Take Your Water-Loving Dog Dock Diving!
Ready, Set, Jump!
Summer! It’s the perfect time for dock diving. In this canine sport (also known as dock jumping), the participating dog jumps off an elevated diving platform into a portable pool and the dog with the longest jump is deemed the winner. I think dock diving is possibly the best canine sport for spectator enjoyment. And, if you decide to compete, you can easily redline the FUN meter! Besides the joy of hanging out with my dog by a cool body of water, the one thing I love about the sport is that with just a few dog and handler skills, any person and any breed of dog and size of dog can participate.
I never meant to get involved with the sport, but thanks to a bit of synchronicity, life presented me with the opportunity to discover dock diving with my then-new Australian Shepherd puppy. Because I happen to love the water, I wanted Willow to enjoy the water, too. She loved the shallow creek beside our house, but wasn’t too keen on immersing her entire body into a pond or a lake, so I used Willow’s favorite toy, a Bumi (a floatable toy made by West Paw Design), to encourage her to put her paws in the water. I also took advantage of a trainer friend’s water-crazy Labrador Retriever, Daisy, to increase Willow’s comfort with water through social facilitation – where the intensity of a behavior can increase due to the presence of another dog performing the activity.
Voila! Before long, Willow was easily and happily following Daisy into the water. I added a doggie life jacket as insurance to make sure Willow would be totally comfortable when she took her first few forays into deeper water.
Next I took Willow to watch Daisy perform some fine launching off the dock at a lake for a water toy thrown by her owner, Bob Ryder, CPDT-KA, PMCT, of Pawsitive Transformations in Normal, Illinois. Even though Willow was hesitant to jump off the dock, having a front-row seat for all of Daisy’s fun helped her forget her misgivings about the dock. We practiced sit/stays and down/stays, always reinforcing with food or the chance to fetch her water toy on land. In no time at all, she eagerly followed Daisy off that lake dock – and I was getting hooked.
Not long after, I attended my first dock-diving event, and witnessed firsthand the fun that competitors and dogs have on the dock. I was a goner!
I continued working with Willow’s water skills slowly and steadily. Willow made her first jump off a regulation dock just a year ago. You surely heard this trainer exclaiming with excitement! In only her second dock-diving competition three months later, she earned her DockDogs National Junior Big Air Title, in recognition of attaining five jumps between 10' and 14' 11".
Require Skills For Dock Diving Competition
There are a number of dock-diving organizations (see sidebar, next page), each offering distance jumping competitions, generally referred to as Big Air. DockDogs also has the high jump (known as Extreme Vertical) and the speed retrieve (known as Speed Retrieve, which is sort of a misnomer as it’s really a quick jump, swim, and grab of a bumper on the opposite end of the pool; the clock stops at the release of the bumper).
Willow and I compete in the Big Air competition in which there are two different styles of getting your dog down the dock and chasing a toy into the water.
In the “place and send” method, the handler walks with the dog to the end of the jumping platform and the dog is restrained while the handler tosses the toy. The dog and handler then return to the starting point and the dog is given the release cue to go get the toy. This is a nice way to begin if your dog hasn’t yet achieved a formal wait or stay.
When using the “chase method,” the dog is placed in a stand/stay or sit/stay while the handler walks 40 feet to the end of the jumping platform on the dock. The handler poses with the toy held high in the air and at the handler’s release cue, the dog races down the dock and the handler tosses the toy (also known as the chase object) at just the right moment in an attempt to keep the toy in front of the dog’s nose all the way to the water. Because Willow loves to chase moving things, I chose the chase method.
No matter what method you use, as with any other canine sport, teamwork is the key component of dock-diving training. Both handler and dog need certain complementary traits and skills in order to be safe and enjoy the sport. Let’s start with the dog’s required skills:
Enjoyment of the experience – It’s imperative that your dog truly enjoy the total experience. I’ve seen a few handlers on the dock who were having fun, but whose fearful dogs would have been more comfortable left at home.
Love of the Water – If your dog already loves the water, fantastic. If not, find a lake or pool with a shallow area and bring out the fun! Pair the new experience of two or four paws in shallow water with an enjoyable game of tug or feed your dog high-value treats while her paws are in the water.
But please don’t ever push or throw your dog in the water. You don’t want to end up with a dog who is afraid.
Ability to swim (natural or taught) – Some dogs seem to take to swimming naturally. Not so with our Australian Shepherds; I’ve had to teach both my Aussies how to swim, although you wouldn’t know that to watch them now.
