Saturday, October 1, 2011


7 1/2 years ago my wife Christine and I spontaneously adopted a little red Aussie puppy. Love at first sight for me. We first decided to name him "Fred" but that didn't stick. As we were driving home with him Christine suggested the name "Nova". We tried this for a couple of days but I grew tired of it - too new age for me. So, since I was a lifelong hockey fan and the Stanley Cup Finals were starting, I suggested we go with "Stanley". To my surprise, Christine agree as she always liked proper English names for dogs. Stanley finally had his name.

A couple of weeks into his life with us, we found a small toy disc and thought he might like playing with it. I took him out to the yard and gently threw the disc a few feet. He took one look and pounced on the toy - picking it up and bringing it back to me surprisingly quickly. I threw it again, repeat, repeat, repeat. He brought the disc into the house. He slept with it. He would take it out into the yard and lie there by himself waiting for someone to come out and play with him. The disc obsession was born.

When Stanley was 6 months old, I took him outside to play in the yard. My first toss that evening  got away from me and flew a bit high. The puppy ran after it, watched start to come down and then launched himself into a spectacular 360 degree helicopter flip, catching the disc and landing with a very proud look in his eyes - "Hey Dad, did you see what I did?" I was stunned! Holy crap - what kind of animal did I have on my hands?

I had seen disc dogs perform both live and on TV and had always thought it looked like a lot of fun to do. In the spring when Stanley turned 13 months old, I noticed that there was a disc dog contest taking place at Saratoga Springs, NY and Christine and I decided to take our little athlete and check it out. We had a BLAST and were immediately hooked on the sport. Great fun, great dogs, great people.

This was a huge life change for me. Up until then I was a serious triathlete, training 10 to 16 hours per week and competing in long distance races mutliple times per year. I soon realized that I enjoyed my time with my dog a lot more than the time spent on my bike. Exercising for an hour a day and then having time to play with Stanley was a lot more fun than biking 80 miles for 5 hours and then being exhausted for the rest of the day. Change was good.

Today, after 7 years of learning to play disc, learning to be a good positive dog trainer and adopting another 3 Aussies and most recently a Cattle Dog, Stanley and i haqve the opportunity to play at the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge Finals in Freestyle Flying Disc. I am so thankful for whatever universal forces conspired to bring this amazing pup into my life. Maybe its just maturity, but I believe this dog has taught me to live from the heart. Thanks Stanley for being a great dog. Thanks to my wife Christine for supporting me through my great canine obsession.

Whatever happens today, I'll never forget the day when he made that first insane catch in the back yard and changed my life.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Dog Days of Summer and Training Cycles

There are peaks and valleys of disc activity for the Supernova team throughout the year. Many of them are weather dependent, as the extreme cold of January and February in Vermont drive our training indoors and our outdoor activities involve cross country skis and snow shoes. In late July through mid to late August, the heat of the season also affects our frequency and duration of disc play.

Last season, I made a conscious decision to avoid the intensity of competition during the warmest part of the summer. We did one or two shows a week and did a lot of swimming, hiking and running on wooded and shaded trails. The results were amazing as my pups were refreshed and performed in stellar fashion during the fall championship season. This is not to say that we did not have a couple of health issues. Fire developed a nasty hot spot on her hind leg in mid September that required some serious care and effectively ended her season. Stanley had 3 weeks between State Finals and USDDN Finals where he was nursing some front end soreness followed by some hind end soreness. Fortunately, lots of stretching, chiropractic, acupuncture and controlled movement fixed him up in time.

Despite these issues, I noticed that my dogs were FULLY engaged when the time came to perform in September and October. In the past, I frequently struggled to keep my dogs from flying into auto-pilot during late season events. It seemed that they had caught so many discs throughout the summer that the activity had lost some value. They still enjoyed playing, but the combination of too much repetition and my stressed-out attitude affected our teamwork and thus our overall performance. By building in a mid season break, my dogs had a chance to heal up from the rigors of show season and be READY TO GO when the results mattered most.

