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The Increasingly Wide World of Canine Sports

People in Wisconsin will have a chance to see competitors in canine sports. They will be featured on national television Sunday and at State Fair on Monday, a fair day devoted to dogs.

As WUWM’s Ann-Elise Henzl reports, there has been a dramatic increase in what sports dog owners are doing with their pets, for accolades -- or just for fun.Andrew Han has played Frisbee and other sports as long as he can remember. A few years ago he was looking for new activities, and on YouTube, came across “disc dog.” People train their dogs to follow Frisbee-style discs tossed through the air, or waved over and around the dog owner's body. “Dogs will do flips, really high leaps, it’s pretty cool,” says Han.

Han learned that in disc dog, the competitors devise a two-minute freestyle routine with their pets. Judges grade the team on the difficulty involved and how well it performs the maneuvers.

A second aspect of the sport is toss and catch: owners earn points based on how many discs their dog can catch and retrieve in one minute.

Credit Cynthia Hoffman
Han says Solar's one blue eye called to him, when he found him on a herding dog rescue site.

Han started searching for a canine companion for the sport. On a pet rescue website, he found an Australian Shepherd, a medium-sized herding breed, highly motivated to chase and retrieve.

“I really love the split face, where half of the face is white, half of the face is one other color. And then that one blue eye just kept calling to me,” Andrew says with a laugh.

Han adopted the dog and named him “Solar.” The two have mastered the freestyle portion of the sport, earning spots this year in national competitions. Han recently showed me a few of his maneuvers at Veterans Park.

“What I’ll do now is I'll do a flip. The disc goes end-over-end, and so does the dog. Whoa, big man!”

Han gets Solar to run at him and scale up his body, using him as a springboard to catch air. He must position the discs carefully so the dog leaps and lands safely, and so its paw does not end up in Han’s eye – something that happened once. He wears a neoprene vest, to prevent Solar's nails from digging into his torso.

“The next thing I’m going to do is a back vault, which is just like the leg vault, only it comes off the back. Atta boy! Come on, Solar!”

After a few minutes of working in the hot sun, Han gives Solar a break, in the shade under a picnic table, where the dog laps up a big bowl of water.

Han’s day job is to help his parents run a dry cleaning business in Shorewood. He spends many weekends on the road competing and earning sponsorships that help offset the cost of travel.

The world of canine sports is bustling, with competitions taking place all year. People attending the Wisconsin State Fair next week can get a taste of a few of the events, including “dock diving.”

Organizers set up a long, narrow four-foot-deep pool, and a 40-foot dock. David Speed of Belgium is a longtime competitor, along with his yellow Labradors, George and Dozer.

“You can place the dog anywhere on the dock. You throw a toy in the water and the dog gets it. As you get more experience, you try to time your toy to where the dog actually follows it through the air, with more height, more speed, you get more distance,” Speed says.

The dogs can fly 20 feet or more, before landing in the water. Speed is an auto mechanic, by trade. He says competing can get expensive. He’s been able to secure sponsors to help cover costs. He says he and his wife are hooked on the sport, because their dogs are.

Our dogs love to please us, and we do this as a favor to them, to please them - says Speed.

Kathy Kawalec has been a dog trainer for three decades, and says in the last 10 years, the volume of people that actively do organized sports with their dogs has “exponentially grown.”

Kawalec says, “people are looking for ways to have fun and have a contrast to their high-stress work life. Having a sport activity to do with their dog is a great way to do that.”

Kawalec says the most popular sport these days is agility, sort of like a dog obstacle course. Yet other competitions are gaining ground. For instance, she trains people to use dogs to herd sheep for fun, and says those competitions are filling up quickly.

Kim Rinzel of the Wisconsin Humane Society says canine sports are growing as owners learn more about dog behavior, realizing dogs need exercise for their bodies and minds.

“Even if you have that great, big, chubby Beagle, who all he wants to do is eat, you can incorporate his nose – Beagles are scent hounds – have him use his nose and follow a little maze, and get a little reward at the end,” Rinzel says.

In Solar’s case, the reward is simply the chance to chase after yet another disc, and win the praise of his owner, Andrew Han.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.