Two years ago, Remi, a lab-shepherd mutt, was a dog without a home, facing an uncertain future.
Then Tom Dropik of New Prague took the rescue dog no one wanted and turned him into a two-time dock-jumping world champion who appears in competitions around the nation and will be on TV this winter.
Remi leapt into the hearts of Dropik and his family.
"He's the nicest dog in the world,'' said the 51-year-old dog trainer, who is major player in the world of dog dock-jumping. "I fell in love with him the minute I saw him. I knew he had something special.''
The athletic 85-pound dog, then 1-year-old, bounced from home to home because of his size and energy.
"He runs like the wind. People couldn't handle him,'' Dropik said.
A dog rescue organization asked him if he would be interested in adopting Remi. He took the dog temporarily at first.
"I hated to see him put down,'' he said.
But he quickly was won over by the dog's personality and promise.
Five months later, Remi was competing in dock-jumping events. Last fall, at the World Championships in Canton, Ohio, Remi won the ''speed retrieve'' event, in which dogs race down 20-feet of dock, then leap into a 40-foot pool of water to reach a training dummy. He covered that distance in 4.871 seconds. He repeated as World Champion again last month in Dubuque, Iowa, winning in 5.07 seconds. Remi holds both the indoor and outdoor records for the event.
Not bad for a mutt no one wanted.
"He's just amazing,'' Dropik said. "He took some work and needed confidence. But he absolutely loves it.''
In October, Remi competed in Las Vegas for a show that is scheduled to be broadcast on the Outdoor Channel this winter.
"We paraded the dogs through the casino, and Remi ate it up, acting like a rock star,'' Dropik said. "He loves people.''
Jumping dogs: A new sport
Dropik, a business analyst for Toro Corp., was a bird hunter with Labrador retrievers in 2001 when he saw a dog-jumping competition on ESPN called Great Outdoor Games.
He was intrigued.
"My dog, Tucker, used to jump up and pick apples off the tree to eat,'' he said. "I called ESPN and told them my dog can do this, and they said I had to qualify in Little Rock, Ark. So we drove 14 hours so Tucker could jump off the dock.''
Tucker qualified for the games, held that year at Lake Placid, N.Y.
"It was prime time TV,'' Dropik said. "We finished third.''
He was hooked.
"It's very addictive. There's nothing else like it,'' he said.
ESPN dropped the Great Outdoor Games in 2005, and DockDogs Inc., based in Ohio, launched its version of dock-jumping competitions in 2006, sponsoring about 150 competitions nationwide this year.
Dogs compete in four events: "big air,'' a distance-leap into the pool of water; "extreme vertical,'' an event to see how high a dog can jump; and "speed retrieve'' to measure how fast a dog can cover 20 feet of dock and 40 feet of water to get a retrieving dummy.
A fourth event, called the Iron Dog, is a combination of those three events, sort of a canine version of the Iron Man competition.
Drive and desire a must
For Dropik and the other dog handlers -- about half of whom are women -- dock-jumping is a hobby.
"The majority of them do it because they just like interacting with their dogs,'' he said. "And they like the camaraderie with the other dog handlers.''
Dropik said he enjoys all of that, but is in it to win.
He has a sponsor, Stihl chainsaws, which helps him cover travel expenses.
Dropik is well-known in the sport: He's been an innovator, developing training techniques and devices. And he has a 19-month old Labrador retriever, RJ, that placed third in the extreme vertical jump in the World Championships.
"He's an up-and-coming superstar,'' he said. "I just love working with these dogs.''
Training dock-jumping dogs is similar to training hunting dogs, said Dropik, an avid pheasant hunter. But the dogs must bring something, too.
"It's drive and desire,'' he said.
"And, of course, they have to love the water.''
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dougsmithstrib