In the beginning, it wasn’t about the competition.
Every couple of weeks, Bill Helfer took his chocolate Lab, Jazzie, to the lake so she could burn off some energy. He’d stand at the edge of the dock with a Frisbee in hand, and as she charged down the planks he’d fling the disc out over the water and watch as she flung herself over the glassy surface in hot pursuit of the toy.
Their game of aquatic fetch suited both parties — Jazzie loved the thrill of the chase, and all the exertion helped to settle her down once they returned home.
It wasn’t until early one Saturday morning in June 2006 that Helfer discovered a way to take their lakeside playtime to the next level.
He was flipping through channels and landed on ESPN’s coverage of a DockDogs competition. In the sport of dock diving, dogs are challenged to jump into a 40-foot pool of water from a dock in a number of difference disciplines. Dogs leap for height in the Big Air category, for distance in Extreme Vertical and finally, they jump and swim in Speed Retrieve. Dogs who post a score in all three events can qualify to enter the Iron Dog, where their best times in all three disciplines are compiled.
Bill saw canine athletes of all breeds, ages and sizes jumping into water just like Jazzie did when they played in the lake.
Who knew that such a sport existed, he thought.
They had to give it a try.
That year, Helfer, a vendor risk manager for Glacier Bank, and his wife, Nina, an employee at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, traveled to their first official DockDogs competition in Dundee, Michigan.
Bill and Jazzie had been unknowingly practicing for this sport for a year and he was confident she’d excel in the competition.
“Our dog comes running down the dock, hits the end of the dock and belly flops in for 3 feet, 2 inches,” Bill recalled. “I was crushed.”
Jazzie’s first sanctioned jump was a far cry from the big splash Bill had in mind. A fellow competitor saw the disappointment etched across Bill’s face and asked if he could offer a few pointers. He told the novice handler that Jazzie had potential, but they would also have to account for the differences between their practice and competition environments.
Jazzie was accustomed to jumping into opaque lake water, not the clear competition pools and like all dogs, had poor depth perception, which made the latter difficult to see. There was also fluorescent lighting, music and unfamiliar surroundings to contend with.
The Helfers continued entering DockDogs competitions around the country, building Jazzie’s competitive resume by traveling to as many as 15 events a year.
“By her fourth event, she had hit 20 feet, which is one of those benchmarks,” Bill said. “Almost any dog can jump 12-, 15- to 20-foot range, but to get them over 20 feet is an accomplishment.”
Jazzie was strong in all three jumping categories and posted an impressive personal record of 24 feet, 6 inches in Big Air. However, her biggest career achievement came in 2008 when Jazzie was ranked No. 1 in the world in Iron Dog.
“She won us an ATV,” Bill said smiling. “She ate really well that night.”
After an illustrious career, Jazzie passed away at the age of 13. But the loss of their beloved pet didn’t mean an end to dock diving.
The Kalispell couple and their three Labs are headed to the DockDogs World Championship, Oct. 23-27 in Dubuque, Iowa. Their chocolate Lab, Blazer, who will turn 11 this fall, is competing in Legend Big Air, a special division for dogs between 10 and 12 years old. The family’s two 18-month-old black Labs, Trooper and Charger, also earned invites to Worlds in all three divisions, plus Iron Dog.
“Sometimes they’re the dynamic duo and sometimes they’re the dastardly duo,” Bill said with a laugh.
To prepare their pups for the world stage, the Helfers exercise them regularly, accompanying them on their ATV for 2.5-mile runs, along with practicing jumps on a friend’s dock in Lower Valley and making sure their nutrition is on-point.
He expects to see both of the younger pups do well in Big Air and wants to see Trooper finish in the top five for Extreme Vertical.
“As he’s growing and getting better and stronger and developing more I think he can push it,” Bill noted, adding that he’s confident Charger will also be at the top of his class in Speed Retrieve.
Training their dogs for dock-diving events has also been beneficial for Bill and Nina’s relationship. When he’s on the dock at a meet, she’ll be watching from below, offering recommendations if need be — and vice versa.
“It really has helped out relationship because it’s that binding thing that we get to do together all the time,” Bill said. “I trust her view completely of what to do on the dock. She’ll see something and she’ll say, ‘Why don’t you try this?’”
There’s also a little friendly competition between the couple. In many cases they’ll both run separately with each of their dogs, competing against the rest of the field, and each other for the top score.
“We’re competitive; we compete against each other,” Nina said. “We talk smack, we have fun with it. Sometimes at events, he’ll have the better time, and sometimes I’ll have the better time.”
But as committed as the Helfers are to the sport, at the end of the day, these talented canines are just as much companions as they are athletes.
“We’re not the people that are trying to find that perfect dog just for the sport — these are our household dogs. They’re bed hogs. They sleep in bed with us at times,” Bill said. “I sit down in my Lazy Boy and they come over like, which one of us gets to come up in your lap right now?”
They also just plain love to jump.
Blazer will run down to the edge of the dock before the competition, hoping to see a toy hanging on the edge of the pool, signifying that Speed Retrieve is next. And during practices, they’ll all be itching to go into the lake as their observe their fellow canines sail into the water.
They don’t really know that they’re competing, Bill explained, but the dogs do know that their owners are excited about the competition and feed off that energy.
“At the end of the day, they’re just happy to be up there. You can screw up, you can have a false start, you can have a bad throw … and you walk off the dock like oh my goodness I messed up so bad and here comes your dog wagging its tail,” Bill said. “All of a sudden, your day is a little bit better.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Big Air is a long jump for dogs. The dog, which may be placed anywhere on the 40 foot dock, runs and jumps into the water after a throw toy (provided by the handler) is tossed. The distance is judged from the end of the dock to where the tail set of the dog breaks the water’s surface.
Speed Retrieve is a timed event. At the far end of the pool a bumper toy is suspended 2 inches above the water with a starting indicator light above it. The dog is then placed at the 20 foot white starting mark on the dock, when the light turns green the handler releases the dog, the time clock stops when the dog has pulled the toy from the Speed Retrieve bracket.
Extreme Vertical is a high jump for dogs. The dog starts off at the 20 foot mark on the dock and jumps up to grab a bumper toy extended out 8 feet from the end of the dock over the water. The starting height for Extreme Vertical is 4 feet 6 inches and increases by 2 inch increments as competition progresses.
The Iron Dog Challenge was invented in an attempt to incorporate all three of the DockDogs competitions. Competitors in Iron Dog participate in Big Air, Extreme Vertical, and Speed Retrieve at a single event. The best runs in all three disciplines for each team are compiled and the team with the overall best score wins.