A leap, and then a splash -- and another trophy under his paws

Brian Johnson and his dog Gunner, along with Johnson's daughter Krista, display some of the awards Gunner has won while competing in dock jumping competitions around the Midwest.
Photo contributed.

Originally published May 11, 2009.

It's a family affair, but it's the family dog that is basking in the spotlight.

Brian Johnson and his dog Gunner got involved in dock jumping last year and enjoyed it so much, they plan to go to even more competitions this year. Since the whole family generally goes along, the Johnsons consider the events "mini vacations," Brian says.

"We pretty much try to keep it a family event," he adds. Brian, along with wife Karen, daughter Krista, a freshman at Huntington North, and son Dakota, a fourth- grader at Northwest Elementary, travel around the Midwest to participate in the contests.

Dock jumping is still a relatively new sport, having made its debut as "Big Air Dogs" on ESPN's Great Outdoor Games in 2000. But when thousands of people poured in to watch the competition, organizers realized the potential of the event.

Dock Dogs, a company established to set standards and maintain credibility of the sport, was formed in 2002, and Ultimate Air Dogs, based in Michigan, joined the fold shortly thereafter. While they compete in events of both groups, Brian says his family tends to gravitate to those of the Ultimate Air Dogs because many of the events are held in the Midwest.

Jumping events are held independently and in conjunction with other events such as pet shows or sports, boat, and vacation shows - one of the first places Brian experienced the competition.

"It's on TV and I've been to some sport shows and seen it," he says of the jumping competitions. Since he had a dog of his own, Brian decided to investigate further. "I just thought to myself, let's give this a try."

Teams can participate in a number of splashes or waves (events) during a competition and dogs are allowed two jumps per event - the longest of which is recorded as the team's official entry.

"You could have four or five splashes at an event," Brian notes.

Competitions are held both inside and outside, depending on the climate and time of year. Regardless of the location, pools are often constructed for the dogs to jump into.

"They're 9- or 10-feet wide and 40-feet long" with a pier for the dog to run out, Brian says. Toys are used to entice the dogs to jump and may be tossed out into the water before the pooch starts its run or as it nears the edge of the pier.

Gunner's first efforts at dock jumping - during the Fort Wayne Sports, Vacation and Boat Show in March 2008 - didn't pan out too well, but he did learn from the experience and eventually really took off with the sport, Brian recalls.

"The first time, he ran up to the edge and put on the brakes," Brian says. Gunner's second jump was "1 foot, 9 inches," and he surpassed the 7-foot mark to wrap up the day.

The Johnsons have participated in events in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois and with only one year under his belt, Gunner has brought home numerous medals, ribbons and certificates. He has accumulated so many, in fact, that Brian has devoted an area in his den to display them.

"This is called Gunner's Wall of Fame," he jokes.

One-day events draw between 60 and 70 dogs while the two- to three-day competitions draw 100 or more, Johnson says. Any type of dog can participate in dock jumping competitions, and Johnson's seen a variety - labs, pit bulls, rottweilers, a St. Bernard.

"We've seen all kinds (of dogs) - it's not limited to any breed or size," Brian says. "I've even seen a Jack Russell terrier jump 20 feet."

Consistency in judging the jumps keeps the competition fair, so the size of the dog doesn't really matter, Brian explains.

"They measure the dog at the base of the tail when it breaks the plane of the water," he says.

Brian and Krista are both involved in the competitions, taking turns leading Gunner into his jumps. And whoever happens to be with him when he makes his longest jump is the person who moves on in the competition with him.

Krista is also working with a lab/pointer mix named Drake - a dog the family got from a rescue in Kalamazoo, MI - who is 11 months old. Krista and Drake are members of the Waggin' Tails 4-H Club and are preparing for this summer's fair. The family has also been taking Drake to dock jumping competitions "to get him socialized" with the hope that he'll be ready to start jumping soon.

They've tried to get him to jump, but so far he's not taken the plunge.

"He's going to be a bit more work," Brian says.

Right now the only training the Johnsons can provide for their dogs is on land, but Brian is looking for a place with water.

"We don't have access to a pond or anything," he says, adding they do their training at their rural Huntington property, walking and running and working on commands.

"The main thing is to keep him fit, conditioned."

While Gunner and the Johnsons were on their own last year, this year they go into the competitions with the support of a sponsor. Johnson met up with a representative of Canidae Pet Food, an all-natural food product for dogs, while attending a pet food seminar at Juergens Do-It Center in February.

"I talked to the representative, he called someone in California, and we got the contract," Johnson says. "I was just in the right place at the right time." The company sent a special doggie vest bearing its name for Drake and T-shirts for the Johnsons to wear to the competitions.

Johnson thinks dock jumping competitions will continue to grow in popularity - in the number of events, participants, and spectators.

"It definitely draws the people," Johnson notes. And although people are important to the competition, in the end, it's "all about the dogs," he says.

Anyone interested in learning more about dock jumping can contact Johnson via e-mail at gun_dog06@yahoo.com or visit the Web site www.dockdogs.com or www.ultimateairdogs.net.