Ready . . . set . . . FLY!
The growing sport of canine disc — everyone can play
Adriana Erickson and SukiPerhaps you’ve seen it on TV — a dog races out, makes a dazzling leap, and snaps a flying disc from midair. Then ecstatically races back for the next throw.
Or maybe you’ve seen it at the dog park — no less enthusiastic but with varying degrees of finesse. If ever there was a portrait of jumping for joy, this is it . . . Canine Disc.
Canine Disc. Disc Dogs. Frisbee Dogs. Flying Dogs. Aerial Dogs. Whatever you call them, these canine athletes are amazing! And the sport is growing by leaps and bounds.
“Canine disc is a great sport for dogs, particularly in urban settings,” says Adriana Ericson, a member of Washington Owners of Flying Disc Dogs (woofd2). “All you need is a bit of grass, a dog and a disc.”
Dating back to the popularity of Frisbees in the early ‘70s, the history of canine disc is as fascinating as the sport itself. According to Wikipedia, the defining moment came on August 4, 1974, when Alex Stein, a young college student from Ohio, jumped the fence at a nationally-broadcast baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds.
Stein had with him a couple of Frisbees and an amazing dog named Ashley Whippet. For eight minutes, Ashley astonished the crowd, running 35 mph and leaping 9 feet in the air to snag the flying discs. The stunt was so unique that the game was stopped while Joe Garagiola continued to announce the action on the field. Stein was eventually escorted off the field and arrested. But the seed was planted, and a new sport was born.
Stein eventually worked with Irv Lander and Eldon McIntire to create a national and later world championship for people and their dogs. In the early years, the final competition took place at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, alongside the “human” Frisbee championships.
Widely considered the greatest Frisbee dog ever, Ashley Whippet racked up three World Championships, performances at the White House for a young Amy Carter and during half-time at Super Bowl XII, plus a starring role in an Academy Award-nominated short documentary entitled Floating Free.
Ashley’s Whippet’s legacy lives on worldwide, 30 years later. Several organizations present disc dog competitions, and the number of clubs continues to grow.
Adriana Erickson and SukiDisc dogs clubs like woofd2 of Seattle, and the newly-formed Flydo (Flying DiscDogs of Oregon), are nonprofits striving to spread the word and the joy of the sport they love. Clubs offer instruction, safety advice, and places to compete. “Many of our competitions are free, and we offer low-cost clinics and free play dates to help people get started,” says Ericson. In fact, the clubs work to help each other: woofd2 is currently helping Oregonians grow the fledgling sport in their state.
Ericson is proud of the sport’s spirit of friendship and helping. Beginners are always encouraged, and many experienced competitors enjoy the chance to give back. “Newcomers are always welcome” says Ericson, speaking from experience. Just over three years ago, she and her Border Collie, Kess, followed their love of Frisbee to check out disc dog. They loved it so much, they went on to compete. “The first competition Kess was in, she won 1st place Novice in the Regionals,” says Ericson.
Now Ericson participates with her rescue Suki, a 3+-year-old Border Collie/Jack Russell mix. Which brings up another positive attribute of this sport: there are no breed standards or sanctions for either handler or dog. Canine disc engages the dog’s natural prey drive, the instinct to chase and stop small moving objects. Mixed-breeds and purebreds alike can play without regard to pedigree.
While certain breeds such as Border Collies and Australian Shepherds tend to excel, any dog can be a winner. And even more important: have a great time, enjoy the physical benefits, and develop a greater bond with his/her human. “Dogs that enjoy it and are best at it are those who like to fetch and retrieve,” says Ericson. Many World Champion disc dogs have been mixed-breeds rescued from shelters.
Problems that lead to dogs landing in shelters — such as hyperactivity, aggression and neurotic or destructive behavior — can be positively channeled into sports like canine disc. Not only does the activity help dogs learn good manners, it provides a focused outlet for physical energy. And because the dog and human work together as a team, each doing his or her part to be successful, neither can play without the other.
The training structure helps people better communicate with their dogs, and teaches important basics in discipline, motivation and problem-solving in healthy ways. Perhaps best of all, these activities also ease boredom, and the mutual fun strengthens the dog/guardian bond. The stronger the bond, the better the day to day relationship, the less likely a dog will be given up.
The basics of Disc Dog are simple enough:
Throw the disc.
Dog catches disc.
Dog returns disc.
It’s the details that can get a little complicated. There are two primary types of competition — Distance/Accuracy and Freestyle — but much variation can occur within those types.
Distance/Accuracy competition events go by many names: Toss & Fetch, Throw & Catch, MiniDistance. “It depends on the organization,” Ericson notes. “But the concept of the game is still the same: One Handler, One Dog, One Minute, One Disc. Teams try to make as many complete catches, as far down the field as possible, in 60 seconds. Scoring is based on the distances of the dog’s catches, and teams can also be evaluated on how the catch was made and whether the dog was airborne.
Dynamic Freestyle competitions are more showy, involving choreographed routines that vary in length. Teams exhibit spectacular displays of athleticism and teamwork with flips, vaults, multiple discs and super-fast catches. Similar to snowboarding or ice skating, judging can be subjective, with scoring based on originality, skill, presentation, artistry, difficulty and specific styles of throws and catches. Despite how it’s judged, freestyle is hugely popular with spectators, and is considered the highest level of competitive achievement.
Often called Frisbees, the term “disc” is preferred because Frisbee is a trademark for a brand of flying disc developed by Wham-O. “Discs need to be dog-friendly,” says Ericson, meaning they need to stand up to gnashing canine teeth. Dollar discs commonly found at big box stores are made out of stiff plastic that can shatter under a dog’s bite, splintering into shards that can harm the dog. Ericson named Hero and Hyperflite as two manufacturers of durable canine discs that fly well and won’t crack.
Still wondering if your champ has what it takes to be a disc dog? While catching and retrieving types learn quickly, dogs with a strong desire to please and who eagerly await commands are good candidates for success with a little training.
“At beginning training, we start out teaching people how to throw a disc,” says Ericson. “And we have what is called a ‘Rent An Arm’ for people who can’t throw well or who are older.”
Whether it’s casual play or dynamic competition, all dogs should see their veterinarian before embarking on disc training sessions. Good hips are vital for all that leaping and landing, and your dog should be in good health and have plenty of stamina and strength.
The benefits of physical exercise (for man and beast) are clear, but the less tangible rewards can be just as important . . . and gratifying. Some of your most memorable moments with your dog happen when hiking that trail in the mountains or tossing the ball at the park. The variety of games, sports and good times to enjoy together are endless. Participation in activities — mental, physical or social — not only enriches your dog’s life, but strengthens the human/canine bond that begins the moment they enter our lives.
Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of BowWows & Meows Pet Services of SW WA. She and her brood, Jake and Jessie, both yellow Labs, and parrots Pedro (Yellow-Nape Amazon) and Lorali (African Grey) reside in Vancouver. Vonnie also is “the face of Spot” at many Portland-area pet-related events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.