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What It Takes to be a Canine Frisbee Champ

By: Lisa Colangelo

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Some champions are born, others are made. When it comes to Frisbee dogs, trainer Paul West looks for a little of both.

Almost four years ago, he stood over a litter of 8-week-old border collie puppies and searched for a partner. A spunky black, white and brown ball of fur captured his attention.

"I rolled a Frisbee," West recalled. "He went after it and brought it back to me, even though he was smaller than the Frisbee and kept tripping over it."

The pup didn't give up. Over and over, he grabbed the Frisbee with his tiny teeth and dragged it back to West. Super Sport, now a muscular 60 pounds, is still fetching Frisbees for West. These days the duo dazzles audiences on the national circuit, most recently in New York City for the Alpo 2000 Canine Frisbee World Championship. The pair captured second place honors at the Oct. 7 competition.

Top honors were garnered by Bob Evans and his Australian shepherd, Nick. Evans is a veteran of canine Frisbee tournaments, and he, too, knows something about good genes. He won the 1998 world title with Nick's father, Luke.

"Luke's the only dog to win six consecutive trips to the world finals," Evans said proudly. "Nick's the youngest dog to win the championship at 20 months old."

Secret to Frisbee Success

What's the secret of his success? "Training and patience," said Evans, who lives in Dallas, Texas. "Patience is very important. And lots of praise. You don't ever say 'No! You didn't catch it.'"

When designing routines and working on tricks, Evans takes cues from his dogs. "Work on their strengths," he said. "Nick's are leaping, focus and endurance."

The Competition

After beating out dozens of competitors in regional contests, 12 finalists came to Central Park - the ultimate Frisbee dog stage - in search of the crown. Dogs and Frisbees flew through the crisp autumn air in elaborate routines to the beat of thumping music. Hundreds of spectators watched breathlessly as dogs vaulted off their partner's backs, spun in the air and snatched the discs before hitting the ground.

The competition featured two parts: a freestyle competition focused on athleticism, presentation and the so-called "wow! factor," and a distance/accuracy portion focused on precision. Teams earned points for each performance. The top three scoring teams received free Frisbees, trophies, dog food and - of course - the glory.

"You try and show off what the dog does best," said West, who lives in Southlake, Texas. "So you find unique things that your dog likes to do. Sport likes for me to catch him."

All trainers talk about the intense drive Frisbee dogs have for plastic flying discs. Super Sport was born with it. Others develop it, sometimes by using the Frisbee as a food and water bowl.

The Drive for the Disc

Sassy, a silky black border collie bred to herd horses, had the intensity. With the help of trainer Ping Latvong, she channeled it from horses to Frisbees. "Her instinct was too strong," Latvong explained. "She nipped a horse's leg and the horse kicked her."

In fact, he has a tougher time learning tricks and routines than his 5-year-old canine companion, who has made it to the top three in the World Championships since 1998.

"She'll pretty much chase and catch anything," said Latvong, who lives in Anaheim, Calif. "If anything, I have to work on myself more because it's teamwork."

Start Slowly on Frisbee Tricks

Latvong said people interested in teaching their dog new tricks should start slowly. Roll the Frisbee on the ground, and then toss it a short distance.

"Spend a lot of time with her, but at the same time you don't want to overwork her, " he said. "She gets bored like we do when we get tired and we lose concentration."

Most importantly, forge a bond of comfort and trust with your dog. "She's a family member first," said Latvong, who is also training Sassy's son. "He has potential, but he's not as good as Sassy. Not yet."

Most of all, dog and trainer should have fun. "It's good for our health and at the same time, she's having fun and I'm having fun," said Latvong. "It's real rewarding."

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