All photos via VICE Canada.
The thrill of competition. The roar of the crowd. Glory. Victory. Overpriced food.
The World Cup can go fuck itself, I’m at a dog competition.
I’m at Toronto’s Harbourfront, having enjoyed a scenic 20-minute bus ride beautifully complemented by 20 minutes of lost wandering around construction sites, the crumbling remains of old superclubs, and never-ending condos, condos, condos, letting my legs slowly adhere to the hot, sticky surface of plastic lawn furniture. I’m watching dogs jump into a pool.
That’s the whole competition. Dogs run down a platform and jump into some water to retrieve an object hanging above it. Dogs are announced, let off their leash, one jump, and it’s done. This is DockDogs™.
DockDogs™, I find out, is a global franchise. It is “The World’s Premiere Canine Aquatics Competition where you can have the most fun with your dog!” There are a lot of rules. 44 pages of rules and regulations, in fact. Dogs must be “AT LEAST” six months old, and handlers “AT LEAST” seven years old to compete. “Handlers are prohibited from jumping into the pool, regardless of the situation.” There is no pushing, shoving, or throwing your dog in the water. “It must go in willingly!”
The dogs go in very willingly. They are JACKED UP about getting in that pool. It does look nice. I want to get in it, it is probably cleaner than Lake Ontario, which glistens polluted effervescence behind me next to an office building. “Today won’t be super busy, Sunday is the big day,” an event organizer tells me. Sunday is the finals. The qualifying rounds run from 9 AM to 8 PM on Friday and Saturday, with finals from 9 to 5 on Sunday. Today, about ten dogs mill around with owners in sport sunglasses and waterproof shoes, sniffing each other’s butts and occasionally jumping into and climbing back out of a pool of water. In total, there will be over 30 hours of dog aquatics in this parkette to the side of Toronto’s failed waterfront.
I’m having a fantastic time. There is something mesmerizing about earnestness on this scale. I wonder if I’ve ever cared about anything in my life the way these trainers in mid-rise shorts and sensible sandals care about the entire endeavour. The trainers and few dedicated fans are very, very into everything about this day in the sun. Dog handlers crouch beside their canine competitors; rubbing haunches and giving pep talks from embraces so intimate I have to look away. Dogs strain at leashes in their enthusiasm for what they are about to do. The crowd cheers for their heroes: Mosby, Meadow, Bosco. There are obvious favourites, but every animal is showered with praise when they’ve taken the plunge.
Hot dogs are not being sold—a missed opportunity, I think—but there is lemonade, pulled pork sandwiches, and a tent full of very complacent looking ambulance attendants. No one is going to injure themselves at the dog competition. There are only about 30 of us here.
Of the 30, I would guess that a full third are reporters or photographers here on assignment. They form a phalanx of flashing bulbs and perplexed faces at the end of the pool. The dogs jump, cameras flash, the dogs land, splash-splash, thank you, crowd, well done Bosco. These dogs need your cheers, folks, it really gets them ready to jump.
The event should be sponsored by Tevas and burnt, freckling shoulders. Or margaritas. Instead it is sponsored by the Toronto Port Authority and is, somehow, completely alcohol-free. This is part of the DockDogs™ rules. There is a Wine and Spirits fest happening a few tantalizing metres away, but we are separated by fences and passes and attitudes. I dream about sipping sangria while middle aged men in “Take It Easy” t-shirts hug their dogs and whisper encouragement in their little doggy ears, both of them vibrating with adrenaline. The announcer reminds us over and over that we’re witnessing something “fantastic, truly impressive.”
There are four categories to a DockDogs™ event: Big Air (“long jump for dogs”), Speed Retrieve (basically timed fetch), Extreme Vertical (doggie high jump), and “Iron Dog,” a triathlon-like combination of all three events. I meet the fifth placed female Iron Dog in the world (from 2011). Her name is Meadow. I feel somewhat starstruck but maintain my composure long enough to find out about her handler, Shari. The pair travelled from Michigan to this event, where Meadow is, frankly, killing it. The 8 year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever has been competing for seven years. They attend roughly 15 competitions per year, and say the atmosphere at this DockDogs™ is “amazing.”
There are a lot of big words being thrown around that perhaps should not be. “Exciting.” “Wild.” “Legends.” “Legend Dogs” are dogs aged ten or older. We do not see any legend dogs, but the announcer at one point gets up and walks his own dog through a few jumps, effectively announcing himself and competing at the same time, which strikes me as pretty legendary. This man is a true professional. When the phone playing the event’s music gets a text and the tunes cut out, he covers flawlessly, shouting out to the official merch table and suggesting we take advantage of the Canadian Skin Cancer Society’s booth to get our sun damage checked out, for free. We do. My skin is only medium damaged.
The rulebook says that “If a team is tied for first place with another team at the end of the finals round, a ‘jump off’ shall occur until there is a defined winner.” I spend a lot of time praying for a jump off that never comes. At national events a judge will evaluate all jumps electronically using proprietary digital video stop action technology. Club events use the “Manual Judging System,” i.e. two people and their eyes, but this is the Canadian Eastern Regional finals. Nothing but the goddamn best. It is kind of hard to tell how any of the dogs are doing, unless you are a DockDogs™ connoisseur. It mostly looks like the dogs are all having a nice time doing the same thing.
This continued for hours. Literal hours. I ate some chicken and watched some dogs, contemplated sneaking into the wine tent and watched some dogs, got a gentle sunburn near the skin cancer booth and watched some dogs, watched some dogs and watched some dogs. Minutes stretched into hours, the announcer played Top 40, read out dog statistics, and commented on the crowd’s enthusiasm when it lagged. There was a bit of a lunch rush when the nearby office buildings let out. People wearing lanyards and work pants stood by bemused, snapchatting dog pics to their girlfriends in other offices across the city. It was probably the least eventful a thing can be while still qualifying as, technically, “an event.”
DockDogs™ wrapped up at 8 PM with a real “everyone’s a winner” vibe. I normally take issue with this kind of thing—life’s not fair, not everyone gets what they want, some people are, really and truly, more talented than others, etc.—but when it came down to it, the dogs didn’t even know they were competing, so where’s the harm? Great work, dogs. Great work, novelty T-shirt owners and dog enthusiasts. Great work, intrepid and hard-working announcer. You’re all winners. But I think we can all agree that the real winner here is journalism. @monicaheisey