Moving forward, my strategy is to plan out the to or three times a year when I want my dogs to peak in their performance. It is not reasonable to expect your canine athlete to perform at peak levels at every event all year long. Decide what events you want to do your best at and lay out a training strategy that helps you and your dog go into those events feeling SHARP and REFRESHED. A couple of guidelines might include:

  • Peak your training a couple of weeks before your target event and then slow down so you and your pup can go into the event fresh and recovered from the training process.
  • Remember  that during qualifying events, your competitive goal is to qualify. Don't worry about being the best on the qualifying day. Be good enough to qualify and congratulate yourself and your dog if you are successful. Some qualifiers may require you to be at your absolute best in order to get a qualifying slot. Do your best and see where the chips fall. 
  • Training gains happen during recovery from training, not during the training sessions. Pay attention to details around nutrition, body work and mental rest in order to accelerate recovery.
  • Make sure your dog has lots of opportunity to just BE A DOG. This might mean playing with other dogs, hanging around the yard as you mow the lawn, going for walks etc. Being a  happy dog is foundational for being a great canine athlete.
As I write this morning Stanley is under my chair,  Mojo and Motley are laying to my right, Fire is on the porch keeping a watchful eye over her kingdom while Stella is walking around the house collecting tennis balls. Today's dog agenda includes a trail run this morning and trick training after work this evening, followed possibly by a swim. Gotta love summer in New England!!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Travel and the Great Disc Dogging Obsession

Since getting seriously hooked on disc dogging, I've spent MANY weekends on the road at tournaments and shows in various locations around the eastern US and Canada. This weekend finds us in beautiful Killington, VT preparing to run and compete in a weekend of events.This is the 4th weekend in a row that I've spent on the road doing some dog activity or another. So why do I do this? Why spend the time, money and energy driving around to throw frisbees for my dogs when they'd be just as happy playing in the back yard?

Well, for better or worse, I've always been someone who likes to dive deeply into the things I'm passionate about. My wife and I never had kids, so the dogs fill that space. Some parents spend their weekends travelling to soccer tournaments, I spend mine going to disc dog tournaments and demos. I'm sure if I had kids who played soccer or hockey or whatever, that I'd be one of those parents who gets involved to the point of even coaching the team. As it is, I've become deeply involved in this sport and have met some very interesting folks who I otherwise would never have known.

Having 5 dogs and driving around the country throwing discs is not a normal thing to do. I grew up in what many would consider a normal home. Go to work/school during the week, stay home on the weekends to relax, maybe play outside, maybe go out with friends on Friday or Saturday night. As an adult I find that normal is comforting in small doses, but I much prefer being different. Being different is where the flavor of life is for me.

There is nothing like taking the time and patience to work with a dog over the course of many months and years and feeling the rush that comes with jamming and being really connected as a team. The process of working out ideas of movement and seeing how they ultimately manifest and evolve over time is amazing. Listening to song after song looking for the right beat and feel to match a particular dog's energy and intensity level is a morning ritual as I drive to work. Watching youtube videos of other great teams play and looking for different disc releases or tricks to try is something I do more often than I care to admit.

I probably spend more time than I should thinking about dogs and discs, but life is too short not to be spent thinking about what one is passionate about. The bottom line - I'm happily obsessed with this activity that is such a joyful expression of life between human and canine. Bring on the sunny weather and the open field - TIME TO PLAY!!    

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Competitive Pressure

We've been competing again over the last couple of weeks. The event that I really wanted a great result in was last weekend in East Durham, NY - a qualifier for the Ashley Whippet Invitational Finals. The AWI finals are to take place at Purina Farms in Gray Summit on Oct 8th,  one week after the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge National Finals take place at the same location. As with many dog sport enthusiasts who travel long distances to compete, our travel choices are greatly affected by our personal budget and our ability to realistically take time off from work. Having already qualified for PIDC, I really wanted to qualify for AWI so that I could make the trip to Missouri and stay for 10 days while participating in both events.

