The Dog Frisbee Pioneer

(Image credit: Byron Eggenschwiler)

How one whippet changed canine athletics (and got his owner arrested in the process).

IT WAS THE TOP OF THE EIGHTH. The Los Angeles Dodgers were pla}dng the Cincinnati Reds in a game being nationally broadcast by NBC on August 5, 1974. Alex Stein, a scruffy 19-year-old clad in shorts and a T-shirt, walked from the parking lot into the ballpark with a dog following a few feet behind him. Dogs were not allowed on the premises. The security guard eyed Stein. “That your dog?” he asked. “Never seen him before in my life,” Stein answered.

As the guard took the trespasser by his collar and shooed him into the lot, Stein found his seat in the top row near the exit. A few moments later, with the guard’s attention drifting elsewhere, the dog joined Stein and settled in under his seat. In fact, he did belong to Stein, and he had followed his owner’s scent into the bleachers. Everything was going according to plan.

Stein watched the changeover as the Dodgers came up to bat. Then, just as the game was about to resume, he ran down 26 steps to the retaining wall that separated the seats from the field, stopped, and tossed a Frisbee 40 yards. The dog, named Ashley Whippet, bounded over the 3-foot wall and sunk his teeth into the Frisbee before it could touch the ground. The animal seemed to linger in the air like Jordan off the rim, his muscled hind legs propelling him skyward. The crowd roared, and as cameras trained their lenses on the spectacle, the outfielders sat down on the grass and watched.

With 50,000 people cheering in the stands and millions watching at home, Stein and his dog effectively invented the phenomenon known as dog Frisbee.

No knows knows who first thought to launch a Frisbee into the air and watch a dog chase it. Originally named Pluto Platters, Frisbees were first marketed by the Wham-O toy company in the late 1950s. They held an inherent catch-and-fetch appeal, and while Stein knew he wasn’t the first, he did know he was one of the few taking it seriously.

As a sophomore at Ohio State University in 1971, Stein received a 3-week-old puppy from his girlfriend, Lisa, who had named the dog after Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Her family bred whippets, lean, muscular dogs reminiscent of greyhounds. Stein took Ashley back to the house he shared with 10 other students and quickly realized he didn’t own a dog dish.

"I didn’t want to use plates the guys ate off of,” he says, “so I grabbed a Frisbee, flipped it upside down, and thought it made a good bowl.”

Ashley ate from the Frisbee every day. When Stein dragged the empty disc across his bedroom floor with his toe, he noticed Ashley staring at it like it held the secrets of the universe. Before long, Stein was tossing it to the dog outdoors and hanging it from a tree branch so Ashley could take flying leaps to retrieve it.

Stein was a man of flexible plans. When winter came, he decided he’d rather live in Florida as a warm college dropout than in Ohio as a cold student. Once in their new home of Palm Beach, Stein forged Ashley into an athlete. Measuring just 21 inches at the shoulder and 28 pounds on the scale, Ashley could leap 8 feet into the air from the sand on the beach. “When he got back on grass, it was like being on a trampoline,” Stein says. That firmer footing added another 12 inches to his jump.

Stein and Ashley went to the beach nearly every day for years, attracting crowds who couldn’t believe the athleticism of the dog, who caught most of Stein’s throws. After performances, Stein would pass the Frisbee around, looking for tips. As dollar bills piled up, Stein started to think there might be a bigger audience for Ashley’s skills.

(YouTube link)

In 1974, the two headed for California, where Stein marched into the offices of Wham-O and told them he had a dog unlike any they had ever seen. They weren’t interested. (Though he left with a few collectible Frisbees.) Stein then tried cold-calling talent agencies, most of whom didn’t deal with animals or didn’t understand what Stein was tr}dng to pitch. A neighbor in Manhattan Beach who was an agent shook his head when Stein suggested he throw a cape on Ashley to advertise Domino’s Pizza. No one shared Stein’s enthusiasm.  

That’s when he came up with a wild idea: storming Dodger Stadium. A radio broadcast mentioned that the Reds would be in town, and so would NBC’s cameras. Stein figured it was his chance to get Ashley discovered— even if he did get arrested. He expected he could get three or four throws in before being hauled off, maybe a minute of exposure. That would be enough time to capture the attention of thousands of fans. In the end, “the police report said we were out there for eight minutes,” he says. “I think security knew that trying to catch a dog running that fast would not be a good idea.”

When Stein left the field, he jogged up the same set of stairs he’d come down on. Security was waiting. They zip-tied his wrists and ushered him to a holding cell full of drunks and thieves. Ashley remained on the field, confused. He wanted to keep playing.

