Towser the shelter puppy grows up to become a disc champ

He leapt and flipped. He ran hard and vaulted high off his human’s back. He tracked that flying disc, in the wind and rain, carefully timing his jumps.

World champion material?

Over the weekend, a 2  1/2 -year-old local dog named Towser, competed in the Skyhoundz World Canine Disc Championship.

Just qualifying in two events there elevated him to the upper ranks of world-class disc dog athletes (think Frisbee). It was a milestone that didn’t hit Towser’s owners, Jeff Scheetz and Jackie Rodeffer-Scheetz, as a complete surprise.

Towser came away with no trophies this time, but he has been a consistent winner since he started competing more than a year ago, sometimes placing first among 60 or 70 dogs, regionally and nationally.

If a contest involves running, jumping and flipping while catching an airborne plastic disc, expect Towser to be in the hunt. He’s the reigning Missouri “toss and fetch” champion.

The trip Towser and his owners took to Chattanooga, Tenn., where the 2010 world championship was held, certainly wasn’t the end of Towser’s story.

It was the middle. And here in the middle of the story, it’s important to point out that this tri-colored mix of border collie and Australian shepherd (maybe some sheltie) has accomplished something besides making a name for himself in disc doggin.’

He has seriously altered Jeff’s and Jackie’s lives with an exhilarating schedule of training and travel and competitions, which is one thing. More than that, though, he has forever strengthened their 20-year marriage. Which, of course, is everything.

‘An extra gear’

The beginning of the story: April 2008. That’s when Jackie and Jeff, who live near Belton, decided their 8-year-old dog, Kelsie, needed a companion. They stopped at Wayside Waifs animal shelter one day just to window shop.

Famous last words.

In a cage were three 8-week-old siblings, two males and a female. They had been found in an abandoned building, stuck in a crate and left to die. All three were active pups, but one of the males, named Towser, was different.

Black, white and tan, slightly bigger than the others, he pressed himself as close to the cage bars as he could. He strained to chew on their fingers. He seemed fearless. Jeff told Jackie he looked like trouble.

“He was full of the dickens, really,” Jackie said. “But I thought he was adorable.”

Another customer in the shelter that day had picked up Towser’s adoption card, but she returned it and Jackie snapped it up. They opened the cage, and five-pound Towser’s first act, with his puppy belly rubbing the ground, was to run to Jeff and untie his shoe.

The week Towser went home with Jeff and Jackie, their dog, Kelsie the collie mix, was diagnosed with cancer. Despite surgeries and chemotherapy, Kelsie didn’t make it.

Early on, Towser’s deportment made it clear that adopting another dog to replace Kelsie was not an option.

“Towser more than made up for three or four animals,” Jeff said. “He had an extra gear.”

An extra crazy gear.

After a couple of weeks, Jeff still couldn’t set down Towser’s water bowl without the dog attempting total immersion. He wanted to be in the bowl. At one point, Jeff corrected Towser and held the bowl four feet off the ground. The puppy, 10 weeks at the time, leapt nearly vertically, came close to snatching the bowl and fell backward, flat on his back.

“Completely fearless,” Jeff said, “and really focused.”

Crazy athletic. Crazy energetic. And crazy smart.

Towser learned right away how to push the electric window button on the couple’s truck. Along for a ride to the airport to pick up Jeff, Towser sensed they were close and pressed the button to roll down the window. Jackie had forgotten to engage the child safety lock. Towser leapt.

“I was still moving,” Jackie said. “He was so excited.”

Towser wasn’t hurt. But for two full years, Towser had to be watched carefully and exercised continually. Once he quickly disassembled a collection of stuffed animals and ate so much fluff that they rushed him to the vet. The rest wasn’t pretty.

“That was a $300 lesson,” Jeff said.

Towser’s energy never seemed to flag. Despite going on long walks during the day, he tended to explode again every night at 11 p.m., racing through the house, leaping over furniture. They called it the “Towser power hour.”

His border collie-ness shining through, Towser worked tirelessly to herd flocks of birds. Other times, he nipped endlessly at people’s heels to move them along. Jackie tried dog obedience classes, but Towser was so ornery with the instructor at one class that she came home in tears.

“Everybody told us, ‘You need to get him a job,’ ” Jeff said. “Our other dogs didn’t really have jobs, other than to be dogs.”

Clearly, regular exercising wasn’t enough. The vet suggested dog agility, a sport in which dogs race through obstacle courses. A regimen evolved of two-mile walks in the morning, dog agility classes in the evening and, in between, lots and lots of fetching balls.

Once Jeff rolled a Frisbee on the ground, and Towser went after it like prey.

It didn’t take long to realize that leaping and catching a disc in the air was Towser’s thing. In fact, until he was a year old, they had to curb his enthusiasm for jumping too high, which can damage puppy bodies.

“We had to limit him because he was such a kamikaze,” Jeff said.

Knowing little about disc competitions, they took 1-year-old Towser to a Skyhoundz local contest in Lawrence in May 2009. They won first place in the “distance and accuracy” competition, a contest also called “toss and fetch” in which the human-canine teams score points based on distance and completed catches in 60-second rounds.

Two weeks later they were on the road to a competition in Colorado, then Iowa in June and Indiana in July. Luckily, they said, disc dog competitors were a friendly bunch, a community free with advice and good wishes. They also had hooked up with, and helped to re-energize, the Kansas City Disc Dogs club.

“We were shocked,” Jeff said.

He meant at themselves.

“Were we really going to Colorado for a big disc dog tournament? Yes, we were becoming soccer parents for a Frisbee dog. It’s addictive, especially when your dog loves it so much.”

And when you love and admire your dog.

“I loved animals my whole life,” said Jackie, who grew up on a farm. “I always thought I had reached my capacity to love them, but that wasn’t so.”

Human training

Towser’s talent and willingness to learn made Jackie and Jeff realize they would have to step it up, too, athletically speaking. At least half of a disc team is human, after all.

Jackie and Jeff had always been active, which helped, although Jackie, a bit of a jock growing up, previously disparaged the skill and athleticism of disc throwers. Not anymore. One of her favorite events now is Quadruped, a long-distance catching contest. She has thrown a disc 58 yards in competition.

At the world championship in Chattanooga, Team Towser competed in “distance and accuracy” and in “pairs freestyle.” Freestyle is a judged routine of various throws, catches and moves, such as the dog vaulting off the human’s back and chest.

“One thing we’ve learned is that training is patience and repetition and time,” Jeff said. “I had never trained a dog to do anything really, except maybe to sit.”

Towser now knows about 30 words, including the names of many of his toys, and he can tell his right from his left. That extra gear of his might not be completely harnessed, but it has a purpose.

“What makes him a challenge is also what makes him good,” Jeff said.

And in the challenge, the Towser project, a renewed bond: As is often the case with couples, Jeff did his things, Jackie did hers. She has a house-cleaning business, and he’s guitarist and songwriter in the blues-rock Jeff Scheetz Band.

Things have changed.

“We go places, we talk more,” Jackie said. “The honest-to-God’s truth is that dog has strengthened our relationship, not that it was bad, but Towser has really brought us together.”

“I would just say if you’re thinking about getting a dog,” Jeff said, “it could lead to amazing things. It could change your life in ways you don’t even know.”

SEE MORE TOWSER Demonstrations:

Towser will perform at the Royals game on Sunday and the Wizards game Oct. 9.

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