Does your dog enjoy playing frisbee? He might be a good candidate for disc dog — a new canine sport that’s really taken off.
When I was a kid, my dog Max and I used to have loads of fun with my red plastic Frisbee. The sport now known as disc dog has grown to international status, with hundreds of annual competitions taking place on a variety of levels in countries around the world. Contemporary disc dog events range from long distance throwing and breath-taking jumps to meticulously choreographed routines between dog and humans.
How did disc dog start?
“Canine disc sports originated more than 30 years ago in the U.S.,” says Jeff Perry, co-founder of Hyperflite, manufacturers of discs engineered especially for use in competition. “No one knows who first started throwing Frisbees to dogs, but we do know that the sport was popularized largely by the escapades of Alex Stein and his legendary dog, Ashley.” One summer day in 1974, Alex and his whippet companion ran onto the field during a nationally televised baseball game and entertained the crowds for about eight minutes. “Their escapades catapulted the sport into the mainstream of public awareness. From there, Alex was fortuitously connected with an entrepreneurial gentleman named Irv Lander and they created a national contest series. That’s how it all started.”
The sport has come a long way since then, and has also gained popularity in many other parts of the world. “When it first started out, it was at a very basic level,” says Jeff. “Dogs were just getting used to the idea of catching something that was flying through the air. Essentially, catching and retrieving were all a dog really had to do to become a world champion. But now the sport has evolved to be a lot more complex.”
Sponsored by Hyperflite, the annual Skyhoundz World Championship offers four distinct divisions for competitors. “One is the Micro-Dog Division for small dogs,” explains Jeff. “Another is the Open Division which combines the distance element with freestyle; competitors get on the field and perform two-minute choreographed routines with up to five flying discs. There’s also the Sport Division which is basically fetch and catch with a challenging course where the dog has to land in defined scoring zones. The fourth and newest division is Pairs Freestyle, and that’s two people performing with one dog in a choreographed routine. It’s really amazing what people are coming up with these days for that event.”
Top qualified competitors come from around the globe for the Skyhoundz World Championship, which took place this year on September 23 and 24 at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. “Because of the difficulties of travel, most of the competitors are from the U.S., but we do have an increasing number of folks from all over the world,” says Jeff. “We had quite a large contingent from Canada this year and also had folks coming in from Belgium and the Far East. You don’t have to have a purebred dog, and you don’t have to be in any particular age group. Even disabled dogs and people compete from time to time. This year, in fact, for the first time, we had a three-legged dog that qualified for the championship.”
The Hyperflite Skyhoundz Championship series is a tiered competition, which means there are championships taking place at all levels. The series starts with smaller local competitions that allow beginners to get their feet wet and to see if disc dog is the sport for them and their canine companions. “Last year there were over 100 local championships in the U.S. which don’t require any pre-qualification or experience and are free,” says Jeff. “If you then decide you want to take it up a notch, we have several regional qualifier championships. There are small registration fees for these but any dog and person are still eligible to compete.” From there, winners can move on to world championship level.
Unlike so many organized sports these days, disc dog competitions don’t get ugly. In fact, it’s an exciting and enjoyable experience for dogs and competitors as well as spectators. “It’s a life changing experience for many because they find there’s a whole world of people out there who love to have fun and active lives with their dogs,” says Jeff. “There’s no animosity or rivalry other than friendly competition. Everyone wants all the dogs to do really well. It’s just a blast.”
Which canines make the best champs?
You might think only certain breeds would be able to participate in canine disc sports, but any dog can become a competitor. In fact, most people involved in the sport agree that the good old-fashioned mixed breed makes the best candidate. “We see all types and breeds of dog, but shelter mutts make up the greatest collection of world champions,” says Jeff. “They’re followed by the herding and retrieving breeds and some of the bulldog breeds. But there’s really no dog that can’t learn it.”
Want to get your own dog involved? Here’s what you need to know:
- First, take your dog to the vet to make sure he’s up to the vigorous activity that canine disc sports entail. If he’s overweight, for example, or has issues with hip dysplasia or other joint problems, you’ll need to exercise caution.
- Most dogs love this sport. Jeff says it can take a few minutes or a few days to get a dog interested, but once he’s hooked, “it’s like a light bulb going on.”
- Start slow and work your way up to longer throws and higher jumps. If your vet says it’s okay but you’re still concerned, just don’t encourage high jumps,” says Jeff. “It’s also a good idea to get some weight off a heavy dog before he starts jumping so there’s less stress on the joints.”
- To avoid injuries, be sure to choose a suitable spot to play. “Injuries are very rare in this sport and when they do happen it’s usually because of a mistake we made,” says Jeff. “Go to a park with a nice grassy field that doesn’t have any holes or rough spots, and make sure you’re in control of your throws so they don’t cause your dog to run into an obstacle.”
Ann Brightman is Managing Editor for Animal Wellness Magazine and Integrative Veterinary Care Journal. A lifelong animal lover, she has also been a writer and editor for over 25 years. Ann is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada and is also a Tai Chi instructor.