Bill and Nina Helfer love to compete.
The central Ohio natives come from sports-crazed families, with coaching in their bloodlines and games a part of their everyday life. They even met each other through sports, on a volleyball court, and when they cashed in their vacation days, loaded up their truck and hit the road from Kalispell earlier this week it was to take part in yet another competition. Except this time, the Helfers themselves are not the main attraction.
Instead, their three Labrador retrievers, Blazer, Charger and Trooper, will steal the spotlight, putting their own athletic prowess on display at the annual Dock Dogs World Championships in Dubuque, Iowa, which began on Oct. 22 and run through the weekend.
Bill Helfer actually first encountered Dock Dogs via his love for sports, flipping to one of the various ESPN derivatives and encountering enthusiastic owners coaching their canines launching off a boat dock as far as they could. The Helfers had a dog, Bill thought, and it could jump pretty far off a dock. The dog was one he and his wife had procured from a breeder in Hungry Horse when they asked for “the orneriest, most active female” in the litter, and Jazzie was exactly that. After moving back to Ohio in 2005, the pair began regularly taking Jazzie to the water and doing whatever else they could to burn off some of her boundless energy.
Soon after seeing what he later learned was a Dock Dogs competition on TV, Bill, Nina and Jazzie signed up for an event in Dundee, Michigan and packed their pup to see what she could do. It turned out she couldn’t do much. Jazzie belly flopped off the edge of the dock after a mere three feet, and Bill Helfer, a little embarrassed, pledged to be back with Jazzie ready to challenge the big dogs.
“Being the competitive people that we are, as soon as we saw what everybody else could do with their dogs, neither one of us wanted to say our dog couldn’t do that,” Bill said. “It was like, all right, we’re into this now, full bore, let’s go.”
The Helfers said fellow Dock Dogs competitors are friendly and helpful, and that they offered tips and words of encouragement at that first event, but the pair also used their athletic background to come up with a training regimen not unlike one a human might employ to prepare for something like a decathlon. There was interval running for speed and cardio, strength training to bulk up Jazzie’s hind legs, and even a custom nutritional plan. Jazzie ran hills, climbed stairs and used a yoga ball to strengthen her core.
“We’re both athletes; we both played a lot,” Bill Helfer said. “And so we know that you can’t be one-dimensional … you’ve got to work on all the elements.”
“For us the interesting part was how do we do some of these things that we know and transition it to the dogs,” Nina added. “You can’t tell a dog, ‘Give me 20 sit-ups.’ You can’t tell a dog to do squats.”
Instead, Jazzie and the other dogs that later joined the pack would accompany Bill on several-mile bike rides every morning, and sometimes again at night, along with the rest of their specialized training. Games the Helfers played before they knew about Dock Dogs, like when Bill would crouch on the floor and Jazzie would jump over him, turned out to be a solid start to the dog’s training, too.
It only took a few months before Jazzie found her way near the top of the Dock Dogs standings, and eventually the number-one world ranking in Iron Dog (the Dock Dogs decathlon equivalent). Her career-best leap from the end of the dock was more than 20 feet longer than her first attempt.
Thirteen years later, the Helfers are veterans of the circuit and now compete with Blazer (a 10-year-old who is in the Legends division) and a pair of puppies, Trooper and Charger. The best dock-jumping dogs, the Helfers say, are ones who are not overly submissive and all too eager to play, and all three of their labs were buzzing with anticipation while they waited for their turn during a recent training session at the home of Byron and Erin Pollan in Kalispell. The dogs swam with vigor to practice for the speed retrieve (a timed swim out and back), sprang gleefully upward to work on extreme vertical (essentially the doggy high jump) and could hardly contain themselves waiting to be released for big air (a running leap out from the dock to snag a toy dangled above the water).
None of the three dogs have reached the top of the sport like Jazzie did, but Trooper and Charger finished second and third in big air among novice dogs at last year’s world championships, and Blazer’s career best in big air (24 feet, 5 inches) is just one inch short of Jazzie’s best.
The competition, though, is hardly the point, even to the Helfers. They call their fellow competitors “family” and have traveled to as many as 18 events a year on the Dock Dogs circuit, as much to see friends and fellow dog-lovers as to compete for the modest prizes offered. When they moved back to Kalispell last year, they had “friends in every state” they drove through to get here, and they have even designated a fellow competitor as their dogs’ godfather, writing the arrangement into their will.
The dogs, too, are much more than just super athletes they happen to train. They are family dogs first and foremost, the Helfers say, and besides, to Blazer, Trooper and Charger, the world championships are just another day at the dock with their best friends.
“They don’t know it’s a competition,” Bill Helfer said. “They just know they’re outside having a great time with you.”
For more information on Dock Dogs and the world championships, visit www.dockdogs.com.