Laddy and Shiloh help Frank Buckland soar above disc-dog competition

The ball field at Third Avenue Park in Glen Burnie is less than a 100-yard stroll through the woods from Frank Buckland's home. It is a walk that he and Laddy, a 42-pound Australian cattle dog/collie mix, frequently take to practice the sport that has made Buckland a seven-time world champion.

"I've always had a love for dogs," Buckland said. "I've had them following me around ever since I was a kid."

When Laddy followed the 68-year-old retiree to the park on a recent early-autumn afternoon, the wag of the dog's tail and the energy in his stride made obvious his enthusiasm for the task at hand.

"People, we like crowds, we like winning, we like competition," Buckland said. "The dogs don't care. All they care about is 'Throw me the Frisbee. Let's have fun.'"

Both Buckland and Laddy got what they wanted in September, as together they won the bull's-eye event at the 2013 Hyperflite Skyhoundz DiscDogathon World Canine Disc Championship in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Buckland won his six previous world titles in the freestyle pairs competition with Shiloh, his older Australian cattle dog. Without any formal education in working with dogs, Buckland has drawn on instinct and experience to train his two disc-catching world champions from the ground up.

"It's like it was inherent in him, almost, that he just naturally had this way with dogs," said Sally Zinkhan, a dog trainer from Cockeysville who teamed with Buckland and Shiloh for two of their world championships. "To put together his wonderful ability to train a dog along with the talent to be a real showman has been what's made him successful in freestyle. You have to be very creative when you're doing that, and it just totally meshes together perfectly for him."

Both Shiloh and Laddy came into Buckland's life somewhat by chance.

Shiloh was part of a litter of puppies born 11 years ago to two of Buckland's previous dogs. She was originally set aside to be adopted, but when her prospective owner was unable to take custody, Buckland said, "I got stuck with a world champion."

Laddy arrived two years ago, after the elderly woman he lived with found his exuberance too much to handle. Zinkhan arranged for the dog to live with Buckland, who discovered that Laddy already had a little bit of disc-catching experience and an abundance of energy.

"He had it in him already," Buckland said. "All I had to do was just fine-tune it. At first he wouldn't bring the disc back; he wouldn't drop it. He was playing keep-away and I had to chase him all over the place. So all those things I had to teach him. And once I did, the rest of it became easier."

But neither Laddy's training nor his recent ascension to world-champion status seem to have diminished the 31/2-year-old's zeal for chasing and catching flying discs. When Buckland lowered himself to one knee and held aloft four of the discs he had brought with him to Third Avenue Park, Laddy began barking and pawing at the ground in eager anticipation. Ears up and tail wagging, he could barely contain himself until Buckland began throwing.

Buckland's strategy in training his dogs has been to cultivate the innate enthusiasm for play that Laddy displayed so overtly.

"Some people use treats, and there's nothing wrong with that," Buckland said. "But their reward is actually the catch. Just throw it again, throw it again."

Again and again, Laddy chased the discs from one side of the field to the other. He would sprint at top speed, leap with startling force and clamp his teeth on the disc before landing and racing back to drop it at Buckland's feet. Occasionally Laddy would vault over Buckland, using the crouched back of the trainer to propel himself even higher in pursuit of an airborne disc. Only the neoprene wet-suit vest Buckland wore beneath his T-shirt protected his skin from the dog's claws.

Although these were world champions practicing what they do best, there was nothing serious about the session. This was still play, albeit with a very high level of skill.

"Keep it as fun as you can," Buckland said in explaining his philosophy. "Be like your dog. It's not easy, because we're human and we want to win. But that's the best advice I give anybody that goes out there that's trying to compete is have as much fun as you can."

February will mark the 10th anniversary of the first meeting of Mid-Atlantic Disc Dogs, the Annapolis-based club Buckland co-founded with his wife, Val, fellow competitor Frank Montgomery and others. The club, which started with 20 to 30 enthusiasts based mainly in Northern Virginia and Maryland, now has more than 100 members from Florida to Canada.

Many of the local competitions organized by MAD Dogs also serve as qualifying events for the annual Skyhoundz world championships. It's there that Buckland has had his greatest success, winning four consecutive pairs freestyle titles from 2005 to 2008 and two more in 2010 and 2011.

This year's title came in the bull's-eye competition, in which the handler has one minute to complete as many passes as possible to his dog. Points are awarded based on the dog's distance from the throwing circle at the time of each catch. Buckland and Laddy finished the competition tied with another team, then prevailed in the tiebreaking round.

Buckland is proud of the winning he has accomplished relatively late in life, especially in light of the perpetual also-ran status he held as a child.

"I was the little kid that always got picked last," Buckland said. "In school I remember when we would go out for recess and they would pick sides for baseball teams, it would be me standing here and a little chubby kid over there. And we were the last two. And usually they would pick the little chubby kid over me."

Now a champion many times over and satisfied with his accomplishments, Buckland said he is ready to give up the traveling that comes with international competition.

"He's been saying that for the past three years," Montgomery said, adding that it would be a loss for the disc dog community if Buckland were to quit. "He's looked up to by a lot of people in the sport because he is very helpful with other folks. He loves the sport and he loves his dogs. I don't think he'll ever get away from it totally, but he has slowed down."

Buckland said he still plans to remain active with local competitions and demonstrations, and he knows there is no way Laddy will ever let him put down the discs for good.

"You can't just stop with your dogs," Buckland said with a smile. "They won't let you stop."

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