The plan had gone even better than anticipated. While Stein was still in the stadium’s holding tank, a man handed him a card through the bars. He was the halftime coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams and wanted the two to appear at their next home game.

Stein was elated. But there was one big problem. In the chaos after the game, Ashley had vanished. Stein called television stations and newspapers to spread the word. Three days after the game, an article caught the attention of a woman in Long Beach whose son had just brought home a dog of unusual aerial skills. She called Stein.

“I go to this house and call his name,” he says. “And he comes bounding over the backyard patio.”

Reunited, Stein and Ashley wasted no time making the rounds. In addition to the Rams games— where Ashley prepared for his performance by peeing on the goalpost— the two were booked on Merv Griffin, The Tonight Show, and Mike Douglas. The ensuing media attention also changed the minds of Wham-O executives, who signed on to co-sponsor the First Annual Fearless Fido Frisbee Fetching Fracas dog competition. Ashley’s stunt had inspired the contest, but when Stein showed up to enter Ashley, he was told he wasn’t allowed.

“Your dog,” an official said, “is a professional. This is for amateurs.”

An upstart Australian sheepdog named Harper Hank won the Fracas and would go on to perform with Stein and Ashley during their pregame, halftime, and race- track appearances. In one record-setting sprint, Ashley ran 106 yards, almost the length of the football field, to make a catch.

(YouTube link)

Thanks to Ashley, canine athletics had become a cottage industry. The new popularity of dogs and discs prompted the World Frisbee Championships to begin offering a canine division in 1975. The rules were simple: The winner was the dog who could retrieve the most throws in under two minutes, each at least 15 yards out. Contestants got extra points if all four paws left the ground during their catch. In the nascent world of dog athletics, Ashley was LeBron James playing pickup basketball. He won the world title three years in a row, sometimes receiving a free pass to the finals as the incumbent champion. By 1978, Stein says, the organization wanted Ashley to step aside and become an ambassador; the contest was later renamed the Ashley Whippet Invitational.

Like any professional athlete, Ashley moved on to a series of lucrative endorsement deals. He appeared in ads for dog food companies; Stein would name-drop the brands during their many television appearances. At the height of Ashley’s fame in the late 1970s, Stein was pulling in $50,000 in sponsorship money annually. “It wasn’t always sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” Stein quips. “But some days it was.”

Irv Lander, Wham-O’s publicity hound and director of the International Frisbee Association, helped book many of their appearances. (He also convinced Wham-O to pay Stein’s $250 fine for trespassing on the baseball field.) He kept writing to the White House and insisting Ashley would be an excellent play partner for the Carter family’s dog. Grits. Lander was so persistent they finally agreed. In 1977, Stein and Ashley showed Amy Carter, the president’s daughter, how to perform some simple Frisbee tricks.

Stein began getting requests for Ashley’s offspring. But of the 60 -odd puppies the dog sired, only three showed any real intuition for the game. It wasn’t his breed or his lineage that made Ashley successful, but his rigorous years of training and innate desire to fetch.

Ashley and Stein continued to appear at football games throughout the early 1980s. Though long retired from active competition, Ashley could still dart across a field. It seemed like age would never catch up with him.

Then, in 1984, the normally mild Ashley got into a fight with one of his pups, who was eager to become the alpha dog. Ashley was put on injury reserve, staying home while Stein traveled with
three of his offspring —Lady Ashley, Ashley Whippet Junior, and Ashley Whippet III— as the Ashley Whippet Invitational Celebrity Touring Team.

The pioneer would never again take the field. He died in Stein’s arms on March 11, 1985, of natural causes at age 13. Sports Illustrated eulogized him (“... he was a giant in his field, both a Naismith and a Ruth, the creator of a sport and its greatest practitioner”). A heartbroken Stein traveled for a few more years with Ashley’s family before calling it quits to run a deli in Vermont.

A dog competes in the Ashley Whippet Invitational in 2013. (Image credit: Flickr user Walter)

Today, the Ashley Whippet Invitational hosts more than 20 regional and international competitions leading up to a finals event each October. The sight of a dog catching a Frisbee is no longer a novelty, but few have been able to duplicate Ashley’s formidable speed and grace— or, for that matter, his personality.

Stein remembers showing up to house parties in college and not being allowed in if Ashley wasn’t with him. "That dog," he says, "was loved by everybody."


The article above by Jake Rossen appeared in the December 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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