Canine athletes snap up the newest sporting fad

The stands are bristling with a lively mix of fans. A dozen athletes of various stripe and spot sit panting in anticipation. From his perch on the top bleacher, a miniature dachshund yaps out his impatience.

The Ashley Whippet Invitational is about to begin.

Gathered here on the Boston Common are dogs from all over the region who will vie for the title of champion canine Frisbee-catcher. To win, a dog must jump higher, run faster, and catch more flying disks than any other contestant (allowing for differences in potential among the breeds). And he or she must do it all quickly, with style, grace, and showmanship. In each of three rounds, the dog/owner teams will have only 45 to 90 seconds to show the judges their stuff.

Out on the field, a little black border collie named Wizard is eyeing the plastic disk in his master's hand. ''Ready, Wiz? You're gonna JUMP,'' the young man commands. Wizard's eyes flash and every muscle is aquiver. He's obviously ready. With a flick of the man's wrist, the disk goes soaring, and the dog hurls himself after it like a bean out of a slingshot. For a brief moment, dog and disk float six feet above the ground. Then, with a half-somersault in midair, the collie grabs the saucer, hits the ground running, and races back to his owner. After a quick pat and ''Good catch, Wiz,'' he's off and flying again.

Back in the stands, the fans - both human and canine - are exuberant. A black and white pooch named Erin is barking and leaping up and down in frenzied imitation of the action going on out in the field, while the toy dachshund makes his own observations on the proceedings.

This newest sport involving America's popular airborne pie plate has come a long way since the days when Alex Stein and his dog, Ashley Whippet, used to frolic on the campus green of Ohio's Miami University.

So thrilling were the little dog's nine-foot leaps that crowds of students used to gather each afternoon to watch and applaud. After Alex graduated in 1974 , dog and owner set off for Hollywood to seek their fortune. Finding talent scouts unresponsive, the two took matters into their own hands one night. They dashed onto the field at Dodger Stadium and, before millions of television viewers, enthralled the audience for eight minutes with a spectacular display of flying disk feats.

The result was instant stardom. And soon dogs across the continent were jumping for the plastic platter.

The reason for the sport's popularity? It's a natural, says Irv Lander, executive director for the Ashley Whippet Invitationals. ''Americans love dogs, but they also love sports. When you put the two together, it's a very enduring thing. . . . What (disk-catching) has done is put dogs in focus as not just pets but as great athletes capable of entertaining people.''

Then, too, the skills are easy to pick up. ''I've never known anyone we couldn't teach to throw a disk real quickly,'' says Mr. Lander, who once tried to organize a Yo-Yo championship but gave up when children and the adults coaching them found Yo-Yo tricks too difficult. Gesturing toward a plastic disk, he notes, ''People know this is reachable.''

Dogs, for their part, hardly need a lesson and certainly no coaxing. Many of them, like the high-jumping Erin, learn the game in a few minutes by watching other dogs. ''I didn't train her - she trained me,'' says her owner, Sarah McConnell. ''She'll go all day sometimes. She loves it.''

Simple as it is to learn, though, disk-fetching can be played on many levels. The most talented canine athletes display their aerial acrobatics each fall in the world finals of the Ashley Whippet Invitationals. This event culminates a nationwide series of local, state, and regional disk-catching competitions sponsored during the summer by Gaines Dog Foods.

At its best, the sport involves a subtle and highly developed interaction between dog and owner. With an impressive routine of hand signals, coordinated moves, and precision timing, Peter Bloem and his dog Wizard won this year's world final of the invitationals paws down.

For more information on the sport and the Ashley Whippet Invitationals, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Gaines AWI booklet, Box 8177, Kankakee, Ill. 60902.

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