The comptitors and organizers in this weekend’s Ashley Whippet Invitational World Championships found disc dog competition in different ways.
Jackie Rodeffer-Scheetz, and her husband, Jeff Scheetz, of Belton, found the sport in 2009, when they realized that their rescue dog, Towser, needed an outlet for his energy and intensity.
Marina Fangareggi, of Tuscany, Italy, originally started training her Australian Shephard to accompany her on horse rides, but then learned about the disc dog sport from a trainer.
And then there’s Ashley Whippet Invitational co-director Alex Stein, whose first whippet dog, Ashley, became famous in 1974. That’s when Stein snuck him onto the field during a televised Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game against the Cincinnatti Reds so that the world could see what a dog and frisbee could do.
In the decades since Stein drove from Florida to get his dog “discovered” in California, the disc dog sport has grown in popularity and gained followers in a multitude of countries in North America, Europe and Asia. This weekend, the Ashley Whippet Invitational World Championships came to Happy Rock Park in Gladstone and featured more than 40 people and their canine competitiors from America, Japan, China, the Netherlands and Italy.
Participants competed in the toss and catch division, in which dogs are judged by the distance they can catch a frisbee, as well as the freestyle division, in which dogs are judged during a two-minutes series of choreographed tricks set to music. Trainers pop frisbees off body parts that dogs catch in the air and dogs leap over their owners and catch frisbees in rapid succession in this segment.
Organizers said the competition would narrow to 15 on Sunday and an overall champion would earn the lauded Lander Cup, named for Irv Lander, a former Wham-O executive and Junior Frisbee Disc Championships promoter who helped spread the popularity of the disc dog sport.
While some disc dog trainers intentionally breed dogs that have the strong drive to compete in frisbee competitions, most competitors are rescue dogs.
“It’s really a great way to take that energy and put it to positive use,” said Eldon McIntire, of Bradbury, Calif., a trainer who helped Stein and Lander organize the first frisbee dog world championships in 1975.
Jonathan Offi, of Fenton, Mo., intitially started playing frisbee with pitbulls he’d rescued from shelters six years ago. He found it helped calm his dogs down and strengthened the connection he had with his animals.
He now owns 14 rescue dogs that perform in his Canines in the Cloud dog trick program. On Saturday he performed in the freestyle division with a border collie called Matrix, throwing frisbees in the air for the dog to catch and letting the dog jump off his body to get more air. Later, he would compete with his Maliwan, Athena.
“We call it teaching the dog sequences,” Offi said. “So we are teaching the dog a series of tricks and putting them together — your body language tells them what to do.”
And while disc dog competitors take their sport seriously, several contestants said the sport lacks what some called the stuffy, strict and intense atmosphere of other dog shows.
The St. Louis and Kansas City Disc Dog teams have recently reorganized as Team Missouri, Rodeffer-Sheetz pointed out, and fielded top finishers in world competitions. On Saturday, 2014 world champion Andrew Han lightly ribbed competitor Kirby McIlveen before cheering the 2015 world champion and her dog, Torch, on in the freestyle competition.
“I would say the top competitors practice seriously,” Han said. “but when you are here you can’t practice anymore, so you try to have fun.”
Just how hard are disc dog competitors practicing? Participants said they are consistenly exercising their dogs, helping them develop and maintain the muscles that allow them to perform. But how often they practice tricks is a more delicate balance, and reliant on whether the animal is enjoying itself.
“You have to finish,” Fangareggi said, “when the dog still wants to play.”