Leader of the pack

Rob Barnhill

Photo By Larry Dalton

Folsom’s Rob Barnhill bred his dog, Sisko, a chocolate-Lab/German-shorthaired-pointer mix, to be a top-notch birder. But at 7 months old, when another hunter’s Jeep ran him over, the pup suffered the very serious setback of a broken femur. It took eight pins in his leg and two years’ worth of rehab from an attentive Barnhill for Sisko to fully recover—but he certainly did recover. Now he’s a champion athlete. Having cleaned up at a regional dog-diving competition last year in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he broke the world record in his first jump, Sisko, along with his teammate, looks forward to competing in the finals of the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge in St. Louis next month.

What does it take to be an Incredible Dog?

It takes a team. Because there’s a trainer, and there’s a dog. We have to really focus and stay working as a team. You have to know what your dog wants to do. My connection to my dog is incredible. The stuff that we’ve been through has really tightened our bond.

How’d you get into the sport? I saw the Great Outdoor Games on ESPN. I saw dog jumping, and a Splash Dogs event at Cal Expo. That was November of ‘04. In January of ‘05 we started competing. He was a natural. He’s definitely a high-performance dog. He can reach top speeds of 30 miles an hour. He can jump over 25 feet. So, we just kept entering in more competitions. We did 17 events in our first year, and we won 85 percent of them.

Is this a full-time occupation now?

It is … pretty much since we started jumping. Otherwise, I own a company that manufactures drive components. Automated machining centers. It’s a financial base.

How often do you actually compete?

Lately about every two weeks we’re competing somewhere in the United States. We’ve probably been to 20 states in the last year-and-a-half. You really put the mileage on. And it’s not easy, being on the road. I’m on the road 10 months of the year.

What kind of training does Sisko do?

Mostly his basic is endurance and strength training. He runs a lot. We go hiking and fishing. He’s constantly active. I’ve got a big garden, and he moves around in there. Basically, I get paid to play with my dog every day. So, that’s not bad.

Is diving his specialty?

We do a little freestyle Frisbee as well. But I save him for the diving. He really loves it. He knows exactly what we’re doing out there. Basically, we jump off a dock that’s 8 foot by 40 foot. It’s covered with Astroturf. It goes into a pool or a pond. You have that whole dock to get that dog in the water and get his best distance. Speed, height and ability to stay in the air will get his distance. I do what they call a chase. I walk him out with a toy and build his adrenaline and his excitement for the toy. I use that to control his jumps.

It’s like drag racing.

Yeah, they get the rpms up a little bit before they finally release the brake!

What’s the biggest challenge Sisko faces right now?

Our goal is to hit at least a 30-foot jump in competition. He’s jumping really well. He’s hit five jumps over 30 feet in a non-judged capacity.

So, how do you make that happen?

It’s a matter of putting all your circumstances together on one jump. It can be very technical, with a lot of little details. It’s like a pitcher in baseball. Having to put that ball right where it’ll get the most out of him. You want to keep him really pumped up. That way he has explosions when he jumps.

In the world of dog-performance sports, how does the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge rank? Are we talking Indy 500, Kentucky Derby, Super Bowl?

I would definitely call it the Super Bowl. The World Series. It’s the best of the best. They come from all around the country. When we compete in these regional qualifiers, they only take two dogs. Both dogs in our Western regional qualifier broke world records. The other guy was my teammate. Sisko’s ranked No. 2 in the world right now. I’d like to see a No. 1 ranking this coming year.

Will you do anything special if he wins?

I’ll give him a good dinner. I usually try not to feed him too much people food. But he’s got a good life. He gets massages every week. He gets a lot of attention. I’m proud of him, and he lives well.