Sixty dogs, their trainers and bleachers full of spectators enjoyed a full day of canine competition on May 4 in St. Petersburg, Fla., at the eastern regional of the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge.

Agility, dock jumping, JRT racing, flying disc and weave-pole racing brought the challenge, while the venue and climate provided the amenities. “The weather was beautiful,” says Lourdes Edlin, the spokesperson-trainer for the Incredible Dog Challenge. “It was on the warm side, but with a little overcast.” Spa Beach Park is on a peninsula, and the bay served as a “gorgeous” backdrop, she says.

Autumn Trainor shows off Karizma’s freestyle flying disc moves, which earned the team third-place in the eastern regional of the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge earlier this month in St. Petersburg, Fla. All photos courtesy of Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge.

Open qualifying the previous day added some water- and flying-disc-loving dogs to the lineup for dock jumping and freestyle flying disc, but the big competitions were the next day when performance dogs recommended by top handlers and invited by Purina Pro Plan arrived for the tests of their skills.

The St. Petersburg challenge is the second in a trio of annual events which began in Las Vegas in March and will conclude in October in Gray Summit, Mo., at the Purina Event Center. That’s where the winners of the 2012 Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge Nationals will defend their titles against the 2013 first-place western and eastern regional winners.

This move by a young competitor wasn’t enough to place at the challenge. For the first time, possibly in all 16 years of the event’s history, no Border Collie placed in freestyle flying disc.

Into the Air
Flying disc always draws a crowd wherever it’s held, and the challenge is no exception. Despite the nice temperature, by the time the dogs hit the grass for this event, a storm had started to move in, Edlin says. “The wind picked up. The winner of that event was going to be whoever had the least wind for their two-minute round. As a handler, you can be wiser, but you can’t control the wind.” Plus, she says, once the dog commits to its jump, it can’t change its trajectory, regardless of what the wind does. And that day’s wind was “very gusty,” she adds. The dog “can’t make changes in the air.” One handler had to cope with a “short, little spurt of rain” that lasted pretty much through that one two-minute period. “He handled it very well.” Edlin explains that it’s not the rain that’s such a problem – unless mud develops – but that the spectators start dashing for cover, making noise and opening umbrellas if they have them. “There’s a lot happening in the audience,” she says. “Like a pro, he kept going.” This is why, she points out, that training “in all different sorts of weather is important.”

Andrea Rigler and Australian Cattle Dog mix Moxie walked – or leaped, you could say – off with the first-place win. The duo, from Jupiter, Fla., earned a score of 90.5, just one-half point higher than the second-place winners – Gary Duke and Australian Shepherd Bayer of Wesley Chapel, Fla. And Duke and Bayer beat the third-place winners, Autumn Trainor and Kelpie-Australian Cattle Dog mix Karizma from Murfreesboro, Tenn., again by only a half of a point. So, the winning scores were 90.5, 90 and 89.5. The highest score possible is 102, with up to 50 points for the handler’s skills, 50 for the dog’s skills, plus bonus catch points. Trainor and Karizma would have tied for third with Jason Rigler and his Australian Shepherd Kai except for a bonus catch the third-place team made.

This challenge was the first time Edlin can remember that no Border Collies came out on top. As to breed popularity in flying disc, she says, “It goes back and forth in this sport. When it first started, the Whippet was really popular, then Border Collies became popular.” Because Australian Shepherds have a lot of “hang time” – when they seem almost to float in the air – their popularity has grown in recent years, she says. “Border Collies do more analysis before making the jump for the disc.” When she’s judging this event, Edlin says she likes to see a variety of moves, turns, tosses and catches, as well as routines that are so good they “just demand the attention of the audience.”

She was so impressed with how all of the handlers handled the wind that if she could have placed them all in first place, she would have. “They really did a great job,” she says.

A lone Jack Russell Terrier stretches out to clear a hurdle on the tail of his competitors during one race at the challenge’s eastern regional.

After the Lure
The Jack Russell hurdle races were a little more straightforward: love to run, love to chase, love to jump, and you’ve got yourself a hurdler. As we all know, neither wind nor rain will stop a JRT from its intended goal.

Six at a time of the 24 dogs entered race in a series of heats, chasing a lure over a series of hurdles, then into the hole where the lure disappears. All of the dogs wear muzzles – just in case one gets over-zealous in its need for prey gratification. The energetic dogs’ handlers wait just past the lure hole to literally grab their dogs at the end of the race.

“It’s a lot of fun to watch. It really is,” Edlin says. “There’s always one dog that decides the fastest line from ‘A’ to ‘B’ is not going over the jumps. It’s hard not to smile.” The event is total instinct and fun, she says. “I own a Jack Russell, so I know when they get into that instinct mode.” They make that “screaming sound. You see that kind of excitement, you know they’re doing something over the top [for them].”

The fastest dog in the eastern regional was 1-year-old Drako, who traveled from Zephyrhills, Fla., with his trainer, Darren Shriver, for the event. Taking second was 6-year-old Maverick, trained by Jason Jones of Leesburg, Fla., and in third was 6-year-old Trouble who trains in Tampa, about 30 minutes from Spa Beach Park, with Justin Caynor.

While Trouble lives fairly close to St. Petersburg, many dogs and handlers also from Florida showing up in the placements traveled much farther. Not unlike California, it’s a big state, and it can take more than a full day to travel from one end to the other. Edlin concedes that St. Petersburg is not one of the easiest places to get to in the state; it’s about midway down and on the western coast facing the Gulf of Mexico.

A Labrador Retriever holds on tight to the bumper thrown by his handler during the diving dog competition.