There were 5 qualifying slots up for grabs in East Durham last Sunday. I knew that there were top teams coming in from the Mid West, Florida, Texas and New Jersey who would be serious challengers. I was also aware that I was coming off a previous weekend where Stanley and I had been less than stellar at another major regional event in Maryland. We had a delivered an very good first freestyle round in Maryland, only to score a very low 2.5 points in the distance and accuracy round which effectively left us out of contention. Our third round fell apart after the first minute. It was clear to me that going into the AWI qualifier I needed to prepare myself and my top dog to stay relaxed, focused and energetic for a full three rounds of play.

How to do this? Well, I can definitely say that the way NOT to do it is to set goals around winning. For me, going into an event saying "my goal is to finish in the top three" is setting both myself and my dog up for failure. What if we perform well and end up 7th? Is that reason enough to be disappointed? When I first started competing I was ABSOLUTELY disappointed and upset if we did not place well. As a result, competing became less and less fun. At one point, I even considered giving up going to contests because of all the perceived pressure.

Staying relaxed firstly means keeping what we are doing in perspective. It's a dog sport - fun, exhilarating, heart felt - but not life and death. The dogs certainly don't care what their placement ends up being. They want to play and feel that you are happy playing with them. Some of them (like Stanley) even tune in to an audience and like to hear cheering as they run, leap and flip for discs. Its fun for the dogs to play with a human that is light hearted and enjoying the moment. Tracy Custer - one of my favorite freestylers - always seems to have a smile on as she's playing with one of her many cattle dogs. Having fun is priority number one every time.

Setting goals around your dog's behavior on and off the field is the other half of the competitive dog sport success formula. Going into the AWI qualifier, my goals for Stanley were as follows:

  • reinforce calm behavior when in the proximity of other dogs
  • make sure that eye contact has been offered before the release of any disc during the throw and catch round and during specific freestyle segments.
  • reinforce calm behavior when resting in the kennel between rounds, particularly when taking other dogs out to play.
  • during throw and catch, place the disc high in the scoring zone so that he has to stop running to find it. Cue his look with the "UP" command and mark his looking up to find the disc with a clear "YES". Effective execution of this strategy should result in at least 4 or 5 catches during this round.
  • during Freestyle, follow through on two new releases and place then in a catchable zone.
  • shoot for an 85% catch ratio during Freestyle. 
By keeping personalized objectives like these in mind, a handler pays attention to the details that add up and create a successful result.

How did things turn out? We were lucky enough to secure one of the qualifying slots and will be spending 10 days at Purina Farms in October! What a privilege to have the opportunity to perform on some of the biggest stages available to disc dogs. So thankful.


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Running with the pack

One of the most organic experiences I enjoy with my dogs is running with them off leash on the trails around our house. We are fortunate enough to have access to trails on our property and on our neighbor's property to run on and from mid-May up until deer season in October. Two to four days per week in the summer and early fall I'll head out with my pack of five and we'll run for 40ish minutes, completing loops around these hilly wooded trails.

The experience always starts with one or two dogs noticing that I've put on running clothes and have reached for my shoes. The energy level in the house goes from a morning snooze to an explosion in a the time it takes for me to reach for a shoe. Stanley, Fire, Mojo, Stella and Motley patiently line up in a sit / stay at the back door leading into the garage. I calmly tap each dog and they head outside one at a time. Thats where the calm ENDS.

I start running across the back lawn towards the entrance to the woods and the five canines are a sprinting, circling, barking ball of chaos for the first 3 minutes or so. 7 year old Stanley is the one leading the charge as the other dogs frantically circle him. 3 year old Stella and 5 year old Fire try to direct him through pushing him one way then another. 3 year old Motley tries to distract Fire from her task, while 6 year old Mojo runs beside me, content to steer clear of the insanity.

