Howard Co. dog owners test pets' aquatic jumping ability

The first time Frank Moraff entered his chocolate Labrador retriever Cali in aquatic competition at 8 months old, she stopped short at the edge of the 40-foot dock and stared as the toy he'd flung, and that she so desperately wanted, went sailing into the air without her.

After considerable urging, "she finally slid off the dock and did a belly flop," he recalled, shaking his head and smiling. But in her second attempt that same day, she redeemed herself and jumped 17 feet.

"I was thrilled," said the longtime Columbia resident, who is a member of Chesapeake DockDogs, a canine dock jumping club formed in 2003 that has 60 families as members.

"Big air" and "extreme vertical" may sound like skateboarding moves, but they're two ways a dog can fly — for a few seconds anyway. Add a dock and pond or pool to these track-style events, and you've got the sport of dock jumping.

Since Cali's debut in 2009, she has turned in a personal best of 26 feet, 8 inches, and regularly jumps in the 20- to 23-foot range.

"You just can't imagine how far that is," said Moraff, a salesman who works from his Kings Contrivance home. "The crowd goes nuts."

The origin of the sport has a tinge of urban legend about it, with several club members repeating a story that it began during the filming of a TV program in 2000 when producers needed to fill dead air time, said club president Dave Ruch, who lives near Frederick.

"They'd heard that residents were playing games with the dogs they used for duck and goose hunting, and asked if they would demonstrate what they do on camera," he said.

"The sport took off by leaps and bounds after that, and it's still going gangbusters," Ruch said. "You never see clubs fold up. More just keep forming, and word of mouth makes that happen."

Moraff explained that the three dock-diving contests have counterparts in track events: big air is comparable to a long jump, extreme vertical is like a high jump and speed retrieve is similar to a sprint. Combining the three creates a triathlon called the Iron Dog.

Any breed of dog is eligible, though retrievers make up the majority, and dogs are grouped by how far they can jump.

Despite the measuring and judging regulations, which are handed down from the sanctioning body at DockDogs Inc. headquarters in Medina, Ohio, dock diving "is a very laid-back sport," Moraff said.

"We all cheer each other's dogs on," he said. "Experienced people want nothing more than to help others get better."

There's an expanded network of DockDogs members locally, with four other clubs within four hours' driving distance in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York. There are clubs across the country — though two-thirds are on the East Coast — and others are in Canada, England and Australia.

"You can go to an event every weekend between April and November if you want to," Moraff said, adding that there are also indoor events during the winter that use 40-foot pools. "We live in a great area for this sport."

Now that Moraff and his wife, Hope, are empty-nesters, he says she teases him that he once complained about shuttling their sons to sports practices and games when they were young, but now has no problem driving several hours to a dock jumping event.

Chesapeake DockDogs holds its competitions at Lilypons Water Gardens in Urbana, where owners have allowed the club to construct a dock over a pond at the back of the 250-acre property. Members held their Puppypalooza there last weekend, one of four events they host each year.

"The great thing was that Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine hosted a beer garden there at the same time, so we could draw from each other's supporters," Ruch said, noting DockDogs' event proceeds go to various pet-related nonprofit organizations.

When she's not competing, Cali lives to practice, Moraff said, and he's got the perfect setup for doing drills, with a grassy, neighborhood playground located next to his property. After first burning off a little of the dog's pent-up energy, he recently demonstrated some of his pet's skills.

"You don't want a calm dog," he explained at the outset. "You want the dog to be excited and ramped up."

That isn't an issue for super-enthusiastic Cali, who can "pretty much do this all day," Moraff said.

Holding up over his head a rubber training bumper, a practice cylinder he buys by the half-dozen, Moraff ordered, "Get it!" and the 54-pound pooch bounded 8 feet into the air and locked onto the toy, a drill meant as practice for the extreme vertical event.

They also worked on her long jump, for which she gets up a running speed of 30 mph or more and then leaps and stretches out her body to catch the bumper in midair. That move, when the dog leaves the dock at a 45-degree angle, is called a "pop."

"The only thing she sees is this bumper," he explained, and then asked for, and got, a big wet kiss. "I have to tell her 'That's enough' to get her to stop."

While Cali's mother and sister are also jumpers, the talented dog still has one bugaboo: cold water.

"You never know what your dog's going to do," Moraff said. "But she definitely doesn't like the water to be cold, and it can be daunting for her," especially at the start of a new season.

No matter what the outcome of a particular event, Moraff says he's definitely hooked.

"It's a great, great way to spend the day," he said. "We owners get to play with our dogs in the sun by the water. It just doesn't get any better than that."

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