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Starting With a “Splash”
Posted on 10/07/2011 in DED News.

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Starting With a “Splash”
Dock Jumping, Fetch It, and Catch It
Annie Hammond, BL Staff

The following article appears in the November 2011 issue of BLOODLINES Magazine.

It’s a sport that requires a driven canine, a float-worthy toy for throwing and that unwavering bond between handler and athlete which allows a dog the confidence to excel. Spectators cheer in awe as each dog flies through the air and lands with a splash, sometimes soaking the exuberant crowd. The rest of the dogs wait their turn, brimming with feverish enthusiasm, sometimes vocalizing their ready impatience. If you’re lucky enough to find a seat on the crowded bleachers, you’re in for a good show. The sport of Dock Jumping is action-packed, and it makes for an afternoon of thrills for spectators and competitors alike.

Notice the look of intensity as this Viszla takes the plunge!
Photo Credit: Victoria Rak, www.tuffphoto.com

There’s a place in this sport for every dog, no matter the air time. There are the stand-out stars who consistently hit over 20 feet every time they leave the dock, but then there are the dogs who jump with just as much heart, but don’t cover the distance.

Dock Jumping is a sport for all breeds, no matter the size. This Corgi was competing at the Andersons event in Maumee, Ohio on July 16.
Photo Credit: Victoria Rak, www.tuffphoto.com

A particular black dog and I made our own foray into dock jumping as youngsters. My interest was piqued by our local trainer. My mom used to take her dog, Monroe, there every Thursday, and she would proceed to pay for the giant Bluetick mix to embarrass her royally. I’d always tag along because some nights, if there was time left, the trainer would let me play fetch with his Lab. After the summer sessions that year, I was occasionally allowed to take his little female down to the pond. That dog blew my mind. All at once, I knew I, too, needed a water-crazy fool with confidence and style to boot. I went looking for a Lab of my own.

It was April of 2003 when I found the perfect black sliver of a pup. I took the time to make sure Connor was level-headed and fetch-obsessed. He grew into the perfect gentleman, in the usual fashion, and in March of 2004 we were ready to try our luck at taking the world by storm.

Our first of a handful of events over the next few years was the sport show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I remember arriving ridiculously early and watching the commotion, wide-eyed and excited to the brink of nausea. We were waiting in line, and I was anxiously keeping a handle on my then 13-month-old monster. Connor couldn’t believe his luck at being invited to what seemed like a giant party teeming with people who, all too easily, bought his act of adorable innocence.

There I was, 14 years old, waiting for our splash to start and hoping my nerves wouldn’t betray the look of steely resolve plastered on my face. Milt Wilcox, the President of Ultimate Air Dogs, passed by and must have realized we hadn’t yet met. He stopped to ask me all about Connor and told us what to expect at our first event. I remember venturing out and speaking to a few more people, whose names I recognized from the message board. Shortly thereafter, I turned to my mother and told her my suspicions had been confirmed; I knew we were going to have a blast.

We signed up for two splashes that day, and Connor behaved beautifully. By that, I mean he was the same outgoing, amiable black dog that slept by my bedroom door every night, even if he was unconvinced that jumping was the best way to enter the pool. At our first event, he got quite a bit of swimming in, mastering the ramp in no time of course, but the drop-off from the dock, the typical route taken for water entry, proved to be a little much. Regardless, it had been a fun, busy experience, and we knew what to work on for next time. Dock or no dock, Connor had behaved remarkably well for the 13-month-old menace he usually was back then. We left for home that afternoon with the soggy black dog curled up in the backseat of my mother’s Dodge pickup, and with me plotting, for the entire three-hour drive, our next attempt to take over the world.

Any given event is bound to be just as welcoming as my first one - even if your dog doesn’t jump, just like mine didn’t. What’s even better is that at most events, there are two unique variations of the same game!

Fetch It and Catch It have each been around for about three years, according to Milt Wilcox of Ultimate Air Dogs. Milt says for anyone looking to find a fun, family activity available across the country nearly every weekend, Dock Jumping, Fetch It and Catch It should do the trick!

