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“The Way of Disc Dog”: Navigating Harmonies in American Canine Frisbee

Jack Harrison and Sara Kruszona


Freestyle disc dog is a sport in which a human handler throws frisbees for their dog to catch as part of a choreographed routine to music. In this article, we examine how different representations of ideal dog–human relations in media produced and consumed by American disc-dog players correspond to concepts of harmony. Drawing on philosophical writing about dog–human relations in the works of Vicki Hearne and Donna Haraway, the article argues that ideal ways of “fitting together,” both on and off the disc-dog field, navigate competing visions of dog–human harmony in the US. An analysis of training handbooks, competition rules, online video interviews with American handlers, and footage of disc-dog training sessions and competitions identifies the best interspecies players harmoniously interacting both as predesigned, routinized parts of a predetermined whole and as entities who are open to being transformed by one another in the emergence of dynamic, unpredictable play. However, ways of experiencing and evidencing a successful partnership in disc dog—which includes “connecting” with one’s dog, performing a difficult routine, and having fun with both one’s canine partner and the audience—are not so easily aligned and often rub up against one another. This navigation of different concepts of harmony, we conclude, underpins a particular vision of dogs as straddling various forms of ideal canine-ness for American handlers.

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[Dogs] want and need what we want and need, namely, to live in peace and safety and to coexist harmoniously with others.
Marc Bekoff, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do 8

1. Introduction

  • 1 “Frisbee” is a proprietary eponym for flying discs and was originally a trademark of the Wham-O toy (...)

1Disc dog, or canine frisbee,1 is a sport for human dog owners and their high-energy dogs. The human–dog pairs form individual teams, and each player in a team performs a role defined by species: the human player—commonly called the “handler”—is tasked with throwing frisbees into the air; the dog’s task is to chase and catch these discs before they reach the ground. The concept of the game is simple. Yet, as a competitive sport, both the execution and system of judging become quite complex when this basic formula is elaborated. For instance, in freestyle disc-dog competitions, teams score points for difficult throws, athletic chases, creative choreography, smooth execution, and successful catches. The sport’s emphasis is placed on a team’s style of play—how the dog and human move and interact—and on rewarding a team’s ability to perform their throwing and catching with style and as a harmonious partnership.

2In this article, we explore how disc-dog play in the US is shaped by ideas about harmonious relations between dogs and humans, including what this harmony is supposed to look and feel like. Our study builds on previous research in human–animal studies that examines the cultural significance of nonhuman-animal performers in American theater (Rohman; Young; Carlson), circus (Nance, Entertaining Elephants), music (Doolittle; Rothenberg Thousand Mile Song, Bug Music; Feisst; Mundy), film (Burt; Malamud; Włodarczyk and Wilde), and sport (Arluke and Bogdan; Nance, “A Star is Born”; Thayer; Weaver). However, focusing on both live, choreographed performances and representations of human and nonhuman performers as harmonious teams, our questioning follows most closely after anthropologist Jane Desmond’s study of San Diego Sea World’s Shamu show—a performance in which the titular killer whale, confined to an aquarium tank, waves, dives and dances for the park’s guests alongside her human trainer. Desmond’s study describes Shamu and the trainer’s pas de deux as symbolizing a communion between whale and human: in Desmond’s words, “the continuous aqueous flow of partnering” (229) generates “the fiction of a world living together in familial harmony modeled on a Christian notion of Edenic paradise” (231). Similar to Desmond’s analysis of the Shamu show, we identify disc-dog rules and choreographies as portraying an idealized, harmonious relationship between humans and canines and examine the particular shape this idealized relationship takes. However, whereas Desmond reads the whale–human performance at Sea World as creating an illusion of interspecies harmony that results from “[human] power and domination invisibly applied” (231), we, instead, read the sport of disc dog and the dog–human relations it structures as responses to an ideal of interspecies harmony that manifest both above and below the surface of the spectacle the sport creates. Here, power and its application with regard to canine training is studied as something remaining mostly in the foreground of the handlers’ project of interspecies harmony.

3Considering ideal forms of multispecies cohabiting, scholars of human–animal studies have theorized embodied modes of empathy across species boundaries that frame nonhuman animals as thinking, feeling subjects with whom human animals can communicate and form social bonds (Donaldson and Kymlicka; Gruen; Acampora; Shapiro). Nevertheless, while nonhuman and human animals may live in response to one another as subjects, this does not mean that their separate interests are necessarily responded to equally; indeed, human interests usually take precedence in multispecies environments (Despret 124; Carter and Charles 336; Dashper 8). Bearing this in mind, we trace the stakes and interests that pull on the knotted threads of what counts as living well with dogs and analyze how the meaning of “good” human-dog relations—formed at the node of various ideas about “proper” human–canine cohabitation in the US—shapes the kind of interspecies interactions sought among American disc-dog handlers. Of particular interest here are opposing philosophical ideas about ideal human–canine relations and how American disc-dog handlers traverse these different roads to dog–human harmony in their practice of the sport.

4Our exploration of ideal dog–human relations in canine frisbee is based on an analysis of the sport’s rules and its scoring system, online interview-style videos with experienced American disc-dog handlers, online videos of competition routines, and writing on the sport that is both by and about American world-champion players. Sources were chosen primarily according to their wide availability and accessibility among players based in the US, as well as their significance to US players competing under US-based sporting associations and their particular rules and scoring systems. We also attended disc-dog competitions as spectators in Poland where we spoke to Polish competitors about their experiences training and competing as dog–handler teams. However, while this fieldwork in Poland informs our thinking about the spectacle of disc dog, the argument we make in this article concerns, instead, the response of widely circulatable media products about playing disc dog—those created and consumed by members of the American disc-dog community—to discourses in the US concerning the nature of ideal relations between humans and dogs. In terms of demographics, the American disc-dog community consists mostly of white handlers—including equal numbers of men and women—between the ages of approximately twenty-five and forty-five. The dogs are mostly herding types (particularly in the advanced categories of competition), although disc-dog media products often state that canine frisbee can be played with any breed, cross or mix, whether from a pedigree line or a shelter (Bloeme and Perry, ch. 4; Gorant 93-94). Some of the media products we analyzed as part of our study proved particularly fruitful with regard to our thinking on human–canine relations in the sport, and they are worth listing here. These materials include three training manuals (Bloeme and Perry; Heeter; Watson); the United States Disc Dog Nationals association’s judging handbook (USDDN); the book Wallace, authored by Jim Gorant, who tells the personal story of a real-life disc dog team; and four online video interviews with teams sponsored by the Hero Disc USA company—a manufacturer of frisbees for disc dog (“Andrew Han Team Hero”; “Team Hero Routine Breakdown”; “Disc Dog Q&A”; “Disc Dog with Mike Hanson”). We offer a close reading of these disc-dog media and identify general trends across their envisioning of harmonious canine–human interactions.

