Spectators may be shivering because of cold February temperatures but the trembling from participants in the annual DockDogs competition at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition is more from unbridled excitement.
At a command from their handler, canines of all sizes and breeds charge down a 40-foot dock and leap after a rubber toy before splashing into one of two 30,000-gallon tanks of water at Brittlebank Park.
The dogs and handlers are competing for the title of the best in one of three disciplines: Big Air (compare it to long jumping), Extreme Vertical (high jumping) and Speed Retrieve. Iron Dog is a combination of all three events.
DockDogs began in the U.S. in 2000 as part of ESPN’s “Great Outdoor Games.” It is open to all breeds, although larger water dogs such as Labrador retrievers are among the most popular species. The only rule is that the dog must be at least six months old.
Several hundred dogs are expected to compete in this year’s Southeastern Wildlife Expo event that takes place Friday through Sunday at Brittlebank Park. This is the ninth year DockDogs has been part of SEWE.
“SEWE is one of the only multi-pool events that we compete in other than world championships or regionals. It would be even bigger if it was a couple of months later when it was warmer. But considering how cold it can be, it’s the biggest one other than worlds that we go to,” said 17-year-old Kaitie Uebelhoer, a past No. 1-ranked youth handler who is a junior at James Island Charter High School.
DockDogs is a family event for Uebelhoer, who along with her grandmother, Deb Feller, will be handling Doni through various waves in hopes of once again reaching the finals at SEWE.
Feller’s daughter-in-law, Macy Uebelhoer, will be handling Sirius Black, Doni’s brother. Macy and Sirius Black (named after a Harry Potter character) have made remarkable strides since debuting in DockDogs at SEWE in 2015, winning their divisions in the 2015 DockDogs World Championship in November.
“He had done docks and in a pool, but being up in the air in front of a crowd was a completely different story,” Macy said of the 2015 SEWE experience. “He was jumping 13, 14, maybe 15 feet (in Big Air). He’s now jumping over 22, 23 feet. He won the World Championship of the Warrior Division for Iron Dog, a combined point score for competing in all three events. He also won first place in Cadet Big Air and hit a personal best of 6-8 and just missed by the skin of his teeth at 6-10. At the beginning of the season we were lucky to get him to hit 5-4.”
Feller, president of Palmetto DockDogs, got involved in the sport after her life partner Laurie Uebelhoer brought home two Labrador and golden retriever puppies, one gold (Doni) and one black (Sirius Black).
The dogs loved the water, and after seeing a DockDogs competition at SEWE, Feller began training the dogs and competing.
They now compete in events throughout the Southeast as well as regionals and Worlds.
Feller said Palmetto Dock Dogs (palmettodockdogs.com or palmetto dock dogs on Facebook) is growing with more than 40 members. The group meets monthly in the Charleston area for practices and Feller said members come from throughout the state, including one who travels every couple of months from Knoxville, Tenn.
Feller said last year she let Kaitie Uebelhoer handle Doni because it was her final year as a youth handler.
“You can have him, take him as far as you can and have fun. But next year I get him back. This is my year,” Feller said. Kaitie will still be able to compete but Feller will be Doni’s primary handler. Under DockDog rules, more than one handler can handle the same dog and more than one dog can be handled by the same handler; they just can’t compete against one another in the same wave.
Kaitie compared the experience to performing as a dancer, something she was involved with before beginning DockDogs.
“When you’re up on the dock with your dog, it’s fun. It gives you a rush,” she said. “You have so much fun with them, and we’ve met so many great people through DockDogs.”