A canine flotation device can help a dog who is learning to swim feel more comfortable. There are a variety of well-made dog life jackets available. I personally use the Hurtta jacket because of its secure fit, multiple buckles for adjustment and wide, stretchable belly band. As with many dog life jackets, the back of the jacket is made with a sturdy handle that allows the handler to easily guide the dog in the water or lift the dog out of the water. To teach swimming skills, once Willow was comfortable wading in shallow water, I entered the water and cradled her under her belly, let her dog-paddle for a few seconds, then quickly set her back down where her paws could touch bottom. I also used other friends’ water-loving dogs to encourage Willow into the water. It’s important to work at your own dog’s pace.
Good Physical Conditioning – As with any athletic endeavor, your dog should be in good physical condition before beginning training. Playing fetch, swimming, doing agility for fun, tricks training, and using balancing discs can aid you in conditioning your dog.
Stay – Willow already had a solid “stay” before we started dock diving, though this skill was enhanced when the reinforcement for staying changed from food to a toy. I use a sit/stay on the dock, as it’s easier for a dog to launch and gain speed from a sit than a down.
If your dog needs work on stay, select a reinforcer: either tasty treats or a toy. Ask your dog to sit, then cue her to stay. If she sits still for even one second, mark that behavior (the stillness) with a verbal “Yes!” and give your dog the treat or throw the toy. Slowly work up to longer periods of stillness by ping-ponging (randomly longer and shorter) the length of time you ask your dog to stay.
Desire to Chase a Toy – If your dog already loves chasing a thrown toy, great! If not, you can build desire by making the toy mimic prey. Shake the toy and move it rapidly near the ground and in front of your dog’s front paws. When she appears to be really engaged and excited, throw the toy a short distance and wildly praise her for going after it. If your dog is hesitant to give up the toy after the chase, use a second toy or yummy treat in trade for it. (When using two toys, it sometimes helps if the toys are identical, so the dog doesn’t refuse to trade for her “favorite” toy.)
Retrieve –A retrieve isn’t necessary for competition, as there’s always a person with a skimmer pole (long pole with a net on the end) to grab the toy. However, a retrieve is certainly important if you’re practicing at a lake by yourself. Before Willow had a formal retrieve, I lost more than a few toys during winter training when she wouldn’t bring it back and I was too wimpy to jump in the cold water to retrieve it myself.
Many trainers use “backchaining” to teach a formal retrieve (by teaching your dog to first hold the toy, next to drop it, and continuing to work backward training each step through to completion). Another way is to build desire for the toy, and then toss the toy only a few inches so the dog can easily reach and grab it, making it easy for her to return to you for another round of the game.
Jumping – The jumping skill a dog needs for dock diving is similar to the human long jump. The dog needs lots of speed, as well as a very strong launch, in order to gain distance. With practice, the dog actually learns to gauge her run so that her back paws hit and push off of the very edge of the dock in order to most powerfully propel her body forward. The angle of the jump is also important and aided by the handler’s throwing skills.
I first began training Willow to jump off the bank of a lake, transitioned to a very low wooden dock on a lake, and moved to a higher dock on a lake before moving to a regulation dock. The transition to the regulation dock was interesting for Willow, as the clear water allowed her to see the bottom of the pool and made her a bit leery. Please take your time with your dog during this phase of training. You don’t want to push or shove your dog in the water and end up with a dog who is afraid. Game over!
Crate Training or Settle on a Mat – As with any canine sport, there’s plenty of down time while you’re waiting for your turn to jump at a competition. Also, your dog needs rest in between periods of jumping. Her ability to deeply relax in a crate or while settled at your feet on a mat is important. Teach and practice this skill at home, and then move the “relax” training sessions out into the world, until your dog can chill out on cue, even on event sidelines.
Conditioning to Noise – Dock-diving competitions are noisy, with loudspeakers playing music in between announcements, introductions, and comments on the teams.
Long before you ever compete, classically condition your dog to a variety of noises and loud sounds by pairing the new experience with high-value food or playing with her favorite toys. Visit a dock-diving competition or other festival environment; position yourself at the outskirts of the area, and pair the experience with yummy food, fun games, and/or positive training of exercises your dog already knows and loves. Insure your dog is comfortable at the outskirts before moving in toward the busier, noisier areas.
Traversing Stairs – The platform from which the dog jumps is attached to a long trailer, is elevated, and has stairs. Most competition docks have aluminum stairs with an open riser design. Your dog should be comfortable walking on aluminum and moving up and down the open staircase design. If you can find aluminum or metal steps (perhaps in a warehouse store?), practice there.