5The article begins with a brief introduction to the concept of harmony and to scholarly discourse on canine–human relations—the latter focusing on the writings of feminist philosophers Vicki Hearne and Donna Haraway, respectively—before turning to the sport of disc dog and its navigation of concepts of harmony. Ideal disc-dog teams, we argue, match athletic dynamism on the field with discipline and control, which is demonstrated through the smooth execution of a routine of predetermined movements. The ideal canine player of disc dog is free to live “doggishly”—running, jumping, chasing, biting—while simultaneously living under the control of their human partner, who decides the when, where, and how of doggish activities. When dynamism and discipline come together, handlers feel this harmonious attunement as “connection” with their dogs, but, as we also explore, handlers face a dilemma when the human pursuit of connection—both as a feeling and spectacle—puts the mutual fun of disc-dog play at risk. Dog–human harmony, we show, can be a difficult route to navigate.

2. Harmonious Human–Canine Relations

6How are dogs and humans to share a world? What defines good human–canine relations? For ethologist Marc Bekoff, quoted in this article’s epigraph, the nature of a dog’s ideal life does not present too much of a mystery: a dog needs a safe environment—a home—and the opportunity “to coexist harmoniously with others” (8). This is straightforward enough. However, what is perhaps more difficult to theorize and justify are the specific forms harmonious relations take between dogs and their human partners. What counts as harmony between these two species? As Justyna Włodarczyk has shown, how humans should ideally behave towards and act in response to their companion dogs, and vice versa, is not something upon which people have always agreed, both today and historically (Genealogy of Obedience). At issue with regard to canine–human relations is the question of how to identify what counts as harmonious coexistence across the canine–human divide, including what each partner needs to know and do in order to achieve such a relationship.

7This ambiguity with respect to ideal dog–human relations is compounded by the fact that dogs—whether of the same or a different breed—are individuals, just like humans, with unique personalities and experiences; acknowledging a dog’s individuality makes it difficult to form a general rulebook outlining how and how not to approach the act of shaping the interactions of a shared life as well as the more passive act of being shaped by one’s dog. Nevertheless, recognizing a dog’s individuality is frequently taken as a starting point to developing sound dog–human relationships. Responsive, two-way, bodily intercommunication between a dog and human is deemed essential to building the foundations of a good life together (Hearne; Haraway; Bekoff; Fox et al.). Moreover, this communication must not only characterize the initial socialization of the dog but also the relationship in its entirety if dogs are to be granted some say in how their lives unfold. As Donna Haraway theorizes, a dog and human who live attentively to one another’s communicating bodies “become with” their interspecies partner (35), mutually transforming with respect to the other’s intentions and desires as part of their ongoing entanglement. Becoming-with one’s interspecies partner is, for Haraway, a way to live responsibly together—meaning both responsive to and acting with care towards another being—in ways that may sometimes stutter and falter.

8Embracing strategies that facilitate a process of gently shaping canine behavior, most serious dog handlers—including disc-dog handlers—and writers on dog–human relations support the use of positive reinforcement. This method is based on rewards of food, toys and play that eschew the older training tradition’s reliance on physical coercion and punishment. Target behaviors are achieved incrementally by issuing rewards for actions that, through shaping and subsequent reinforcement, are transformed into those desired by the handler. Yet, the reinforcement-based method of dog training has not been without its critics. In her book Adam’s Task, philosopher and animal trainer Vicki Hearne rallies against what she sees as the injustice of positive reinforcement from a dog’s perspective. This method apparently dooms dogs to stupidity because the environment to which the animal learns to respond is always, according to Hearne, a grossly artificial one; it wrongly dismisses the reality of the handler’s actual wishes regarding the dog and thus presupposes the dog’s inability to act in direct response to the intention of another being (58). Summarizing Hearne’s position, Włodarczyk explains the philosopher’s distaste for behaviorist-influenced training as stemming from her reverence of an uncorrupted Nature (Genealogy of Obedience 189); the predestined world—one beautifully designed—is disturbed by the handler who dares to manipulate the Natural world that surrounds a dog, which in turn disturbs that dog’s Nature. Hence, for Hearne, while “punishment is natural,” revealing to the dog the true nature of the human’s desire towards them, “[m]anaging the dog’s environment and manipulating the dog’s desires are not” (Włodarczyk, Genealogy of Obedience 187).

9What counts as an ideal relationship between dogs and humans is also shaped by discourses of ideal relations more generally—namely, the nature of harmonious relations. The different systems of dog training that stake a claim to ideal dog–human interaction—and, thus, to the nurturement of dog–human harmony—appear themselves to be products of different, yet related, understandings of such harmony. The concept of harmony has, since antiquity, existed at the nexus of aesthetic and metaphysical thought and, in the Western world, finds its philosophical origins amongst the Pythagoreans and, later, with Plato (Yeung 69-71). Today, the signifier harmony connects notions of beauty and peace by tying ideas about proportion and the correspondence of constituent parts within a beautifully unified entity to the minimization of conflict via rules of society and government. If something is deemed “harmonious,” then the elements that are combined to create the singular entity are experienced as “fitting together” in some precise and worthwhile manner. Indeed, as Yeung notes, the ancient Greek word “ἁρμονία (harmonia)… originally meant a joint between the planks of a ship, denoting a ‘fine,’ ‘fitting’ relation of a combination of parts or related things to form a consistent whole” (66). The concept of harmony describes the effect of parts designed in anticipation of their seamless conjoining and of constituent elements corresponding to one another, holding together in balanced configuration as a unity.

