The trouble with practicing by the full moon," Manny Rodriguez was explaining from his Tucson home about this time last year, "is that I can't really see what's happening. I can only hear the chomp." At 4:30 each morning, Rodriguez and his partner, Pawcolo—a blue heeler-Catahoula mix—had been taking advantage of the cool of the night and the light of the moon to get in some practice for the national finals.
To the north in Cave Creek, a few miles from Phoenix, Bill Watters confided that his title-contending mutt, Air Major, of Miller Lite TV commercial fame, was "listening to Floyd the piano tuner tune the piano." Watters said he was "bummed" because one of his three commercials had been pulled right in the middle of training. "It was the one where Major retrieves a bikini top," he said. Was Major bummed? "Naw, he's just sitting looking at the piano with his ears bouncing up and down."
California state champ Scooter McCammon, as owner Lou reported for the benefit of a caller, was taking a night off "because the dog looked at me like, Man, I am sick of your voice." Scooter, a red-eyed Australian shepherd, had dozed off while watching a 1979 Tina Louise movie, Friendships, Secrets and Lies.
Two time zones to the east in Lawrence, Kans., Chris Breit, a crew member on a Union Pacific freight train, was getting ready to take a break on his overnight run. He was not allowed to bring his whippet, Mattie, with him on the train. But when Breit got to the turnaround, up near the Nebraska border, he walked out into a field and practiced their routine alone. "People always look at me funny," Breit said. "Like, Can't you find anybody to play with?"
September 8, 1991
And up in Yakima, Wash., Zulu the Border collie mix, overweight and gimping on three legs, was nevertheless getting ready. Never mind that she had recently injured her artificial hip while becoming an unplanned parent to the neighboring cocker spaniel's puppies. Zulu, the underdog of underdogs, was also a finalist headed east.
All across America the well-groomed nails of 13 regional-champion athletes were clicking nervously on kitchen linoleum as the in-flight kennels came out of basements. The only athletes who scratch more than baseball players were soon to be on their way to Washington, D.C., where, on Oct. 13 on the Mall, four world-class judges would determine the 1990 recipient of the Lander Cup, given each year at the Come 'N Get It Canine Frisbee Championships—an event still known to most competitors by its original name, The Ashley Whippet Invitational. What furry titlist would be in demand to soar across the turf at halftimes of NFL games? To travel to Berlin during August 1991 and show Frisbee fetching to 66,000 dazzled Germans at halftime of the preseason game between the 49ers and the Bears?
Last year more than 10,000—yes, 10,000—dogs competed for the title. There were 106 local and six regional finals. This year a field of more than 12,000 has already been winnowed for the 17th annual Canine Frisbee invitational, which will be on Sept. 28 in Washington, D.C.
There are rules (this is the only sport with pooper-scooper timeouts) and statistics: longest catch—Martha Fay, a black Lab, 111 yards, 1976, Wilmette, Ill.; longest vault—Ashley Whippet himself, 40 feet, 1977, the Rose Bowl; highest unassisted jump—the legendary Ashley Whippet again, 9'3", 1975, the Orange Bowl.
But the Ashley Whippet—the event, not the dog—is not a contest of absolutes. To win, a team—one human, one dog—must perform one routine of required catches and two freestyle programs that are judged for showmanship, agility, difficulty and execution.
It takes practice, talent, planning and sacrifice to make it to the Canine Frisbee finals, as Pawcolo, Scooter, Air Major, Zulu and Chris Breit could attest. But every so often a natural appears. Out of nowhere last year came Hannah, a four-year-old black Labrador, to leap and bound her way through the regional competitions and into the finals. Well, Hannah actually came out of Cranesville, Pa., where her 6'6" steelworker owner, Tad Bowen, had only begun to let her compete the Fourth of July. He figured she might be a good Frisbee dog because, as he said, "She could jump into the back of my four-by-four with the tailgate up."
There might never have been a Frisbee contest had not a manic whippet puppy from Oxford, Ohio, been foisted off on an Ohio State student in 1971. Alex Stein was a 19-year-old Buckeye sophomore and Frisbee enthusiast when Ashley Whippet entered his life. Together over the next three years, Stein and Ashley worked out the rudiments of the game. By 1974 Stein's graceful little dog could run 35 miles an hour and catch a Frisbee at a mouth height of nine feet. They headed for Hollywood. Nobody cared. Not even the Frisbee people seemed to care. But at least Irv Lander, a consultant to Wham-O Corp., Frisbee's manufacturer, spent a June afternoon watching Stein and Ashley perform outside the San Gabriel plant where Frisbees are made.
