By Shannon Jenkins
A Clayton County firefighter has a professional dog on his hands, and the black and white pup is no Dalmatian.
About nine months after he found his border collie, Rocket, in the classifieds last April, Mark Muir discovered his canine friend had a talent for catching Frisbees. The Locust Grove man brought a cloth Frisbee home for the first time in late January, and about three months later, Rocket snagged his first professional title.
When Muir threw that first flying disc, he said Rocket "started catching it right away and wanted me to keep throwing over and over to him." Muir started researching Frisbee throwing on the Internet and found the Greater Atlanta Disc and Dog Club. He attended the club's clinic on Jan. 29 and learned how to throw to his four-legged companion, along with a few other tricks.
"Then I researched ... and found out how to self-teach ourselves up to a certain level, and we just went for it," Muir said.
The team's first competition was in March at the Dixie Disc Dog Championship at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon.
"After our freestyle routine we were actually in second place, and then in toss-and-fetch we blew it and ended up placing in sixth," Muir said.
They made up for their mistake at the United States Disc Dog Southern Nationals at Piedmont Park in April. Muir said some consider this event as the biggest Frisbee dog tournament in the world, with teams from all over the United States competing.
"Well, I said. 'What the heck,' and entered the open division," he said. "We started off in first after the toss-and-fetch portion or our routine, and then Rocket had a incredible freestyle routine catching 21 out of 22 of my different throws while leaping, turning and jumping."
It was here Rocket won his first national title at 13 months old while competing against dogs much older than him.
"After this, we were told we had to turn professional," Muir said.
The two traveled to the University of Alabama in April for Rocket's first professional tournament. It is was a timed distance toss-and-fetch with seven throws for each round.
"It came down to my last throw, and Rocket snagged a 40-yarder in the air to take his first professional title," Muir said.
His performance has caught a lot of attention.
"The bar has been raised since Rocket performed so well so early," Muir said. "A lot of the top disc dog throwers in the world are talking to me and telling me how Rocket is one of the best young Frisbee dogs they have seen in a long time."
With expectations on high, the dog and his master are spending their time gearing up for tournaments later this year as the season dies down during the hot summer months. They plan to tackle the Skyhoundz World Championships in September at Piedmont Park, the Georgia State Championships in October in Cartersville and then the World United States Disc Dog National Finals in Louisville, Ky., in November.
Muir and Rocket practice about four hours a week in one-hour sessions with plenty of breaks. Fellow firefighter Trent Baker has seen the two practice, and he said he "just couldn't believe it."
"It's amazing to see that dog work," Baker said.
"I am just practicing some new variations in throws and teaching Rocket to be more precise on the throwing field," he said. The two will also take private lessons from a disc throwing pro.
In the meantime, Muir and his wife of 18 years, Stacey, resemble proud parents.
"Rocket to me is almost like the son my wife and I were never able to have," Muir said.
Like any mother, Stacey Muir can rattle off important dates in Rocket's life. He was born on March 3, 2004, and joined the Muir household on April 19, she said. He caught his first Frisbee on Jan. 27.
"He has basically become a family member, not just a pet," said Stacey, who has attended all of Rocket's competitions and training classes.