10However, if harmony is instead conceived not as parts corresponding passively to but actively with one another, then we are talking about something different. Rather than the fit of constituent elements being something predetermined by design, the fit of these parts can, instead, be redefined as their shared state of openness to being transformed by one another; in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, this is a process of “becoming” within—and as—an “assemblage.” In the latter case, there is no design that precedes and predetermines the manner by which the parts form a harmonious whole; alternatively, what emerges within the process of interacting parts is something that could not have been conceived of before the interaction due to the emergent form’s boundedness to the processual present. The fit of parts, therefore, is located not in their concrete design but in their mutual flexibility in the face of one another.

11In the context of ideal dog–human relations, and as explored in the introduction to this volume (Włodarczyk and Harrison), Hearne and Haraway’s writings can be thought to privilege these two understandings of harmony—the fit of parts of predetermined design and the fit of parts as mutually flexible to one another—respectively. While Hearne’s thinking appears to build on the concept of harmony as involving constituent elements of a whole locking together by precise and natural design (what we call interspecies harmony), Haraway sees ideal human–canine relations in the matching of a handler and a dog’s embrace of the “open” (241)—an unpredictable transformation afforded by one’s partner (what we call interspecies becoming-with). Turning now to the competitive sport of disc dog, we argue that American disc-dog handlers respond to and navigate between these two ways of understanding harmony in the pursuit of an ideal dog–human partnership both on and off the field.

3. “Disc Dogs are Supposed to Leap”: Accuracy and Athleticism in the Freestyle Routine

12The official story of disc dog begins somewhat disharmoniously with a field invasion at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium in 1974. This was no ordinary trespass, however. The offender, a man named Alex Stein, ran onto the field and began throwing frisbees to his dog—an agile whippet named Ashley. Confident in Ashley’s frisbee-catching talent, Stein had long attempted to arouse interest from producers and advertisers, hoping to create a commercially successful dog act, but being unable to convince the industry’s gatekeepers, Stein sought his own fame. For eight minutes—until he was eventually arrested—Stein showcased Ashley's extraordinary ability, entertaining both stadium and television audiences alike. Ashley sprinted after the discs, leaping at precisely the right moment to snatch a frisbee from the air before racing excitedly across the field to make another catch. Stein’s risky strategy proved to be effective: the show was a success and generated enthusiasm for the sport amongst spectators and television producers as well as the International Frisbee Association, whose director at the time, Irv Lander, would partner with Stein to create the first World Frisbee Disc Canine Championship (Oliver; Bloeme and Perry).

13Today, canine frisbee is organized into two styles of play: “toss and fetch” and “freestyle.” In toss and fetch, the human player throws a frisbee for their dog, who then chases and attempts to catch the disc. Points are awarded for a clean catch made within the boundaries of the 30x50 yard field. Under the United States Disc Dog National (USDDN) rules, teams have 90 seconds to attempt an unlimited number of throws and catches, but only the five best catches will count towards a team’s score. The number of points awarded for a catch increases the further the catch is made from the throwing line, and a dog who catches the frisbee while leaping is awarded an extra half point (USDDN 8-9).

14In the game of freestyle—our focus for this article—handlers perform a series of frisbee throws that their dogs must attempt to catch over a period of 120 seconds. Teams combine a variety of different types of throws—including backhands, forehands, floaters, hammers, staker throws, etc. (Heeter 147-65)—and approaches towards making a catch with other kinds of coordinated choreography to the accompaniment of a music track. In USDDN competitions, teams are scored on four different criteria—“canine elements,” “player elements,” “team,” and “execution”—worth a total of 10 points each. The first three of these criteria break down further into sub-categories, which are scored out of 2.5 points. For instance, points under the “canine elements” category are earned according to a dog’s concentration on the task at hand (their “prey drive”); their tracking, chasing, and catching ability (“retrieval”); their physical prowess on the field (“athleticism”); and, finally, their consistent demonstration of an ability to hold on tightly to the frisbee during a catch (“grip”). The scoring of the “execution” category is more straightforward: this score is calculated as a ratio of successful catches to total throws made during the routine (whose number is then multiplied by ten). Human players must throw a minimum of 18 throws before the team is timed-out (USDDN 12-13).

15Several of the subcategories under disc dog’s scoring system reward teams for displays of risky, powerful, high-energy movement. Firstly, a speedy retrieval is encouraged as part of the dog’s “athleticism” score. Moreover, a dog who shows good prey drive “tries hard to catch every throw, even if the throw is low and fast” and “if the dog slows down during the routine the prey drive score should be lowered” (USDDN 15). A fast-moving dog who sprints across the field is therefore considered a better player of the game. Secondly, the handler should not stand in one place; they should vary the team’s use of the 30x50 yard field, moving energetically across the performance space to ensure a more interesting routine. The handler must also quickly pick up the team’s discs from the ground so that they do not leave their dog waiting for another throw. In fact, a sluggish handler may risk losing a significant number of points since “A player that [sic] stands around and waits for their canine to return and does not move well may lower three different scores, their disc management, field presentation, and rhythmic team” (USDDN 18). Thirdly, a partnership can gain points in the “team elements” category for difficult acrobatic movements, such as when a dog jumps over their handler’s body while attempting to catch a frisbee (called an “over”) or when a dog “uses the player ́s body as a launching pad to jump for a disc” (called a “vault”) (USDDN 19).

16Nevertheless, the risky, high-energy game is offset by the scoring system’s simultaneous call for accuracy, particularly as it is embodied in the “execution” score. The judges of a freestyle routine will penalize failed catches, which are more common when following, for example, long throws requiring fast chases and throws performed as complex overs and vaults that are reliant on a dog’s powerful jumping ability. Moreover, the judges’ preference for ideally smooth and flowing transitions between skills—promoted under a range of USDDN scoring sub-categories—is, in other words, a preference for movements that are fully under control. For movements to be controlled, they must be anticipated in sufficient time ahead of their execution since jolting changes of direction, hesitations, and hard landings are all symptoms of a sudden need to react fast when correcting power wrongly applied (resulting in the destabilization of the mover’s body) or choreography wrongly performed. Furthermore, when assessing the jumping ability of a dog under the score for athleticism, judges are reminded by the USDDN Rules Handbook that “a canine’s athleticism is not judged on how high dogs jump, but on how well they leap with control” (16, original emphasis). Hence, disc dog judges are interested in rewarding disciplined applications of power over displays of strength in and of itself.