On Aug. 5, 1974, Stein—broke and desperate—spirited his tiny whippet into Dodger Stadium during an NBC Monday Night Baseball game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. At the top of the eighth inning the pair burst upon the field, and Stein began lofting spectacular throws to his even more spectacular receiver. The crowd roared. Better, the NBC cameras smiled on man and dog. It was such a wonderful prank that Stein and Ashley performed unhindered for eight minutes, but when they ran off the field they were arrested. Also at the game that night was Lander, who swears he had no advance knowledge of Stein's plans. It was he who persuaded Wham-O to pay Stein's fine because, as he says today, shrugging, "What else could I do?"
Besides, the phone had started ringing. A sport was born. This year Frisbee dogs will perform at 30 NFL and 20 college football games, be seen at pregame ceremonies at 10 major league baseball games, make 10 racetrack appearances and—using portable indoor-outdoor carpets to handle the hardwood-floor factor—fly and flip before 30 NBA and 20 college basketball audiences.
But the crown of Frisbee-dog competition is the Canine Frisbee finals. In the 48 hours before last year's finals, nervous handlers checked in at the Hotel Washington, across the street from the U.S. Treasury Building. In the lobby there was much shaking of hands and sniffing. Happy, bouncing tails of obedient dogs, all seated, made no sound as they rose and fell on the plush wool carpets. One dog, Baxter, a three-year-old Border collie, was so well trained that he knew 238 commands, including the ultimate lazy man's command: click-click. "Click-click," lawyer Pete Carlos, from Coconut Grove, Fla., explained, "is when you go home, flop down on the couch, say 'Click-click,' and the dog finds the TV remote control and brings it over."
The 13 finalists collectively had some 10,000 hours of practice time under their collars. The biggest dog weighed 75 pounds, the smallest, 21. There were old pros and newcomers. Jeff Gabel, an aeronautical engineer, and Casey, his seven-year-old black Lab—'87 and '88 world champs—were making their fourth trip from Suffield, Conn. Eight-year-old Tasha, a German shepherd-"possible coyote" mix saved from a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, dog pound by landscaper Spencer Huender, had nailed four regional titles but this was her first final. Likewise, Zach, an improbably named female Lab-setter mix from Indianapolis, and insurance agent Mark Wood were making their fourth try for a world title.
There was Donna Schoech's Charity, an Aussie shepherd-Border collie and a four-time regional finalist from Miami. From Dallas came computer technician Ron Ellis with Maggy, once "the ugliest puppy in the pound," now the best Frisbee dog in all of Texas. And then there was Zulu, newcomer and least likely to succeed. The collie-heeler mix had been hit by a car before her second birthday, and had screws and a metal plate holding her pelvis together. And of course there had been those puppies seven weeks before. She arrived on the scene in a fog induced by a tranquilizer given her on the occasion of her first cross-country flight. Nevertheless, said owner Stan Sellers, a wastewater treatment plant operator, "We're both pumped."
The original schedule called for all three of the judged events to be held on Saturday. But on Friday morning came news that disaster in the form of a hurricane, Lili, and two tropical storms, Klaus and Marco, all seemed to be bearing down on the finely tuned athletes still gathering for the Canine Frisbee finals. If any of the storms spinning up the Eastern Seaboard turned inland the next day, Saturday, the contest would be washed out. There could be no postponement. Starting on Sunday, the dogs' rooms were booked for a federal conference on satellite technology.
Desperate times require desperate actions. In an emergency session the four judges decided to stage the competition on Friday—with the understanding that if rain did not hit on Saturday, Friday's results would not count. So in the Elipse behind the White House at 1 p.m. on Friday, ready or not, competition began. The owners-throwers were visibly shaken by the last-minute change. And the dogs, almost all of whose routines are choreographed to rock music, could not hear the sound from a hastily acquired boom box. The big amps and speakers were not scheduled to arrive until Saturday.
Out on the field, Watters was screaming like a maniac at Air Major, who made great leaps and vaults off Watters's body but was consistently missing the Frisbee. Gabel and Casey, the old pros, were looking rusty. Baxter and owner Carlos were both resplendent in neon-green Lycra trimmings, but they did not seem to be able to get their act together on such short notice. "Work it like a squirrel," Carlos yelled on a long throw. The fleet-footed Baxter turned on the afterburners, dived at the plummeting disk and ended up doing an unscheduled 360-degree forward flip. Baxter came up without the Frisbee and without one neon-green paw band. Pawcolo Rodriguez lost his red bandanna in an unsuccessful vault flip.
A call for a pooper scooper followed Zach's routine. Tasha from Coeur d'Alene was acing the catches but kept dawdling on the returns. Mattie was doing Breit proud, looking like a miniature fawn as she caught just about everything with height and style. Then, on the last throw, she saw someone she recognized in the audience and simply trotted off the field for a cuddle. Lou and Scooter McCammon had the flashiest routine, but the consistency was not there. Great trick, missed trick, great, miss.
