Yankee Flyers club brings disc dog competitions to Salem
Salem — The breeze at the Salem Community Park on Route 82 made playing with a flying disc a bit more difficult than normal, especially for a feisty 10-year-old Papillon spaniel named Ortiz.
When owner and town resident Carrie Neri tried to throw any of the little discs, the wind would carry them in unexpected directions, leading to anxious yips from Ortiz.
"Ugh, right in the wind," she said one day last week.
Eventually Ortiz decided he was done trying to catch the disc and wanted to play tug-of-war with it instead.
"You're going to hurt your mouth and you're not going to be able to play Frisbee anymore," she told him, tossing a few more discs into the wind before giving up. "All right, take a break."
Ortiz promptly sat on the grass, panting as Neri discussed disc mechanics with fellow disc dog enthusiast and Salem resident Ed Jakubowski. Even without the wind, a two-minute freestyle disc routine is a lot of work for both dogs and their owners.
Both Neri and Jakubowski are members of the Yankee Flyers Dog and Disc Club, which was founded in 1999 and serves disc dogs and their owners in the the greater Connecticut area.
The club has its next public event at the park in Salem on July 23, and since its founding, members have competed at the national and international level in both long-distance challenges and freestyle programs.
Jakubowski co-founded the club and has trained dozens of rescue dogs in long-distance and freestyle disc events. He said the sport started with a whippet named Ashley, who stunned spectators at a Cincinnati Reds game in 1974 when he and his owner Alex Stein jumped the outfield wall between innings and put on a surprise disc dog demonstration.
The Ashley Whippet Invitational World Championship was created the following year, but Jakubowski didn't find out about the sport until a friend showed him a newspaper advertisement for a disc dog competition. He had played disc with his dog for exercise but had never competed. After contacting the organization, he joined a regional group, and he competed for the first time in 1978 in Willimantic. He went on to win both the local and state competitions and placed third at the regional competition in Massachusetts that year, and he went to the world competition at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in 1979.
"The first day was competition on the field with no spectators, and that was amazing, but the second day was being there with my German shepherd, and seeing us up on the jumbotron in front of 40,000 people," Jakubowski said. "That just hooked me into the sport."
The club currently has about 20 members with a variety of dog breeds. Jakubowski said high-energy dogs with a lot of drive do well in disc competitions, and herding dogs such as border collies and Australian shepherds are very common now. He said there are always exceptions to the rules, such as boxers and Dalmatians that have competed on the international level, and there's also a "MicroDog" division for small dogs like Ortiz.
Neri, who serves as the club's treasurer, has had several Australian shepherds, including retired 13-year-old Callaway and 2-year-old Rhythm, a miniature "Aussie." She joined the club when it was founded after becoming friends with Jakubowski and co-founder Gail Mirabella, but she said the dog she had at the time was notorious for shredding any disc she could get her mouth on. After a class with a breeder, Neri and Keisha started freestyle dog dancing, and Neri has been doing demonstrations and competitions since 1998.
She frequently performs at fundraisers with Ortiz and her other Australian shepherd, Lyric, and she said the audience lights up when they see the dogs weave between her legs, jump through hoops and twirl around to the music. Owners have to have a very tight bond with their dogs in dog dancing because treats aren't allowed during competitions, she said, but it's a lot of fun and the audience loves it.
The Yankee Flyers hosts a variety of events for national disc sport organizations such as Skyhoundz, the U.S. Disc Dog Nationals and the UpDog Challenge. Each event tests skills such as distance, accuracy, speed and agility, but all events for the club take place at the Salem Community Park.
"This was the first exposure to the field last year and everyone fell in love with it," Jakubowski said. "The town has offered a lovely area for not only Frisbee dog events but other events here."
And for people interested in the sport, the club also hosts clinics so members can work with visitors and their dogs to experience first-hand the different events for disc as well as dancing. Jakubowski said the club is open to anyone who wants to give it a try, and after several decades in the sport, sharing his experience with new people is the best part.
"To see the joy of them playing with their dogs in a structured manner, that I think for me now has been the better experience," he said.
IF YOU GO:
Yankee Flyers Dog and Disc Club
Event: UpDog Challenge
When: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 23
Event: U.S. Disc Dog Nationals Super Open Freestyle
When: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. July 24
Where: Salem Community Park, 89 Norwich Road
Admission: Free for spectators
More information: Contact Ed Jakubowski at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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