Watch Doni splash into the pool at this month's Southeastern Wildlife Exposition
Lives: Retired from MUSC in 2020 and moved to Ridgeland - Family: Wife, Laurie Uebelhoer, and granddaughter, Kaitie Uebelhoer - Favorite breeds: Labrador, border collie
The DockDogs competition—one of the highlights of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition—is touted as the fastest-growing dog sport in the world, with more than 20,000 registered four-legged contenders. For nearly 25 years in almost every state, different breeds have been jumping from a 40-foot dock into water, competing for the longest distance, greatest height, or fastest retrieval, to the delight of their enthusiastic owners and fans.
Deb Feller and Doni, her yellow Labrador retriever, got their start splashing into the SEWE pool in 2014. In October 2021, the duo was inducted into the DockDogs Hall of Fame at the World Championships in Iowa. Doni won the veteran division world championship in 2020 and has ranked as the top yellow Lab in the “Big Air”category for six consecutive years, jumping as far as 27 feet. “It’s a crazy hobby we share with our dogs,” says Feller, the president of Palmetto DockDogs, the local chapter that boasts about 55 members.
Feller’s team, named “Skinny Dip,” includes her granddaughter Kaitie Ubelhoer, who has won championships with Doni as well as her own dog. Skinny Dip returns to SEWE this month and has its sights on the next World Championships.
CM: How did a nurse anesthetist become involved in a sport like DockDogs?
DF: I’ve always been a very outdoorsy, active person and enjoyed watching the sport at SEWE. However, 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. When I finished my chemo, we got Doni and his brother to help get me active again. By the time they were 12 weeks old, they knew all their basic commands. One day while at a friend’s pool, they began leaping off the side of the pool to retrieve their toys. We knew then that we had our future DockDogs!
CM: What draws so many people and their pets to this sport?
DF: You don’t get into this to make money; in fact, you spend way more than you make. When we win at the World Championships, we get credit toward future entry fees. Beside the trophies and ribbons, we’ve made some close friends through DockDogs. It’s great to travel all over the country, hang out with those friends, and play with our dogs.
CM: How do you explain Doni’s success?
DF: I began training him in a pond on John’s Island where I stabled my horse, and he loved it from the beginning. I kept it fun for him, or I knew he’d lose interest. In his second competition, he won in all three disciplines [“Big Air,” “Speed Retrieve,” and “Extreme Vertical”], so he was a natural. Last year, he became a veteran and a champion in his division. He’s 10 now, so I guess we’ll do this until he doesn’t want to anymore.
Watch a preview of Dockdogs at the 2022 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition: