Local Skyhoundz competitors have a chance to be top dogs at national competition

"You go to Skyhoundz, you've made it to the Olympics," said David Gosch of Millersville. "That's how it feels.

About nine years ago, David Gosch started to tag along with a friend to disc dog competitions. She let him play with her dogs. He had a blast. He'd never had a dog. But he'd always wanted one. It was time he did, Gosch decided one day.

The main criterion was that the dog could catch a Frisbee. That's it. That is how he came to have a world champion for a pet, how he came to own an Australian shepherd named Hippie Chick.

“I can throw a Frisbee and she can catch a Frisbee,” Gosch, 50, of Millersville, said. “If it's thrown, she catches it. That's what the difference is.”

Gosch will return this week to Coolidge Park in Chattanooga, Tenn., for the Hyperflite Skyhoundz World Canine Disc Championship with Hippie Chick, 8, and Danni California, a 3-year-old border collie-Jack Russell terrier-Staffordshire bull terrier mix. It is where, in 2011, Gosch and Hippie Chick, then 3, won the Sport Division title, having essentially become one of the world's best fetch-playing partnerships.

There are no cash prizes luring him, no endorsement deals to land, but Gosch will be among 260-plus teams for the start of the week's events Wednesday, according to Ray Lowman, director of the Skyhoundz Canine Disc Competition Series. As the sport grows in popularity and caliber of competitors, it's worth noting that Gosch and Hippie Chick come from good pedigree, so to speak: They qualified through the Mid-Atlantic Disc Dogs (or MAD Dogs, for short) circuit, a 130-plus-person club with members stretching from Florida to Toronto. Maryland alone is sending over 10 qualifiers to the Skyhoundz world championship.

“Every type of disc dog event that's out there,” said Lowman, 73, an Annapolis resident and procurement director for MAD Dogs, “we offer to our club members and we put them on.”

This is Lowman's 12th year with MAD Dogs, a nonprofit organization. The founding group had all of 18 members. Over time, normal, dog-loving folks such as Linda Kriete began to join, and its ranks ballooned.

Kriete's friends introduced her to the sport about 15 years ago. The pitch to the data entry technician was simple: “Come on and hang out with your dogs and us and have fun.” MAD Dogs was still a small club back then, and for the Silver Spring resident it was “more of a social thing,” competitive but still very much laid-back.

Kriete's dogs then weren't into the sport as much as those she has now, and maybe that was best for all involved, onlookers included. When she first went out, Frisbee in hand, she didn't know how to throw it. The disc didn't hover like a flying saucer over the expanses of park grass; it was more like a balloon wildly deflating in midair, the direction uncertain, the result rarely good.

At competitions, tents would line the edges of the field. “Well, I used to hit the tents more than the field, so they'd be like, 'Watch out, Linda's coming.'” she recalled, laughing. “I'd be lucky to get a point back then.”

It wasn't until this year that she qualified for her first Skyhoundz world championship, with her 2-year-old border collie, Dax, but her time with MAD Dogs was no less memorable during those early days when she struggled to throw straight.

Dogs led her to the organization, but their best friends kept her coming back. Indeed, of Gosch's roughly 800 Facebook friends, he estimates 700 have disc dog ties.

After most every competition, there is some kind of meet-up: a cookout, a dinner, a chili cook-off. Sometimes MAD Dogs members head up to New York to meet up with Canadian competitors for a day of games — retrieving, fetch, Simon Says — and professional instruction.

In Octobers past, they'd break out hot dogs for the dogs. The objective: Have Fido or Spot or whoever it was bring back the cooked meat — intact. “You can imagine not too many dogs brought it back in place,” Kriete said. “It was usually in their stomachs by the time they got back.”

This year, after an apparent baby boom, some MAD Dogs events have held what Kriete called “Puppy Roll-A-Thons.” During breaks in competition, club members send discs skittering along the fields, to keep their youngest pups active and not overtax their growing bones.

“These dogs have a life, let me tell you,” said the semiretired Lowman, who also has a water garden consulting business. “And it isn't a hard one, I can tell you that.”

To advance to the Skyhoundz world championship, a win in a local qualifying event is required. Kriete and Dax will compete in three of the five DiscDogathon events — imagine the Olympic pentathlon, but for canines.

In Bullseye, competitors stand in the middle of the playing field with two discs. A minute is put on the clock, and when the action begins, the discs and dog start flying, points awarded for where and how the projectiles are caught (if they're caught at all).

In TimeTrial, the fastest dogs can cover at least 20 yards, snatch a disc, return it to their partner, catch it over the same distance and head back to the starting line in 17 or 18 seconds.

In Pairs Distance/Accuracy, partners take turns throwing a disc as far and as accurately as they can, as quickly as they can, with points awarded for distance of throws completed in under a minute.

While Danni California will compete only in Bullseye, Hippie Chick has qualified for every event of all six DiscDogathons, a record. Gosch sees no end in sight yet.

“Hippie Chick was special out of the gate,” said Gosch, who owns a pawnshop. “She was bringing back rollers at, like, 15 weeks. She was just natural. She just doesn't miss. If you throw it right, she's going to catch it. It's that simple.”

On Saturday comes the Skyhoundz Classic World Championship, in the Sport Division (distance and accuracy) and the Open Division (including a freestyle event in which the most creative catches and dog-owner interplays are rated the best).

Tents of every color with crated dogs and blowing fans make a perimeter around the field, sometimes almost two deep. There's the sound of terriers barking and dog owners barking out commands. When nature calls on the dogs, and it often does, there aren't janitors nearby to help.

And yet: “You go to Skyhoundz, you've made it to the Olympics,” Gosch said. “That's how it feels.”

jonas.shaffer@baltsun.com

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