When Dogs Fly
by Missy Seu
Early last year, I had the privilege of meeting Steve and Jill Teer and their three Australian Shepherds: Guinness, Irish, and Whiskey. Together they are Team Flyin’ Irish, and they participate in disc dog competitions.
Disc dog competitions involve humans throwing discs in events such as distance catching and choreographed freestyle catching. Some of the freestyle catching involves the dogs catapulting themselves off the chest or back of the owner to catch a tossed disc. It was amazing to watch these dogs in action; I doubt I have ever before witnessed such intensity, focus, or energy in any dog.
In 1998, Steve was channel surfing when he happened upon the Alpo Canine Disc World Championships on television and was instantaneously hooked. He joined a local club and began training with his first competition dog. In 2003, he and six others founded Disc Dogs of the Golden Gate (www.discdogg.com), which currently has about 35 active members. Steve describes the club’s mission as “to help new people safely learn and love [disc].” DiscDoGG also performs demonstrations at fundraisers benefitting animal shelters and rescue organizations. Although the majority of dogs who participate in disc events are medium and large breeds such as Border Collies, Cattle Dogs, and Australian Shepherds, it is a sport to be enjoyed by any size dog. Included in Disc Dogs of the Golden Gate’s roster is an individual who competes regularly with his Dachshund!
When I met with Steve he was competing with Irish, his six-year-old female blue merle Australian Shepherd. When he released Irish from her crate to perform for me, she was notably oblivious to anything except the discs Steve was holding. Every muscle in her body quivered with excitement, and her eyes never left Steve. When she was anticipating his throw, her body language was of a sheep-herding dog; she kept her belly and head crouched low to the ground, every muscle intently anticipating his next signal.
Each time Steve moved, no matter how subtly, she responded. Adding to the intensity of her stare were eyes of different colors – one ice blue, one chestnut brown. Irish sprinted towards Steve as he threw the disc skyward, then utilized his chest as a launching pad to gain an additional boost in momentum before catapulting herself ten feet in the air. A quick snap of her jaws secured the disc, often with feet directed towards the sky. With cat-like agility, she somersaulted upright while still in flight, and landed gracefully on the grass on all four paws.
Recently, Steve made the difficult decision to retire Irish from disc competition. As the years they spent together in competition progressed, Steve began to recognize that Irish hated traveling and that she experienced anxiety on the competition field. She is still passionate about playing disc, but limits her involvement to recreational games with Steve.
The youngest up-and-coming star is Whiskey, a 22-month-old black bi male. During my visit he was seven months old, and only did some distance catching work with Steve (no freestyle jumps). Now an accomplished disc dog with many awards, he was most recently invited to compete in the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge in September 2012.
Puppies have growth plates at the ends of the long bones of their limbs, which fuse and close down as they mature, typically by the age of 18 months. Until that time, they are more susceptible to injury and fracture, which would be career ending for one of these disc dogs. Because of that, they generally don’t do any jumping higher than what they would during normal play until after their handlers are confident their bones are mature enough to withstand the more aerial stunts. As an added measure of safety, Steve takes radiographs of his dogs’ hips and elbows prior to commencing any of the high-flying stunts. Disc dogs should also be cleared by a veterinarian before participation in vigorous exercise, and provided with quality nutrition.
Because of Steve’s meticulous attention to the health of his dogs, not one of them has sustained injuries during the 12 years he has been competing.
Last, but by no means least, was Guinness. When I met him, Guinness was almost 14 and no longer active in disc competitions. Affected by both old age and prostate cancer, he was content to make a few runs after a tossed disc before coming over for a quick butt-scratch. He radiated a calm and regal nature. Guinness was Steve’s first disc dog, and the two of them learned the sport side by side. Steve said, “I couldn’t throw and Guinness couldn’t catch, but [we] had a blast and learned together.” Steve competed with Guinness for many years, during which time he won approximately 25 first place awards in canine freestyle. Sadly, Guinness succumbed to his illness on March 10, 2011.
Steve offers the following advice: begin by practicing your ability to throw a disc before introducing it to your dog. It is important to have control and some degree of accuracy to make the training effective. Keep training sessions short; always end a session before the dog wants to. Allow the dog access to the discs only during training to preserve his or her enthusiasm for the special toy. Most importantly, and as is the case with any type of training, never work with your dog when you are feeling frustrated. Just stop and try again later. Dogs are highly intuitive when it comes to the emotional state of their handler; your stress will almost certainly make the session unproductive.
Participation in the sport of canine disc fosters an extraordinary bond between handler and dog. During training, the dog/human team must develop a strong sense of trust, which enhances the mutual understanding and connection between the partners.
Missy Seu is a freelance writer who resides in Montana with her husband, Phil. She trains her Labrador, Emma, for therapy work, and competes in agility with her Chihuahua, Lucy. She can be reached through her website at www.cerebralcanine.com.