COLUMBIA — Arya, a young Belgian Malinois-husky mix, lies on a wooden dock, panting so loudly that it nearly drowns out every other noise.
Her eyes are glued to a bright orange toy swinging from Maren Jones' hand. The twirling toy taunts the dog, whose ears are perked, waiting for a command.
"Get it!" Jones shouts and skips the rubber toy across the water.
Arya leaps out of her sit-stay position, paws pounding the wood until she rockets off the end of the dock.
Her stomach smacks the water and she begins to paddle toward the toy. She dips her head, turns around and proudly displays the prize in her mouth.
Two-year-old Arya is a competitive athlete in dock diving, a canine sport that has been gaining ground among dog owners since it was introduced in 1997. Purina, the pet food supplier, called it the Incredible Dog Challenge and was the sponsor until ESPN picked it up in 2000.
Now, independent organizations around the globe run dozens of events like Splash Dogs and Ultimate Air Dogs. The sport is most popular in the United States, Canada, Australia and England. Twenty-three official dock diving competitions are held in the U.S. each year, including the World Championships in Dubuque, Iowa.
On Saturday, Columbia Second Chance will stage a competition at Stephens Lake Park as part of the 10th Paws in the Park pet expo.
The diving will begin at 8 a.m.; it will be an opportunity for Arya to show off her skills.
"She didn't have as strong ball drive as my other dog," said Jones, a house-call veterinarian, "so we had to motivate her by watching other dogs."
Rules of competition
Dock diving is equivalent to the long jump in track, but for dogs, said Sam Jones, Maren's husband and Arya's co-owner.
The approach is typically a 35- to 40-foot dock covered with artificial turf, carpet or rubber over a clear pool of water. A dog gets two chances to jump for a toy, and the distance covered is measured from the edge of the dock to the base of the animal's tail.
Two judges will stand on either side of the pool and measure the distance either electronically or manually. If the tail is beyond the rest of the dog's body when it lands, the entry point closest to the dock is measured. A dog doesn't have to retrieve the toy for its jump to count.
Big Muddy Dockdogs was founded as an affiliate club of Dockdogs Inc., a national organization that promotes canine aquatics. The central Missouri group counts around 25 members.
"My favorite part is the people," said Becky Berger, president of Big Muddy Dockdogs. "It's a great community people are a part of to have a good time with their dogs."
Sam and Maren Jones have been members of Big Muddy Dockdogs for three years, since its start in 2010.
"You don't need a top-of-the-line dog to do it," said Sam Jones, who works as an IT analyst. "It's fun to see a former stray-and-rescue do well."
Any dog can compete, and anyone can be a trainer. If a dog can obey commands, likes to swim and has a competitive drive, it can be taught to dock dive, the Joneses say.
Trainers and athletic dogs
They began competing in 2010 with their oldest dog, Fawkes, a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois. He had already become proficient in a sport called "schutzhund," which tests dogs on their protective abilities.
Established in the early 1900s in Germany, schutzhund trials incorporate skills suitable for police-type work such as odor detection, search and rescue.
"I was looking for other things to do with him," Maren said about Fawkes. "He's good at dock diving and likes it. He has an incredibly high ball drive."
Fawkes has become adept at dock diving competition and competed in the World Championships last year.
Along with Fawkes and Arya, the Joneses train Sansa, a Belgian Malinois-German shepherd mix. The names of all three dogs are based on "Game of Thrones" and "Harry Potter" characters.
Belgian Malinois are high-energy dogs that need rigorous outlets for their energy, which makes them great work dogs, Maren said.
"A lot of people like them (Belgian Malinois) because they are pretty," Maren said. "But they don't make good pets. They will tear up your house if they don't have a job to do."
Two-dog training routine
Sansa is a foster dog the Joneses have been training while trying to find a permanent home for her.
During a recent training session, Maren stations Fawkes midway down the dock in a sit-stay position. Sam is holding Sansa by her collar at the start of the run.
Maren walks to the end closest to the water with the orange rubber toy. Fawkes stares intently at the toy, and Sansa is fixated on Fawkes.
Maren flings the toy into the water, and Fawkes hurls his body off the dock to fetch it. Simultaneously, Sam releases Sansa to chase after him.
The dogs race down the dock in unison. When they hit the water, Sansa swims closely behind Fawkes as he completes his round.
"The less-experienced dogs learn from the more experienced dogs," Maren said. "It helps get them over any fear of jumping off the dock when they see the other dogs doing it."
Trainers rely on their dogs' competitive natures to train them, but they depend on positive reinforcement to help the dogs succeed and improve.
"It is nice to watch other owners and trainers help out if a dog is scared," said Valerie Chaffin, executive director of Second Chance, sponsor of Paws in the Park.
"You don't see that in football."
The two-day event offers activities for dogs and their owners, with food and accessories vendors, as well as demonstrations.
Along with dock diving, pets and owners can complete a 5K, attend a nutritional seminar, participate in a silent auction and watch other canine activities.
All proceeds benefit Second Chance, a pet adoption center.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.