Taking flight: Disc Doggin’ isn’t a hobby — it’s a way of life

Sadie: a border collie owned by Jeff and Misty Wright, in action. The Wrights helped start the Flying Houndz of Louisville club.   Photo by James Calvert

Sadie: a border collie owned by Jeff and Misty Wright, in action. The Wrights helped start the Flying Houndz of Louisville club. Photo by James Calvert

What is so interesting about a group of people playing fetch with their dogs on a beautiful Saturday evening? Not much, until one of the dogs leaps into the air, bounds off its owner’s back and snatches a Frisbee clean out of the air. For the dozen or so members of Flying Houndz of Louisville club, this isn’t simple fetch, it’s Disc Doggin’, and the club is growing as this addiction spreads to other dog owners.

Jeff Wright, 37, one of the founding members of the club, used to race a 1988 Ford Mustang. Vintage car racing, which consists of building, tweaking, oiling, rubbing, screwing and of course racing, could be considered an obsession, but now Wright is selling the car in favor of quality time with his wife Misty, 27, and their border collies Sadie and Sampson.

“This is more fun,” says Wright, talking about his passion for the canine athlete. “It’s cheaper and the rewards are better … car racing doesn’t hold a candle to this.”

Wright’s fun began last year after seeing a sign at pet store promoting the 2005 U.S. Disc Dog Nationals. “We didn’t know anything about Disc Dog events,” Wright says, “but we thought we’d give it a try.”

Julie Middleton, the group’s other co-founder, joined the Wrights for the event, which took place during the annual livestock convention at the Kentucky Fair & Expo Center. They saw competitors from as far away as Germany, Holland and Japan performing amazing stunts and tricks with their dogs, and decided to try some things out for themselves.

Jeff and Sadie: practice disc doggin’.  Photo by James Calvert

Jeff and Sadie: practice disc doggin’. Photo by James Calvert

Though the sport has only taken an organized form in the River City during the past year, Disc Dog, which is also known as Frisbee Dog, got its legs between the seventh and eighth inning of an L.A. Dodgers game on Aug. 4, 1974. A college student named Alex Stein put the nationally televised Reds-Dodgers game on pause by scaling a wall with his dog Ashley Whippet. Together, they put on an exhibition for nearly eight uninterrupted minutes in which Ashley reportedly zipped around the field at nearly 35mph and snagged discs out of their air with leaps nearly 9 feet high. (LEO was unable to independently verify these numbers, but as a matter of perspective, Ashley Whippet could probably dunk a basketball and would be ticketed for speeding in school zones.)

The legend continues that Irv Lander, the then-president of the Los Angeles-based National Frisbee Association, was at the game, and upon Stein’s arrest that afternoon and Ashley’s subsequent disappearance, Lander bailed out Stein so they could look for the amazing dog. They found Ashley days later, struck up a deal with Frisbee maker Wham-O, and began promoting the sport via performances at the White House and Super Bowl XII. They even starred in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Floating Free.”

Leaping with Lucky
The whippet, created in 19th century England by cross-breeding greyhounds with small terriers, has been supplanted by Australian shepherds and border collies as the dog of choice for disc dogging, but spaniels, retrievers and even poodles still make appearances at competitions. Until 1998, the ALPO Canine Frisbee Dogs World Champion series was the only contest series in the Disc Dog world, but as the sport grew, more competitions sprouted. Currently, competitive events are sponsored by disc makers Hyperflite and Wham-O and are governed by bodies such as the International Disc Dog Handlers Association, United Frisbee Dog Operations and the USDDN Steering Committee.

Beginning this Saturday, Nov. 11, six domestic, 10 Japanese and five European USDDN qualifiers will culminate at the sixth USDDN Championship in Louisville, whereupon a national and international champion will be crowned. The steering committee, which consists of club members from around the world, dictates the rules for the competition and the judging guidelines.

