Downeast Dog News

Dogs & Discs: For the Park & Beyond

By Susan Spisak | Sep 01, 2017
Flying High Dog, Bullet

Disc dogs, Frisbee dogs, flying dogs. Whatever you want to call ‘em - it’s a fun sport for canines. The dog runs, leaps, sometimes adds a spin or twist and grabs - mid-air - a disc or Frisbee that’s thrown to him and returns it for another round. It is notches above the standard fetch.

To learn more, I called Mike Piazza, a multiple world finalist and world record holder in canine Frisbee and the current number one professional canine Frisbee performer in the world (Piazza prefers to call the sport “canine Frisbee,” but many call it “disc dog” because “Frisbee” is a trademark name). Piazza, a Massachusetts native, has 25 years of experience and performs through his entertainment venture, The Flying High Dogs.

This cool sport hasn’t exploded in Maine yet (the closest club is the Granite State Disc Dog in New Hampshire), but here’s hoping area trainers will be inspired to offer disc dog classes here. Until then, if you have a healthy dog who can easily run and jump, you can try this with him, providing an exciting activity for both of you.

Frisbee Sports Training

You don’t have to get involved in this sport with the intent of competing - try it for fun. All you need is a large grassy area and a few discs. It’s a great way to exercise your pooch, and it’s not the same old game. However, some park players find they enjoy it so much that it leads them to clubs and competitions.

While Piazza prefers Border Collies, he said rescue dogs and mixes may be fine as well. An athletic or high energy dog, a herding dog, a Retriever, Poodle, or Collie to name a few, could be the right “team member,” but small breeds and very large dogs are not well-suited for disc sports.

I asked Piazza what is the best training approach. “You have to find each dog’s strengths and weaknesses, and you go from there…You find what they’re good at and build on that.” He added short training sessions are best. Because this is an off-leash sport, excellent obedience skills are necessary.

Start by rolling the disc to your dog until he understands to snag it with his mouth and bring it back (you can employ the “trade” using a treat if necessary). Advance to throwing the disc straight at him, at a short distance. Once he catches, you can throw the disc longer, then higher, forcing him to run, jump, and (hopefully) catch it. You’ll have to coordinate the disc toss to accommodate his speed. This takes practice, patience, treats, and praise.

You can always start with a tennis ball – many dogs understand this concept – but follow the disc process (throw at a short distance, then longer and higher). Graduate to a soft tennis-ball-like disc, then to a regular disc. Choose the right size and weight of disc to accommodate your dog. (Don’t use the hard plastic ones found at pet stores. The official type of disc used is a softer plastic. Look for types such as Wham-O Fastback or Hyperflite K10.)

Background, Disc Clubs & Competitions

In 1974, Ohio college student Alex Stein snuck his dog named “Ashley Whippet” (and she was a Whippet) into an LA Dodgers nationally broadcast baseball game. Stein’s intent was to show off his dog’s Frisbee skills, so between innings, they hopped the fence and took over the field. For eight minutes, stunned fans - and the television audience -watched the dog run 35 mph and jump up nine feet high to snag discs, while legendary TV announcer Joe Garagiola narrated the field action (they halted the game temporarily).

That national exposure fueled interest in the sport. The next year Stein helped organize the first Frisbee Dog World Championship. In the early 1980s, the name was changed to the Ashley Whippet Invitational (AWI). The sport has grown exponentially and today there are disc dog training classes, clubs, and competitions worldwide.

Disc dog trainers offer classes to those interested in learning the sport from a professional. The classes are also great for people needing an additional outlet for their high energy dog.

Disc dog clubs have been established both nationally and internationally for enthusiasts to share this sport, work on the skills together, and ensure their dogs are performing maneuvers safely. Many clubs host training clinics, seminars, leagues, and sanctioned canine disc competitions.

There are several organizations that run the sanctioned Canine Disc Competitions. There’s the well-known Skyhoundz Classic World Canine Disc Championship Series, US Disc Dog Nationals, and AWI, as well as others. While their qualifiers, competitions, point rankings, rules, and divisions vary, there are a few common events.

• Toss and Fetch. The handler has one minute to make as many throws as possible at increasingly longer distances to his teammate. Only one disc is used, so the handler and dog must work quickly. Scoring is based on number of catches, distance ran, and the jump and landings.

• Freestyle. This is a popular and artistic event. The team has two minutes to perform tricks like superfast multiple throws and catches, and the dog adds drama with flips and vaults. Judging categories include athleticism, degree of difficulty, and showmanship.

• Long Distance. This pits teams against other teams. The team scoring the least points is eliminated in each round, and so on, until there is one winning team of a handler and his dog.


The Flying High Dogs

Piazza became involved in this sport accidentally. He had just graduated from college and was rooming with three guys. His dog, a Lab-Whippet mix named Taylor, was “gated” in the kitchen via a five ft. tall box. When anyone came through the front door, she would jump vertically to see who was home. One roommate said her leap skills were a fit for disc sports.

So Piazza and Taylor practiced until they “got good.” He entered the Skyhoundz Competitive Canine Disc Sports competition (this was the predecessor of the Skyhoundz Classic World Canine Disc Championship Series) and made it to the finals. He said “back then” only twelve dogs made it to the finals - and they achieved the highest score in the competition.

Once competitions and their categories grew, he decided to shift his focus to entertaining. He and his Flying High Dogs, all Border Collies, perform 150 shows annually. He chose Border Collies because they’re athletic, intelligent, and have a long nose, which makes catching a disc easier. They’re also a working breed with a strong toy drive. He now has five Border Collies: retired Sea Biscuit, puppy Mojo, and the show stars are Maui, Bullet, and Chaos.

Piazza and his pack have performed at NFL, NBA, and Major and Minor League Baseball games and college sporting events. He’s been on TV shows and performs at pet expos, kids’ camps, corporate events, and fairs. He entertains with skits and competitions, utilizing audience members to get them involved in the show. He rotates his dogs, and they perform disc stunts and tricks.

He said his dogs love it, “It’s more fun for them than it is for me, believe it or not…they go crazy for the Frisbee.”

So if you want to see your canine “flying high,” Google “Disc Dog Training.” You’ll find advice and video demonstrations, so you can get out to the park and have fun, too.