Carolina DockDogs find Big Air at Dixie Deer Classic

Dogs compete in three different water jumping events

Leo, an Australian shepherd, takes his first dip into the pool at the 2018 DockDogs competition. (Lauren Rose / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — Gibbs has all the tools a successful athlete needs: Speed, explosive power in his legs, enthusiasm and a genuine love for the game.

Like many successful athletes, however, he sometimes has trouble listening to coaching. There are times when, as his coach, Terrie Leafstedt yells instructions, Gibbs appears to not be listening at all.

Gibbs isn’t a prima donna, however. He’s just a 9-year-old golden retriever.

Leafstedt and Gibbie are members of Carolina DockDogs, a canine aquatics competition club that held a competition at the Dixie Deer Classic.

“Think of it like track and field at the Olympics,” said Michelle Grainger, a member of the Carolina DockDogs board. “There are several different events. We have Big Air, which is like the long jump.”

Dogs jump off of the end of a dock, usually to fetch some type of toy, thrown by their handler, and the winner is determined by who travels the farthest in the air before their tail end hits the water.

“Then we have Extreme Vertical, which is like the high jump,” Grainger continued.

Dogs leap high into the air to try to retrieve a toy dangling above them, and the winner is determined by the tallest leap.

“Then there’s Speed Retrieve, which is like your track events. Your dashes,” Grainger said.

Dogs leap into the pool and race through the water to the opposite end, as fast as possible.

All breeds and all skill levels are welcome in DockDogs. The only requirement is that the dog needs to be at least 6 months old.

Leo just hit the half-year mark and made his Big Air debut at the Dixie Classic.

“One of the members adopted a dog at the rescue where we work,” said Leo’s handler, Maggie Bogdanski. “She’s been competing in dock diving for a long time. She gave us a few lessons, and here we are.”

High winds and frigid temperatures delayed the start of the Big Air competition, although some handlers, including the veteran Leafstedt and the rookie, Bogdanski, took their dogs onto the deck for a few practice runs.

Finally, the competition was ready to begin, and the handlers were gathered to go over the competition rules.

Dogs and handlers have a one-minute time limit on the dock. If the handler can’t convince the dog to take the leap by then, then they forfeit their jump, and score, for that round.

The handlers’ efforts must be limited to verbal commands, however.

“The dog has to jump on his own,” competition officials emphasized. “You can’t push him or propel him forward in any way.

“That includes the subtle knee,” the official added, demonstrating a casual push with the leg that could easily send a dog off the end of the dock.

Handlers can throw any type of toy into the water, as long as it’s not edible.

“Or a dead animal,” added the official. “We’ve had people try to use dead birds, because that’s all their dog responded to. We once had someone who wanted to throw in a live raccoon. We had to say no.”

The dogs then lined up in the order they’d compete, with a final caution from officials to leave plenty of space in front and behind each contestant. “We don’t want any dog-on-dog incidents,” they said.

Leafstedt and Gibbs took to the dock for some early comedy. Leafstedt repeatedly tried to get Gibbs to sit and stay at the far end of the dock, while she walked to the edge of the water to prepare to toss the toy.

Each time, Gibbs couldn’t contain his excitement, ending his sit after a few seconds and running down the dock, on Leafstedt’s heels.

After a few failed attempts at stay, with the one-minute time limit approaching, Leafstedt let fly with the toy, and Gibbs exploded into action, charging full-speed off the end of the dock for a pair of 17-foot jumps.

Leo also was excited when he stepped onto the dock, but, as he approached the edge, he pulled up, nervous about leaping into the howling wind.

Bogdanski encouraged and cajoled Leo, while an official retrieved the toy with a pool skimmer, so Leo could see it hit the water again.

Just as Bogdanski was likely feeling the temptation to try throwing a subtle knee, Leo took a few steps back and jumped into the water, producing a 6-foot leap. He pulled up on his second attempt as well, but recovered his nerve more quickly and jumped 8-plus feet.

“This was actually our first time doing this outside. We’ve only worked on an indoor pool up until now,” Bogdanski said. “I thought he did great.”

Dixie Deer Classic is put on by Wake County Wildlife Club, which uses the funds for conservation and education and for Hunter Safety Education. Find out more about its programs at