Scenes from the Incredible Dog Challenge, the Friendliest, Goofiest Competition on Earth

The Incredible Dog Challenge is the Olympics for dogs and the happy weirdos that train them for it. It is silly and great, and we were there.

Oct 6 2015, 11:30am

Courtesy of Purina Pro Plan

It was the eve of the finals at the 18th annual Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge, and I was surrounded by nervous and excited participants in the competitors' tent. Jim Allen, the brand manager for Nestlé Purina North America, was thanking the various people who had made the event possible. Suddenly, I felt something warm, perhaps even wet, tickling the bottom of my earlobe. I turned to find what looked like a small Border Collie, sitting next to me in a human chair, assessing the side of my face with its nose. There was no indication that the dog belonged to the human sitting on its other side. It certainly didn't belong to me.

"Be safe and be yourself," Allen advised the competitors. "Treat it like your backyard. If at the end of your run you want to get down on one knee and your dog licks your face, or you want to do the Nae-nae or the Whip-it or the Superman, then go for it."

The crowd laughed, then applauded. The Border Collie panted patiently.

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Hidden in Gray Summit, Missouri, about a 40-minute drive from St. Louis, Purina Farms is the lie your parents told you about where your dog went when it had actually died: a sprawling property with plenty of open space and animals of all kinds. On September 26, the idyllic setting transformed into the site of nationally televised spectacle.

There is nothing like the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge. Nowhere else in the nation are the six most popular canine contests—the Agility, the Diving Dog, the 30 Weave Up & Back, the Fetch It!, the Freestyle Flying Disc, and the Jack Russell Hurdle Race—crammed into one Olympic-style event. All the participants, or at least their human counterparts, seem to agree that it is the pinnacle of the sport. "This is the granddaddy," Allen told me.

When you're displaying elite agility and are not even aware that you're doing so. — Photo courtesy Purina Pro Plan

The dogs at Purina Farms on Saturday were the best of the best, a field whittled down after regional qualifiers in Huntington Beach and Boston as well as in Gray Summit. This isn't Westminster: there are no golf claps at the Incredible Dog Challenge; there are tailgates and fan-made shirts. Thousands of fans from around the country turned out for the national final, filling out bleachers and lawn seating.

The animals are referred to as "athletes" without even a hint of irony, and, for their part, they earn this honor. The agility course requires speed, endurance, execution, and, most important, an almost unfathomable level of obedience. Before runs, handlers could be seen stretching their hamstrings or trying to get their dogs in a Zen-like state.

Kathleen Oswald, of New Jersey, is something of a prodigy. Just 19 years old, she has been training and competing with dogs for 14 years. Dog owners hire her to prepare their pets and run them through competitions. It's a full-time job.

"I've had the pleasure of working with a lot of different dogs, different breeds, different sizes and dogs from different backgrounds," Kathleen told me the day before the finals, where she would be competing in the Small Dog Agility with her own dog, Whimzy, a four-year-old Shetland Sheepdog.

Kathleen was all business, laser-focused and intense and comfortable mostly talking about strategy and performance. "It's a balance," she told me. "Your dog can't be so fast that they're out of control because then you have mistakes like bars or missed contact or they spin away and miss something. You have the speed element, but they also have to be listening."

Cindy Gray, a California woman in her late fifties, fell more into the happy-to-be-there camp. She and her Golden Retriever, Joy, qualified for Large Dog Agility at the regional in Huntington Beach. When I met her on Friday, she was icing her knee in the competitors' tent. She has chronic knee troubles, and would be competing with a torn medial and lateral meniscus, putting her and Joy at a distinct disadvantage—not to mention painful.

Everybody jump. — Photo courtesy Purina Pro Plan

Every Agility course is different, full of bars to jump over, tubes to run through, ramps to run up and across, and sticks to weave through. On the other side of Purina Farms is a replica where non-athlete dogs goofed aimlessly through the obstacles, a reminder of the real course's difficulty.

"The Agility is classic," said Sean Smith, who has been emcee of the Incredible Dog Challenge for the past 10 years. "It takes so much work with your dog and the handler. It really shows how well trained the dog is and how well you work with your dog."

It's up to the handler to run ahead and lead the dog through each obstacle with motions. Due to her knee, Cindy couldn't keep up with Joy, which meant that the dog would have to depend on verbal commands. "It makes it much more difficult," Cindy told me. "It speaks to what an incredible dog Joy is."

Cindy was in the computer programming industry until she was laid off in 2008. She spent years juggling part-time jobs until about four months ago, when she was offered a full-time job at a university. She responded with one condition: she needed time off for the Incredible Dog Challenge. Her terms were agreed upon.

Which brings up another point of note: there is no monetary prize for winning a competition in the Incredible Dog Challenge, despite its syndication on NBC. Throw in the possibility that the dogs have no idea where they are or what is happening, and perhaps only the NCAA could top this level of amateur athlete exploitation.

Like most of the handlers, though, Cindy's commitment has little to do with money. "Because of my knee, I haven't been able to train her several times a week, so Joy's been doing treadmill on her own to keep her conditioning up," she said. "Then I go to the gym on my lunch hour to ride an exercise bike." Only a certain type of person would do all this, and that person 1) loves dogs and 2) very much wants to win a medal saying that her dog is the best.

In addition to her knee issues, Cindy was also fighting crippling anxiety. Twice in competition, she has reached the starting line and forgotten the course, frozen in fear and unable to begin her run. "I try everything," Cindy told me the day before she would appear on national television. "I listen to mental management tapes about visualization and positive imagery. I use lavender oil to control my breathing. I massage and brush Joy before the competition to try to keep myself calmed down."

