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Deb Feller and her Labrador retriever, Doni, have developed into one of the top competitive DockDogs teams. Doni qualifies for the Iron Dog division, where dogs compete in Big Air, Speed Retrieve and Extreme Vertical events.
Photo by Mic Smith
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Drive to succeed
Motivated by “toy drive,” DockDogs happily launch themselves into the water to retrieve their favorite floating toys.
Photo by Mic Smith
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The Extreme Vertical event is a crowd favorite, with DockDogs leaping more than 6 feet high to grab a baton that inches up with each successive attempt.
Photo by Mic Smith
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What the dog saw
Deb Feller knows how to work a crowd. With the song “What Makes You Beautiful” blaring on the loudspeakers and a throng of spectators surrounding the diving platform, Feller throws her arms up in the air, pleading for more noise. And she gets what she wants—whoops and hollers and cheers—because the crowd knows who’s beautiful: Feller’s yellow Labrador mix, Adonis.
Feller turns her attention to her obediently waiting Adonis (aka “Doni” or “Gentleman Doni”), the DockDog ranked fourth worldwide in the long-jumping Big Air competition. His gaze rests squarely on the orange rubber throw toy Feller grips in her hands. As the one-minute clock ticks down for his big jump, Feller gives the toy a whirl, and Adonis—as handsome as the mythological Greek deity he is named for—takes off sprinting and drives through the air, soaring an incredible 26-plus feet and splashing into the cool waters of the dive pool.
The crowd, gathered for this Palmetto DockDogs event at the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival in Georgetown, goes wild—just like they did at the national DockDogs Big Air event that Doni won in Charleston months earlier, as part of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. Just like they will two weeks from now at another Palmetto competition at Colleton County Rice Festival in Walterboro. Just like they do when Doni competes at the World Championships each November in Iowa.
“It’s a crazy hobby we do with our dogs,” says Feller, a James Island resident and the president of Palmetto DockDogs. “How many people do you know who get together with their dogs and see how far they can jump in the water? It’s just a good reason to have fun.”
Dog diving—part handler’s art, part canine science, part team athletic competition—has been hailed as the fastest-growing dog sport in the United States. In just a few short years, Doni and Feller, his handler, have developed into one of the sport’s top teams in the Iron Dog division, where dogs compete in Big Air, Speed Retrieve and Extreme Vertical events.
Few owners find themselves with a championship dog like Doni from the get-go. Palmetto DockDogs, like hundreds of other clubs nationwide, hosts practices for beginners. It’s an opportunity for newcomers to have their dogs mentored in a sport that begins with “toy drive”—a dog’s relentless concentration on pursuing a floatable, nonedible toy. The 52-and-counting members of Palmetto DockDogs include beginners and champs, youth handlers and veterans.
“A recurring theme when you talk to people about DockDogs is it’s not so much the competition. It’s not the dog. It’s the people you meet who are dog crazy and who have a passion for the same thing you have,” Feller says.
The same is true nationwide. “It’s good people having fun with their dogs,” says Sean Swearinger, the operations director for DockDogs U.S., the national company that began hosting competitions on TV in 2000, as part of ESPN’s Great Outdoor Games. “What more could you ask for?”
The art of the jump
Big Air is the big draw at any DockDogs contest. Everyone wants to see that one, powerfully launched, hang-timing, grab-the-toy-in-the-air, perfect dive that ends with a splash and an excited dog swimming back to the ramp.
Big Air starts when handlers come up the steps with their dogs and onto the platform, where each dog has one minute to get going in a forward motion.
Handlers use a gamut of toys and methods—everything from duck decoys to tennis balls—to get their dogs jumping off the 2½-foot ledge. Some have whistles, while others can make their dogs sit and stay in ways that would make most dog owners envious. Some throw the toy in the water first; others try to have the dog catch the toy in midair.
As a spectator at a DockDogs event, you’ll see a wide range of breeds competing: retrievers, Labradors, German short-haired pointers, Boykin spaniels, Weimaraners, Dobermans, border collies and even Rottweilers.
To keep things fair, DockDogs uses a divisional format in which dogs are judged against competitors in their proven jumping range. If, for example, your dog jumps only up to 10 feet in a Big Air event (and they once purportedly had a dog jump just one inch), then it qualifies as a novice and can win in the novice category in the finals. Big Air divisions go up in increments from there—junior, senior, master, elite and super elite.
Community and teamwork
After only a few hours at a DockDogs event, it becomes clear that this crowd is all about community. Their gathering point is “Dogtown”—the area where all the dog handlers pitch their tents and crates and where they cook out in the evenings beside their RVs.
“We love our dogs, we love hanging out with them, and it’s something the whole family can do,” says Laurie Uebelhoer, the self-proclaimed “grammager” (grandma manager) of one of Palmetto’s competition teams, Team Skinny Dip, a family-run team that originated with Feller’s unusual entry into the sport.
“Four years ago, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer,” Feller says. “I’ve always been very, very active, outdoorsy, animal-oriented; we’ve always had a lot of dogs, horses, things like that. After I finished my chemo—six months’ worth of treatment—I wasn’t feeling well. I was kind of down.”
