Fine-boned and limber, Nielson's partner--a fetching young bitch named Riffraff--can jump really high and enjoys drinking from the garden hose. A Frisbee Ybermutt, she's "part yellow lab, part kangaroo, and part Goofy," says Nielson. Since they met four years ago, the pair have been inseparable, traveling from Maple Heights to Indiana for the regional Disc Championships, where they owned seventeenth place. Riffraff wore a jester's collar trimmed in tinkling bells and balanced a Frisbee on her substantial snout in time to generic circus music (a scandalous choice; most competitors choose rock and roll).
"My dog's the only one I have ever seen who could catch the Frisbee with her paws," confides Nielson, who will share tips for spinning discs to dogs during a Frisbee dog clinic held Saturday in conjunction with the Animal Protective League's Dogwalk.
The annual walk, which last year brought in about $70,000 for the local APL, is an organizational marvel. Baby pools are lined up at six water stations to allow hot hounds to cool off, and an air-conditioned ambulance provided by a Cleveland funeral home serves as a chill zone for out-of-breath Bowsers. Though about seven hundred schnauzers, setters, and Heinz 57s on leashes take part in the six-mile walk (including about fifty or sixty from the APL shelter for dogless people to walk), Dogwalk planner Susan Ross says taming the beasts is the least of her problems.
"Knock wood, we've never had any fights," says Ross. "A lot of times when they get into an environment where there's so many, they think, 'Maybe I'll just behave.'" The only truly fierce competition comes during the dog/owner look-alike contest. "Last year, one boy actually gave himself a mohawk and gave his dog a mohawk," she recalls.
But at more formal Frisbee functions, things can get dicey: masters doing one-handed handstands, legs spread-eagled for their pets to leap through, and aerial combinations involving piggyback rides. The rules are modified for ankle-biters: "There's a lady with a Yorkie who takes these little tiny Frisbees and puts them under her leg," says Nielson. "She does the same kind of tricks that other people do standing up, but she does them sitting down."
Willowick resident Jim Van Cise, a friend of Nielson's whose dog, Tasker, placed tenth in the regionals, says his big dream is to perform with Tasker at halftime at the new Browns stadium. "There's a guy who performs at Cleveland Rockers games," he says breathlessly, "and his dog wears special shoes for traction on the wood floor."
After attending the world Frisbee dog finals as a spectator, Van Cise set out to find a dog with gumption and get-up, as well as the hillbilly ability to lie down on the porch and do nothing. "My dog is a mix, so he has some mellow characteristics in him, too," says Van Cise. For a Frisbee chaser, sloth is a virtue: A purebred work dog like a border collie would probably want to herd the audience, rather than perform for them.
Van Cise and Tasker practice about twenty minutes at a time, several times a day. Finding a park without "No Dogs Allowed" signs was their first hurdle. "If I walk a block to Eastlake, there's no signs," says Van Cise. "We don't leave any land mines, so hopefully no one will mind."
Next came the conditioning. First item on the menu: Don't sniff other dogs' butts. "We try to go to as many different parks as we can," says Van Cise. "You want to get him used to distractions, properly socialized, and properly aggressive." And no staring at mutts with mohawks: It ain't polite.
The 8th Annual APL Dogwalk begins with registration at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the Polo Field in the Metroparks South Chagrin Reservation, off Chagrin River Road and Route 8. The walk starts at 9:30 a.m.; minimum donation is $20. Call 216-771-4616.