Frisbee has gone to the dogs

High-flying canines and their disc-flinging humans compete in a national contest.

"We just wanted a dog to play Frisbee with. And, oh my gosh, four years later we've got four dogs and our kids think we're crazy."

Robin Shayer and her husband, Mike, aren't really that crazy, whatever their children say. They're actually self-deprecating, with good perspective on the pastime that's overtaken their lives. Every minute spent with their four dogs, Mike says, is an opportunity to train. And that's most minutes, except when they're at work or sleeping. (Although, Robin admits, the dogs do sleep with them.)

Many in the world of competitive disc dogs insist that what they do is a sport. The Shayers are happy to have it called a hobby.

This weekend, the Shayers and their dogs Ziggy and Sooty will join 40 "teams" in Louisville, Ky., for the United States Disc Dog Nationals (USDDN) championship. Made up of high-flying Frisbee tricks, the sport-hobby is loosely held together by regional clubs that sponsor local competitions and demonstrations, while at least five larger organizations host national tournaments. This time last year, Mike and his trim border collie, Ziggy, took 12th place. They're hoping for better on Saturday.

So what exactly is the path that takes one from being a run-of-the-mill pet owner to the human half of a competitive Frisbee dog team? How does "fetch" in the park with just any old Frisbee turn into ripping through more than 1,000 specialty discs a year? Dogs, after all, chew.

For the Shayers, it happened gradually.

They've always been dog owners. From their white house here in Mapleville, on eight acres, they used to run a small farm. Now, where corn once grew, there's a fenced-off grass field for Frisbee play. It's not regulation (70 yards by 40 yards) and there's a tree sprouting in the middle, but otherwise it's pretty perfect. At one end is the dogs' clapboard kennel. An exterior shelf holds a stereo and built-in teal slots for discs. The dogs don't actually spend much time in the kennel. They're usually in the house with Mike and Robin. Or playing Frisbee. Or on the road for competitions and demonstrations in the family's champagne-colored Dodge Caravan with "DSCDOG" plates.

When Ziggy hears the Shayers talking outside, he whimpers, then yowls, from the house until he's let out to run his two-minute routine. Robin cues "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" by Cher on the stereo. And Ziggy and Mike are off.

Clowning about

The first time Barb Black saw a disc dog demo put on by the Shayers' club, she was smitten.

"I loved the freestyle. I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was like the circus," she says. The Southborough, Mass., resident, with no Frisbee experience, joined shortly after.

There is something of the circus to it. The freestyle competition, the most popular in the US, has the feel of a frenetic game of fetch rolled into a gymnastics floor routine. There is music. There is choreography, as carefully planned as can be, accounting for the occasionally inscrutable whims of canines – a sloppy greeting delivered to a spectator, an errant leap, a beat or two spent gnawing a Frisbee.

The dogs, of course, are the gymnasts. The stars. The athletes. ("You're the brains, they're the brawn," says Mike.) They leap level with their owners' heads to catch dayglo disc after disc, nonchalantly landing to leap again. They wend through their owners' wide-stepping legs and fly onto their backs where they balance mountain goat-style. And like tutued circus bears, they stand on hind legs, spinning on command in dizzying circles. In fact, one owner and her dogs recently went on tour with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

The Frisbee dog sport got its start in an equally impressive arena. In August 1974, at a Los Angeles Dodgers game, Alex Stein, a college student, and his whippet – appropriately, if redundantly, named Ashley Whippet – stormed the field. The wiry dog demonstrated his acrobatics for eight full minutes before the inevitable tussle with security. A new pastime was born.

You can teach a new dog new tricks

Eight years ago, Mike and Robin, who both work at a restaurant down the road, took a vacation to the Grand Canyon. Mike watched as border collies herded cattle to the river and was hooked. "I wanted a dog who could do that," he says. (They're one of the more popular breeds for Frisbee dogs "because their herding instinct can be converted to disc drive," explains Mike.)

The Shayers got Ziggy, with his black-and-white face and a tail tipped in white, six months later. That same night, Mike bought a leash, a collar – and a Frisbee. After searching the Web for things to do with their new puppy, he came across the Yankee Flyers, a nearby disc dog club.

Dog-beat-dog competition

It's hard to get a true sense of the scope of the sport's popularity because there is no central organization. Melissa Heeter, judging director for USDDN (www.usddn.com), estimates there are 22 clubs throughout the country. The first was started in Dallas in 1986. The Shayers founded the New England Disc Dog Club (www.neddc.com) last March with a few friends. Today they have 42 members.

At the national championships on Saturday, Mike and Ziggy will compete in the freestyle event. Mike will be judged on disc handling and the fluidity of their routine. Ziggy will be scrutinized for focus and athleticism. They'll be evaluated on their interaction. And the number of Frisbees Ziggy catches will be tallied; Mike will throw around 35.

"Competition's fun," says Mike. "But we live for demos," which they perform at fairs and schools. "They treat us like rock stars."

Robin and Sooty have qualified for Toss and Fetch. After 90 seconds, their five best throws will be scored, with extra points for catches made with all paws off the ground.

Winter flirts with fall during this practice, one of Mike and Ziggy's last before the nationals. As the month turns colder, it will become "barn weather." The Shayers' pool-size barn has been outfitted for practice with a patchwork of carpet scraps.

As soon as he hears Cher's voice over the speakers, Ziggy perks up. He turns expectantly to Mike, who wears a black Neoprene vest to protect him from sharp toenails. They proceed through their routine, a thrilling athletic dance. For the finale, Ziggy bounds up Mike's back.

"That routine I just did," says Mike, walking with Ziggy draped over his shoulders, "that won't cut it in Kentucky."

A few minutes later, they're clowning around. Mike drops to his hands and knees, and Ziggy jumps on his back, balancing there as Mike crawls along the ground. After all, it's just a hobby.

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