You can lead a dog to water, but can you make him jump?
That was the question at Summer Splash, a three-day event held at a dog training centre an hour northwest of Chicago. More than 150 dogs competed – yes, competed – by leaping into a 1.2-metre-deep pool from a dock 60 centimetres above the water.
It was part of a growing sport called dock jumping, a laid-back pastime that does not have the high profile and histrionics of better-known canine affairs like traditional dog shows. The premise behind dock jumping is simple: Dogs jump into the water, and they are judged on how well they do. In this competition, a mutt is as welcome, if not more, than a purebred.
There are different disciplines in the sport. In the Big Air event, the dogs' jumps are measured for distance. Lanky, athletic dogs tend to gravitate toward the Extreme Vertical, in which the competitors jump to snatch a dog toy suspended 2.5 metres over the pool. The Speed Retrieve tests how fast a dog can swim when fetching a thrown object. A dog can enter all three events and compete for the Iron Dog title, a distinction of all-around canine athleticism.
Although many dogs have a natural instinct to retrieve something, not all are inclined to leap off a dock into cold water. At Summer Splash a few of the competitors merely sniffed around looking befuddled.
The dogs must jump of their own volition; handlers cannot nudge or bump the dog into the water. But, as an incentive to individual competitors, anything that floats can be tossed out over the water. Flying discs, tennis balls, rubber ducks and retrieval toys called bumpers are common choices.
Dock jumping takes all comers
“There are no professional dogs,” said Beth Wiltshire, the event's organiser. “They are all people's dogs.”
She added: “I mean, they're just jumping off a dock. It's kind of hard to take it too seriously.”
The sport does not have excessive amounts of prize money and does not promise stud fees for champion jumpers. First place at Summer Splash paid out $US75, after a $US30 registration fee. Dogs can earn titles such as Ultimate Air Dogs and Splash Dogs competitions.
“It has grown steadily, and interest has definitely increased since we began offering dock jumping titles,” said Sydney Suwannarat, the United Kennel Club's executive director of performance events. “Last year, 310 dock jumping titles were earned.”
There is a dock jumping circuit, and a handful of dog owners travel across the United Staes to win recognition and set records. The Chicagoland event had three big-jumping dogs who had competed against one another before, and they were the ones to watch.
Wrigley, a 7-year-old rescued Weimaraner, first jumped off a dock in 2009.
“He was jumping off a dock into a pond with a life jacket because we didn't know if he could swim,” said his owner, Meghan Williams. “He figured it out.”
A year later, they travelled to Oregon where Wrigley took second place in Big Air at the DockDogs World Championships. He took second place again at the same championship in 2011.
Meghan and her husband, Pete, travel to dock jumping competitions once or twice a month from their Chicago home.
“He goes everywhere with us,” Pete Williams said. “We've met tons of people and have done some awesome things with him.”
One of the people they have met is Brad Weicht of Wentzville, Missouri. Weicht's jumping dog is Guinness, an adopted Great Dane-Labrador mix. Wrigley jumps long; Guinness jumps high. Both dogs compete in the Iron Dog competition.
“They beat us in Big Air and we pound them in vertical,” Weicht said.
Henry, a three-year-old up-and-coming Lab-pointer mix, has competed against Wrigley and Guinness. He was adopted by Kansans Michael and Julie Kittinger, who noticed his strong drive to chase toys. They started Henry in dock jumping a year ago. His first official jump was 5.3 metres.
At the Chicagoland event, Henry passed his personal best with a jump of 7.9 metres, beating Wrigley in the Big Air finals by 7.6 centimetres.
Henry's jumps keep increasing as he matures, the Kittingers said. They intend to travel around the country with him.
“I'm getting ready to burn my vacation time for the year on events,” Michael Kittinger said. “He wants to go again, again and again. He's not happy when you take him off the dock.”
The New York Times