Disc Dogs

By Laura Newsome
Angelo Marinakis, D.C., discovered his dog Stanley’s hidden athletic talent one day while throwing a flimsy Frisbee around the backyard. “It was just a floppy little thing,” recalls Marinakis. “We were messing around and all of a sudden he started doing all these crazy catches.”

Stanley has since graduated from floppy Frisbees to take on international disc dog competitions. Packed crowds stare and smile as he runs across arenas, catching fast-moving Frisbees in mid-air while doing back flips and high jumps under the guidance of Marinakis—his mentor, trainer and, of course, best friend.

When Stanley was young, Marinakis decided to enter his athletic Australian Shepherd in a local disc dog competition. After Stanley’s shining debut, “we got hooked,” says Marinakis, an athletic Toronto native who runs two family chiropractic practices in Colchester and Cambridge, Vt., with his wife Christine Lebiecki, D.C., a fellow Life University graduate.

Since that first competition, the couple’s brood of disc dogs has grown from 6-year-old Stanley to include three additional Australian Shepherds and one cattle dog—two additional males named Mojo, 5, and Motley, 2, as well as two sharp and skillful females named Fire, 4, and Stella, 2.

Initially, Stanley’s nightly Frisbee habit grew out of an attempt to quell behavioral issues that were developing in the young Australian Shepherd—a dog that has been bred for centuries to herd sheep on wide open ranches and the scrub brush of the Outback. And though they are much desired pets for their beauty and graceful athletic build, these herding dogs often find their instincts rendered useless inside the fences of modern American backyards, where human companions often leave them alone for eight to 10 hours a day. “A lot of times, if a herding dog doesn’t have a job he’ll create one for himself,” laughs Marinakis, about the issues that began to crop up in his rambunctious new companion. “He had some behavioral issues when I first got him and I was following corrective, dominating dog training philosophies and that caused him to develop even more behavior problems.”

Through trial and error, Marinakis soon discovered that throwing the Frisbee was a great way to give this dutiful herder a job worthy of his attention and athletic prowess. “I found that the punishment stuff wasn’t working,” he says. “Now I always choose positive training methods over corrective or disciplinary ones—reward techniques over old-school dominance techniques.”

After discovering the best training techniques to motivate his eager young dog, “Stanley and I had to learn how to play together,” says Marinakis. Now, when training all of his disc dogs, Marinakis begins with a positive training foundation and a working knowledge of basic training commands like “sit” and “stay.” Combined with frequent Frisbee-catching sessions, Marinakis and his best friends take to the trails, roads and forests three to four times a week for cross training and stamina-building activities like trail running and cross country activities in the wintertime. But the real work comes with learning new tricks, and the magic is figuring out what motivator will fuel a dog’s athletic and creative talents. “It really depends on the dog and the trick,” Marinakis says. “Some dogs respond more to food rewards, and others are more toy and activity minded. I watch people at competitions or on TV and think, ‘I bet we could do that trick,’ and you make it more interesting by putting your own twist on it or developing your own series of tricks.”

Embarking on a time-consuming but always entertaining disc dog training schedule began to yield huge dividends for Stanley and his fellow canine athletes. “It took about three or four years to compete on the national level and a good five years to be competitive on the national level,” says Marinakis, who recently took his championship canines to the U.S. Disc Dog National and World Finals, where they competed against 90 teams from all over the world, including Europe, Japan and Canada. 

At the competition, Mojo took home third place in the toss-and-fetch category, while Stanley brought home a sixth-place win in the freestyle competition—often considered the toughest event in the sport. “It was a real thrill breaking through and making it to the world finals this year,” Marinakis says. “They take the top 18 teams from the nationals to go on and compete in the world finals the next day. Seeing Stanley on that podium, knowing he was among the top 10 in the world, was huge.”

Although the competition is fierce, Marinakis enjoys spending quality time with his dogs amidst the thrill of competition. “Generally, most people in Frisbee dog sports are friendly, laid-back people, and the camaraderie is great,” he says. “I’ve been in competitive sports like hockey my whole life, and these competitions showcase some great sportsmanship. The bottom line is for all of us to have a good time with our dogs, and if we forget that, there are always people willing to remind us.” 

Perhaps the competitions’ good-natured tone comes from knowing that animals—like children—are both highly charismatic and utterly unpredictable, regardless of how much training they’ve had. During one freestyle event, when Marinakis’ young female, Fire, was in the heat of competition, someone in the audience opened a box of crackers. The puppy jettisoned her routine and immediately buried her nose in the cracker box.

Of course, self-discipline for a herd of championship disc dogs isn’t just learned in the arena or on the grass. Marinakis gives his canines an additional day job by taking them to work every day. “I take them to the office and they’ll pick up a toy and just follow me around,” he says. “Patients love having one or two dogs in the office. I take different dogs on different days and patients will actually schedule their visits based around when their favorite dogs will appear in the office. They’re kind of like therapy dogs because they spend time with people in distress, and being around them really changes a person’s mood—they’re kind of an integrated part of my practice.”

While his dogs may be an important aspect of his practice, Marinakis makes sure to incorporate his practice into the athletic training and care of his dogs. “I adjust my dogs once a week—it’s good for their structural and overall health,” he says. And in response to the widespread interest and requests for animal chiropractic care among his peers in disc dog circles, Marinakis is currently pursuing an animal adjusting certification through Parker College. 

Though his dogs perform top-notch tricks, they come from rather humble beginnings—all are purebred rescue dogs surrendered to shelters after their owners discovered they had a bit more energy than they bargained for. “Australian Shepherds are dogs with a lot of energy and most people want a calm, relaxed dog, but they make great family pets if you are willing to put in the time and effort they need,” says Marinakis, who suggests that those brave enough to embark on a disc dog path first choose a breed that likes to do the work. “Generally most herding breeds—border collies, cattle dogs, Australian Shepherds—learn the disc game quickly, but there is quite a variety. I’ve also seen labs, golden retrievers and even some pit bulls compete, including one of Michael Vick’s ex fighting dogs.” Marinakis also suggests seeking out trainers who use positive training methods. From there, “work on making sure you develop your relationship with your dogs,” he adds. “A good relationship can produce amazing results when you work with them at home as much as possible.”

And as for his future goals in the small but enthusiastic world of disc dog sports, Marinakis says, “I would like to continue to have success on the national and international level and I’d love to perform at an NFL game. We’ve performed at a Canadian football league game, as well as at ski resorts and minor league baseball games. I’d love to continue using what we do to promote Chiropractic. We’re known for Chiropractic in dog circles—promoting Chiropractic for animals and families and promoting the adoption of rescue dogs.”

When it comes to his growing brood of championship disc dogs, Marinakis says that he and his wife are at least two to three years away from adopting another rescue. As his tried and true championship veterans like Stanley and Mojo near retirement, Marinakis is currently training his next crop of young talents—Motley, Fire and Stella—for future glory on the couple’s lush 10.5-acre property in the wilds of Vermont. And though Marinakis is dedicated to the development of his future champions, he and his wife dream of one day turning their home and scenic acreage into a dog-training bed and breakfast dedicated to fun, fitness and the cultivation of future disc dog champions.