The sport of Dock Diving is fueled by a love of dogs and the thrill of competition
By Taylor McLean
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Celebrate Fairfax Festival and a crowd has gathered around a large dock that is covered in artificial turf and connects to a pool stretching out forty feet from its end. Children line up as close to the edge of the pool as possible, eagerly awaiting the splash zone that will soon be created as canine athletes sprint down the dock and leap into the water. Behind the spectators, four-legged competitors and their two-legged teammates await their moment of glory under the shade of team tents adorned with sponsor logos, professional action photos, and awards from past events. The excitement and camaraderie is palpable. This is a DockDogs competition – where the people are family, the dogs are celebrities, and everyone is passionate about the sport.
A Family Affair
Under one of these tents sit Alexandria residents and dock diving fanatics Gary Foote and Jenn Hrebik, a husband and wife team who got into the sport to keep their black Labrador Retriever, Jack, happy and healthy after moving away from the water he grew up swimming in. “Jack would spend entire days on the swim platform of our boat, dropping his ball in the water, waiting for it to float away, and then jumping in after it,” says Gary. When the couple moved from Baltimore to Virginia and had to put their boat in storage, they were determined to find a way to keep their water-loving pup doing what makes him happy. They soon found a local club called Chesapeake DockDogs (CDD), where Jack learned to add distance and height to his leaps that have earned him and Jenn titles, trophies, cash prizes, and the prestige at being among the best in the world at their sport. Now Jack shares his passion with a fourth family member, Zoe, a beautiful two-year-old silver Labrador Retriever that is quickly living up to the name on her registration papers: “Little Bit of Superfly.” After spending her early months hanging out with Jack at the pool, Zoe has wowed her family and her fans with extreme jumps that make it look like she’s got springs in her legs and have sent her shooting up in the dock diving rankings.
The Fastest Growing Canine Sport in America
The sport of dock diving entered the spotlight in 1997 as part of Purina’s Incredible Dog Challenge program, and skyrocketed in popularity when ESPN aired it during their Great Outdoor Games in 2000. DockDogs is the governing body for the sport. It establishes rules and regulations, tracks results, and supports a network of affiliated clubs across the nation as well as in Canada, Australia, and the UK. The DockDogs organization also sanctions over 200 regional and national events annually that draw millions of spectators and culminate in the DockDogs World Championships, where dog and handler teams compete in four disciplines: Big Air; Extreme Vertical; Speed Retrieve; and Iron Dog.
Big Air. The most popular event, Big Air, is a jump for distance. Handlers encourage their dogs to run and jump off the dock to retrieve a floating toy using either a “place and send” or a “chase” technique. Using place and send, a handler walks the dog to the end of the dock and throws a floating toy into the water before returning to a starting position and releasing the dog to retrieve the toy. When using the chase technique, the dog waits at the top of the dock while the handler walks to the end, calls the dog and throws the toy in the water, thus allowing the dog to “chase” the toy into the water. Either way is allowable, provided a dog is never forced into the water and the jump is completed within the sixty second time limit. In Big Air, teams compete in waves during which each dog is given the opportunity to complete two jumps. The longer of the jumps, measured from the end of the dock to where the base of the dog’s tail enters the water, is the one that is scored. Top scorers in each wave make the cut to compete in finals.
Extreme Vertical. Extreme Vertical is the high jump of the sport, in which the dog leaps out and up to grab or knock down a bumper hanging in the air, eight feet away and at least five feet above the dock. The handler chooses a starting height and the bumper is raised in two-inch increments until there are two misses. The highest successful grab is the dog’s score for the event.
Speed Retrieve. Speed Retrieve is a sprint. Dogs are timed from their release at the 20 foot mark on the dock until they have successfully grabbed a bumper hung at the end of the pool just above the surface of the water. The fastest dogs in the world compete in the “Sonic” division and can complete the task in as little as five seconds.
The Iron Dog competition is scored based on points earned from Big Air, Extreme Vertical, and Speed Retrieve to reward overall top performers in all three events.
