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Just when I thought my days as a Sports Dad were numbered, a little dog leapt to the rescue.
Getting my kids involved in sports has been one of the great joys of my life. I cherished every leisurely game of catch in the yard, every round of knee hockey in the basement, and every three-point shot on the driveway. Coaching their soccer and hockey teams was even more fun and allowed me to learn some tricks of the trade.
Yet kids grow up. In my house, eye-rolling exasperation is now far more common from my teenagers than wide-eyed interest.
The Coach, I’m afraid, has been tuned out.
With my leisure hours suddenly free, my wife suggested we get a dog. We found a smallish, mixed breed and gave him a big name – Moose. Dogs had never been my thing, but I figured at least I’d get some nice long walks out of the deal.
I wouldn’t say Moose brought love to our home, but he certainly helped expose the love that was already there. He gave us all a safe target for uncomplicated affection. The silly, open, fun kind of affection reserved for pets and toddlers. Moose also gave us a licence to cuddle, something that seemed to disappear when the kids reached middle school.
Unexpectedly, Moose also gave me one more crack at being a Sports Dad.
I first realized Moose had a gift while we were idling away days at the cottage. Without fail, he would jump with abandon to fetch any stick I threw in the lake. He did it with pure joy. It didn’t matter how far I threw it.
Unlike the kids in their sports, Moose never gets bored of practicing. I had found an athlete with an aptitude, just waiting for guidance. An athlete with no ego. An athlete who didn’t care if those watching laughed at his fumbles while he perfected his craft. An athlete who looked at me with awe and craved my attention.
I’d found the Sports Dad trifecta.
At a summer fair a year or so ago, I remembered seeing a dock-jumping contest for dogs. It was a formalized version of what we’d been working on at the lake – but with touring pros, sponsored dogs and monetary prizes. Dogs would jump for distance into water and return with whatever their owner had thrown for them to retrieve.
After a quick online search, I found a competition near Kingston, Ont., about two hours away. The girl at the sign-up desk barely glanced at Moose, impatient to get to the athletic labs with rippling muscles behind us in line. She smirked, told me where to sign and said that they’d need to see a few practice jumps. She collected my $20 and reminded me that some dogs are timid in front of a crowd, especially those not “bred” for the task. She made it clear that if Moose didn’t complete a test jump without pushing or coaxing, we’d be spectators only.
The jumping judge leaned against the above-ground landing pool and gave us a small nod. The professional dog handlers, sitting in front of branded team trailers in bright matching shirts, chatted amongst themselves. Even the other dogs didn’t pay us much attention.
It was all the motivation I needed: As we climbed the ramp, I began whispering to my little underdog, hoping he’d be up to the challenge.
This was not our small dock at the family cottage. This was a platform, several feet in the air, more like a runway. This was a place where discipline in dogs was admired above all else. I wasn’t sure how my lovable shoe-stealer would fare.
“Hey – you need your own toy!”
The voice of the sign-in girl echoed from below, reminding everyone that we were rookies, unaware that the specially designed floating rubber ropes and elongated football-type things the other dogs had were not provided. Each dog needed its own specialty training tool. All Moose and I had ever worked with was driftwood.
With all eyes upon us, we climbed back down and searched in the bushes until we found a stick. It was solid enough for me to throw, but small enough for Moose to get his jaws on.
Back up on the tower, Moose sat by my feet at the back of the platform. When I looked in his eyes I saw the kind of trust I used to inspire in young athletes. I heaved the stick a modest five feet into the water below. As we’d practiced on the dock, he waited for my signal. He ran to the edge, but hesitated. After a tension-filled pause he jumped in for the stick. A jump that would measure about eight feet based on the markings at the side of the pool. Not a prize-winning leap, but now he was comfortable.
After the next practice jump, a little further and executed with no hesitation, the regular competitors started watching.
We were now officially qualified, rookie-division jumpers. Competition in an hour.
The great thing with Moose is that he doesn’t know, or care, how far he jumps (unlike little hockey or soccer players, who are hyper aware of how they measure up to others). As long as I am happy, Moose thinks every jump is excellent. He measures his performance by how much love he gets when he brings the stick back. He thinks he’s jumping 50-feet every time. Enthusiasm is all he needs. Love and fun – the secret weapons of coaches.
Moose’s jump in the competition measured 11 feet. No hesitation at the edge. A real leap, four times his own length. I did a little hop, like I’ve done many times behind the bench in hockey or on the soccer sidelines.
The ball-cap wearing judge rushed over, suddenly interested and full of praise. “Welcome to the dock dog family! Can I measure your dog? If he fits under this ruler, I think we might have a real competitor for the lap dog division here. You could go places! It’s just amazing what you might find on your couch! Don’t trade Moose in!”
The soaked, tired and wonderfully oblivious Moose sat at my feet, sniffing our medal. My new sports partner … until the grandkids arrive, that is.
Brian Findlay lives in Toronto.