KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Baxter bounded up the steps, eager as a puppy. When he and Tony Lampert appeared on the dock, the play-by-play announcer introduced them to the crowd.
“This is your 2011 world champion of Big Air,” she said. “This dog beat out all the other dogs in the world. ... This dog can fly!”
Lampert commanded Baxter, just once, to sit, and he obediently plopped down. Still as a statue, eyes locked like lasers on his owner, he watched Lampert walk to the far end of the 40-foot dock stretched out over a swimming pool.
Lampert turned, made eye contact with Baxter and showed him what he was hiding in his hand.
Lampert watched as the muscle fibers in Baxter's legs started to twitch and shake, his motor revving.
Lampert waited ... waited ... waited ... waited ... waited.
Then he yelled.
Sixty-five pounds of Belgian Malinois galloped down the dock like a racehorse. When Baxter reached the halfway point, Lampert hurled the toy out over the water.
Where that toy goes, Baxter goes.
Baxter soared, body stretched like the Michael Jordan of old flying toward the basket.
“AND HERE COMES BAXTER!” the announcer yelled. “CHECK THAT OUT! THAT DOG CAN FLY!”
Baxter caught the toy in mid-air. And, as he hit the water, the crowd roared. Something great had just happened, and they knew it.
“He just broke the world record ... 29 feet, 5 inches! A huge jump!” the announcer called out. “You have just witnessed history!”
Going the distance
Never seen a dog fly?
Then you've never been to a dog-jumping competition.
The premise of the sport is purposefully simple, perhaps the reason that it picks up new participants each year: Coax a dog to jump off the end of a dock by throwing a toy for it to fetch.
According to the history of DockDogs, one of several organizations across the country that sponsor dog-jumping competitions, the pastime known as Big Air began in 1999, when ESPN went looking for a new “filler sport” for its Great Outdoor Games series. But jumping dogs became one of the most-watched sports during the event.
A new sport was born: A dog and handler work together to jump the greatest distance.
Dog jumping is “fetch” on steroids.
Members of the Kansas City area Mo-Kan DockDogs club, a group that boasts national champs of its own, swear that any dog of any breed can be trained to compete.
Not surprisingly, considering that it's the most popular breed on the planet, Labrador retrievers are well-represented. With their athletic bodies, retrieving instincts and water-resistant coats, they seem genetically predisposed to dock-jumping.
But these days there's a new kid on the dock.
Belgian Malinois like Baxter are becoming “the Michael Jordan” of the sport. Sometimes mistaken for a German shepherd, the lithe, square-bodied Malinois is a sheepherding dog that has taken to dock-jumping like a duck to, well, you get the idea.
“They're new to DockDogs,” said Lampert, a dog trainer from the St. Louis area. “You see our dogs in military police work. They're so athletic. And they're just a natural for this sport because they love water, they love toys and they jump like the wind.”
Even so, Baxter wasn't born a champ. Like any other athlete, he trains hard. Lampert started him off by teaching him how to catch a flying disc in the backyard.
“I could get him to follow that in the air,” Lampert said. “Once he figured out how to catch that in the air (from) on the ground, I started working with him on a dock in a pool.
“It didn't matter how far it went. ... I just taught him to stretch and catch it. And I did that enough that I changed his mindset of what the game was. He learned that what the game is is to try and catch the toy. I wanted him to learn (that) the object of the game is you catch it.”
Mo-Kan and more
Teaching new dogs old tricks is the hard part. So it was that one stifling-hot day in July, members of the Mo-Kan group gathered on the eastern side of Lake Jacomo near the Kemper Outdoor Education Center.
In warm weather — typically April through September — Mo-Kan members meet there every second Sunday of the month. The practices are open to anyone. Ten dollars buys a 30-day membership in the club, enough to cover one day on the practice dock. A full membership, T-shirt included, costs $30.
DockDog competitions take place year-round. At outdoor festivals, boat shows and sport shows, the canine athletes invariably make a big splash.
A competition usually features three events. Big Air is like the long jump in track and field; distance counts. The Extreme Vertical, where the dog leaps into the air after a toy dangling from a boom extending over the water, is the high jump; height matters.
And Speed Retrieve? Well, that's kind of like drag-racing for dogs. The fastest to swim out to get the toy wins.
Owner-trainers come from all walks of life — little girls and boys, 20-somethings, professional folks, retirees. Members of DockDog groups become little families, rooting for one another at competitions and pitching in when tragedy strikes their canine friends.
Mo-Kan members have had to do that in recent weeks.
Craig Johnson, a manufacturing engineer from Lenexa, Kan., attended the July practice with 6-year-old Molly, a border collie who'll do anything in pursuit of a stick. In her second season of jumping, Molly's longest jump has been 10 feet 6 inches, miles behind champs like Baxter who post huge jumps of 20 feet and beyond.
“I think we're topping out,” said Johnson, an apartment-bound dog-lover who window shops a lot on Petfinder.com.
Someone who's hitting his stride is Wilbur, a friendly, water-loving Boston terrier owned by Melanie Lehmann, a Kansas City, Mo., veterinary technician.
With more than 20 competitions under his collar, Wilbur snagged the title of National Lap Dog Champion in 2010, the best of the best among the littlest competitors — under 17 inches long.
Jumping 15 feet 10 inches, Wilbur beat out a cocker spaniel and a dachshund to snag the championship bragging rights, $250 and a ribbon rosette.
