Stow, Ohio – Way back in 1977, Stow, Ohio native Mark Vitullo and his girlfriend went to Ann Arbor for a weekend music festival. During that weekend, a group of the festivalgoers got together and played a dog Frisbee competition. Vitullo watched in amazement.
“I’ve always had dogs in my life,” said the now 58-year-old Vitullo. “They all loved to fetch tennis balls but I never thought about throwing them a Frisbee, until I saw that competition. It was so much fun to watch those dogs fly and ever since I’ve always played Frisbee with my dogs.”
Over the years, what started as casual backyard toss and fetch with a Frisbee to give his dogs some exercise, eventually turned into a competitive passion for Vitullo.
“I entered a local Frisbee dog competition in Cleveland for the first time in 1997 with my white German Shepherd Dog, Luke – and we won. Luke and I competed for a couple years at other local events and we always did well,” said Vitullo.
After Luke passed, Vitullo got another German Shepherd from Whited Kennels in Tallmadge, OH, a small female he named Lulu.
“Lulu was incredibly fast and a natural at Frisbee. She was so good, I decided to try our hand at regional and national competitions. We turned out to be very competitive, so much so that when she was four-years-old we won the 2012 World Championship held in Atlanta, Georgia,”
Shaker Heights, the Birthplace of Disc Dog
Canine Frisbee, as a competitive dog sport, actually has its roots in Northeast Ohio. It all began in 1974 when Shaker Heights native Alex Stein snuck his dog Ashley Whippet onto the field at Dodger Stadium during a nationally televised baseball game between the Dodgers and the Reds. According to Wikipedia:
Stein jumped the fence and went onto the baseball field with Ashley, where he threw discs (Frisbees) for the dog to catch. The crowd was in awe at Ashley’s disc-catching ability, as he ran up to 35 miles per hour and leaped 9 feet in the air to snag the Frisbees. The stunt was so novel that the game was stopped and Joe Garagiola continued to announce the flying disc action on the field. Finally, after eight minutes, Stein was escorted off the field and arrested. The nationally televised exhibition of Ashley’s skill did much to fuel interest in the disc dog sport.
As a result of Stein’s stunt, competitive canine Frisbee organizations starting forming and the sport of “Disc Dog” was born. Today, there are disc dog clubs in almost every US state and throughout the rest of the world.
“Today it’s just as big in Europe, Asia, South America and even Australia,” said Vitullo. “Estimates are that there are more than 5,000 people who play disc dog competitively across the world, let alone the millions who simply play toss and fetch in their backyards.”
Building a Local Disc Dog Community
Even though it all started here in Northeast Ohio, five years ago there were only a handful of disc doggers in the area and no organized club. Vitullo and Dean Baber, a disc dog buddy in Painesville, decided to change that. They put together the Ohio Disc Dog Club, began hosting local events and recruiting members.
“In just five years, we went from a rag-tag group of half-a-dozen to more than 100 regulars from Akron, Cleveland and Youngstown becoming one of the biggest Clubs in the U.S.,” said Vitullo.
Ohio Disc Dogs host competitions all year long in Northeast Ohio, drawing competitors from throughout the Midwest. One of their largest events is the Winter Championship held in January at Virginia Kendall Park – the only US World-Qualifying event that’s played in the snow.
“Last year was our 4th Annual K9 Frisbee Toss & Fetch Winter Championship and it drew competitors from eight states and Canada,” said Vitullo. “We rent the Lodge at the Virginia Kendall Ledges, bring in catered food from Moe’s Restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls, and play toss and fetch all day out in the cold. Everyone loves it, particularly the dogs who can run all day in the cooler temperatures.”
The Birth of the K9 Frisbee Toss & Fetch League
Disc Dog competitions are almost always on weekends but anyone who plays Frisbee with their dogs plays and practices almost every day. As a way to get together in the middle of the week for fun, fellowship and practice, Ohio Disc Dogs started a weeknight League for its local players.
“Fifteen to twenty of us would meet up at a field on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, play a couple rounds of toss and fetch, and then crown a winner after five weeks,” explained Vitullo. “It was a fun, low-key intramural competition that kept everyone engaged, particularly new people who may not have the time, money or desire for the more intense weekend competitions.”
After running a couple of local Northeast Ohio summer leagues, Vitullo saw an opportunity and crafted an idea – he challenged his buddy Scott Jones who runs the Disc Dogs of Michigan, to run an overlapping league for five weeks – they’d play up in Michigan and the Ohio group would play at a field in Akron and then they’d compare scores.
“We established rules, created a reporting format and played against each other in the fall of 2015. It worked like a charm and everyone loved it,” said Vitullo, noting that Ohio won that inaugural competition.
A Dog Sport the Whole Family Can Play
According to Vitullo, K9 Frisbee Toss & Fetch is one of the easiest dog sports to learn and play, and the League is designed to help new people have fun, be successful and get hooked on disc dogging. The game is played on a 50-yard-long field. Teams (a handler and a dog) have one minute to complete as many throws and catches as possible with longer throws and catches earning higher points.