Catch It
In Catch It, the dog gets two jumps just like in distance jumping. The twist? As the dog leaves the dock, the object is to toss his toy with complete accuracy so that he snatches it in the air before hitting the water! If the catch is made both times, the jumps are added together. It stemmed from simple training drills where the goal was to encourage the dogs to gain a little more lift and keep their eyes on the toy as they left the dock, which quickly translated into bigger jumps. Success in Catch It takes patient teamwork and great timing.

Catch It requires precision and accuracy - on behalf of both the dog and handler!
Photo Credit: Victoria Rak, www.tuffphoto.com

There’s a particular dog that has proven his competitive stamina in this event time and time again. UUJCH Gauge 357 Dock Diving Dog is a four-and-a-half year-old chocolate Lab owned and handled by Courtney Graham of Dearborn, Michigan. Gauge and Courtney got their dock jumping start in 2007 at the Petapalooza event in Taylor, Michigan. Gauge hasn’t looked back since.

His personal best in distance jumping is 25’ 11”, and in Catch It he was the competitor to beat, regularly hitting nearly 20 feet per jump. That was before the accident. In the winter of 2010, Gauge was run over – by a toboggan of all things. He had accidentally crossed onto the track at a local toboggan run and was launched 30 feet from the impact, Courtney said. He immediately took Gauge to the vet, but the dog was given a clean bill of health that evening. Even so, Courtney kept a close eye on him, waiting to see if he would become sore or lethargic after exercise. Gauge didn’t. He continued to relish his regular two-hour workouts and jumped competitively in events during the spring and summer.

It wasn’t until a few months later that Gauge presented a minor limp. Courtney wondered if it was related to the toboggan incident from the previous winter. It was. In September of 2010, Gauge went to Michigan State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine for surgery on his right shoulder, which had been completely broken, and arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder where a bone spur had developed.

Three months of crate rest and another three months of leash-only restrictions later, Gauge is completely healed and competition-ready once more. “There’s no sign of injury, no hesitation,” Courtney said. Gauge may be a few feet shy of his pre-accident distances, but he’s still hitting a comfortable 22 feet in regular jumps, not to mention his continued presence in both Catch It and Fetch It.

Courtney said the key to Catch It is to be in-tune with the dog. “You have to know his speed, have to know exactly how high he goes to place the toy. It’s all about timing.”

Another helpful tip is to remain consistent. When Courtney and Gauge first started, it was Courtney who had the shoulder problems. He had just had surgery on his right, so he started the sport while throwing with his left. Almost five years later, even though he’s back to being right-handed, he says you won’t see him throwing with it.

Routine, timing, consistency; they’re all part of the process. What’s the best way to see if your dog is an all-star at Catch It?

“Show up and play the game,” Courtney said. “The more fun you make it, the better the dog will do at any event.”

The Butler family of Grand Rapids, Michigan has two dogs that compete in all three events as well. SHR GUJCH USUV Santa Fe’s Blonde Diesel, Sky, is a six-year-old Labrador Retriever female, and Sauk Rivers Pointing Star is a three-year-old Labrador Retriever female. The Butlers have been involved in dock jumping for five years, and dogs jump in over 20 events per year, Brian T. Butler said.

He suggests, no matter the event, that a handler “never start a new dog all the way at the back of the dock.” To bolster confidence, start at around eight feet and then slowly move the dog back with each successful jump. “Use this process until the dog is running down the dock consistently and jumping [without hesitation],” Brian said.

Here, a yellow Lab is completely focused on the task at hand.
Photo Credit: Victoria Rak, www.tuffphoto.com

Fetch It
Those words of advice are also applicable to Fetch It, which is a variation of the vertical events offered by other organizations. In Fetch It, the dummy is extended, on a specialized arm, horizontally instead of vertically for every successful grab. This format gets away from the regular two-jump routine. As long as the dog is making the grabs, he’ll keep advancing. The toy is suspended four feet off the water, which makes it two feet off the dock. It starts 10 feet from the dock and is moved out in one-foot increments. Each dog gets two chances to make the grab before being knocked out of competition. It’s important that the handlers know their dogs’ capabilities to best determine the optimal starting distance. Courtney says starting a dog one or two feet under their typical distance is desirable so that they’re not burnt out when the big jumps are really needed.