17Training handbooks and online videos created by America’s top disc-dog handlers likewise imagine the ideal disc-dog team as one that mixes physical dynamism and risk with discipline and control. This particular chemistry is analyzed most closely by handlers in their description of elements constituting a perfect catch, which should preferably take place while the dog is leaping in the air—deemed their greatest athletic feat. For example, in an interview-style video posted to YouTube by the Hero Disc company, Puerto-Rican handler Christopher Cruz explains how improvements made to his dog Poison Ivy’s catching ability—namely, her ability to time a jump correctly in order to grab a disc—are the result of Cruz teaching Ivy how to better navigate her own enthusiasm for the game:

For those who know Ivy from the beginning of our career, she has always been a premature jumper and this is because she is so excited and so confident. For those who know Malinois [a dog breed], they are very confident, intense dogs. For her, any disc—like it doesn’t matter the height—she used to just jump over 10 feet and say, ‘no daddy, I got it.’ [Speaking as himself] ‘No Ivy, you don’t! You’ve got to wait for it!’ Her impulse control has gotten better over the years. So, you can see how much it takes to create and have a well-balanced dog, an intense dog, a working dog in this kind of sport. (“Team Hero Routine Breakdown with Christopher Cruz” 00:12:10-00:13:05)

18Cruz is clear that Ivy’s enthusiasm has not lessened—she is still, just as she was at the beginning of her career, an intense dog. He even suggests that it would be impossible to dampen her excitement stoked by the flying frisbee, for Ivy’s nature (understood here in terms of her breeding—a breeding that conditions her emotional response to the frisbee) lies beyond the trainer’s powers of alteration. However, what can be altered in the pursuit of a clean catch is the timing of Ivy’s decision to act on that impulse to jump and subsequently snatch the frisbee from the air. The impulse itself does not diminish; instead, what changes is Ivy’s relationship to the impulse she experiences, which Cruz crafts such that Ivy is better able to make her in-flight catch.

19Handler Ron Watson also stresses the importance of leaping catches in canine frisbee. The first chapter of Watson’s book Tao of Disc Dog, as the title of the book suggests, reads like a series of Daoist teachings identifying different aspects of the inherent nature of the sport to which players must submit themselves; the book is a training handbook, but also an aestheticization of disc-dog rules achieved through a sometimes serious and sometimes tongue-in-cheek appropriation of the naturalistic yet often esoteric style of Taoist philosophical writing. For Watson, the jumping catch is one important aspect of the sport that defines its nature and, as is the Daoist approach to life, constitutes a nature around which a player’s action should be shaped if they are to find true happiness playing it:

Disc dogs are supposed to leap. That is the Way of Disc Dogs.
They need not leap in any particular fashion, they don’t have to leap BIG or powerful, but they do need to leap. It is part of the expression of pure joy that is a disc dog seeking and biting the disc. To not even try to leap is to pass up on that joy and is the expression of a job, a chore, or a mistake. (ch. 1)

20Like Cruz, Watson emphasizes the need to find balance between discipline and dynamism. However, contrary to Cruz, who focuses on promoting an appreciation for the handler’s guiding hand, it is an appreciation for the exuberance and joy of a dog’s leaping impulse that Watson seeks to nurture on the part of his readers in the quote above. Watson admittedly complicates his position by locating the leaping catch at the nexus of dog natures and humanly-constructed environments—for instance, “Leaping, while a natural skill for many dogs, is more about getting the situation set up right than it is canine genetics. The best leapers in the world can’t leap for a low or poorly thrown disc” (ch. 1). However, it is still against handlers’ overdetermination of their routines that Watson offers greater caution since, as he worries, practicing the same routine over and over may leave little room for joy. Disc dog, for Watson, should possess “spontaneity”; it should be “organic,” and it should avoid appearing “machine like” (ch. 1). The flying body of a canine partner is one that is both doggishly excited and fully focused on the task set for them by their handler.

4. Dynamic–Routinized Harmony: Disc-Dog’s Ideal Canine–Human Relation

21The previous section provides just a few examples of how the USDDN’s Judging Handbook and the top disc-dog handlers in America sketch out their vision of an ideal disc-dog performance—what we call the dynamically harmonious routine. By invoking the concept of harmony here to describe disc-dog partnering, we aim to draw attention to the ways in which American handlers navigate the different kinds of fitting together discussed at the end of section two with regard to their thinking about and their performance of ideal dog–human relations. Canine frisbee, we argue, aims for dynamic–routinized harmony between dogs and handlers—a style of harmony underpinned by a mutual enfolding of interspecies harmony and interspecies becoming-with that, in turn, makes possible the manifestation of a particular vision of a dog. This dog is recognized both as possessing an unsubduable dynamic canine-ness to which the handler must submit and, simultaneously, as submitting to the handler’s control with regard to the formulation and performance of a predetermined, coordinated routine.

22The dynamic-routinized harmony of disc-dog play bounces off the pages of Jim Gorant’s Wallace. His book tells the true story of a pit bull called Wallace who, after narrowly escaping euthanasia in a dog shelter, overcomes the stigma associated with his breed to win a world championship title alongside his eventual adopter, Andrew “Roo” Yuri. Wallace’s performance at the Cynosport Games—the “Olympics of dog events” (Gorant 188)—is described in detail by Gorant towards the end of the book. The routine unfolds skill by skill, and Gorant evokes the breathless energy of their choreography:

Roo began and Wallace weaved between his legs, chasing discs. Roo flipped a short throw to the side, and Wallace leapt, spun in the air, and snagged it. Roo did it again and again, and Wallace continued to rise up after the red discs like a kid on a pogo stick, spinning and twisting with each jump…. Roo made a series of short flips and Wallace bounced into the air catching one after another. Roo made several long throws and Wallace tracked them down. As Wallace rushed back Roo went into a near split. Wallace jumped Roo’s leg and as he charged by, Roo flipped a disc in the air that Wallace caught. As the dog came back Roo switched sides and did it again. The announcer chimed in after the tough catches: ‘It’s good!’ (Gorant 196)

