Dog Days of Denton
By Katharine Pettigrew
Denton Live Jan-June 2012
They’re at their mark. They’re breathing heavy. Their eyes are locked on the finish line. They’re ready to run as fast as they can. No, they’re not professional athletes lining up for an Olympic race. These are the dogs of the Texas Heat Flyball team. Ego, Gimmick, Quick, and Logo meet every Sunday, rain or shine, to compete and train for the Dog Days of Denton Celebration in Quakertown Park each June. The dogs bark with excitement as soon as their trainers start pulling out training mats, bright green hurdles and, finally, the long, colorful ropes called “tugs.” The dogs go crazy for the tugs. It’s their motivation to finish a practice race so they can get in a quick game of tug-of-rope with their owners.
But first, there’s work. While handlers sit at each end of the mats, holding the dogs’ back legs in place, the trainers smack the ropes on the mats and call out their names to get them excited. “Let’s go, Egooooo!” “Mark! Set! Go!” Just like human athletes, the dogs take off down the full length of the mats. Dogs new to the sport might tumble over the hurdles and hit their shins, but the veterans in the game fly over each 9-inch hurdle with grace and ease. There’s just a little slimy drool dripping from their mouths to prove they’ve been working hard. After each practice race, the Texas Heat handlers shower them with affection. “We try to make it one big game for the dogs, and it is,” member Roger Forsythe says while patting one of the dogs on the stomach. “They just love it.”
The dogs aren’t the only ones who love flyball. Texas Heat has been performing demonstrations at the Dog Days of Denton for five years and they’re a hit every spring. “Some people come out just to watch the demos,” says Christine Gossett, director of Dog Days. “They don’t always bring their dogs. Sometimes they bring their kids just to watch.” Dog Days is more than just flyball, however. The event, which turns 19 this year, attracts a crowd of 8,000. What started as a community outing for Denton residents now pulls in dog lovers from all over North Texas and beyond. Everything’s geared to the animals: from agility courses to test their skill, to the annual Spokesdog contest, even “Glamfur” photos where the dogs play dress up and show off their inner model.
“A lot of people think ‘I don’t have a dog so I can’t go to Dog Days,’ but really it’s a celebration of our canine friends,” Christine says. “We focus on entertainment, demos and contests. We’ll have an acoustic musician playing between sets and a lot of booths where people can get advice for pet care and pet training or just fun treats and apparel. They’re really interactive. It’s what makes our event and our vendors stand out.” But there’s a serious side, too, says Kevin Lechler, co-director of Dog Days. “We wouldn’t be true to our mission if we didn’t slip in some informative, educational tips on responsible pet ownership, training tips, encouraging adoptions and the like. We have been very fortunate to have found a formula to do this in a way that is fun for all the pooches and their people, too.”
The Spokesdog Pageant draws the biggest crowd, with precious pooches and hunky hounds competing to represent Dog Days. (The contest is such a tradition with local families that dogs – like May Day, the 2012 winner – compete year after year.) Festivities start off with the Canine Couture Fashion Parade. The Heinz 57 contest offers prizes for the dog with the longest ears, the Fido with fluffiest hair, and the worldly canine who’s traveled farthest. For the talented pet, there are Pet Tricks and Dog Singing contests.
“People from all over come to the event because it’s so unique and different. It’s centered around dogs and pet care as well as having fun,” says Christine. Vendors sell everything from jewelry (for the humans) to bandanas (for the doggies) and offer tips on responsible pet care and adoption. Vendors return because of the connections they make. “Loyalty for the vendors is like a dog’s loyalty for its owners,” Christine adds with a laugh.
Flyball, the only team sport for dogs, has been a Dog Days’ mainstay since 2007. Invented in California in the ’70s, it’s a relay race with four dogs on a team. The dogs must jump four hurdles set 10 feet apart, catch a tennis ball that shoots out of a spring-loaded box, and then jump the four hurdles again on the way back. The first team to have all four dogs run without errors wins the heat. Even though legally the dogs can’t compete until they’re at least a year old, it takes up to two years to be ready. “For us, it’s a lot more than a competition,” says Beth Futch, another member of Texas Heat. “It’s about what you want from your dogs. It’s a bonded relationship with your dogs.”
Flyball is a sport for true dog lovers. “They’re not like golf clubs, you don’t put them in the closet when you’re done playing for the day,” says Mary Fairbairn, a member of Texas Heat. “People get a lot of dogs, older ones that don’t run anymore, current runners, 1- and 2-year-olds to train – and sometimes puppies – but we love it.” As crazed as the dogs may seem, when it’s their turn to race, something changes in them. Nothing can distract them from crossing the finish line. “Dog Days is also another way dog owners can find new ways to interact with their dogs and form new relationships through groups like these,” Christine notes.
Dallas Dog & Disc Club runs demonstrations at Dog Days, too. “Flyball is about quick speed and catching the tennis ball,” Christine says. “With Dog & Disc, they’re jumping and catching the disc. They’re amazing to watch.” Dallas Dog & Disc started in 1985 and has grown into a popular sport for humans and dogs alike. Kelly Miller, president of Dallas Dog & Disc, got involved 12 years ago when she had a misbehaving dog, Toby, that she didn’t quite know how to handle. “I actually ran into a Dallas Dog & Disc member while I was doing agility with him (Toby),” says Kelly. “He was very ADD and they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you take him and play Frisbee with him?’” Kelly now trains her own dogs Rockstar, Rio and Joey for disc dog demos and exhibitions. In an open field, she works with her dogs on various tricks: They charge after a Frisbee flying 30 feet in the air, or jump off her back and catch one of the bright discs in mid-air.
Although disc dog and flyball might have high goals for the dogs, even energetic pooches like their downtime at home. “They’re couch potatoes and they’re right beside me the whole time,” says Kelly, amused. Maybe, just maybe, they’re dreaming about their next competition.
[just the facts]
What: Dog Days of Denton Celebration
When: June 1-2, 2012
Where: Quakertown Park
Hours: Friday 5-8:30 p.m. Saturday 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Take in the evening shade with food, fun and interactive booths for you and your pooch. Cool off at the Cool Zone stations with misters, fans and water for the dogs.
Admission: Free for friendly dogs (who must be on a leash) and their best friends
More info: www.dogdaysdenton.com
Dog-gone fun: “Heinz 57” Dog Show offers prizes for dogs with longest ears, oldest, fluffiest hair and much more. Make your dog even more adorable by dressing them up in costumes for “Glamfur” shots, $10 per photo.