Soon, they settle into their positions around me and begin tending to their respective tasks that our group run involve. Stanley runs out front, looking back at me every time a decision is needed as to what direction we should go. Stella runs with him, always keeping an eye out for puddles and streams to cool off in. Mojo runs behind me, occasionally stopping to investigate some scent or another and then quickly sprinting to catch up before we get too far ahead. Fire runs with us, ahead of us, behind us, always looking for a stray mouse or a mole to snack on. Occasionally she'll disappear in the woods, only to reappear flying towards us as we complete our first loop. Motley enjoys the first loop and then retires to the coolness of the garage, where he hangs out until we are done running.

Trail running with the dogs feels primal and natural. We are in sync. A group of beings moving through the woods rhythmically and with ease. I watch them jump effortlessly over logs and traverse fallen trees. Before sport dogs entered my life 7 years ago, my runs were exclusively on paved trails, sidewalk and roads - endurance training that would last anywhere from one to three hours, sometimes following a lengthy bike ride. It used to be important to push myself to find my limits. Now, its about joy and connection. The joy of moving, the joy of watching my dogs move through the world and the connection we share as we move together. Movement, connection and joy. What could be better? 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Life with Sport Dogs

I have 5 dogs - 4 Australian Shepherds, and an Australian Cattle Dog. I am a chiropractor by profession and I perform disc dog shows and compete in disc dog contests with 4 of my 5 dogs. There's Stanley - 7 year old male, Mojo - 6 year old male, Fire - 5 year old female and Stella - 3 year old female ACD. There's also 3 year old Motley, our calm, good natured relaxed Aussie. Motley enjoys a few tosses of the disc or ball in the yard, but he's not quite driven enough to be a performance dog. No problem though, the other 4 generate enough energy to spare.

This blog will offer up my views on a variety of topics and experiences, ranging from our adventures in competition to observations on canine fitness, training and behavior to holistic canine health ideas. I believe in positive, reward based training. I believe in building bonds with dogs by being active together and by living together in an atmosphere based on love and mutual respect. Moreover, I believe that a dog's health can be constructively nurtured by raw diet, regular body work and appropriate supplementation.

I love training, playing with and exercising with my dogs. I feel like my purpose for having these amazing creatures is to help them realize their potential and spread joy to other people in the process. The joy and comfort that my dogs have brought to my life has been immeasurable and I hopefully can help whoever reads this blog series experience more joy as well.

On this evening, I am thinking of my friend Dan and his dog Carley. I met Dan 3 years ago at a disc dog event in Conneticut when he and Carley were just starting to get involved in the sport. What stood out with Dan and Carley was how much Dan LOVED his dog. Over the years they learned how to play the disc dog game better and better until last season they qualified for the USDDN World Finals in the Toss and Fetch competition. What a treat to see this pair among the top teams in the world and loving every minute of it!

I was informed over the weekend that Carley had somehow developed a severe kidney infection and was gravely ill. Earlier this evening, Dan posted on Facebook that he expected that Carley may pass sometime tonight. For those of us who have had and lost dogs, we all know how difficult a time this is. I must admit though, that while I have lost 4 dogs in my life, I have not experienced the loss of one of my sport dogs yet. The bond that develops between a sport dog and its handler is truly special. In Dan's case, friends have described Carley as the love of his life.

Dan, I cannot fathom the anguish you must be feeling. If Carley recovers, I look forward to raising a glass with you in relief. If its her time to pass on, please remember that you have many friends that care about you and love you. You have given Carley an amazing life that most dogs would love to have. I have no doubt that you will find the strength to heal and offer your love again to another lucky dog.

Please take a minute to appreciate your dog(s) today. Our time together is short, sometimes painfully so. Remember to appreciate every moment and take the time to be joyful together.

For Dan and Carley.