Cesily Lesko, a mock-up artist for Russell Stover, had her two golden doodles, Winnie Cooper and Charley Sprocket, with her. Fans of the sport might recognize the two lanky, curly-haired goofballs from DockDog events, which are televised on the Outdoor Channel.
With an owner as leggy, affable and good-looking as they are, Winnie and Charley create quite the stir when they compete.
Lesko got pulled into the sport like many of her fellow competitors: She attended an event. Now she travels to 10 to 15 competitions every year, from Oregon to Georgia, spending many of her summer weekends on the road.
Balancing sport and life
As with two-legged athletes, some days the practicing comes easier. Lesko had her hands full with Charley.
Everyone at practice gets two jumps off the dock during each turn. Lesko always lets Charley first take a “courtesy dunk.”
“He can't focus if I don't let him get wet first,” she said as he leaped off the dock into the water. “He has ADD, I swear.”
On that day, it took more than a courtesy dunk to get Charley's attention. He and a few of the other jumpers were distracted by the yelling and splashing at a smaller practice dock being used by the novices. The dock can be adjusted so it's just a few inches off the water; in some cases, that's almost as tall as the dogs themselves.
“Charley, you ready?” Lesko yelled at the dog, who ignored the squeaking of the plastic toy in her hand and looked over toward the other dock.
Charley ran down the dock, jumped in the water ... and ignored the toy, swimming off to join the fun at the other dock.
“We say he's 50 percent retriever and he retrieves only 50 percent of the time,” Lesko said, laughing.
Ray McCarty, of Independence, Mo., had his 5-year-old chocolate-colored Labrador retriever, Hershey, at that practice in July. But it was the last practice of the summer for the big lug known as Hershey Man. A few days later, Hershey was diagnosed with lymphoma, the most common type of cancer in dogs.
Oncologists at the University of Missouri veterinarian school in Columbia who diagnosed Hershey gave McCarty little hope. Without chemotherapy, they told him, Hershey would live just four to six weeks.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in shock,” McCarty said.
The day before the Mo-Kan group's annual event at the Blue Springs Fun Fest in September, Hershey was scheduled to receive one of the most potent of the four drugs in his treatment.
The competition proved a little much for Hershey, who clearly was off his game just two days after a major chemotherapy treatment.
Keeping it fun
Gray skies dripped all morning on the Saturday of the Blue Springs festival, yet the bleachers around the DockDogs swimming pool stayed occupied all day. Those who came to watch the last event of the day — the Extreme Vertical — were blessed with the day's only sunshine.
The competition area had a carnival feel. Dog owners from as far away as Chicago set up camp under tents and canopies, as they do at outdoor events to shelter their athletes from sun and rain. Some decorated their tents with ribbons won by their dogs; an oversized American flag covered the side of another.
They traveled to Blue Springs in campers, trucks and rented motor homes, and the ones who didn't bring their own beds found accommodations in nearby dog-friendly hotels.
As Woodstock-y as the event grounds appear, there are rules. Dogs must be on leashes no longer than 4 feet or in a crate when they're not competing on the dock. There must be at least 8 feet between dogs waiting in line to compete. The throw toy must float and not be edible or anything that is alive or once was alive. (One can only imagine.)
Willie and Dottie Stone, of Jefferson City, Mo., came with one of the scene-stealers of the weekend: Martini, a 15-pound dachshund, an unabashedly spoiled little muscular miss who arrived with her own pink kennel.
Martini lives with the Stones and their two Labrador retrievers, also DockDog competitors. Martini spent the summer jumping at competitions all over the Midwest.
The Stones watched their first DockDogs competition at a boat show in St. Louis and slowly got sucked into the sport after joining their local club.
“Most people belong to the clubs,” Dottie said. “You get involved with the clubs and you can travel with the people together.
“Seeing your dog improve and the camaraderie of the people around you. Basically, that's where it is.
“You do need some flexibility in your work schedule, and you leave your personal life behind. It's very addictive. You get involved and you want to keep doing it.”
The Blue Springs event — “to be honest, this is a $500 weekend,” Dottie revealed — brought a first for Martini: She refused to jump off the dock.
All summer long she'd been scooping up cash prizes and ribbons in the lapdog division. But she was having none of that swimming pool in Blue Springs.
The day ended in high drama with the Extreme Vertical event.
Fewer than 10 percent of all DockDogs competitors compete in the Extreme Vertical, apparently because jumping straight off the ground like a grasshopper is counterintuitive to a dog.
Dogs have been known to train years without grasping the concept. The dog has to jump off the dock and grab a bumper suspended from an extender reaching 8 feet out over the water. The smallest jump is 4 feet 6 inches; the highest is as high as the dog can jump.
The dog has to either snatch the bumper in its teeth or simply knock it from its perch. The current world record? Eight feet, 2 inches.
Two dogs wound up dueling in the late-afternoon sun.
One was Baxter, who had (unofficially) busted the Big Air record in the morning. The other was a buddy of Baxter's from the St. Louis area.
On his final jump, Lampert got Baxter positioned just so on the dock. Baxter's gaze locked on the bumper dangling 7 feet and 2 inches above the water.
And then ... someone in the crowd yelled.
Baxter turned his head ever so slightly toward the sound.But the damage was done.
He jumped, but missed the bumper and his second chance at glory for the day.And that, as they would say, was a doggone shame.
Any dog can compete in a DockDogs competition as long as it is at least 6 months old.
“My best advice is come and have fun with your dog,” said Lampert. “That's what it's really about. It's not about breaking records. It's great to do that ... but what I started is just coming out and having fun. I really liked it and my dog really liked it. And that's how this sport started.”