23As introduced above, there are two modes of conceptualizing ideal human–canine relations within Western philosophy, and these two modes provide poles across which performances such as Roo and Wallace’s are suspended. Firstly, there is the harmony perceived when parts of a whole seamlessly interact with one another as a result of being predesigned to form a coherent entity. We call this interspecies harmony. Disc dog teams who perform at competitions usually train their freestyle throws and skills with one of the handler’s aims being the achievement of harmony on such terms: the handler “designs” themselves and their dog through the training process according to certain expectations vis-à-vis the choreographic form their unfolding movements together will take—e.g., the expectation that a caught frisbee will be returned and dropped in front of the handler by the dog. Once the dog and handler have learned how to manifest the preconceived movements together (which includes positive reinforcement of a dog’s behaviors as selected and shaped by the handler as well as the handler’s solo training of difficult throws), the team must then properly anticipate and execute these movements in series during a competition. The “success” of the interaction is determined by the team’s ability to manifest their planned series of skills—their routine—in a smooth and controlled manner.

24What exact choreographic form a routine takes (i.e., what happens when between a dog and handler) is largely arbitrary since the routine does not serve any direct material function: these rules are invented to create a game, and there is no obvious reason that exists outside of the project of creating the disc-dog game that can be called upon to justify, for example, why a thrown frisbee should be caught. Yet, the meeting of such expectations when a dog and handler perform has symbolic significance in its evidencing of that dog and handler’s interspecies harmony. The routine’s abstract form that precedes (but does not necessarily predetermine) the routine’s actual enactment makes a state of interspecies harmony possible for disc-dog teams on the field: it is this abstract form that guides the training of a team, whose members will, in the future, interactively enact their routine’s choreographic form—or, as is sometimes the case, improvise a larger choreographic form by putting together smaller predetermined units of choreography for which they have trained (discussed below). A dog and handler who have trained to accurately anticipate their routine’s (or a choreographic unit’s) abstract form in sufficient time while they perform it (thus allowing them to move with smooth and flowing coordination) demonstrate themselves to be “designed” in relation to one another and to fit together according to this routine. In short, ideal dog–human relations are conceptualized by players of disc dog as being, in one sense, a routinization of parts—dog and handler—to create a coherent and harmonious whole.

25Yet, the development of these disc-dog routines also involves a dog and handler team exploring what mutually good interactions might be newly created—including choreography that could not possibly have been predicted before the team’s encounter—when such expectations and preconceived notions of “correct” dog–human relations are left behind. This is our second kind of ideal relation—the process of interspecies becoming-with. While disc dog’s rules are not going to be rewritten with every new dog–handler interaction, the sport is still preceded by (and originally emerges from) a human openness to and curiosity about canine natures, which are explored through close bodily correspondence with dogs and the transformation of a handler through such bodily correspondence. For instance, in her training handbook Champion Disc Dog!, world champion handler Melissa Heeter describes the sport of canine frisbee as offering dogs “a natural, satisfying job—a successful hunt and kill” (11). She emphasizes the predatory nature of dogs and translates the sport into their language, comparing the frisbee to “a bird flying in the sky” (11) that disc dogs want to hunt and catch. Seeing the disc through the eyes of a canine companion, Heeter begins her osmosis across the dog–human boundary. Moreover, what leads disc-dog handlers to decide to take up the sport is, partly, an understanding of their dogs as possessing a strong predilection for high-speed chasing, catching prey, and high-energy play. Doggish ways of being in the world—those the handler learns through interaction with their dog and to which they submit—are then manifested on the field as athletic dynamism in the interspecies project of canine frisbee. The handlers, in making themselves affordances for doggish pursuits and sensibilities, take on characteristics of their dogs’ behavior: they “bark” encouragement, fetch discs from the ground, get on all fours, roll on the floor and engage in the general rough-and-tumble of bodily contact. In playing with their dogs, they play like their dogs.

26Furthermore, in wanting to identify and nurture not only doggish styles of interaction but also the individual interests of their dogs, American disc-dog handlers remain open to fitting together with their partners in exciting and unpredictable ways. Firstly, spontaneous improvisation may be necessary when planned routines go awry—for example, teams may need to fall back on easier, less dynamic skills in order to keep the interaction going and the coordination alive. However, handlers may decide before the performance begins that they will improvise parts or even the whole structure of a routine’s choreographic form. This kind of performance is even regarded as a superior form of disc dog by some expert players of the game (“Disc Dog Q&A” 00:11:37-00:11:55; Gorant 230). Articulating his preference for improvisation, Cruz appears to locate what it is that makes disc dog a worthwhile pursuit for dogs and handlers within the solutions he and his dogs suggest to one another—solutions proposed in the moment of performance—that overcome the difficulty of undetermined coordination. Cruz values this improvisation as the “free” quality that gives freestyle disc-dog play its name: “it’s freestyle! It’s free. It’s gotta be free. You want to do challenging stuff for your dog, so you don’t want to always have the same in-spin-throw, in-spin-throw” (“Disc Dog Q&A” 00:11:37). The coordination between Cruz and his dogs therefore emerges in real time despite the absence of a predetermined plan—one that would choose the choreography for the team’s members and to which the dog and handler would surrender their own freedom of choice. This freedom, for Cruz, is what makes the sport enjoyable for dog and handler alike.