At Uebelhoer’s suggestion, Feller got Doni and his black Labrador-retriever-mix brother, Sirius Black, from a backyard breeder and discovered her newfound purpose—to try DockDogs, a sport she’d enjoyed watching at past Southeastern Wildlife Expositions.
“By the time they were 9 or 10 weeks old,” she remembers, “they were housebroke and knew all their basic commands. Then, by the time they were 13 weeks old, we took them to a friend of ours’ pool, and they were launching off the side of the pool for a toy. So, we were like, ‘OK, we’ve got our DockDogs here.’”
Team Skinny Dip includes Uebelhoer, Feller and their granddaughter, 17-year-old Kaitie Uebelhoer, the reigning two-time DockDogs national youth handler of the year.
At the Georgetown event, Kaitie is working on training the newest addition to Team Skinny Dip, a golden retriever rescue named Ella. It is a process they do not rush.
“Our goal today is only to try and get her to sit-stay on the dock,” Laurie Uebelhoer says. “Some of the dogs, you’ll notice, don’t stay where you put them. And the more speed you get, the more distance you get. So, if you can get them to stay, you get more distance.”
Need for speed
Few dogs obey the sit-stay command, and thus achieve as much distance or speed in any event, as well as Doni. At 3 in the afternoon on the day of the Georgetown competition, where more than 150 dogs have registered, Feller begins preparing Doni for Speed Retrieve. Here, the dogs are timed for how long it takes them to jump in the pool, swim to a baton-like buoy hanging from two ropes and pull it down cleanly.
Feller bends down and points to the baton, clueing Doni in on his goal. He sits as still as ever, and then she yells, “Gooooo, Doni!” and he takes off, diving into the water, his muscles pulsating as he digs forward and retrieves the baton in a little over 7.6 seconds, nearly a full second longer than his personal best. After him, his brother, Sirius Black—graying at the mouth like an older man with a beard—gets it in a little over eight seconds.
Though neither score challenges the New Hampshire dog, Tucker, who snags it at the six-second mark, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever getting upset at these events. Indeed, the de facto response to failure at a DockDogs event—as when a dog doesn’t jump, or only jumps a few feet, or misses the baton—is simply a long, drawn-out “Awwwww ...”
There’s no time for prolonged pity, for soon it’s on to Extreme Vertical—a kind of high-jumping contest in which dogs spring up in the air to grab a baton from a boom that raises, in increments, after each successful try.
Doni begins in a sitting position, with his usual laser-like focus. The dock itself has just been squeegeed, and the bar has been raised to 6 feet, 2 inches. “Welcome to the Jungle” blasts through the speakers, and, on Feller’s command, Doni springs up and launches out, reaching out at the last second to grab the baton with, as the announcer describes it, “the skin of his teeth.”
It is a remarkable feat in its own right. But, remember, Doni performs as an Iron Dog, competing in multiple events, jumping over and over into the water all weekend. It’s easy to understand how, on the final day, in the Big Air division finals, he finds himself losing to one of his chief, but friendly, rivals, a Dutch shepherd named Hank, owned by Feller’s friend Catherine White. But there’s no sign of trouble on Doni’s face. He seems eager to try again.
Later, after the final jump, Feller will recall White’s assessment of Doni. “She said, ‘Doni does this all the time. He wins a few first places, but then gets second in a few of them. But then finals come along, and he just blows it out.’
“I don’t know,” Feller reflects. “I kind of think he gets amped up on the crowd. I think he knows it’s the last jump.”
So, for that final jump, Feller begins working the crowd as she normally does, waving her arms up and down. Doni, meanwhile, doesn’t budge. He is dialed in. With the crowd amped up and cheering him on, Doni takes off after the toy, thrown in the perfect arc, and he grabs it, midair, landing 27 feet, 2 inches into the pool.
Victory is his. Doni sets the day’s record, winning an event yet again. With his eyes looking out beyond the pool, knowingly, it’s as if he’s already focused on the championships this fall in Iowa.
Dipping into DockDogs
If you’ve got an energetic dog with an affinity for water, or you just love watching those that do, Palmetto DockDogs offers opportunities to learn more about this canine sport. A few fundamentals apply: To compete, your dog should be at least 6 months old, know how to swim, exhibit “toy drive” and have a temperament well suited for noisy, distracting, high-stimulation environments.
Membership is open to anyone, regardless even of geography; though anchored in South Carolina, the club welcomes handlers and dogs from anywhere in the United States.
Palmetto DockDogs is a regional affiliate club of the worldwide DockDogs organization and hosts events in South Carolina that include both national competitions (such as the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, scheduled for Feb. 17–19, 2017, in Charleston) and regional demonstrations (such as Winyah Bay Heritage Festival, planned for late March/early April of 2017). The club welcomes dog lovers and works together on training, including its monthly practices at Johns Island, and fundraising for canine-related charities.
The DockDogs World Championships 2016 is scheduled for Nov. 9–13 in Dubuque, Iowa.
For more information on how to join the Palmetto DockDogs or to find upcoming events, including monthly practices, visit palmettodockdogs.com. For details on the worldwide DockDogs organization and rankings, visit dockdogs.com.
What the dog saw – Champion DockDogs team Deb Feller and Adonis demonstrate the art of Big Air—from the dog’s point of view.