Run, Leap, Splash – Dock diving with your canine companion

A giant pool and a dog. Seems like a natural fit, especially for dogs that love splashing into a lake or river or jumping off the dock into the cool, semi-opaque water to chase after a stick, ball or for sheer whimsy.

The rapidly growing sport of dock diving trains dogs to run the length of a dock and leap out into a clear pool of water to chase their “prey”. For about 95% of the dogs who try dock diving, their natural abilities at the lake or river are a great starting point, but it takes time for them to make the leap of faith from that environment to learning to jump into a 60 degree (on average) pool of water that looks like a clear, bottomless pit.

It takes training and patience for both the dog and the handler. According to Steve Powell, owner of The Dog Tank in Menonomie, WI, the artificial environment of dock diving is a different picture for the dog than a lake with weeds and ducks and as a handler, you may have to retrain the behavior in their dog. But once you do, it’s a great way to have fun with your dog.

If you think dock diving is something you’d like to try with your dog, there are a few key things important to know about your dog:

· You need to have a dog that is motivated to chase or retrieve something.

· You need to have a dog that likes to swim and isn’t afraid of getting wet.

· It helps to have a toy motivated dog as you can’t throw treats into the pool

Once the winter chills have truly left our area, there are many portable “try-it” events throughout the summer you can attend and work with professional trainers to determine if this is a sport for your dog. If your dog and a pool of water make a winning combination, then you’re ready to think about a training program.

Before you get serious about training your dog for this high intensity sport, always check with your vet to make sure there are no physical conditions you need to consider before starting.

You often start with ground training and shaping your dog to get into the water. You and your trainer work to make the water desirable for your dog and make sure they know how to get out before they even start to jump in.

It takes patience. You need to understand how cold water affects dogs and you may have a dog that jumps in once and says “uh-uh, never doing that again”. You can work through this, but it’s important to remember you can’t force this sport on a dog.

Steve Powell recommends going to a permanent pool if you are really serious about dock diving. It’s different than a ‘try-it’ event because you won’t be pressed for time getting your dog in the water. Typically at a portable event you may only have 3 minutes to work with your dog at a time. So if your dog is just getting confident stepping down the ramp into the pool, your may run out of time at a portable event. A permanent pool gives you and your trainer the time needed to work with your dog to build the confidence and instruction to get the dog performing at a comfortable pace for them. There are two locations in the wider Twin Cities metro area that have permanent pools – The Dog Tank in Menomonie, WI and The Paw in Mankato, MN.

Kristin Elmquist, owner of For The Love of Dogs dog training school in Hudson, WI, started her dog Sri, a Belgian Malinois rescue, at 18 months at The Dog Tank’s permanent pool. When Sri started, she was hesitant to get in the water, despite that she would regularly swim in rivers and lakes. Sri is very toy motivated and Kristin worked with Steve Powell to get her further in the water and comfortable. Her early trials she would jump 13-15 feet but in December 2016 she jumped 25.1 inch and is the #2 dog in the Master’s division at the AKC Eukanuba invitational and #2 Malinois by average in 2017 to-date.

I spoke with Kristin about her experiences in training Sri and as a dog trainer herself, she spoke about reminding anyone starting in the sport that not every dog is going to jump into clear water or want to go down a ramp. Dealing with the reluctant dog requires positive training, some creativity and often has a person in the water luring them with a toy, treats or themself. Puppies are always in life vest and carried out, initially you work on just getting them used to the water. According to Kristin, “everyone thinks all dogs swim well, which isn’t exactly the case. By putting them in life vests when starting dock diving, it makes them totally confident.

Maintaining a well-conditioned dog is critical if you are planning on competing in dock diving or simply continuing in it as a regular sport for your dog. It’s important to remember that dog’s don’t always have the muscle to do endurance swimming, they may have weak core muscles, causing their rear end to drop down in the water. Over time the core muscles build and so does the dog’s confidence.

Weight pulling, Frisbee (for jumping), massage and chiropractic are all important training enhancements to think about adding to your training program. If you think about the muscles that are used to run down a dock, take a big jump into the water and then swim back to the exit ramp, it’s important to have a conditioning programming that focuses on the right muscle groups and one that builds endurance.

The AERC has experts that can help you develop a conditioning program or you can consult your own rehab specialist. This sport does impact your the dog when taking off and landing – the hard pushing dogs could attain heights of 7-8 feet and lengths of 25 feet at speed when they hit the water. The impact on their body could require regular bodywork to maintain good condition. For vertical type jumps like air grabbing, the larger dog’s legs can actually hit the bottom of the pool, potentially impacting the spine. A regular conditioning program can really change the performance of your dog and will certainly help in maintaining a healthy dog.

As with any dog sport, there is a human somewhere in the picture, they usually don’t get in the water at a competition. If you are going to compete, you have to be able to throw something and throw it in a perfect arc to get the height and resulting distance for your dog. The initial distance you set your dog up on the dock for the run, along with the height you throw the toy combine to give you the long jumps for your dogs. You can train on land to practice the perfect throw. While perfecting the toss takes time and a lot of practice, the coolest part of competing is that for the most part, you’re not competing against others unless you’re at a National event. Simply put, if your dog jumps into the water, at any length, you get a leg in that division in an AKC sanctioned event.

Almost any dog can do it with the right training, conditioning and fun attitude. It can give you one more thing to do with your dog, teaching them something new and it’s physically and mentally enhancing for them.

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