27Secondly, unlike the handlers’ more informal support for improvisation, innovation—which expresses the individuality of a handler and dog pairing—is encouraged throughout the USDDN’s scoring system, and teams who fail to add unique skills (and thus individuality) to their routines will risk losing points across multiple marking criteria (USDDN). For world champions Peter Bloeme and Jeff Perry, “Innovation… is what separates the great teams from the merely good teams” (ch. 9), and, likewise, for Andrew Han, “You always want to see about elevating things or trying to come up with new and unique moves” (00:09:55). An example of an original skill is vividly described by Gorant. Recognizing that Wallace is not as agile on the field as other top disc dogs due to his muscular pit-bull frame, Roo focuses instead on devising a new strength-based skill that creatively challenges what an ideal disc dog might be:

Roo knew in order to succeed they’d have to put their own spin on things… [H]is big creation was something called the Power Spin. To execute it, Wallace would grab one end of a disc and Roo the other. Roo would spin until Wallace actually lifted off the ground, his body levitating outward like one of the elephants on the Dumbo ride at Disney. Roo would then lift and rotate his arms over his head while Wallace held on… It wasn’t the greatest trick in the history of canine disc, but it showed off the pair’s unique abilities: Not many other people would be strong enough to swing a fifty-pound dog around their head, and not many dogs would be strong enough to hold on. (Gorant 112)

28Choreographing the Power Spin, Roo highlights what makes his partnership with Wallace unique—namely, their shared physical strength and Wallace’s determination to hold on to the disc. Through such a display of power and drive, Roo transforms Wallace’s physical disadvantages with respect to traditional expectations of ideal disc dogs into an advantage. Crucially, this transformation relies on the sport’s privileging of individuality and of interspecies becoming-with; the rules of canine frisbee leave room for the unexpected as it may emerge from the assemblage of handler and dog, and so by rewarding innovation, the sport also encourages handlers to see their relationship with their canine partners as a process of mutual and open exploration in which a human and dog learn more about their entanglement as distinctive individuals with uniquely shaped abilities and desires, both natural and nurtured.

29Włodarczyk describes such attitudes to dog–human interaction as involving a willingness amongst human players to “be more dog” (Genealogy of Obedience 211). For Fox et al., this is a reversal of traditional dog-training interactions that attempt to mold dogs in order to make them “more human” (7). As Włodarczyk also notes, the rising popularity of dog-oriented sports such as canine frisbee has resulted, in part, from the ethical dilemma presented by behaviorism—the scientific field that influenced positive-reinforcement-based dog-training strategies—with regard to its definition of freedom (Genealogy of Obedience 203). In short, while positive reinforcement frees dogs from training strategies reliant on punishment, it nevertheless reproduces dog–human relationships shaped predominantly (but not totally) by handlers who manipulate their dogs’ environments in a process that is largely one-directional; from such a perspective, freedom is still being denied to dogs by handlers when handlers deprive their canine partners of opportunities to transform how the team might live together, placing their own interests over and above those of their dogs in the pursuit of interspecies harmony. Yet, the issue is complicated by the fact that positive reinforcement is itself shaped by dogs’ desires for food and/or for play, meaning that, in order for handlers to achieve an interaction characterized by a particular choreography, they must already dedicate themselves to providing their partners with what they, as dogs, find rewarding. How dog-oriented sports, including disc dog, seem to interrupt the instrumentalizing of dog desires towards anthropocentric goals, therefore, is through their integration of choreographic form and reward: here, the activity itself is the reward since the game takes into account dogs’ interests beyond the chance of receiving a tasty treat or the quick flash of a toy.

30Nevertheless, despite creating forms of interaction that are intended to be inherently rewarding for dogs, many handlers of dog-oriented sports do not entirely let go of the pre-planned design that underpins the coherent whole of dog–human interspecies harmony. Rather, satisfying a dog’s interests in, for example, biting, a chase, or even smells (as in the sport of scent work) becomes part of and subsumed by a design for shared dog–human lives that momentarily embraces doggish behavior so that humanly conceived rules of conduct both on and beyond the sporting field can be achieved (or can, at least, become an aim that may fall short in practice). This thinking appears to characterize the ways in which authorities on disc dog conceptualize their sport and its relationship to shared dog–human lives more broadly. For instance, in their training handbook Disc Dog: The Complete Guide, Bloeme and Perry describe how the sport instrumentalizes the fun and challenge of chasing and catching a disc in the creation of a well-behaved dog—one “that used to bounce off the walls,” but now, after playing frisbee with their handler, “would sleep contently at their masters’ feet” (ch. 1). Similarly, Jim Gorant’s Wallace tells the story of how the book’s titular pit bull was saved from a shelter in Minnesota and rehabilitated by Roo through participation in disc dog. With the support of his wife Clara, Roo dedicated himself over a number of years to proving that Wallace was capable of becoming a companion dog, that he was worthy of a life, and that prejudice against the pit bull breed wrongly condemns dogs such as Wallace. As Gorant writes, Roo and Clara remained adamant that Wallace “wasn’t a bad dog; he was simply a high-drive working dog with a well-developed prey instinct and no direction for his abundant energy” (41). Disc dog would eventually become the main outlet for Wallace’s boisterousness: the personality traits that may have defined him as unadoptable were, instead, to become central to his success not only as a disc dog (for Wallace and Roo were eventually crowned world champions) but also as a partner and companion who complimented his human’s athletic inclinations.

31How dog-oriented activities presuppose interspecies harmony between dogs and humans in their day-to-day lives together is most directly articulated by Melissa Heeter. For Heeter, harmony between certain dogs and humans relies on handlers finding opportunities for their dogs to live authentically as dynamic predators: “Dogs like to run, jump, chase, and bite prey, so through a simple game of fetch, a dog can become a healthy and happy companion for life” (10). Moreover, disc dog’s simulation of the act of hunting is framed in the book’s introduction as a kind of pressure valve for dogs’ predatory instincts: if pressure is left to build, the dog will become increasingly uncontrollable. However, the predator’s energy can, thankfully, be exhausted, for as Heeter writes, “A tired dog is a good dog. Daily exercise can turn your bad dog into a great companion” (11). What is more, to let such opportunities for exercise slip is, ultimately, to risk losing one’s authority since, as Heeter also claims, “a bored dog has the potential to create his own jobs, and you just might not like the ones he chooses” (10).

5. All Work and No Play?: Fun and the Disc-Dog Competition

32For many handlers in the US, it is the feeling they experience while playing the sport—or, rather, when the playing is successful—that brings them back to the competition field. As Bloeme and Perry note, “The shared activity of canine disc play will create a special bond of friendship and mutual respect that will help both canine and human relate better to one another” (ch. 1). For both Watson and Gorant, this better form of relating is conceptualized in terms of a “connection” between members of the dog–handler team. Watson defines connection as “communication with purpose,” adding that it is “The sending and receiving of information between dog and handler to navigate a freestyle jam [his term for playing canine frisbee]” (ch. 1). Hence, if a dog and handler are communicating well, the team is promised a sense of mutual understanding and commonality.

