the Big Air outdoor world record at 26 feet, 6 inches.
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.