She takes the stairs two or three steps at a time, disappearing around the corner in a barking flash of fur. I manage to ascend with slightly more poise. I know she’ll always be waiting, sometimes just out of sight or more often all the way at the end of the dock, glancing over her shoulder in expectant euphoria. Like any border collie, she lives for tasks. This one happens to be her favorite.
She bounds back toward me, trying to grab the toy away in a desperate series of leaps and snatches. The crowd cheers. Her energy is infectious. After a bit more amping up, I walk her to the far end of the dock and place her in a sit-stay. She’s coiled tight, muscles trembling, eyes bulging. It’s time.
She springs forward, unleashing all of the 0.005 horsepower (well, probably) packed into her 43-pound frame. Sometimes I wonder if she’d leave a trail of flames if the artificial turf wasn’t wet. I toss the toy as she nears and turn to watch the landing. The pitter-patter of accelerating paws ends in a sudden thump reminiscent of a gymnast hitting a springboard, and suddenly the world is engulfed in silence.
Cameras click. Children squeal. Her initial posture is elegant, but her paws begin pedaling as she nears the crash landing. Her tail swishes to the side. These are the awkward frames that don’t usually make it to Instagram.
Noise returns. Most of the crowd applauds or cheers, interspersed with the shocked gasps of those in the splash zone. I walk over to the exit ramp and lavish her with praise and affection. If the jump is her favorite part of the task, this is mine. The score is coming in over the loudspeaker. The spectators are still clapping. None of that matters.
As she’s swimming toward me, frisbee in tow and job completed, I’m always granted one of the most joyful moments in dog ownership. The bond isn’t just confirmed; for a few fleeting seconds, it’s almost tangible.
Dock jumping is one of the most spectator friendly of all dog sports, a favorite at festivals around the world. It’s also one of the most accessible. You don’t need hours of training to participate, like agility or flying discs. There’s only one real requirement: a willingness to have fun with your dog.
So, what do you need to know in advance of your first dock-jumping competition?
1. People Will Love Your Dog, No Matter How They Perform
The elite high-flying labs will earn a hearty applause, of course, but equally appreciated is the pug who bellyflops a foot off the dock after 45 seconds of terrified hesitation.
Timeouts — dogs not taking the plunge within the alotted time — are normal. Everyone, spectator and competitive handler alike, will offer just as much encouragement to the scared puppy pacing around the edge of the dock as an established world-champion jumper.
Even dogs who love lakes and streams might show hesitation. The color, depth and overall experience of a dock-jumping venue can be offputting. Many newcomers will let their dogs walk down the exit ramp to enter the pool instead of jumping to get comfortable. Once a nervous pup takes his or her first few leaps off the actual dock, the lightbulb turns on and they start soaring with reckless abandon.
There’s an element of competition, of course, and like any sport there are those who take it more seriously than others. Don’t get caught up in scores or personal bests or anything like that, at least not at first. Focus simply on making sure you and your pup are both having an enjoyable experience. The reward will be better than a dozen first-place medals.
2. There Are Some Pretty Rigid Ground Rules
A dock-jumping competition is different from your local dog park. Many of the competitors are true athletes with hundreds of hours of training administered by handlers who own their own dog-training business or breeding facility. Others are rescue mutts and their everyday owners curiously checking out an event at a neighborhood festival. For the safety and enjoyment of those examples and everyone in between, most major dock-jumping organizations lay out some simple rules
There are several, and they differ between event facilitators. For specifics you’ll have to refer to the website of whatever company is organizing your local competition. The two most universal rules, however, are also the most unknowingly broken.
It’s crucial to keep at least a six-foot distance between dogs at all times. Not all of them are friendly, and many owners of extensively trained canines want to keep their pups focused and attentive. It’s frowned upon to let your dog walk up and greet others, like you might in other canine-heavy environments. This might necessitate bringing a shorter and more traditional leash.
Dogs should also never be pushed or thrown into the pool. This can be a terrifying experience that ruins the chance of them ever getting comfortable with the sport. Panicking dogs can also cause a danger to themselves as well as the spectators surrounding the pool, which usually includes young children. If your dog isn’t jumping, try splashing the water in encouragement or letting them walk down the exit ramp a few times instead.
3. Two Main Techniques Exist: Place and Send & Chase and Retrieve
It’s easy to classify these as the beginner method and the advanced method, but it really depends on the dog. Several world champions have used the “easier” method of Place and Send, which is throwing the toy into the pool while physically or verbally restraining the dog. The jumper is placed in a position where they can see the toy floating in the pool, then are walked back a certain distance and released.
The Chase and Retrieve method is more common, especially among seasoned competitors. It’s what you’ll see in most action photos or YouTube videos. The dog is placed in a sit-stay or a down-stay somewhere on the dock while the handler walks to the other end with the toy in hand. The dog is released and shown the toy, which the handler tosses skillfully when the pup is a few feet or even inches away. The distinct advantage of this technique is you can force your dog to elevate off the dock by throwing the toy on a more vertical trajectory. Dock-jumping scores are measured from where the base of a dog’s tail joins their body, so having a vertical as opposed to a horizontal entry into the water can be the difference in several feet.
4. The Toy Matters (A Lot)
Toy drive is necessary for dock jumping. If you dog doesn’t care about toys and can’t otherwise be persuaded to jump, there’s not much you can do. Treats or any kind of food are forbidden. The good news is, most dogs are crazy about at least some sort of toy. It can be a standard tennis ball, a floating frisbee, a hunting trainer, a simple bumper, or even a squeaking plush toy. The only requirement is that it floats.
Many dogs will go after any sort of object, but finding a toy they are totally insane about can make a big difference in scoring. My border collie, for example, scored in the 14-foot range with a water bumper. A frisbee has coaxed her as far as 20’10”. Try a few different items and a few different methods of tossing. With enough experience, you’ll figure out what works best for you and your best friend.
5. Practice Is Unlimited Between Waves
Speaking of enough experience, entry into one competition wave includes a full day of practice jumps in between scheduled sessions. You can pay for one qualifying heat at 10 a.m. and stay until 6 p.m. practicing. That’s hours and hours of fun!
Bring a few toys and try different techniques. Especially once your pup is comfortable and jumping regularly, the practice sessions are the perfect time to figure out how to eek out more distance. Are they jumping too far before the edge of the dock? Choosing a trajectory like a heat-seeking missile instead of popping upward? Not accelerating to full speed? Docks aren’t accessible for many people on a regular basis, so making the most of practice jumps at competition events is crucial to continued progress.