`Dock dogs' take flight

Competition sends canines leaping through space, into water

March 23, 2007|By JONI GUHNE | JONI GUHNE,Special to The Sun

The ink on their mortgage papers was barely dry when Scott and Stephanie Whiteley rushed to the Annapolis SPCA to make their new home complete by adopting a puppy.

The 11-week-old mixed breed they named Finley, in tribute to an old waterman Scott remembered from his childhood summers in Glouster Point, Va., took to the water well.

Two and a half years later, Finley is a champion in the world of Dock Dogs competitive jumping, recently recording an unofficial indoor world record of 27 feet, 6 inches -- just shy of the world record of 28 feet, 10 inches held by a Pennsylvania pooch named Country.

Dock Dogs conducts water jumping competitions through its clubs throughout the USA, Canada and Great Britain. Maryland dog owners Brandy Fowler and Brian Rutledge organized the Chesapeake Dock Dogs club last fall with fewer than a dozen handlers and their pets. Membership has grown to more than 30 teams.

Rutledge, club president, teams with the family's chocolate lab, Mishka. Rutledge's 12-year-old son, Matthew, is Mishka's junior handler.

"It's just a really fun thing to do with your dog," said the senior Rutledge, of Frederick.

Right after Finley's adoption, the Whiteleys took their tawny brown-and-black pup to the Severn River-front home of Scott's parents, Gus and Joan Whiteley, where Finley played with his "canine cousins" on the family beach.

"By the time Finley was 6 months old," said Scott, 41, who owns Severn River Carpentry in Crownsville, "he was fearless, leaping into the water along with his cousins."

"He was such an amazing jumper," said Stephanie, 36, a wedding and event planner for Pintail Yachts in Eastport, "boaters going up and down the river would cut their engines and watch him leap into the water."

Last August, the Whiteleys joined the Chesapeake Dock Dogs club. "I'm only the assistant to the handler," Stephanie said with a chuckle. "Scott is the handler, and Finley is the talent."

Competition is held year-round, outdoors in warm weather and indoors in the winter. Computers measure jumping distances.

The size of the indoor pools is specific: The ramp is 40 feet long and 5 feet off the ground; the pool is 40 feet by 20 feet; the water is 6 feet deep. As long as the target -- the object a dog jumps for -- is inedible and floats, anything goes.

"I've seen people throw water bottles," said Scott. "One lady throws a tennis shoe with a balloon tied to it so it will float."

Oddly, Finley chooses to sit sideways at the back of the ramp until Scott reaches the opposite end, where he slings Finley's target, a white rubber bumper underhand into the air like he's bowling. And Finley takes off.

They don't call these athletes "Big Air Dogs" for nothing. Racing down the ramp -- he's been clocked at 30 mph -- Finley hurls himself through the air like a circus performer shot from a cannon.

While discipline is critical to the sport, Finley has taught himself to run almost to the edge of the ramp before pushing off. "You can't teach that," Scott said.

Once airborne, Finley, his four legs dangling in the air, focuses on the target. If it's thrown too high, the dog loses distance straining upward. When the throw is perfect, says Scott, the target lands just where the dog enters the water. Dogs climb out of the pool on a small ramp.

"There are even dogs in the competition that can't swim," Scott said.

"It's not common," said Stephanie, "but it does happen." The non-swimmers wear life vests with a handle on top that owners grab to retrieve their dogs.

Prize money at regional meets is enough to keep a dog in kibble for some time: At national events it can be as much as $250. The grand prize at this year's annual world event is expected to be $20,000.

Last November, Purina invited Finley to participate in the filming of a Dock Dogs jump at Farm Place Arena in Harrisburg, Pa. Purina planned to show the video during the annual Philadelphia National Dog Show on TV on Thanksgiving.

The Purina-sponsored jump was Finley's first indoor event. Confused by the ceiling and distracted by the TV cameras, the dog was "shellshocked," said Scott, and he refused to jump.

Finley resumed his championship form on his return to Harrisburg a few weeks ago. His official best that weekend was more than 26 feet.

Dock Dogs has a junior division for handlers younger than 12, and visitors are invited to bring their dogs to events for a trial run.

Finley and the other Chesapeake Dock Dogs will perform at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. March 31 and 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. April 1 during the Maryland Outdoor & Home Festival at the Frederick fairgrounds.

For more information about Chesapeake Dock Dogs, e-mail club president Brian Rutledge at brianhr72@aol.com.

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