May 25, 2016
Every August I give seminars at the Game Fair in Anoka, Minnesota. The event is six days of anything and everything to do with sporting dogs and is truly worth seeing. While there is something for every bird-dog lover at the Game Fair, there is one area that always draws a serious crowd — the dock-jumping event.
I've wandered over to watch dogs of all shapes and sizes sprint the length of the dock and extend like Olympic divers to cover as much distance as they can. Well, some of the dogs do just that and it is impressive, although quite a few of them actually don't seem to know how to dock jump at all, with the crowd favorites being those pups that catch a sudden dose of hesitation about one-tenth of a second before they jump.
I always find myself enjoying the dock-jumping competition, and wondering just how folks get involved so when GUN DOG editor Rick Van Etten asked me if I was interested in digging into the subject for this piece I quickly agreed.
This led me to Brian and Jennifer Beadling, who live in New Jersey and are as into dock-jumping as two people can be. When I spoke with them the first question I asked was just how they got involved and Brian spun a pretty cool story.
"We both love dogs, always have," he said. "Jen grew up with dogs and so did I, although she has a history with miniature pinschers and Jack Russells while I've always loved sporting breeds. We originally had miniature pinschers, but decided to pick up a sporting breed, which worked out well because we live in a log cabin on a lake."
Their home, which was built in 1927, would play a unique role in just how involved the couple became in German shorthairs. Brian explained, "I work in the mortgage industry and thought the original title to our home, Windy Spot, would be cool to hang on the wall, so I requested it. After looking at it, I started to research the original owner and found out he was a doctor who belonged to the English Setter Club during a time when Ty Cobb was also a member. The doctor owned a shorthair named Windy Spot, a dog that had won a fair amount in the club.
"I called the club and told them our story, and it turns out the man on the other end of the line was a direct relative of the original owner of our house, which settled it for us. We decided to get a GSP puppy and name her Limoncello, after Jen's Italian grandfather who was famous for his secret-recipe, homemade Limoncello."
Dipping a Toe in the Water
Beadling soon found out that if he tossed a ball into the lake, Limoncello would jump into the water to retrieve it. Brian also happened to catch an airing of a dock-jumping competition on ESPN, not long before he heard of an event occurring an hour from their home. The Beadlings loaded up a camper, entered Limoncello and thought they'd have some fun. It turned out that of the 60 or 70 dogs entered, 'Cello would take second place.
"After that, I was obsessed," recalls Brian. "We made a new friend, Fred Eaker, who told us of a bigger event in New Jersey. There were like 250 dogs entered into it, and 'Cello took second again. In her third event, the Easton Waterfowl Festival in Maryland, she jumped 23 feet and won it."
With their early quick success, it's probably not much of a surprise that the Beadlings picked up another GSP pup named Hooch. Brian said Hooch initially took to the water about like you'd expect a cat to. "He wouldn't even go into the water at first," Brian recalled. "But one day we took him to the lake and coaxed him in gently. After that he started to gain confidence, but not skills. We called it the 'Hoochie Hop' and it became a crowd favorite at the events."
Jen, who handles Hooch, worked to get him to run to the end of the dock but instead of a graceful, fully stretched-out leap, he'd hop straight up into the air and cover about four feet. (Anyone with a spare two minutes should look up "The Evolution of Hooch's Dock Diving" on YouTube to see the Hoochie Hop in all of its glory — it's worth it.) Over time, Hooch would stretch out his hop to the point where he'd cover 17 or 18 feet, but it took a lot of coaxing and a slow build-up of confidence. Eventually, Hooch would leap 23 feet and overtake even 'Cello in distance.
As is often the case with two people who love dogs as much as the Beadlings do, another canine was destined to become a part of their family. Of this newest family member, Brian says, "We got a call from a woman at Tidewater Dock Dogs. She said she had a line on an Explosives Detection Canine that needed a home. The GSP had served his duty in Iraq and was on his way back to the states. Jen and I decided we would give him a home whether he was a dock jumper or not."
Lager, as it turns out, happened to be a huge fan of water and took to dock jumping immediately. "At this point, we split the responsibility of Lager so that Jen handles him on long jumps, and I handle him on the extreme vertical."