“If a dog has good toy drive and loves to play fetch & retrieve with a tennis ball, it takes almost no time to transition them to catch a Frisbee,” explained Vitullo. “I can get most dogs to catch their first disc in less than an hour. It’s a very easy game to learn, the hardest part is for the human learning to master throwing a Frisbee.”
Vitullo figured, if he could run a successful league between two clubs in different cities, why not more? So, in the spring of 2016, he opened the League to disc doggers in Maryland, Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis.
“It proved our model once again, so we kept expanding. I held another five-week season last summer with Columbus and Toronto joining. Atlanta came on board in the Fall League and in the Winter League, the last one of 2016, clubs in New Hampshire, Minneapolis, Austin and Rome, GA joined bringing us to eleven cities and more than 250 people competing,” reflected Vitullo.
A Global League Played Locally
That last League ended in early December last year and Vitullo spent the winter months planning a Spring 2017 League Season. “I had a vision that this would become worldwide. Since everyone plays on their local fields and submits their scores each week to me, there’s no reason people in Europe, South America or Asia couldn’t get in on this,” he said.
Leveraging his connections in the disc dog world and working mostly through Facebook, Vitullo promoted the League internationally during the dark winter months. “My day job is marketing and advertising so I know how to get the word out,” said Vitullo. “I also lived in Sweden several years back and competed throughout Europe so I’m familiar to many of the disc doggers there.”
He built a website at www.TossAndFetch.com , beefed up his Facebook marketing and, when this past April rolled around, thirty-two cities across the U.S., Canada and Europe were registered to play in the Spring 2017 K9 Frisbee Worldwide Toss & Fetch League.
“I was blown away,” said Vitullo. “In the Spring League that ended in May, we had 650 canine Frisbee teams from Croatia and Switzerland, half a dozen across Canada and the rest in the U.S. playing for their local Clubs once a week for five weeks. That makes for a lot of happy dogs chasing plastic all around the world,” beamed Vitullo.
“It was an amazing competition. The Club in St. Gallen, Switzerland won it, our Cleveland Club came in 8th and our Akron Club came in 12th – not bad out of 32 cities,” added Vitullo.
Gearing Up for Summer League – And Beyond
The K9 Frisbee Toss & Fetch Summer League kicks off the week of June 17 with a Club in Gold Coast City, Australia joining the League roster. Northeast Ohio’s group has grown to the point where the Ohio Disc Dog Club will host league play in Painesville, Youngstown and in Akron.
“We’re now playing a Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter Season each year. Some cities play every season; others take a break now and then. The consensus, from everyone who plays is they love it and want more,” said Vitullo.
His goal is to continue to grow the League and the sport of disc dogging, bringing on more U.S., Canadian and European Clubs and eventually breaking in to Asia and South America.
“I had a Club in Mexico City ready to join but they had to back out at the last minute because their field fell through. I’ve also been on contact with folks in Beijing, Tokyo and Buenos Aires who are very interested, and just this morning I heard from a disc dogger in Athens, Greece – I’ll get them in eventually.”
Get Your Dog to Out Play
According to Vitullo, K9 Frisbee, or “disc dogging” as it’s generically called, is the least expensive and most laid-back of all dog sports — and the Toss & Fetch League is the easiest way to get started. All that’s required to form a Toss & Fetch Club are 8 people, toy driven dogs, a handful of dog-safe Frisbees that cost about $3.00 each, and a field to play on once a week – anywhere in the world.
The League fee is only $10 per team for an entire five-week season and everyone who plays receives an embroidered patch commemorating that season. At the end of each season, the human/dog Teams that score in the top 40% earn a special “Canis Magnus” or “Top Dog” patch while the winning Club earns bragging rights.
“People who are already into dog sports like agility, flyball or dock diving, immediately fall in love with the casual, friendly, supportive atmosphere of League, said Vitullo. “It’s a different competitive dynamic because you play as a Club, not as individuals, so everyone is always rooting for each other.
“However, it’s as much for the dogs as it is the people,” he continued, “I get the most satisfaction when a someone completely new to dog sports joins the League. Once they try it, they almost always catch the K9 Frisbee bug because they see how much fun their dog is having and what a great human-to-dog bonding experience it becomes.
“There are millions of men, women and kids out there with bored house dogs. I want to encourage as many as I can to get off Facebook, turn off Netflix and get outside to practice playing Frisbee with their furry best friends.”
For More Information . . .
To learn more about the League, its rules and questions about finding or forming a Club, you can contact Vitullo through www.TossAndFetch.com.
Anyone in Northeast Ohio who’s interested in getting out to play with their dogs while learning the easy game of Toss & Fetch, can contact the Ohio Disc Dogs through Facebook.
“And, if there are any businesses out there who are looking for a great marketing platform to reach a global audience of highly involved, big spending dog sport enthusiasts, get in touch. I’ve got all kinds of ideas and I’m sure we can work something out,” added Vitullo.