“Every species is a multispecies crowd,” writes philosopher and dog-lover Donna Haraway, “So, how do dogs and people learn to pay attention to each other in a way that changes who and what they become together?” Yeah, how does that work –especially when my dog prefers rolling in a sea lion carcass than heeding my whistle?
Donna and her Australian Shepards tackle these academic questions through agility competition: lightning-fast races through an obstacle course of jumps, tunnels, U-turns, weave poles, A-frames, and balancing beams. Agility is dominated by nimble, sharp, sprightly little devils. Yappers, my dad calls them.
But my companion species, Zuzu (pictured above), can’t even time an aerial Frisbee catch. So last Sunday, at San Diego’s Wags for Wishes dog show, we decided to stick to what Chesapeake Bay Retrievers were bred to do: swim, fetch, and be muscle. If agility is the steeplechase of dog competition, dock jumping is the shot put.
Dock jumping rules are simple. Handler and dog stand on a long platform, handler throws a toy into the pool, dog runs and jumps, longest jump wins. Not all canines are cut out for it, however. While waiting on line for the practice pool, I watched handlers coax, plead, beg, and even push their dogs into the pool (not recommended). One woman actually jumped in the water fully clothed (not recommended and kinda gross), trying to lure her skeptical Boxer.
I started to feel nervous as we moved up in line. What if Zuzu refused to jump? We had practiced retrieving on the beach, but never on a dock, with an audience. The wrangler (think umpire), Mark, waved us over to master Exit Ramp 101. Zuzu nailed it in ten seconds flat, then promptly turned around and leapt four vertical feet back into the pool. Well… at least we wouldn’t have a problem going into the water.
Mark gave us the signal and we stepped onto the dock. Zuzu took her spot at the far end and sat trembling, obedient as never before. I walked to the edge, took a deep breath. We locked eyes. I paused. Then “GO, GO, GO, GO, GO!” –I pitched the tennis ball, Zuzu blurred past and took flight. Splash. Applause.
Just like Beggar’s Canyon back home.
Mark ran up to us, a bit breathless. “That dog is champion quality!” he cried, “Are you entering her in the competition?”
“Well, I hadn’t thought about it,” I shrugged, surprised.
“She’ll be jumping 14 feet TODAY! You have to enter,” he insisted. “Tell you what –come with me and I’ll fast-track you through registration into the next wave. She’s a natural, just a natural,” he kept repeating.
The next hour was a blur of fur and water. Mark swept us through registration and cut us to the front of the practice pool line, twice. “Don’t release the ball too early,” he advised, “You want to make sure it flies five feet in front of her nose.” Barking Labs, flying Goldens, gleeful children, smiling Zuzu, the sun beat down and made my head spin. I was hooked.
Zuzu didn’t hit 14 feet that day. She jumped 9’10” and 10’9” in her wave, respectively, which didn’t advance us to the finals and put her 52 out of 79 dogs. Not a bad showing for a first day, but with room to improve. Mark took us aside and told us about the Splash Dogs Dock Jumping World Championships in Scottsdale, Arizona in November. “Keep working at it,” he assured us, “You guys will be great.”
I kenneled Zuzu and went to size up our future competition. These dogs are pros. Like Nevada, the speedy little Border Collie who flies 23 feet after a yellow rubber ducky using the “chase method” –an agility approach that requires intensive training and preparation.
Then there’s ‘Standing Stanley,’ a friend and fellow rescue Chessie. Following a jump in the 16-18 foot range, Stanley hams it up: standing in the middle of the pool, paws up, waving, winning the crowd. Kids go wild and demand photographs. This is the same dingo that won third place in the Imperial Beach Dog Surfing Contest last month.
Or take Henry, 2007 Splash Dogs Champion and the current world record-holder in Big Air. His ear-to-ear smile and goofy demeanor conceal his leaping prowess –this 6 year-old Chessie is the Michael Jordan of the dog pool. Splash Dogs had to extend regulation pool length just to accommodate his dunks. Henry’s best scores average in the range of 23-26 feet. In a single leap.
All for a dog cookie. And some rump scratches. Ponder that when watching the Olympics next month. And see you in Scottsdale, punks.