Only Charity was having a career day. Maybe she was used to hurricane warnings, having come up from Miami. Charity was the only dog to make five great catches in the one-minute compulsory throws. Schoech, a marine-mammal trainer studying to be a court reporter, was leading her perfectly. The two were working like a machine.
By the time Bowen brought on Hannah, wind gusts were making the Frisbees do tricks on their own. On one run Hannah rose precisely to the disk, only to have a gust lift it six inches over her head. Conversely, the next throw was slammed into the ground before her paws.
Next, unfazed by mere hurricanes, came Zulu. Dancing, bouncing, her little Border collie smile full out, she attacked one throw after another. But then something happened that no dog should be held to account for: Zulu stopped at a critical moment to scratch a flea. Her routine ended with a scooper timeout.
Afterward, in a local pub over a pitcher of beer (Miller Lite, in deference to Air Major's commercial success), the human competitors tried to calm their frazzled nerves. Because Stein, at 40 the grand old man of Frisbee, was at the table, the conversation naturally drifted back to Ashley Whippet. Ashley, before his death in 1985, won three world titles. And, of course, there were his records—the most spectacular, it was agreed, being that day in the Orange Bowl when he pulled a Frisbee off the crossbar of a goal post.
"I've seen thousands of dogs," Stein said, "but I've never seen another Ashley." When pressed, Stein told the group that Ashley Whippet was cremated after his death and that his ashes are not all in one place. "Some of them," Stein said softly, "are in Dodger Stadium. They had to be."
On Saturday morning it drizzled, but then it cleared. About 4,000 people were on the Mall as the contest began anew. In the first of the freestyle rounds, Air Major and Watters took to the field backed by the newly arrived speakers booming out INXS's Suicide Blonde. The 17-inch-tall mutt hit a vault off Bill's back and caught the Frisbee at about 13 feet, then sailed gracefully back down from a distance 9½ times his own height.
Mattie the whippet's delicate frame formed a perfect C on every towering catch. Scooter and Lou put in a strong, if uneven, routine. Charity, Friday's unflappable star, was suddenly missing throw after throw.
At the end of the one-minute compulsory throws, Scooter had leapt—literally—into the lead. Mattie was second, and Air Major had pulled up into third.
In the third and final round, Scooter the red-eyed wonderdog and Lou the housing contractor came together on a routine the likes of which the Frisbee world had never seen. To the bounce of Phil Collins's I Cannot Believe It's You, dog hops to man's shoulder. Dog descends and runs around man. Man and dog do simultaneous ground rolls. Dog does a series of scissor walks through man's legs. Man throws Frisbee from a wrap position behind his back; dog catches Frisbee above man's head in "tweak position," hind legs touching nose. Man jumps, turns, throws Frisbee backward through his legs; dog catches it. Man throws over head; dog vaults over man's forearm and tweaks. Dog vaults off man's back, tweaks Frisbee at about nine feet; together they turn around and man throws over head; dog vaults off man's chest. Man drop-kicks Frisbee; dog catches it behind man's back. Man yells "Big Air" and dog vaults off man's chest, nabs Frisbee at 13 feet above ground, tweaks. Man taps chest and scissor-kicks Frisbee; dog vaults off chest for a 12-foot catch. Man throws two Frisbees simultaneously; man and dog each catch one and spin around. Dog jumps on man's shoulder; man waves at crowd. Crowd goes crazy. Dog and man win the title.
Air Major finished second, with Mattie the whippet third. In keeping with her run of luck, Zulu finished 13th—dead last.
As the winners lined up, Air Major—sometimes described as "the Sean Penn of dogs"—let loose a congratulatory deep, throaty growl to Scooter, who in turn attempted to snap Major's tiny little neck. Bill and Lou laughed and explained that it was just the excitement of the moment and that the dogs, in calm moments off the field, actually, uh, hate each other.
That night a Georgetown sports disco invited the winners up on stage. The disc jockey introduced Watters and McCammon, both seemingly born to the stage. The large, noisy crowd screamed its appreciation. From behind the disc jockey, McCammon grabbed a bag of Frisbees.
"Now, the thing is," McCammon shouted out, "we're going to throw these regulation canine Frisbees out to you people in the crowd, and you have to catch them with your teeth."
He sailed the first Frisbee into the audience. Like lightning, a preppy in a green sweater snagged it with his teeth. Almost instantly his mouth began working in a desperate attempt to hold on, but the Frisbee tumbled to the floor.
Over in the corner, jammed up against a wall, Stein stared at the preppy. "You know," he said to a bystander, "he almost had it, but it sort of bounced out. Lot of dogs have that trouble when they first learn too."