Tuesday, August 19, 2003

"Mad Hops"

While covering the Great Outdoor Games in the summer of 2002 for the Burlington Free Press, I saw Big Air Dogs in person for the first time. The sport’s premise: the master stands at the edge of the dock and throws a ball or toy into the water as the dog leaps for it. The longest leap wins. A year later in Connecticut, in Stamford and Norwalk, I met the owner of two dogs that gained big sponsors for their big jumps.

Holding a photo of his dog Kiki soaring above the Newman Mills Falls in rural Stamford, Chris Litwin points just beneath the black Labrador and dreams of sports marketing stardom.

“Can’t you just imagine the swish and ‘Just Do It’ under here,” Litwin says, invoking the popular logo and marketing slogan of Nike. “He’s like 10 feet in the air, and he’s actually on his way down at that point. It looks like he’s dropped out of a plane.”

In street vernacular, Kiki, a four-and-a-half year old male Lab, does indeed have “mad hops” and has gained popularity competing in the rapidly growing sport of dock jumping.

For Litwin, a Stamford resident and dog lover, Kiki’s exploits have become a fulltime
endeavor. Litwin sells T-shirts adorned with a picture of the handsome lab, and they travel to sanctioned events across the nation with the hope of finding a major corporate sponsor (like Nike) to endorse his dog’s world-class jumping ability.

While Kiki is an established star, Norwalk resident Doug Kilmartin has only recently discovered that he has an up-and-comer in his yellow Labrador Jake.

Jake established himself as a world-class jumper in his competitive debut last weekend at the Rex Plex in Elizabeth, N.J. To the surprise of Kilmartin and other observers, Jake jumped 19 feet 10 inches on his second competitive jump ever. His second place finish, with a jump of 22 feet 2 inches, was within nine inches of Kiki’s winning leap.

“We went down there thinking we would be bumped down,” Kilmartin said about his 20-month-old dog. “But I found my dog had a natural ability to jump. They were amazed I had a world-class competitor.”

Kilmartin had seen Kiki on television before the event, and had contacted Litwin
by e-mail through a mutual friend. Having just met, they hope to start a regional club with sanctioned jumping events since there is no club in the Northeast.

“I think Jake and Kiki will be the two stars in the Northeast, and hopefully other
dogs will follow,” Litwin said. “I hope Jake goes out there and beats Kiki because it will bring more interest to the sport and attract more sponsors.”

Litwin is on his way toward his goal of creating a profitable business from “Big Air” and “Dock Dog” events, which organize competitions where dogs jump off a rubber-matted dock into the water.

According to their Web site, Dock Dogs is “like NASCAR, we establish the rules and standards of our sport, and track the results and records as well as support and promote the growth of our athletes, events, spectators, and sponsors.”

The sport’s recognized birth took place in July 2000 at ESPN’s “Great Outdoor Games Big Air” competition, or simply put, the Super Bowl of dog jumping. Litwin said fire marshals had to stop letting people in at this year’s event because they all wanted to see the world’s top 12 dogs compete.

“This sport is exploding,” Litwin said. “It’s made for TV. It’s something that
everybody can relate to because most everybody has dogs. It’s fun to watch dogs
jumping in the water, having a great time.”

Kiki’s popularity has grown with the sport. After two years of competition, two world records (a career best jump of 26 feet 9 inches in 2002) and a national title, Kiki has appeared on major television networks, including the David Letterman Show. Kiki even has his own Web site (www.gokikigo.com) (www.gokikigo.com)and a life-time
supply of dog food at Choice Pet Supply.

While Litwin wants to breed and train elite dogs for a living, Kilmartin views the
sport as a hobby because of his obligation as an orthopedic sales representative. Still, they share a similar path to competition.

Kilmartin’s uncle has an older yellow Labrador that he jumps in his swimming pool. So when Kilmartin first got Jake, just a seven-month-old puppy at the time, he took
him over to his uncle’s to see how far he could jump. Ever since, Kilmartin has been
jumping Jake at his friend’s dock in Westport.

“As soon as I came around the corner (near his friend’s dock), Jake went crazy in the car,” Kilmartin said. “I don’t feel like I’m forcing him to do this. I think dogs will do whatever they’re bred for. And he’s bred to swim, jump and retrieve.”

Litwin discovered Kiki’s love for water the first time he took him to the Mianus River at eight weeks old. As soon as he set Kiki down, the young lab bolted straight into the river despite never putting a paw in the water before. Then Litwin started taking Kiki for regular jumps and was floored to see him sail about halfway across the 50-foot wide river.

“I was amazed at how far he could jump going into the water, and we weren’t even aware of these competitors,” said Litwin, who has attracted crowds of about 100 people. “We were just doing it for our own entertainment.”

Like Kilmartin, Litwin saw dogs jumping in events like the prestigious Big Air competition at the Great Outdoor Games and became interested. Kiki won his first competition at the Purina Dog Challenge, an eastern regional event in New Jersey in July 2001.

The two dog trainers also use the same uncommon technique. Most handlers run next to their dog with an object in hand that they toss into the water. Kilmartin and Litwin
use a “sit-stay” technique, where they tell their dogs to sit and stay while they walk to the takeoff point on the dock. Holding a stick or tennis ball high in the air, they call their dog and release the object at the last second before takeoff.

Litwin has developed some exercises that he uses to increase Kiki’s vertical jump,
speed and stamina. He creates a competitive atmosphere by racing Kiki with Lala, his
black lab who’s two years younger, for a stick or tennis ball in his yard.

“I’m looking forward to working with Chris,” Kilmartin said. “To get some pointers from somebody who’s been doing this longer than I have.”

The growth of the sport has created a wave of excitement for spectators, and especially for the competitors.

“Over the past year the sport has blossomed,” Kilmartin said. “The best part is the
dogs love it. They’ll jump all day long.”

This story first appeared in The Hour in August 2003.