When Billings resident Heather Kovis purchased her Icelandic sheepdog from an Ohio breeder two years ago she was hoping to enter the world of sporting dogs.
The investment has paid off as Hook, her dog’s name, was the No. 1 Icelandic sheepdog in the North America Diving Dogs distance rankings in 2019, with a season average of 15-feet, 9-inches in 37 jumps. Not bad considering he didn’t start jumping until the 2018 season when his best leap was 11 feet.
“He loves it,” Kovis said. “He has so much fun doing it. You can tell.”
The feat is all the more impressive considering that Hook is just barely too tall to participate in the lap dog division, meaning he has to compete against bigger dogs.
Although Hook’s jumping career is just taking off, his Billings colleague Niners is semi-retired at age 11 after winning the Lap Junior Air Retrieve Division in 2019 and taking sixth in the Vet Junior dog with a jump of 14-feet, 2-inches.
“She was probably one of the oldest dogs competing,” said Niners’ owner, Pam Horner-Pfau. The veterans class starts at age 8.
Horner-Pfau is the owner of Billings K9 Coaching, located between Billings and Laurel. Her training grounds include a pool to practice dock diving, an enclosed building for agility training, and a barn where dogs can do “nose work,” looking for hidden objects in a maze of straw bales as well as rats that are protected in aerated pipe containers. The nose work is called barn hunt.
Billings K9 Coaching has built up to 90 clients participating in dock diving. All a pooch needs is a strong toy drive or to enjoy being in water. If a dog likes both, dock diving can come easily. If a canine only enjoys one of the two, the other quality can be taught, Horner-Pfau said.
“Dock diving is one of the fastest growing dog sports in the world,” she said, although in Montana it is limited to the warmer months between May and September.
Horner-Pfau also helps coach the No. 1 ranked Newfoundland, Hawkeye, owned by Ashley Olien. Hawkeye had 20 jumps in 2019 for an average of 15-feet, 9-inches.
“A 100-pound Newfie jumping almost 16 feet is incredible,” Horner-Pfau said.
Agility is a much more time-intensive event to train for, requiring a lot of dedication by the owner and dog, she said. Nose work is based on bomb and drug detection work. One of the keys is the handler has to be able to read the dog’s cues, which can vary from ear position to barking or lip licking.
Kovis said she wouldn’t have been upset if Hook lacked an interest in sports.
“He’s a nice dog and meshes well with my lifestyle,” she said.
Icelandic sheepdogs, as their name implies, were bred for herding and protecting sheep. Hook’s descendants were brought to Iceland by Vikings. The bloodline can be traced to similar spitz breeds like the Norwegian buhund and the Welsh corgi.
Newfoundlands are one of the biggest dog breeds. Males can grow to 150 pounds. Known for its “sweet temperament,” according to the American Kennel Club, the breed’s sagging face resembles a Saint Bernard. Wearing a shaggy coat, the Newf was long used on ships in Canada where it specialized in water rescues. A Newfoundland named Seaman accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition across the West in the early 1800s.
Breeding may be less important than toy drive or the willingness to please a handler, as Niners has demonstrated. She is a “super mutt,” Horner-Pfau said, with traces of Border collie and American Eskimo in her blood line.
“She’s pretty impressive for an 11 year old.”