Sara Gray

At these Down East dog
trials, creativity prevails and
cheating is encouraged.

By Gayle K. Christopher

One glance at the scruffy collection of canines gathered on thedocks in Rockland, Maine, and you know: This is no ordinary dogshow.

The four-legged contestants at this year's Boatyard Dog Trialsaren't the kind of pups to preen. They seem more concerned withhaving a great swim than reaching the finish line. As organizerDave Getchell explains, "Perfection is not required here."

The idea for aquatic dog trials grew out of a column in Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine. And publisherJohn Hanson Jr. says they've stayed resolutely informal from thestart: "A wet dog takes the preciousness out of this event," hesays. "We don't show up on Westminster's radar."

In this marquee component of the annual Maine Boat, Homes & Harbors Show, dogs compete in theobstacle course, a freestyle trick portion, and a free-for-allstick chase. There are three rules that may (or may not) beenforced. First, someone on each team must get wet. Secondly,cheating is encouraged, and bribery is a given for those who reallywant to win the treasured "Pup Cup." The third rule: There are noother rules. The judges' decision is final, and seriousness of anykind is strongly discouraged. "The idea is to avoid getting toocompetitive," says Dave. "It's about dogs and their people doingsilly things."

As dog-and-handler teams prepare to parade through the showgrounds, some grand posturing goes on. "You guys have already metand growled at each other," says Dennis Gallant to his teammate,Sadie, as they check out the competition. The defending champ,Boris Bearenaugf, an imposing Newfoundland, and his owner, CarltonJohnson, confidently join the group.

Though other contestants may lack experience and size incomparison, all have heart and style. Tyler, a Chihuahua, arrivesthe morning of the trials wearing a bright red life jacket andyawning deeply-obviously unimpressed by his opponents. His owner,Celia Knight, says, "Tyler has been training to get along with thebigger dogs. Mommy will be fetching the stick."

Jake, a 9-year-old black Lab, got the nickname "Black Vac"because of his fondness for crumbs and other people's lunches. Helost the 2003 trials for failing to cheat. His freestyle trick,devouring treats, was also suspect. "Eating is not considered atalent for a black Lab," says owner Barbara Hart. This time out,Jake sports a sailor suit and a few new tricks. During thefreestyle portion, Jake catches a spring line from an incoming boatand pulls the craft to the dock. Bribes of homemade cookies arethen ferried to the judges. "A black Lab giving away cookies is a trick," says Barbara.

Jake's main competition, Soldado, performs a more elaboratefeat-climbing a ladder and helping to pull a rabbit out of herhandler's top hat. It's enough to get her into a head-to-headstruggle for the championship. But Jake's supporters wave signs andchant his name during the tiebreaker, resulting in his triumph."The first year we played it straight-no cheating, no bribery,"says Barbara. "This year we decided to step it up."

ALSO:
Bestin Show
More images from the 2005 Boatyard Dog competition.

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