One Size Fits All
Despite the competitive atmosphere it engenders, dock diving is actually a very accessible sport that just about anyone can enjoy. Any person can show up at a local event to register their dog and compete, providing the handler is at least seven years old and the dog is over six months of age. “I’ve seen everything from Yorkshire Terriers to Great Danes out there,” says Kristen Cooper, a member of the Tidewater DockDogs affiliate club based in Virginia Beach. This is Kristen’s third season competing with her four year-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, “Chief,” who just recently earned his “Master” title for completing five Big Air jumps in the 20’ to 22’ 11” range at a national event. Each DockDog discipline is split into divisions so that dogs compete against others who are jumping at their level. Once you’ve moved up to a higher division, you can no longer go back and compete at the lower levels. There are also special classes for youth handlers, senior dogs, and lap dogs. This format evens the playing field and ensures that everyone has a shot at earning awards for jumping their personal best.
“That’s one of the things that makes it so addicting,” says Kristen; “you always have something to work toward.” The Celebrate Fairfax event was a good one for Kristen and Chief, who went out on his first try and made a 21-foot leap from the dock look easy, qualifying them for the Semi-Pro Finals where they grabbed a third place finish.
At competitions, every dog gets a ribbon for completing a jump, no matter how far or how high. Whether your dog jumps five feet or twenty-five feet, the common theme throughout all practices and events is one of teamwork and fun. “The dogs really love it,” Kristen says; “it’s great exercise and a good way to relieve energy.” Kristen says she and Chief were hooked from the very first practice session they attended, and have since become part of a large and supportive community of dog lovers. In fact, “hooked” is a word many members of the community use to describe their passion for the sport, fueled by a love of dogs and the thrill of competition.
Little Bit of Superfly
“For me, it’s about the incredible bond you create with your dog,” says Gary. “You become a team and you each depend on each other to do your part…when you’re competing it feels like it’s just the two of you and nobody else.” As Gary and Zoe ascend the dock for their first attempt in Big Air at Celebrate Fairfax, a team is exactly what they look like. Both are focused on each other as Gary sets Zoe up in a place and stay at the head of the dock. Zoe is all muscle and energy that she can barely contain as she crouches down, locking her eyes on the bumper in Gary’s hand, and the water ahead of her. Gary walks to the end of the dock and signals Zoe, who launches like a rocket toward him, following the toy he sends out over the water and splashing down 23 feet later to cheers from the crowd. Moments later, she is climbing back up the ramp by the side of the dock with the bumper in her jaws and a joyful expression on her face.
While dogs like Zoe, Jack and Chief make it look like puppy play, a lot more goes into a successful jump than meets the eye. “As a handler your job is to control the set up,” explains Foote. “I have to wind Zoe up and get her ready to go, and my throw has to be just right in order for her to get the distance she needs.” The pair has been working hard on their technique and it has been paying off. Zoe is now sitting at 39th overall in the world DockDog standings with a 23’2.8” average in the Big Air event, and in a five-way tie at 9th for Extreme Vertical with an average jump height of 7’4”.
Like many DockDog competitors, Gary has his sights set on earning an invitation to the World Championships in Dubuque, Iowa this November. He hopes that both Zoe and Jack have a chance to show what they’re made of in the Iron Dog competition against the best of the best. At the end of the day, though, the only thing that really matters is having fun and showing off his pride and joy. “When we go out there to compete, it’s the Zoe show,” Gary says with a smile.
Taylor McLean is a freelance writer and dog lover based in Alexandria, VA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does your dog have what it takes? To excel at the sport of dock diving, dogs really only need two things: 1. A high toy drive; and 2. A love of water. Since only nonedible floating toys are allowed, your dog needs to have a toy he or she wants badly enough to take a flying leap off of a dock to get. If you’ve got those ingredients, your first stop should be dockdogs.com, where you can find a list of local clubs and events. Stop by an event or practice session and talk to the handlers there about the best way to get your feet wet.
The key to a successful start is slowly building a dog’s confidence in the water. While some dogs take to it right away, others need some practice to feel comfortable. The Chesapeake DockDogs club holds regular practice sessions where, for a $10 fee, newbies can take be walked through the paces by a seasoned pro. Club members love to share their experiences and knowledge about the sport, and will get as excited as you do when your dog takes its first successful jump. When you’re finally ready to take the plunge, signing up as a local club member as well as a WorldWide DockDogs member gives you access to a huge support network, free practices, priority registration for events, and the ability to be titled and win awards at DockDogs events nationwide.
• Chesapeake DockDogs
• Tidewater DockDogs
• Keystone DockDogs
• Delmarva DockDogs