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When the folks who run the Canine Games tell you their poop doesn’t stink, believe them.
About 500 pooches from all walks of pooch life ran, jumped, swam, and, yes, squatted away Saturday morning at Jones Point Park in Alexandria during the latest rendition of the Canine Games, an annual doggie Olympiad. And that’s not counting the equal number of furry creatures who brought their two-legged masters to the event just to watch.
There was plenty to take in. The 17 separate contest areas that made up this year’s games consumed virtually every inch of Jones Point Park, a spacious lawn beneath the Wilson Bridge on the banks of the Potomac River.
At the north end of the grounds, a red-eyed bloodhound, a run-of-the-mill Labrador, and a pair of identically groomed, humongous poodlelike creatures raced against each other and the clock in a 40-yard dash. To the south, a tiny mutt with just three legs (there is no Special Olympics for canines…yet) dove into the river to fetch a plastic bone as the stopwatch ticked. Over to the west, a Jack Russell terrier leapt for a Frisbee after a 30-yard sprint and made a dazzling three-point catch. And smack in the middle of the park, a nattily attired dog owner wore a smile as big as a mastiff’s chest even as he scooped and bagged loads of rubber dog pooh under the watchful eye of judges. The positive vibe at the games was so pervasive that even the dog owners who were scooping their own animals’ real payload for noncompetitive, purely hygienic reasons wore looks of profound joy while they did the deed.
The Canine Games, now in their seventh year (in people years, that is), were co-founded by the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA) and the Olde Town School for Dogs. Millie Bobbitt helped organize the first Canine Games. She now serves as its chair.
Bobbitt, a retired speech therapist, walked around the park wearing a gold dog broach and a silver dog pendant, clearly loving the animals that gave the event its name and clearly eager to do whatever it took to keep the day from, well, going to the dogs in a figurative sense. But so little troubleshooting work was necessary, even she was amazed.
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“I can remember when all we had was a few homemade things for dogs to jump over. Now, we plan for five months, we’ve got carpenters coming in and building contest platforms, we’ve got so many more dogs, we’ve got more than 100 volunteers, we’ve got, well, this….” Bobbitt said, making a sweeping gesture with her arm that took in all the dog-centric activities. “I’m always surprised that as big as this is, we have so few problems. Who would think we could get so many strange dogs and strange people together and nobody bites, nobody misbehaves, and there’s really not even much barking? It’s wonderful.” (In the games’ seven-year run, only one dog bite has ever been officially reported, and AWLA disputes the legitimacy of even that lone report.)
The Canine Games are meant to do more than give dog owners a day to show off their critters’ athletic skills.
First and foremost, through entry fees of $15 to $25 per dog, the event raises money for AWLA. It also raises awareness of the organization and its mission. As overseer of the Alexandria Animal Shelter, the group is responsible for, among other things, taking in, caring for, and finding homes for all the city’s homeless animals, not just man’s best friends. The organization also sponsors a support group for bereaved pet owners. (On an even less cheery note, AWLA euthanizes animals that can’t be placed, and it picks up Alexandria’s roadkill.)
Shelter staffers, in turn, get some heavy petting for all of their efforts during the Canine Games.
“Every year I get tingles when I come here and see so many people who truly enjoy spending time with their dog,” said Kate Pullen, director of the Alexandria Animal Shelter and a Canine Games volunteer. “At work, all I see is the other end of it, the dogs that spend their lives tied up to the doghouse, the dogs who never get any interaction or attention. That’s very sad. This is great. And this makes me feel great.”
History has proved the Canine Games to be a very effective way to whittle down AWLA’s death-row roster. Throughout the games, AWLA staff and volunteers paraded over Jones Point Park with some of the shelter’s current tenants, like so many Wednesday’s Children, in the hope that some of the attendees would be inspired by the events of the day to open their hearts and homes to pets who’ve been given up, abandoned, or lost.
According to Bobbitt, all the abandoned dogs that were shown Saturday will be adopted within a matter of weeks, precisely because of that exposure.
A lot of former pet owners who come to the games and, subsequently, the shelter want AWLA staffers to convince them to get back into animal ownership, Bobbitt said. She usually obliges by breaking out her trusty cruel-to-be-
“The death of a pet hits some people harder than the death of a human being,” she said. “They tell me they can’t take in another animal because they lost a loved one and don’t want to go through that sense of loss again. I tell them they can’t keep that love bottled up just so they won’t get hurt. I tell them, ‘OK, you can’t get Puffy or Muffy or Fido again, but by God, you can get somebody just as good.’ The animals at the shelter need love, and they need it now.”
How much does Bobbitt believe in the Canine Games? Well, so much that she left her own beloved dogs Lexi, Blue, and Andy, all former strays at home while she spent the day running the event. She wouldn’t do that for just any old cause, would she?
“Well, I’ve got a big cat event coming up,” Bobbitt said.