One day, Trent Steele's Weimaraner Alex did not excel at Big Air dock diving. The next day, he did—it was that fast.
Six months earlier, Steele had adopted Alex as a 1-year-old from a rescue group, and would take the 70-pounder from condo to dog park every single day. "They just exude energy, and if you're not careful, they're tearing the house down," Steele says. "One day at the park, I threw his ball off the dock and he jumped after it. And a light bulb went off. I'd seen the dogs dock diving on ESPN, and I thought, ‘Maybe this is something we could do together.'"
Thus, man and dog joined the increasingly popular sport first put forth by ESPN in 2000 as a filler event for its Great Outdoor Games. Sport dogs jumped from a platform into water, seeking the longest jump and the coolest form, though the latter is not graded. In 2002, DockDogs, the independent governing and sanctioning body for regional, national, and international dock-jumping performance sport for dogs, was established to develop standards for Big Air. The sport has grown from six sanctioned qualifying events in 2002 to 150 in 135 cities throughout the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom in 2010—and its televised event now outrates the X Games.
Steele learned the ropes on his own, looking up rules and regulations for DockDogs competitions on the Internet, getting Alex ready mostly by playing around with him. A few weeks later, Alex jumped 22 feet to win Knoxville's Bark for Life Big Air event. Two months after that, Steele packed a tent, table, crate, and chairs into his Saturn Ion, put Alex in the front seat, and headed for the Carolina DockDogs Holly Springs Event, with a standard 40-foot dock and cash prizes in the $25-$200 range.
"We just up and went—I drove all night, got there, set up a tent and waited for in the morning," says Steele, a self-deprecating, stocky everyguy who trains staff for McAlister's Deli locally. Alex placed second in Big Air in Carolina, and has been to 11 more competitions since, from Dubuque, Iowa, to Charleston, S.C. His longest jump is 24 feet 7 inches; he's categorized as a "master" who jumps in the 21- to 22 feet 1- inches range.
Though it might look different on television, the dogs are graded on the length of their jump—whatever's thrown is just to encourage them to reach out farther and jump longer; it doesn't matter at all if they catch or fetch it. "I've seen people use rubber chickens," says Steele.
The silvery, sleek-coated, muscle-bound Alex, who has a ready doggie smile and googly eyes constantly fixed on his handler, currently favors a mini-squeaky toy that most Chihuahuas wouldn't deign to play with; he could swallow three or four in a single gulp without choking, but instead lovingly cradles one between gum and cheek.
In competition, the dogs have two jumps per wave, with their longest counting toward qualifying them for the final, which is another best of two round, with all finalists starting back at zero score. For each jump, it is the same: Steele instructs Alex to sit, goes to the end of the dock nearest to the water, tells Alex to go. The dog runs, Steele throws the toy, Alex reaches out to get it while jumping, and hits the water in a chesty splash. Steele does his two-inch vertical jump, waves his arms, and roars his approval.
"I have so much fun," says Steele. "I love the attention—friends call me an attention whore. And mainly, the constant dock diving wears his butt down."
At the competitions, sometimes there are a dozen viewers; at the pair's most recent outing in Charleston, the numbers swelled to 500-600. Usually, Alex pays attention only to his owner, or the toy, unless someone from the crowd is dangling into the exit pool, which is against the rules.
In Charleston, though, when Alex hit the exit ramp, he would look over at the crowd, every time, and they were eating it up. "He looked like he was showing off," says Steele. "But I finally figured it out, why he was looking—the dock behind the crowd had some birds on it."
An Every Dog Activity
There are two hard and fast rules to dock diving, as governed by DockDogs: Handlers must be at least 7 years old, and dock divers at least 6 months old. Beyond that, the sport is a lot more diverse than you might think, with plenty of room for different-sized dogs and those that don't jump that far. "They've got different divisions just so smaller dogs, and dogs that do smaller jumps, can still compete," Steele says. "I just love DockDogs because it doesn't discriminate—it doesn't matter if your dog jumps 2 feet or 22. I've seen a Yorkie jump—this is true, his name is Pancakes—and a long-haired dachshund, Super Cooper. They get the biggest applause."
He does comprehend that not every dog is going to go off that dock; for example, Zoe, the Weimaraner he's fostering until she moves to a permanent home in Connecticut at the end of this month. "She thinks it's funny to go charging down and then stop at the end of the dock—she doesn't care to go off the end."
At an event in Charlotte, while he was still a long-distance member of Carolina Dock Dogs, Steele met Tiffany Flach from Knoxville. The two decided to "get something started" in this area; the result was Smoky Mountain Dock Dogs, which welcomes all dogs and their owners, even those who aren't sure what will happen at the end of the dock—or whether their dog or Steele will be fetching the toy or ball back out of the water.
SMDD has been going about a year now, with four or five members, but is still having growing pains. "A lot are interested, but we've been without a consistent dock for a while," Steele says. "Of course, you don't jump as much in the winter, either, particularly since that's when TVA lowers the water at a lot of the lakes."
Tommy Schumpert Park, which has the best dock and a fenced area, is closed for reseeding; its reopening is undetermined. Steele is thrilled at the prospect of the dog ramp Knox County will be building as part of Concord Dog Park, but the construction finish date isn't a sure thing.
Still, he has wrangled a few docks where friends of friends will let SMDD dive, and the club will hold a practice on March 19. (The location is undisclosed; potential participants are asked to e-mail Steele at email@example.com.) And they'll participate in the June 3-5 Woofstock in Bristol, Va., to raise money for the Margaret B. Mitchell Spay and Neuter Clinic.
Meantime, Alex and Steele will be hitting the road for more competitions, sometimes now with Alex in the back of the Ion; Steele's met a girlfriend, Bri Payne, who comes along with her own dog and expects to sit up front. The dogs wrestle around in the back and get yelled at, like two kids in a blended family, says Steele.
Alex is Steele's second dog; he had a Rottweiler, Spencer, for 13 years. After Spencer's death, Steele spotted Alex in an online rescue group photo. He is smitten. "He gets me out more often than what I used to, to run him, walk around, so that's benefiting me. He goes wherever I go—my front seat is brown, but it's supposed to be gray, and it would be odd if you didn't see nose smudges on my windows. Mostly, he just tries to make me happy."
And while someday Steele plans to have the human variety, for now this dock-diving fiend is his child. "Alex is my kid," he says. "I worry about him. And the dog—he's there, no matter what. If you're sad, he's there. If you're happy, he's there. If you're mad, it's because he peed on the floor. Right in front of you!"