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Throwing a flying plastic disc to a dog is not just a back yard pastime for Mark Vitullo; it is a passion that he wants to share.
Five years ago, the Stow resident helped organize area competitive "disc doggers" into the Ohio Disc Dog Club and began hosting events.
"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, who has since started an international league with dozens of clubs and hundreds of members in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.
The game is played on a 50-yard field. Teams -- a handler and a dog -- have one minute to complete as many throws and catches as possible, earning points as they do so. Longer throws and catches earn more points than shorter ones.
"If a dog has good toy drive and loves to play fetch and retrieve with a tennis ball, it takes almost no time to transition them to catch a Frisbee," said Vitullo.
Today, the Ohio Disc Dog Club is divided into three smaller clubs, all under the Ohio Disc Dogs name. The Akron group, which Vitullo is personally involved with, meets on field behind the Silver Lake Police Department. It started its summer season June 20, with plans to play five consecutive Tuesdays. Competition starts at 7 p.m., with the gates opening for practice an hour before.
"We're now playing a spring, summer, fall and winter season each year," said Vitullo.
Streetsboro resident Betty Zanoskar, one of those in Silver Lake June 20, brought Abby, her four-year-old blue heeler Australian cattle dog.
"She's always loved Frisbee and that's how I found these guys. I searched for 'Frisbee' on the Internet," she said. "[Abby's] really good. I just had to learn to toss the Frisbee."
Zanoskar said it has become especially important to her. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about 20 years ago and has had to give up some other favorite activities like riding her motorcycle and playing her bagpipes, and limiting "hobbies," including riding horses. But throwing a plastic disc to her dog?
"It's something I can do with a disability," said Zanoskar.
Cleveland resident Julie Weir has three dogs, including 10-year-old female Sundae, 5-year-old male Stino and 3-year-old female Sporty, all whippets. She said she started two or three years ago.
"I'd been playing Frisbee in the back yard and I saw Mark offered a clinic in how to throw," said Weir. "My dogs really love to chase the Frisbees. The people are a lot of fun and you get to be outside."
Mantua resident Kathy Topham, a veterinarian, said she "got the bug" about 18 months ago after a client told her about the sport. She brings Lagniappe, her 3-year-old male border collie/Staffordshire bull terrier mix.
"My dog has a natural talent for it so I had to learn how to throw," said Topham, adding "the people are pretty easy going. It doesn't take much training for the dogs or the handler and I think the dogs find it very satisfying."
Starting a league
A few years ago, Vitullo challenged the Disc Dogs of Michigan Club to run an overlapping league for five weeks, with the two clubs comparing scores at the end and Ohio winning.
This start would ultimately become the K9 Frisbee Toss & Fetch League.
"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.
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," said Vitullo.
Vitullo then spent the winter planning a spring 2017 league season.
"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.
Working mostly through Facebook, Vitullo promoted the league internationally during the winter.
"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."
By this past April, 32 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."
Decades of practice
Vitullo, 58, is from Stow and has lived there most of his life. He graduated from Walsh Jesuit High School in 1977.
"I entered a local Frisbee dog competition in Cleveland for the first time in 1997 with my white German Shepherd 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 died, Vitullo got another German Shepherd from Whited Kennels in Tallmadge, a small female he named Lulu.
"Lulu was incredibly fast and a natural at Frisbee," he said. "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."
Vitullo said his goal is to continue to grow the league and the sport of disc dogging. He said disc dogging is "the least expensive and most laid-back of all dog sports."
"I get the most satisfaction when 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," said Vitullo.
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