All three of the Beadlings' GSPs now compete, and each has earned impressive titles. Limoncello is the top-ranked GSP for Iron Dog in the U.S., which consists of three events — Big Air (long jump), Extreme Vertical (high jump) and Speed Retrieve. Hooch was ranked as the number one GSP in the Big Air Event and has recently received the Most Improved award out of the thousands of dogs registered in Dock Dogs. Lager placed fifth in the world in the Senior Division last year.
The accomplishments of the Beadlings' GSPs are impressive, but two things Brian said to me before we wrapped up our interview truly stuck with me. The first was that the couple donates all of their winnings to German Shorthaired Pointer Rescue of New Jersey, and the second was that if I wanted to understand dock dogs, I needed to contact a fellow named Tom Dropik.
The Hunting Connection
Dock jumping evolved from duck hunting, so it's no surprise that many of the people involved are hunters. It's also no surprise that an awful lot of the dogs that do really well, for obvious reasons, are Labradors. After Beadling's suggestion, I reached out to Dropik, who owns dock-jumping Labs.
Dropik lives in New Prague, Minnesota, and grew up in a family that hunted waterfowl and upland game obsessively. "We hunted ducks near our home every chance we could, and then pheasants in southwestern Minnesota as well. My family had GSPs and other pointers, but I've always been a Lab guy.
"I didn't plan to get into dock jumping with my hunting dogs, but [like Brian Beadling] I was watching the Great Outdoor Games on ESPN and saw a competition. My dog at the time, Tucker, was pretty good at jumping and he loved to leap up and pull apples off of our apple tree, so I thought I'd give it a shot."
Dropik called ESPN and found out that there was an event in Little Rock, Arkansas he could enter. He loaded up his fiancée and drove to Little Rock with Tucker for the Sporting Dog Challenge. To advance to the next event, Tucker needed to place in the top three. He jumped 18 feet and took fourth but when they arrived home, there was a message on their machine saying that one of the top-three finishers had to pull out of the next event.
That would prove serendipitous for Dropik. "I knew there were dogs on the East Coast jumping 20 feet, so I got the idea to suspend a dummy high overhead and teach my dog to perform for the reward of the retrieve," he recalls. "Tucker's prey drive kicked in and he learned to jump a little harder.
"We drove out to Lake Placid, New York and he placed third. Tucker would compete in the Great Outdoor Games until 2005, which is when the jumping exercise I created became the Extreme Vertical Event." Extreme Vertical is now a mainstay of dock-jumping competitions, as is Dropik, who has a German shepherd/Lab mix named Remi he rescued in 2010 that is now a five-time world champion in dock jumping.
Everyone I talked to about dock jumping mentioned that they respected Dropik's training style and overall interaction with his dogs, which is something I've come to find with a few of the most successful dog trainers over the years. Knowing this, I asked Dropik what he looks for in a dock-jumper, and his answer surprised me.
"I look for a dog that is going to hunt," he said. "I want one that will have strong skills in the field, strong prey drive, but also overall drive. I train my dogs to go hard, but also to have fun, which is why dock-jumping is so appealing to me.
"Dock jumping necessitates obedience, but it's also kind of free form. The dogs love it so much that you can just see them tremble when they are about to go. With hunting, it's different but still enjoyable for them provided you encourage them and they learn to trust you."
Every bird dog owner could take note of Dropik's last point. Trust between our dogs and us is everything, and lack of it is the root of nearly all performance issues our dogs experience in the field. And the fact that a good dog can go from dock jumping to duck hunting without missing a beat is certainly a testament to good bloodlines and proper training, but is also evidence that our dogs are capable of much more than we give them credit for. Breeds like Labs and GSPs will do nearly anything we ask of them, especially if the task involves something they enjoy and comes naturally like leaping and retrieving.
Dock jumping is a great example of something we can do with our sporting dogs during the off-season that brings us closer to our pups and fosters a greater level of trust from them. From my research, I'm confident in saying that the dock-jumping crowd is not much different from the serious bird-hunting crowd and in the center of each is a sporting dog doing what he has always done and loves to do.
Honestly, what's not to like about that?