In Fetch It, the dummy is suspended two feet off the dock and four feet off the water. It’s moved away from the dock in one-foot increments. Here, a German Shorthaired Pointer makes the grab!
Photo Credit: Victoria Rak, www.tuffphoto.com

The world record right now hangs at 23 feet, reached only by UUJCH URUV Sandycreek’s Ruff And Ready, Cowboy, a 3-year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever owned by Jason and Abby Kidd of Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was at the Curwood Festival 2010 in Owosso, Michigan where Cowboy grabbed the world record, quite literally, right out of the air. GUJCH Caloia’s Maddy, a Labrador Retriever, owned by John or Lori Caloia of Livonia, Michigan, made sure Cowboy was up against some stiff competition that day.

“It was raining - there was a tornado the day before,” John recalled. He brought Maddy in at 15 feet.

“Maddy brought down 16, 17, 18,” John said. “She and Cowboy matched each other jump for jump on 19, 20 and 21. Then things got really interesting.”

At this point, between the rain and the competition, Maddy was getting tired. John watched as Cowboy made the grab at 22 feet. He and Maddy took the dock. He gave her a quick pep talk, nothing but a whisper, “you’ve got this, babe,” he said, and let her go. Maddy missed. John waited on the dock as Maddy ran up for her second attempt. He set her up again, held her for a second as they stared at the dummy hanging 22 feet away, and then released her. This time, Maddy made it.

The dummy was moved to 23 feet as Jason and Cowboy prepared. Maddy and Cowboy were in brand new territory that afternoon; the previous world record was 21 feet, and they’d both just made 22. Jason put Cowboy to work, and he made the grab. Maddy was next.
“She missed the first attempt by a whisker, and the second by a foot,” John said. “She was done. Now you’re talking in-tears proud. That is the best second place I have ever seen … for a few minutes, she was tied with the world record in Fetch It.”

Cowboy almost beat his own record a few months ago in August. He barely missed at 24 feet, Jason said. Jason started in the sport with his wife, Abby, and her dog, Nia’a, four years ago at PREMIER. Nia’a was seemingly a natural. To this day, beyond Maddy, Nia’a is one of the few dogs who can give Cowboy a run for his money.

“We’re addicted to the sport,” Jason said. And it shows. By the first of September, they had already been to 17 events this year.

John and his wife Lori also travel regularly to make events with Maddy, and their new pup, USJCH Old Squaw’s Great Laker. His advice for newcomers is straightforward and painfully simple, “Don’t get caught up in the distance. It’s about the dogs. Period!”
It seems that there are a few minor training and competition faux pas to avoid, but the most common one Brian sees is, “getting into the sport for reasons other than having fun.”
As for me and the black dog, in the years following our debut in Grand Rapids, we hit a jump or two at Rock Financial Showplace in Novi, Michigan, and there were always the random summertime events at whichever venues were mutually interesting enough to my mother to warrant driving across the state. In 2006 we jumped Cherry Fest. Well, “jumped” is an overstatement in every sense of the word. Connor had long ago proven himself a reliable fetching machine who swam like a son-of-a-gun, and he did eventually learn to go off the end of the dock consistently, but the dog has never really jumped at all. We traveled to another event or two in 2007, and by the summer of 2008 were boasting a personal best of six feet.

We still try to hit at least one event a year, mostly so I can get a new leash or two at the nearest pet expo - and offer up the overzealous black monster as comic relief; he’s usually the one who tip-toes off the dock with all the grace of an oversized, one-winged butterfly. And that’s just it, whether the dog flops or the dog flies, like Gauge, Star, Sky, Maddy and Cowboy, is not the point. Dock Jumping, Fetch It and Catch It are events for the whole family, where good-natured competition meets close friends and the smell of wet dog.

My dog loves to fetch and swim. Is this the sport for us?

Can my dog earn UKC titles?
UKC Licensed Dog Jumping - Yes
Non-Licensed Fetch It - No
Non-Licensed Catch It - No

Does my dog have to be UKC Registered to participate?
UKC Licensed Dog Jumping - No, but only UKC Registered dogs can earn titles.
Non-Licensed Fetch It & Non-Licensed Catch It - No

Where can I go for more information?
ukcdogs.com or ultimateairdogs.net