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Triton the Chesapeake Bay Retriever sat on the dock, muscles tense, as his owner walked 40 feet ahead of him. At the edge of the dock, she turned to face him.
“OK,” she said, and Triton was released.
As he sprinted down the dock, his owner, Monica Smith of Rome, Maine, tossed a toy out over the water. Triton’s toes curled around the wooden edge of the dock, and he launched after it. Cameras flashed as he sailed and then — splash. Children lining the pool squealed as water doused their already soaked clothing.
Toy in his mouth, Triton happily paddled around the pool while judges measured the distance from the dock to where the base of Triton’s tail hit the water. Then it was on to the next dock-diving dog.
Smith and Triton, members of Seacoast Dock Dogs, have been waiting all winter for the ice to melt.
“We just had our first practice yesterday in the pouring rain,” said Seacoast Dock Dogs president Louie Dubois on Monday. “The dogs were getting wet, so we got wet, too. It’s rain or shine. You’re going to get wet anyway when the dog starts shaking water.”
Dock jumping has become increasingly popular since Big Air Dogs was promoted as a “filler event” at the 2000 ESPN Great Outdoor Games.
Big Air is simple.
“You want your dog to jump the farthest,” Dubois said. “The farther you jump, the better it is.”
The event wasn’t expected to draw much of a crowd, but spectators in the thousands turned up for the show and shut down traffic on four city blocks.
Two years later, DockDogs was established to develop standards and maintain credibility for dock jumping competitions. They held six qualifying events that year, and by 2010, they held 150 events in 135 cities throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Smith has been jumping her dogs almost from the beginning. Before she moved to Rome two years ago, she lived on a lake in Pennsylvania, where she played fetch with her dogs in the water. When a club affiliated with DockDogs hosted an event just an hour from her home in 2005, she decided to let Triton give the sport a try.
“I had no clue what I was doing,” Smith said. “I went up on the dock and threw the toy into the water and just hoped that he would jump.”
Triton’s first attempt at dock diving (from the edge of the dock, not running), was measured at 8 feet. Now he jumps 20 feet. The trick: He has learned to wait at the far end of the dock and run to gain momentum.
“From the first time I did it to now, even moving from Pennsylvania up to here, you go to an event and everyone is so helpful, they want to help you succeed,” Smith said.
Smith, who has seven dogs, has been working with dogs since she was 6 years old and attended dog obedience competitions with her parents. Dock-diving tournaments have an atmosphere that Smith hasn’t experienced while competing at dog agility and obedience events.
When Smith was planning to move north, she was happy to learn through the DockDogs grapevine that Dubois was starting up Seacoast Dock Dogs as an affiliate club of DockDogs National for Maine and New Hampshire.
Dubois and his family attended their first dock-jumping competition at Scarborough Kennel Shop, where his young black Lab Bailey placed sixth in the amateur class of the Big Air event, a measurement of how far a dog jumps horizontally. Bailey now jumps 23 feet and Dubois’ other black Lab, Ally, jumps 17 feet.
“We got into it, but there was nothing around here, no practice facilities,” Dubois said. “We drove all the way out to Ocean City, Maryland, and jumped again and really got into it. We saw that the dog liked it, came back here and talked to people about using their land and pond. It took off from there.”
Dock jumping has gained popularity for a number of reasons. The sport doesn’t require excessive training. Anyone older than 7 with a dog that is at least 6 months old can participate. Yet people who are serious about competition can develop a training program based on national standards to develop consistency and be ranked nationally against all other jumping dogs.
“It’s a good family sport, a good sport for the kids,” said Dubois. “It’s a good sport for the dogs — swimming getting all kinds of exercise — it’s actually exploded. It’s taken off.”
Big Air, while usually the most popular event, is only one of three events judged in DockDog tournaments. Speed retrieve (a measurement of toy retrieval time) and extreme vertical (a measurement of jump height) became events in 2005. The tournaments usually last three days with the last day devoted to the finals, a competition between the top six dogs in each of the three events.
“I personally like Big Air,” said Smith, “but crowds go pretty crazy over extreme vertical, too.”
DockDog clubs can hold regional events or national events. At national events, the jumps are measured by a proprietary advanced digital video capture with software developed by ESPN for use in Olympic events. The system accurately scores each jump to within ¼ of an inch of the point where the dog’s tail set (where the tail connects to the hind end) enters the water.
A greyhound mix named Country became the World Record holder for longest jump in a DockDog competition in 2005 when he jumped 28 feet and 10 inches.
The Seacoast Dock Dogs hosted their first regional tournament last summer in Lincoln, and they will host their second tournament, “Backwood Splash,” July 29-31 at their Berwick pond, in which Dubois built a containment system to the dimensions of a DockDog pool. A national tournament is slated for June 24-26 at Pet Life in Scarborough.
Seacoast Dock Dogs’ next practice is May 28, and June 4 is their first fun jump, a one-day competition. Owners and their dogs are welcome to try dock jumping for $10 per practice and to sign up for the fun jump through email or on the day of the competition. The pond is located at 54 Old Pine Hill Road, Berwick.