Remember running down the dock and jumping into the lake when you were a kid? How about springing off the diving board into a cool pool on a hot summer day? Just a little bit of danger, a burst of energy as you take off, then the giddiness of hitting the water and the exhilaration when you surfaced.
It’s not hard to imagine that dogs in the sport of dock diving experience something similar – especially the sporting breeds that were designed with water in mind.
For dock-diving dogs – and their handlers – it’s more than jumping in though. They face one of three challenges when they get up on the diving platform: height, distance or speed.
Three major organizations host dock-diving competitions; all three have their own terminology for the tests. DockDogs calls them “Extreme Vertical,” “Big Air” and “Speed Retrieve”; Splash Dogs offers “Super Air” and “Super Vertical”; and Ultimate Air Dogs has “Ultimate Air” (or “Long Dock”) and two newer events, “Fetch It” and “Catch It.” A variety of divisions allows dogs to compete with others who typically jump similar distances, and some classes divide dogs by height.
In every case, the dog ends up in a pool of water.
You might think this is just a sport for American Water Spaniels, Portuguese Water Dogs and such, but virtually any healthy dog – who likes water – can participate. Demonstrations and competitions take place all over the country from spring through fall. Often you’ll see them at pet expos, fairs and festivals. If you do, you’ll find the bleachers practically packed to the brim as the delighted audience “wows,” “oohs” and “whoas” as each dog leaps from the platform. From the cutest little Chihuahua to the most experienced Labrador Retriever, the dogs charm the crowd while they’re scoring points, improving their personal bests and breaking records.
Splash Dogs explains the sport: “The key elements of the sport are to demonstrate the competitor’s skill and expertise in training and performance, which in turn highlights the fundamental elements of dock-jumping dogs – strength, confidence, speed and all around athleticism.”
There’s no shortage of that in Marc Marsceill and Janelle Fuchigami’s pack of two Labs. Competitors in agility, obedience and rally, 6-year-old Dakota and 4-year-old Diesel both have titles in the Pro division from Splash Dogs.
Like many dock-jumping long-term enthusiasts, Marc and Janelle got started after seeing dock diving on ESPN’s “The Great Outdoor Games,” which is no longer produced. After watching the sport on the small screen, the Los Angeles couple decided to try it out.
“Dakota and I both fell in love with it,” Marc says.
At that time, Dakota was only doing obedience. He’s now jumped over a mile in competition, something only about 20 dogs have done thus far, Marc says. When the couple got Diesel, they got him involved as soon as he was old enough.
“It’s really a nice bunch of people,” says Marc, a general contractor, in explaining the attraction to a sport that’s so different from most other canine performance events. “If you want to put stuff on a scale, obedience is the most serious, agility is in the middle and dock diving is at the other end of the spectrum. Very few people are really competitive. It’s more like a bunch of friends getting together having a good time.”
That’s part of the attraction for Sara Chisnell-Voig as well, who has three dogs who dock dive. “A lot of it is the social aspect,” she says. “Everyone is very supportive of each other, even the people who are really competitive. Everybody hangs out and socializes after. It’s very laid-back.”
Despite that generally more laid-back attitude of many dock-jumping competitors, scores, records and titles are meticulously recorded. Marc reports that a black Lab out of Canada broke the distance jump record three times in one weekend recently, jumping 31 feet.
You might wonder how that’s measured. Hatch marks along the dock or pool indicate each foot along a dog’s potential trajectory. In the early days, an official watched as the root of each dog’s tail broke the water’s surface, then looked to the marks along the water’s surface to determine the distance. No more. Today digital video freeze-frame technology captures each jump, accurately revealing the score in meters and parts of a meter.
For distance jumping, the most popular event, the dog waits in a sit-stay – or is held in place by a second handler – some distance from the pool-edge of the 35- to 40-foot platform. The first (or only) handler stands near the pool-edge of the platform, then throws a toy or bumper, a device used for water-retrieve training in hunting dogs. The dog takes off, running as fast as possible to the edge, then propels itself into the air, toward the toy. So, the Lab that broke that record? It traveled 31 feet from jump to splash. That’s about 15 times its body length, measured shoulder to rump.
In vertical events, as you would expect, the dog’s leap is measured vertically. It must have some horizontal movement to miss the dock, of course, but the bulk of energy is expended upward.
Chisnell-Voig, legal counsel at the United Kennel Club, remembers teaching her German Shorthaired Pointer Oskar to jump vertically. A friend made a device to which she could attach a bumper for Oskar to jump for. “It took him about a year to figure it out,” she says. “That’s really a different context for them to grasp.
“What really clicked is when we hooked one of his toys on the rig,” Chisnell-Voig says. “He was never one of the huge jumpers. He never got over about six feet. But he liked doing it, and that’s one of the most important things.” Now 10, Oskar’s all but retired from jumping, having earned Grand Senior Jumping and Supreme Ultimate Vertical titles.
Chisnell-Voig’s other dogs, except GSP Ozzy who’s “just not into it,” compete in dock diving. Border Collie Axel, 3, has entered just two competitions, jumping between 16 and 17 feet. “We’re working on him,” Sara says. “It’s new to him.” Her Australian Cattle Dog, 6-year-old Carly, “does it when she wants to. I kind of bring her along and let her jump during the practice jumps.”
This pack is like many others in the performance world. Chisnell-Voig’s dogs compete in conformation, hunt tests, weight pull, disc, skijoring, and they even hunt.
Ultimate Air Dogs and Splash Dogs host events where UKC-registered dogs can earn titles that the UKC recognizes. The UKC, however, has its own rules and regulations for UKC-sanctioned events. At its recent Premier in Kalamazoo, dock diving was on the performance events menu.
Tony Reed, founder and president of Splash Dogs, says the million dollar question about dock jumping is: “Why do people like it so much?”
“They just love seeing their dogs jump off the dock into the water,” he says, but it’s also kind of like good dog and cat stories that go viral on social media. “When I’m at an event, people like to see that long-jumping dog, but they always go home and talk about the little dog who just barely jumped off the dock.” He also thinks people like the variety of dogs they see at a dock-diving event.
However, if you’re used to quieter, tamer environments, such as those around conformation and obedience rings, prepare for something very different.
“It’s controlled chaos,” Reed says. “You’ve got these dogs that are going crazy when they see that pool and the dock.” Then they run and jump and splash.