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Stow -- A local canine and her handler were named top dogs in an international disc-throwing competition this fall.
Mark Vitullo, 53, owner of the Cuyahoga Falls-based web-design and online marketing agency DigitalDay, and his dog Lulu -- a 5-year-old German shepherd -- became world champions in the US Disc Dog Nationals World Finals Toss and Fetch competition in October.
The contest marks the fourth time Vitullo and Lulu (whose full name is Lulu von Sassy Whitedheim) competed in the USDDN competition, but the first time ever the duo earned gold.
The highest the team had ever placed in the competition before was fifth place.
"It's just really gratifying," said Vitullo. "My goal is always to come back from these competitions with hardware. This is the pinnacle for us so far."
Vitullo revelled in the accomplishment, noting that he hadn't intended to win the worldwide contest, which features a total of 38 teams from all across the globe, despite winning various other disc-throwing contests with Lulu throughout the last couple years.
"What do I think was going through Lulu's mind after winning the world championship? She can read me, so I'm sure she was happy that I was happy, and in reality, that's all she cares about," he said.
This year's USDDN finals, which took place in Cartersville, Ga., featured dog-and-handler duos from China, Europe, South America and Canada, in addition to others from across the country.
Teams are judged on how many throws and catches the team completes in 90 seconds.
The dog has to return the disc to its owner before another throw is made. Bonus points are awarded if the dog catches the disc with all paws off the ground and if catches are made within a 5-yard-wide strip that runs the length of the competition area that Vitullo describes as a modified football field.
To win, the duo of Vitullo and Lulu earned a perfect 25-point score in the second round of the disc-throwing competition to beat out all other competitors.
"There's a lot of really talented folks in the disc-dog community," said Vitullo. "I've always felt like we could hold our own -- one day I'd win, the next day I don't -- but now that we've won, I know what it feels like to have real credentials in the disc-dog world.
"When I see my friends now," he added, "they call me champ."
Vitullo boasts that 54-pound Lulu -- whom he calls a "mini shepherd" because of having her uncharacteristically small size for her breed -- can make seven catches at 40 yards or more while returning the disc each time within 90 seconds.
"I'm the variable in the competition because Lulu catches nearly everything I throw," Vitullo said. "She usually saves any bad throws of mine."
He said Lulu runs for a throw like a football wide receiver.
"She runs with her head cocked backward, looking back to track the Frisbee," he said. "I've just got to throw the disc straight and at the right height."
Vitullo and Lulu -- whom Vitullo adopted from Whited K-9 Services Inc. in Kent about five years ago -- are no strangers to local toss and fetch competitions, having earned medals at local competitions and others across the world.
Vitullo, a 1977 Walsh Jesuit High School graduate, said he's always enjoyed Frisbee and dogs, but never thought of combining the two until he went to a disc-dog competition in Michigan with his high school girlfriend, who had a friend in the contest.
In the late '90s, Vitullo began competing in the local disc-dog circuit with Luke, a 110-pound, all-white German shepherd Luke who died in 2008.
Vitullo's secret to training for the contests is "practice, practice, practice." He practices with Lulu only about three times a week so she doesn't get bored with the activity, but Vitullo said he trains at least five days a week.
"I'll go to the soccer field at Kimpton [Middle School] with 100 Frisbees, set up in front of a goal, and throw 300 throws in a row for practice," he said, noting that perfecting a long, straight throw is essential.
Vitullo said Lulu probably has two more years playing toss and fetch competitively before she "starts to slow down."
The duo currently has their sights set on a Southern Ohio Flying K-9s Disc Dog Club indoor competition in January, while qualifying for a worldwide Skyhoundz competition next year will be the team's next biggest upcoming event.
"You have to qualify for that three time in Chattanooga, Tenn.," said Vitullo. "That would be the holy grail for next year to win it."
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