Count the ringz, haters. — Photo courtesy Purina Pro Plan

It makes sense that nerves would be an issue for the human competitors. A poor performance by them could cost their dogs the glory they deserved. The overwhelming consensus among the Challenge handlers was that the dogs feel the pressure, too—but mostly because they're so attuned to their attending humans' feelings. Stress travels down the leash.

"They can smell it in the hormones we give off," Cindy said. "They can feel it and tell from our breathing and respiration." Distractions, of which there are many, can also send a normal dog in any different direction. In her training, Kathleen plays music, rings bells, and has people yell and clap, similar to how NFL teams pipe in fake crowd noise to prepare for road games.

If Kathleen had any stress traveling down the leash to Whimzy, it didn't register. Whimzy ran two runs flawlessly, and Kathleen was right beside her, pointing and calmly directing orders. Kathleen and Whimzy were the only ones in the small dog competition not penalized for a single mistake. Yet first place went to a tiny, blazingly fast Jack Russell Terrier named Crackers, boosted by a fan club donning yellow "Team Crackers" shirts. Crackers beat Whimzy's best time by 1.34 seconds.

"I'm absolutely thrilled with Whimzy's performance," Kathleen said, sounding more like an analyst. "Two clean runs is definitely a challenge, but with Whimsy and me, we're such a fine-tuned machine, really it comes naturally. It was one of the best races she's ever given me. The second time around we shaved two full seconds off from our first run to our second. That right there makes my trip worthwhile."

When it was the time for the Large Dog Agility run, I watched closely to see if Cindy would get off the starting line, or if she'd again be a victim of her own anxiety. Joy got out to a speedy start; Cindy, sporting a bulky knee brace, was many strides behind her. Throughout the run, Joy would turn her head around looking for Cindy, who took those moments of eye contact to point in specific directions and yell out commands. Cindy took short cuts ahead of Joy, trusting her with certain obstacles so she could meet her at other ones—Cindy would tell me later that the practice runs the day before implanted the course in Joy's memory. Like Kathleen and Whimzy, Cindy and Joy made no mistakes. They, too, finished in second place.

"It's absolutely incredible," Cindy said as she limped toward me. "I'm not like these people that are used to this. I'm almost 60 years old and injured. Joy is just incredible. I don't know any dog that's as fast as her."

A few minutes later, Kathleen came over to greet Cindy, putting a hand on her shoulder. They congratulated each other, and then congratulated each other's dogs.

Downward-trending dog. — Photo courtesy of Purina Pro Plan

RuthAnn Lobos, the on-site veterinarian for the event, told me that diet and conditioning are also a huge part of each dog's performance. "They have to have a good diet for developing good muscles and staying in good shape," she said. "These guys tend to have a high metabolism so you want them to have a good, lean body mass."

"Nutrition is important, ask any athlete," Allen agreed. This seems like a good place for a reminder that the Incredible Dog Challenge is put on by Purina, a company that specializes in selling dog food to humans.

If we accept the challenge as a sports competition, though, and the dogs as athletes, then the presence of a presiding brand isn't strange at all—nor is the possibility of injury during competition. It was during the Fetch It! event that one misstep almost squashed a dream. Fetch It involves a chew-toy-like cylinder that hangs on magnets above a pool. The dog has to dive and knock down the cylinder, which is moved farther back with each subsequent jump.

Imagine how loud this would be without the muzzles. — Photo courtesy of Purina Pro Plan

Power, a six-year old Belgian Malinois from Colorado making her Incredible Dog Challenge debut, nailed her first jump. As owner Keri Caraher greeted her dog, though, she accidentally stepped on her left front paw. Power let out a cry loud enough for the whole crowd to hear and lifted her paw, bouncing around on three legs.

Caraher quickly took Power to the back, away from other dogs, where Lobos met them for examination. Minutes passed with no clear diagnosis. Soon, television producers with headsets and clipboards were yelling back and forth anxiously.

"Where's Power?"

"She might be injured."

"She's due up for her second jump. She needs to be here now!"

Suddenly, Power raced up the steps for another round of jumps. "I told the owner it was up to them if they wanted to keep competing," Lobos told me. Power was reacting to pain in her fourth digit and her knuckle was swollen. She had hurt the same paw a few months ago.

Lobos claimed she told Caraher that the dog would need some rest and should go to a clinic for X-rays later. Caraher disagreed: "She's fine," she said. "I just stepped on her foot. She wanted back out there."

Power, able to put her weight on the paw in question, went on to complete five more jumps and reached a personal best of 23 feet, good for second place. Caraher maintained that she wouldn't have sent Power back out there if she weren't able to compete. "I didn't care if [the jump before the injury] was her last jump. She already had fun."

When your wedding is delayed because it's winning time for Hydro. — Photo by Jonathan Auping

The last event of the day was Freestyle Flying Disc—"the cherry on top," according to Smith, the emcee. It's the only event that allows for creativity. The competitors have an open field, a musical mix of their design, and two minutes on the clock to do whatever they can to impress the judges.

Mark Faragoi and his Border Collie, Riley, took home first place, but the show was stolen by Jonathan Offi, who competed in a tuxedo because he had a wedding to catch.

Jonathan had already agreed to be a groomsman for his friends Brad and Ashley Crowden (who he had met through dog training classes) when the dates for the Incredible Dog Challenge were announced. Jonathan thought he'd have to miss this year because of the conflict, but Brad and Ashley would hear nothing of it.

The wedding was scheduled for 5 PM on Saturday. Jonathan and his dog, Hydro, performed at 3:45.

"My photographer was a little nervous," Ashley told me in her wedding gown, after the entire wedding party had run onto the field to celebrate Jonathan and Hydro's routine. The pair won third place, and the wedding photos took place at Purina Farms.

"This is what we love to do. This is what he loves to do," Brad, the groom, told me. "We weren't going to stop him. It's the IDC—he's got to do it."