  • 2 This is similar to psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, which he characterises (...)
  • 3 As Jack Harrison notes, the desired quality of riding in the sport of dressage is, specifically, th (...)

33Moreover, the language Watson and Gorant use to describe the experience of participating in the intercommunication of connection implies the presence of a challenge, albeit one that is enjoyable for the player and that is overcome calmly and without struggle. As Watson explains: “The Zone, Satori, Flow State—call it what you will, once that happens between you and a dog, even for a moment, the world is a better place” (ch. 1).2 Similarly, Gorant’s account of Roo’s achievement of connection with Wallace—a rare but joyous sensation for Roo—notes the “singularity of purpose,” “perfect synchronicity,” and “instant almost nonverbal communication” Roo feels on entering such a connection (137). These experiences resonate with findings in human–animal studies scholarship—particularly studies of horse–rider interaction, which describe how riding partners communicate through feel, touch and kinesthetic sense. Researchers interested in these riding interactions have noted how horses and riders will sometimes attune to one another, sharing thoughts and feelings at speed without conscious effort: during moments of attunement, intentions are communicated such that interspecies teams co-create their movements as if they were one harmonious body, like the mythical centaur (Game; Maurstad et al. 327; Dashper 9; Harrison 147).3 Considering the observations made by Watson and Roo Yuri in terms of harmonious attunement, we suggest that feelings of connection—those sought by handlers on the field—are experiences of dynamic–routinized harmony as a node of interspecies harmony and interspecies becoming-with. That such feelings are, in fact, engendered through dynamic–routinized harmony on the field can be gleamed in Watson and Gorant’s writings above on ideal experiences in disc dog, which identify connected dog–human teams as engaging in flowing, immediate, cool interactions that display individuals’ freedom in applying their own bodily power at the same time as they are locked in to one another’s actions (and thus seemingly unfree as predestined parts of a whole).

34It is Haraway who invokes this knot of interspecies harmony and interspecies becoming-with most distinctly. Despite her study being on dog–human relations in the context of agility rather than disc dog, Haraway’s account of what it feels like when she and her dog Cayenne are fully connected and thus performing to the best of their ability reflects the latter sport’s folding of its openness to a dog’s dynamic animality into and around its routinization of the dog and handler as parts of a unified entity. Here, Haraway describes the meeting of intimacy, embodied intersubjectivity, and precise communication with power and vitality: “The ‘zone’ for us is about speed, for sure, but speed organically braided in a joint, subject-transforming dance that makes the really good runs ‘slow’; that is, we see and feel each other, see each other’s eyes, feel each other’s moving bodies. Not a wild dash, but trained regard” (176). Like Watson, Haraway refers to this experience of the dynamically harmonious routine as “the zone.” The zone constitutes a goal of dog–human interrelating; it does not always transpire, but when it does, the bond between dog and handler is felt to deepen. Haraway argues that agility’s promise of achieving such a state of connection—something both she and Cayenne feel as “joy” (241)—is what attracts handlers to compete seriously in the sport. She is clear that “joy is not the same thing as fun” and that joy, not fun, is the primary motivator for agility teams: “I don’t think very many people and dogs would keep doing agility just for the fun; fun together is both unreliable in agility and more easily had elsewhere” (241).

35Haraway also describes how the joy shared between herself and Cayenne during a particularly successful agility run intersubjectively transmutes across the divide of team and spectators (241). In disc dog, the feeling of connectedness between a dog and handler who perform a dynamically harmonious routine is, likewise, highly contagious: judges and audiences do not simply watch and identify connection on the field but come to experience it sensationally. As Watson writes, “Communication between a working dog and handler is affective—to see it is to feel it” (ch. 1). Moreover, seeing the team working seamlessly together implicates the audience in the game of disc dog itself as they “imagine the ‘discussions’ required to get there” (Watson, ch. 1).

36However, in contrast to Haraway’s account of agility, there is also a significance granted by disc-dog handlers to the porousness of disc-dog’s field boundary as regards the fun of the event. Audiences enjoy the drama of each frisbee throw as an unfolding story about dog–human collaboration. They understand the significance of a catch as a measure of dog–human harmony and—without having as great a stake in the game, for they are not themselves a part of the team—experience an amusing sense of anticipation at the dog’s success or failure.

37Additionally, offering their perspective as handlers, Christopher Cruz (“Team Hero Routine Breakdown” 00:15:03) and Andrew Han (00:02:00) both stress the need for showmanship in canine-frisbee performance and encourage breaking the fourth wall during a routine in order to playfully acknowledge an audience. Handlers will often address their audience directly, gesturing for them to clap along to the music that accompanies their routine or taking time after a featured skill to look out to the audience and smile, inviting applause. The music itself—usually a rock, pop-rock, or hip-hop track—engenders the atmosphere and thrill of a music festival and feeds the adrenaline of the performers who, as Bloeme and Perry attest, must “live up to the energy and excitement of the music” (ch. 10). Through the narrative of the catching and the musical energy, audiences at disc-dog competitions are invited to share in the fun of the performing team, and the fun they experience permeates back onto the field.

  • 4 The handlers’ apparent refusal to privilege connection over fun or vice versa, in contrast to Haraw (...)