I helped Willow get used to walking on metal by using the moving metal carts at Home Depot and Lowes stores, and paired the experience with her favorite yummy treats.
Dog Handler Skills
Of course, you, too, need to have a few skills in order to train your dog for dock diving:
Patience – Training at a slow pace will insure that your dog is truly comfortable with each phase of the training before proceeding to the next.
Throwing Ability – The handler throws a floatable toy (her dog’s favorite) as her dog is racing down the dock. The accuracy and timing of the throw aids the dog in gaining speed and momentum in order to maximize the distance of the jump.
When your dog isn’t with you, practice your throws by tossing a toy or other object into an empty bucket or other target. You can also play dry land throw/chase games with your dog. The goal is to have her catch the toy in the air.
Be Your Dog’s Advocate – On any given day or any given moment, be ready to let your dog relax or head home if she doesn’t seem to be having fun. It’s important that she’s happy and enjoying the experience.
Ready To Get Invloved?
There are a number of sanctioning organizations that organize competitions (see sidebar) and hundreds of regional clubs throughout the country where you can take advantage of local or regional events. Most all clubs have practice events or training classes for a small fee. I’ve found that experienced dock-diving handlers are eager to help you and your dog succeed.
Summertime is one of the most enjoyable seasons to get started in this sport, so find a nearby lake or pond, insure your dog enjoys the water, and start having some dock-diving fun! Whether or not you ever step foot on a competition dock, there’s loads of fun to be had doing recreational dock diving in a nearby body of water. However, if you do decide to enter a competition, I’m certain that you’ll go home with a ribbon. In this sport, everyone who participates is considered a winner. How great is that? Get up, get going, and get set to get wet! And, as they say in the sport, “See you on the dock!”
Dock Diving Organizations & Competition Details
Dock jumping first came on the scene in 1997 at the Incredible Dog Challenge. There are now several organizations that run jumping competitions, and each organization has its own rules, regulations, and standards for its trials. Events are listed on each organization’s website. Competitors work their way up and compete in world championships or other major national events.
The dock is about 35 to 40 feet long by 8 feet wide and 2 feet above the water surface, though this differs slightly from one organization to the next. Any body of water or pool that is at least 4 feet deep can be used. The dock’s running platform is covered with artificial turf, carpet, or a rubber mat for better traction and safety for the competitors. Handlers may use any amount of the dock and they may start their dogs from any point on the dock when competing.
Scoring may be scored by eye (two certified judges watching the measuring marks on the pool) or with digital scoring equipment. National events most often have the digital equipment to accurately measure each jump. The distance is measured from the jumping-off point of the dock to the point where the dog’s hind end enters the water.
Dogs of any breed who are at least 6 months of age can participate. Each dog/handler team has two tries in a round-robin format. The best distance of these two jumps is the team’s score for the round. Dock Diving competitions divide the dogs into a variety of classes, primarily based on size and length of jump, and sometimes age or size (“veteran” classes for older dogs, “lap dogs” for smaller dogs). Each organization also has special rankings for youth or junior handler teams.
Distances for each group’s classes are detailed below:
Novice: 1' to 9'11"
Junior: 10" to 14' 11"
Senior: 15" to 19' 11"
Master: 20" to 22' 11"
Elite: 23" to 24' 11"
Super Elite: 25' & above
DockDogs also has Extreme Vertical (a high jump competition) and Speed Retrieve, which involves running, jumping, and swimming, to complete a triathlon-type sport called Iron Dog.
Splash: 1’ to 9’ 11”
Junior: 10” to 14’11”
Senior: 15” to 19’ 11”
Pro: 20” to 22’ 11”
Extreme: 23’ & above
United Kennel Club Dock Jumping
Novice: 1’ to 9’ 11”
Junior: 10’ to 14’ 11”
Senior: 15’ to 19’ 11”
Master: 20’ to 22’ 5”
Ultimate: 22’ 6” & above
Registration for UKC Dock Jumping events is conducted through Ultimate Air Dogs.
Using Social Facilitation to Help a Dog Learn to Enjoy Water
Safety and Comfort with Doggie Life Jacket
Using Patience When Transitioning to Regulation Dock
Finished Training – National Event
Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level 2, a Pat Miller Level 1 Canine Behavior & Training Academy instructor and a dog*tec Dog Walking Academy Instructor. She is the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina, and enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. Stay tuned for Lisa’s Dock Diving DVD from Tawzer Dog, which will be available before the end of 2014.