Off the Dock
The distance didn’t stop Tony Lampert and his Belgian Malinois Baxter from getting on a plane in St. Louis, though, to compete in the diving dog competition. No doubt they were happy they did, as one of Baxter’s jumps – of 29 feet and 11 inches – earned him first place.

Every dog invited jumps twice into 19,000 gallons of water, then the top dogs jump again. The single longest jump determines the winner.

Edlin says this sport, too, has seen a change in the breeds that excel. First it was Labrador Retrievers, then Border Collies, and now the Belgian Malinois seem to be the dogs to beat. In fact, at the western regional, two Belgian Malinois and a Dutch Shepherd were the top three winners.

One thing that was very different from the western regional was the length of the winning jumps. The top dog jumped 31 feet and 3 inches in Las Vegas. That’s a full 16 inches farther than Baxter did, despite the fact that the pool, dock and rules are the same in both competitions.

Sending a dog flying off into the water isn’t as popular a sport in Florida as it is in the west, Edlin says. “People don’t even realize they have the talent in their own home.”

Two southerners who do know their dogs’ skills took second and third in diving dog: Brianna Minshew and Border Collie Knox of Rome, Ga., with a jump of 29 feet and 10 inches, and Chelsey Conklin and Labrador Retriever Ryder of St. Lucie, Fla., with a leap of 28 feet and 11 inches.

While the dogs had good weather for jumping in Florida and Las Vegas, those moving on to compete in Missouri in October will face different conditions. “Temperatures can vary. It can be a lot colder or too warm,” Edlin says.

Sixty weaves – 30 up and 30 back – don’t daunt this happy Corgi.

Through the Poles
One competition unique to the challenge is the 30-weave up-and-back. The dog must weave through 30 of the poles more commonly seen on agility courses, run through a tunnel, then return through the poles. Two dogs, on side-by-side courses, run at the same time.

And they don’t do it just once. The first- and second-place dog end up running the gauntlet, so to speak, five times.

Border Collies exerted the same prowess they show in agility with the weave competition. As a matter of fact, the same dog won the large-dog agility event and the 30-weave: Kate, who was handled by Sara Duke of Welsey Chapel, Fla., in both sports. Edlin says it’s “very unusual” for the same dog to win both. “Just because a dog is fast in agility doesn’t mean he’s fast at weave poles.”

Another unusual sight for the challenge was a Belgian Malinois entered in both large agility and 30-weave whose handler was in a wheelchair. To do that, Edlin says, Gene Glastetter of Paducah, Ky., “had to get a lot of hand signals on his dog,” 5-year-old Versace. Such accommodation has long been allowed at American Kennel Club agility matches, and at least one woman now competes from a Segway.

Placing second in the weaving event was Annette Alfonso and Border Collie Poison of Tamarac, Fla. Third place ended in a tie between Michelle Mauro and Shetland Sheepdog Mojo of Lutz, Fla., and Debbie Hartzell and Beagle-Pug mix Sasha of Holmes Beach, Fla. Mojo and Sasha were dual winners as well, when Mojo won second, and Sasha, third, in small-dog agility.

A handler sends her dog through the 10th obstacle of the agility course at the challenge.

Over, Under, Through and Across
Sasha so impressed Edlin that she singled her out for comment. While admitting that the mixed breed is “very cute,” it was how the little dog handled the “very technical course” that wowed Edlin. “It required a lot of discrimination and obstacle focus, and the dogs had to really focus on the handlers.” Little Sasha ran a clean run, meaning that there were no additions to her time due to faults, such as not touching the target zone at the end of a teeter-totter or jumping off an “A”-frame too high from the ground.

Another reason Edlin noted Sasha’s performance was that, she says, you rarely see Beagles or Pugs at this level of competition. “With Beagles, it’s really hard to get their noses off the ground. Their noses rule their hearts.” Pugs, with their flat faces, have difficulty cooling themselves, so “performance sports are hard on them.” While she has seen both breeds compete in agility, she says, “You don’t see them that often.”

A “very fast” Shetland Sheepdog had the best time in the small-dog agility event, not an unusual happening in a sport dominated by Borders and Shelties. That was Bode, handled by Julie Martinez of Dover, Fla., with a run time 35.24, fault-free. Sasha ran 41.9, also fault-free. Mojo managed his third place with a time of 46.57, including a 10-second addition for a fault.

Edlin also pointed out a “very fast” Corgi, Keebler, who came in 4th for handler Roger Sullivan of Gahanna, Ohio. She called him a “methodical worker” who “handled the course very well,” just missing a medal with a run of 48.77, which included a 10-second addition.

The course was “more about accuracy than speed,” she says. “I actually ran the course to check it out, and it was very hard to get a clean run.” She says super-fast dogs may have been at somewhat of a disadvantage because as they pick up speed, they tend to flatten their bodies over the jumps. If they flatten out too much, they don’t have enough arch to get over without hitting the bars – a fault. The “jumper style” of the course helped dogs like Sasha, she says.

No big surprises awaited those entering or watching the large-dog agility. In addition to Kate, the Border Collie who took first with a winning run of 32.36, two other Border Collies filled the space on the podium: Legend, handled by Alfonso, with a winning time of 34.12, and Blitz, handled by Jordan Connelly of Tampa, with a time of 35.21.

One nice surprise for dogs, whether they were competing or just having a fun day out with their owners, was the opening of the beach at the edge of Spa Beach Park to canine swimmers for the day. What better ending to a day in Florida?

To watch a video of the highlights of the 2012 PPPIDC National, click here. After watching it, you can also see videos of the western regional 2013 flying disc and flyball competitions.