Animal trainer, Frisbee dog instructor, event organizer and world champion Melissa Heeter sits on the steering committee and explains what elements the judges take into account. “We’re looking for prey, drive, athleticism, speed, standard, grip and retrieval skills,” she says. (Prey pertains to a dog’s innate tendency to stalk, chase, jump and bite prospective prey. Trainers work to transfer those instincts to objects like Frisbees.)
The competition is broken down into two events — Freestyle and Toss & Fetch — which are further subdivided in groups based on the handler’s experience.

From left, the Wrights: with Sadie and Sampson, and Flying Houndz co-founder Julie Middleton, with Zander, Flame and Lily.  Photo by James Calvert

From left, the Wrights: with Sadie and Sampson, and Flying Houndz co-founder Julie Middleton, with Zander, Flame and Lily. Photo by James Calvert

According to Heeter, freestyle judges will be paying attention to categories like “Canine,” “Player,” “Team” and “Execution.” “We want to see disc management … and how the person and dog work together on certain elements,” she says. A handler/dog team can score 10 points in each of the four main categories, earning a total of 40 points, and during a performance you’re just as likely to see a dog run figure-eights around its handler’s legs as you are to see the dog stall on the handler’s back.

The Toss & Fetch competition has handler and pet line up on a field lined in 10-yard increments and with boundaries on both sides. In 90 seconds, handler and dog try to complete as many throws as possible, with the top five throws counting toward a score. Teams get a point for every 10 yards covered by a successful throw, and if the dog makes a leaping grab at 40 yards, the team is awarded a bonus half-point, making the maximum score a 22.5.

No one from Flying Houndz will be competing this weekend at the first division level, Super Pro, but Wright will compete in the second division in both Freestyle and Toss & Fetch, while several others will compete as novices. Also attending the Louisville event will be the neighboring Indy Dog and Disc Club, based in Indianapolis. Getting its start in 1999 and now with about 75 members, the Indy Club is older and larger than Louisville’s club, and its size and experience speak to its level of success at competitions.

Amy King, 35, and her husband Ron, 42, started the Indy Club and attended their first event in 2000 with their three dogs — a Rottweiler-lab mix, a border collie and a dachshund mix. Though Amy attests that their credo is, “Having fun with your dog is the most important thing,” the club has seen a level of success that the Wrights, Middleton and other competitive Louisville Disc Doggers hope to one day attain. Amy modestly claims a current world champion in more than four events, including winner of the IDDHA Freestyle World Championships.

Fun with Fido
So far, Misty Wright has had success with Sampson in the Toss & Fetch category, while Jeff is improving both his freestyle routine and his distance and accuracy. As for Middleton, when she isn’t working as a physical therapist at the Sacred Heart Village in Clifton, she spends about a half hour twice daily playing Frisbee with Flame, a 1 ½-year-old border collie, Lily, a 2-year-old grey and white Australian shepherd and Zander, a 6-month-old border collie.

Middleton’s devotion to play with her dogs, however, is driven more by necessity than competitiveness: She needed a way to settle down her three playful and rambunctious companions. “If I don’t play with the dogs, they will get destructive,” she says.

Eighteen years ago, the first-ever female world champion, Heeter, tapped the same logic for playing Frisbee with her dogs. “After getting into my pantry and destroying everything, I realized my border collie needed a job,” she says. “The day the Frisbee came into his life was the day the destructiveness went away.”

Heeter’s logic is that by channeling the dog’s energy, an owner can improve its behavior to the point where it is civil enough to go from the back yard to the front yard, then from the front yard to the house. Those are the motivations of a trainer, which she is, but the impetus for participating in disc dog sports is different for every person. For Middleton, it’s about living harmoniously with her animals; for Jeff Wright, it’s about channeling his own energy and his dogs’ energy into something rewarding for both; and for Misty Wright, she’s looking to enjoy herself.

“The key is to have fun with your dog,” Misty insists. “That’s the bottom line.”

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