Dogs don’t need a lot of training to try out the sport of dock jumping. It’s not like agility or obedience where a dog has to be familiar with commands and obstacles before entering a competition. Two main components are necessary, however: swimming ability and a decent toy drive. Make sure your dog is familiar with swimming before bringing it to a dock jumping event. If a dog hasn’t swum before it is not likely it will take the plunge at an event. The toy drive is necessary because this is what entices the dog to jump into the pool. If the dog doesn’t care about the toy being thrown into the pool, it has no reason to get into the water!
If your dog is totally new to swimming, you’ll want to take it swimming before taking it to a dock jumping event. The event environment can be very intimidating, even to dogs who are confident jumpers at home. There is a two foot drop from the dock to the water surface, and the water is very clear and troublesome for dogs to see where it is. It is a totally unnatural environment for the dog; they’re jumping into a clear pool of water with people all around the dock and pool. Most dogs are used to jumping into lakes or ponds where the water is murky and it is easy for the dog to see the surface.
Take your dog to a lake or pond to “test the waters,” so to speak. Using their favorite floatable toy, first engage them in play on land, to pique their interest in the toy. Stay upbeat and energetic the whole time, and make it the most positive experience you can. Once the dog is very engaged in play, start with some shallow water retrieves, enough to get the dog wet and comfortable in the water, but not enough that the dog has to swim. Do not ever force a dog into the water; this could make it a fearful experience for them and they may never want to swim. If the dog is leery about getting in the water, it may help for you to get in and lure them in, using yourself and the toy. Once the dog is confident in the shallow water, move on to throwing the toy into water deep enough where the dog has to swim a little bit to get the toy. If your dog is quite comfortable swimming, and has sufficient toy drive, they’ll probably be ready to try out a dock jumping event.
When you take your dog to your first dock jumping event, it is absolutely imperative to introduce the dog to the exit ramp. This should be the first step you take. It’s similar to the dog walk used in agility. You’ll want to take your dog up the ramp and have them do a retrieve into the pool from the ramp. This serves several purposes. First, you are showing the dog that they are going into water. As previously stated, the water is often so clear it’s hard for the dog to see. Showing them the water from the ramp helps build their confidence. Second, it gets the dog comfortable with walking on the ramp. If they first encounter the ramp coming out of the water, they may easily panic and possibly even fall off the ramp. Last, but certainly not least, the dog will now know how to exit the pool once they go in from the dock. This is very important so they do not freak out, try to climb over the side of the pool, and potentially injure themselves.
Once you take the dog onto the dock, you should begin with short throws and start the dog only about 5-10 feet back from the edge of the dock. It’s all about building the dog’s confidence. Throwing the toy short makes it more achievable for the dog if the toy seems in reach. Starting the dog short helps with this aspect as well, and serves the purpose of helping the dog find and mark the end of the dock. You will even see many experienced handler and dog teams doing some short start warm-up jumps for precisely this reason. The more confident and faster the dog becomes, the further back you can start them.
Photo courtesy Scott Wayland
There are two different methods used at dock jumping events. The first is called the ‘chase.’ Handlers that use this method place their dog in a sit stay where they want the dog to start from on the dock. At Ultimate Air Dog events, you can use this method even if your dog does not have a good sit stay as two handlers are allowed on the dock, and someone can hold the dog. The handler then walks to the end of the dock, releases the dog, and throws the toy as the dog runs toward them. The point is to try to get the dog to launch and chase the toy in the air. This method is a little harder to use, for several reasons. If the handler waits too long to throw the toy, the dog may slow down or even stop in anticipation. If the handler throws too early, the dog may take off too early on the dock, losing valuable extra inches and even feet! It’s very hard to time the throw properly, but once a handler gets it down, it can encourage the dog to launch at a higher angle and help keep them from jumping flat. If the dog has high enough toy drive, it will try to follow the toy in the air. The ultimate goal is to throw the toy right in front of the dog so it seems close enough for them to catch but far enough ahead that the dog really extends and reaches for the toy.
The other method is called the ‘place and send.’ In this method, the handler walks the dog to the end of the dock, throws the toy out into the pool, and lets the dog mark it. The handler walks the dog back to the beginning of the dock, makes sure the dog is focused on the toy, then releases the dog. A larger toy that sits high in the water works better for this method, so the dog can see the toy as its running down the dock. With a smaller toy, if the dog can’t see it, they may slow down or even stop in order to locate the toy placement. The ‘place and send’ method works well for dogs that jump off of speed, or even flyball dogs as they are used to going after a non-moving target. However, there is no way to control the launch angle, and you may lose height off the dog’s jump. If the dog does not have a natural ‘pop’ off the end of the dock, it will probably jump flat. It is a good method for those that do not have very good throwing abilities, as it does not require as much accuracy and coordination.
The ‘chase’ and the ‘place and send’ each have their pros and cons. Both methods have been successfully used by the top dog and handler teams in the sport. It is up to the handler to try different things and figure out what works best for both the handler and the dog. You also have to try out different toys to see what is easiest for you to throw, and also what drives the dog the most.
Some dogs catch on to the game very quickly, and some take many events before they go into the pool from the dock. As stressed over and over in this article, it’s all about building confidence in the dog, and patience from the handler. You’re asking a great deal of your dog, to overcome the environment they’re in and disregard all the intense distractions around them. There will be people and dogs all around the pool and dock, much closer in then in other dog sports. The whole dock and pool set up will be completely unnatural to your dog, it even bothers some dogs who are confident launchers on a lake or pond dock. Most dogs do not start out at competitions at their full potential, since there is a lot to overcome. It takes a confident dog with trust in their handler, which is why it’s imperative to keep the experience positive.
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