10 Basic Guidelines for Beginning Dock Diving Success

There are times when, instead of hiking with my dogs, we do something else.  For Nanook, we do agility or some other land based, body-aware activity. For Jake, we dock dive. Jake is almost 2 years old. This is his first season that he is swimming and diving without a life vest. Above is his first Splash Dogs competition. Which he placed 2nd in his division.

What is Dock Diving?

Dock Diving is a dog sport which focuses on the retrieval and swimming skills performed by traditional hunting dogs, like labs or goldens.  In fact, the original competitors in this sport were water dogs. As the number of dog owners grew and a better understanding of working dogs developed, other dogs started to appear on the dock diving scene, like poodles, malinois and shepherds.  In some competitions, such as Dock Dogs, you will find size divisions. I've seen little jack russel terriers plow across the pool to chase their toy.

If your dog is really toy driven, and loves the retrieve, this might be the dog sport for you.  All they have to do is learn to swim.

Jake's learning curve

When Jake was between 8 months to 1 year, I took him to a couple of places to learn to swim (because I don't have a pool).  Plus I wanted to see if he would take to the water.  I had taken him to the beach, but he never really went IN the water, just to the break.

I took him to LARPBO which offered swimming and diving lessons. This was his first intro to actually being in the water. They put a life jacket on him, enticed him with a Wubba, and took him out into the water.  He was nervous at first, but the instructor was in the pool with him, and with the toy, encouraged him to keep moving. The life vest helped him feel secure and stay afloat. After about a 15 minute session, they had him doing short jumps after the Wubba off the exit ramp. He was so toy driven at that age, and we were already playing fetch, so it was pretty easy. Goal 1 accomplished.

The Dock Dogs

After that, I knew I didn't have to worry about him not going in the water. I bought him a life vest and took out to practice with the Southern California Dock Dogs group. They practice in a natural setting, which means they use a pond, not a pool so it's a little more muddy (that's an understatement). At the Dock Dogs, we stayed jumping off the banks, not the dock. (Just an aside, the dock is about 3 feet above the top of the water, so it's a big jump). They taught me how to toss the bumper to get Jake to jump into an arc (I still need practice). The taught me the importance of the sit-stay. I used his Ruffwear life vest for the rest of the season. Any chance I could get, we would go out and play fetch, either chasing the toss or going out and fetching a dead retrieve. This latter skill helps when I ask him to fetch other dog's toys that owners toss and their dog won't fetch, or when I ask him to pick up my socks around the house. Playing fetch when not in the water has helped increase his drive and focus when we do get to the water.  

We went about once a month for the next to months to the Dock Dogs practice day (they practice once a month). I did not take him swimming more than twice a month. Last October, I got him to actually JUMP off the dock.  Check out this video:

So that was Jake about 2 months after he started jumping off the banks at Prado Dog Recreational Park in Chino, CA.

Guidelines for Beginner Dock Divers

Having been through the beginner's learning curve with him, here are some guidelines to follow if you're interested in getting into dock diving:
  1. Socialize your dog!  You will be around other dogs, though your dog will be leashed most of the time, most people want to come and say HI.  I'm always embarrassed when my dog wants to jump on someone.  We want them to sit politely while you are talking to someone or before they are allowed to say HI.
  2. Start at a lower level. Don't head straight for the dock for the first time jumper.  Start with a ramp or steps in a pool for the first time. Don't force your dog to go in the water. You have to make it part of "Play time".
  3. Seek an instructor if your dog likes water but is unsure of himself/herself
  4. Use a life vest, if necessary. Some dogs aren't comfortable going in water. The life jacket helps them trust that they will stay afloat. 
  5. Make it FUN! Find a toy (floatie, bumper or wubba) and use it ONLY when you go to the pond or pool. Put it away after your done. Don't leave it out for your dog to play with. Saving the toy's appearance for water days makes that toy special and helps your dog anticipate that they will be playing in the water!

Tips for the Dock:

  1. Get your dog excited about going after the toy. Talk to your dog and get his/her adrenaline going. Run towards the end of the dock and toss the toy about 3 feet from the dock. As you can see from the video, I had Jake's life vest on him for his first time off the dock.
  2. Try the "Place and Go" approach for your first few attempts.  You're dog should be jumping off the dock, though they may be hesitating before they jump. This approach allows you to "rev" them up safely before they go off and maybe break the hesitation at the end of the dock.  How does this work? 
    • Keep your dog on-leash as you walk to the end of the dock. 
    • Toss the toy a close but safe distance from the end (depending on how far your dog has been jumping). 
    • Walk about 12 feet back from the edge of the dock with your dog on leash (most dogs' have a 3-foot stride).  
    • Release the leash, but hold on to them, talk to your dog and tell him/her to "Get it" or "Are you ready?" to get them excited
    • Then tell them to "Go Get It" and let go. They get about a 4 stride running start and maybe will hesitate, but will jump off because you have revved them up. 
    1. Train your dog in the Sit-Stay or Down Stay.  This helps when you want them to do a running start and is integral in doing the "Chase" technique.
    2. At a new dock/competition? Do a couple of practice tosses. If you are going to a new competition or new dock, it's always a good idea to get in a few practice tosses.  This allows your dog to get used to the water and allows you to show your dog where the exit ramp is. There is usually practice time just before the day begins and also just before each heat begins.
    3. Work on your toss!  1/2 of the equation is your dog.  The other 1/2 is YOU.  If you are working on "Chase" approach (where the dog gets a running start and you stand at the end of the dock and toss the bumper), you must always keep your eyes on your dog. This is important for timing.  You don't want your dog slowing down before they jump.  You just want them to focus on the bumper and JUMP. So, work on tossing the bumper in a straight line while you are looking in the opposite direction. It's hard, but you need to get the toss straight and it needs to have an arch. Here is how I practice:
      • I set up an empty laundry basket or trash can about 4 to 5 feet from me.
      • I set up the canister to my left, and stand facing perpendicular to the canister.
      • I have the bumper in my right hand (I'm right-handed)
      • I toss the bumper to the left, trying to get it straight in the canister, while I am looking to the right.
      Hopefully these suggestions will help you get started in this popular dog sport.  If you already dock dive, what did you do when you brought your dog to the dock for the first time?

      This post is part of the Training Tips Tuesday blog hop, hosted by DOGthusiast and Tiffany's Diamond Dogs.