38Hence, disc-dog handlers, in contrast to Haraway, appear to have a harder time privileging the feeling and image of connection or joy induced by a competitive disc-dog performance over the fun of playing and spectating the sport.4 Indeed, the tension arising between the pursuit of dog–canine connection, the pursuit of a competitive routine, and the state of mutual enjoyment shared by dog, handler, and audience as a consequence of simply playing or watching the game unfold is a ubiquitous issue across disc-dog training materials and personal accounts of participating in the sport. For instance, in Watson’s Tao of Disc Dog, canine frisbee takes many guises. The canine frisbee competition is, firstly, a means by which handlers can find objectivity in their qualitative experience of disc dog and quantitative proof of something they perhaps wish to be true or already suspect, which is that their relationship is special amongst other dog–human partners. Watson presents the issue as a matter of arithmetic. In this equation, skill level and interspecies fun both need to be maximized in order to earn prestige at a competition: “The Way for you is the way that makes you, your dog, and the team look good, that demonstrates safe and successful play while making you and your dog happy. If you can do that, the looking cool part is pretty easy. Competence + Confidence = Cool (more score)” (ch. 1). Watson’s mathematics seems to suggest that looking cool amongst one’s peers by scoring well on the field is the primary goal—the sum—towards which handlers and dogs work. However, this view is contradicted elsewhere in Tao of Disc Dog. On the opening page of the third section of Chapter 1, Watson argues that, while important, a handler’s concern for the competitiveness of their routine (namely, the way it looks) should be subordinated to the ongoing process of learning about one’s team and how different patterns of communication and coordination might be nurtured with respect to performing dynamic–routinized harmony: “Competition,” he writes, “is of the Way for many of us, but it is not the focus—it’s not the point—and as such should not limit or prohibit the exploration and joy of the game” (ch. 1). The previous section of Watson’s book, however, begins instead by locating fun at the heart of canine frisbee. This emphasis on fun finds expression in a rather tongue-in-cheek epigraph beginning the second section of Chapter One—“‘If you’re not having fun, what are you doing?’ Ancient Frisbee proverb”—whose framing of a straight-talking appeal to common sense as spiritual wisdom embodies the playfulness Watson envisions for the sport.

39Bloeme and Perry’s training guide also recognizes the gaps, overlaps, and elisions between competition, harmony, and fun in disc dog. Their guide quotes advice from top handlers past and present about how to best triangulate oneself as a competitor pulled by these different gravities. The counsel offered by Mark Muir exemplifies the position maintained by many of these handlers, which is that the playing must, primarily, be a good time for the performing team and the audience alike: “when I compete, I do so with the philosophy of just having fun with my dogs, enjoying my time with them, and making people smile. If we finish in the top tier, then that makes the true reward just a little sweeter” (qtd. in Bloeme and Perry, ch. 15). Without the fun, disc dog—to continue Muir’s culinary metaphor—is all icing and no cake, and ultimately fails to capture the simple pleasure handlers and audiences value in dog–human play.

40Furthermore, whereas deep connections are felt in the successful pursuit of dynamic–routinized harmony, fun in disc dog does not have to be contingent on achieving or failing to achieve such harmony or the state of connection that accompanies it. Fun emerges through the act of playing the game, engaging an audience, and setting oneself to the game’s challenges rather than through its mastery. For disc-dog handlers, striving to master dynamic–routinized harmony in the pursuit of a competitive performance (and thus forgetting to have fun) can actually get in the way of a good performance. The effect of a handler’s stress on their dog, who will likely identify and interpret their partner’s stress as related to a force threatening the continuation of their partnership, is, again, addressed by Watson in Tao of Disc Dog. Taking on the mindset of an anxious handler, Watson imagines this player’s inner narration as they deal with failing to perform to the standard they have set themselves: “Well, I’m tough. I can handle it.” He then responds to the handler: “Yup, you might be able to. Can your dog handle you ‘handling it’? How about the team?” (ch. 1). A dog who is stressed (and thus unlikely to be having fun) will be unable to perform with dynamic–routinized harmony: they will not be connecting. Hence, handlers express a need to let go of high expectations in order to perform well (Gorant 186; Buckland, qtd. in Bloeme and Perry, ch. 3). Paradoxically, then, the game of canine frisbee must become simply a means to a fun time if the team is to progress beyond the sport as merely a fun time. Fun, here, presupposes dynamic–routinized harmony while stress ultimately blocks its emergence.

6. Conclusions

41Through an examination of the relationship between concepts of harmony and discourse on ideal dog–human relations in American disc dog, we hope to have demonstrated the importance of specificity when it comes to applying the term “harmony” to multispecies relationships. Thinking of harmony as merely one kind of ideal interaction between humans and animals, we believe, risks brushing over both the different ways that parts of a whole can be simultaneously understood to “fit together” and the various significances of these parallel forms of harmony within a particular cultural and historical context. On the other hand, thinking of harmony in the plural—of harmonies—lends greater precision to analyses of what counts as an ideal canine–human interaction in a particular context and how handlers make meaning—and so construct who they are with their dogs—through navigation of these multiple harmonies.

42Here, we have shown how ideal relations between dogs and handlers in canine frisbee circumnavigates interspecies harmony and interspecies becoming-with—what we have called dynamic–routinized harmony. Developing this form of harmony demands, firstly, an openness to transformation through attunement to canine natures as well as an openness to the undetermined encounter and its emergent choreographies. Secondly, it demands the conditioning of dogs so that they respond in predictable ways to certain stimuli, which then makes possible the smooth execution of predetermined, humanly conceived routines; dog–human partnerships appear predestined—they are a unity by design—when partners move in precise, flowing coordination with one another.

43An important question yet to be addressed is why disc dog’s particular form of harmony—that which navigates between multiple harmonies—holds such significance to American disc-dog handlers. The sport’s privileging of the dynamically harmonious routine, we propose, articulates a belief vis-à-vis the need to recognize the dual nature of living with a dog, which is that dog ownership constitutes a serious responsibility, but also, as part of that serious responsibility, a dog owner owes their dog fun—fun from the dog’s perspective. Closeness with a dog, as it is represented by American disc-dog handlers both in discourse and on the field, therefore, does not have to mean sacrificing that dog’s supposed animality: throwing and catching frisbees together can be a way for the two to coexist, for while the latter identity is constructed on the field with a visual demonstration of dynamic and animalistic Otherness, the former—canine–human intimacy—transmutes across the field boundary as coordinated action and mutually enjoyed interaction both during and beyond the disc-dog game. In the above texts written by or about expert handlers in the sport, canine frisbee is prized as a strategy by which dogs can be brought into a state of interspecies harmony without the need to stifle their doggish natures; within the dynamically harmonious routine, dogs can continue to pursue their own interests alongside their human, and the human who participates in the sport remains open to and transformed by their dog’s interests through interspecies becoming-with. Hence, fitting together in disc dog constitutes both a process of interspecies becoming-with—of transformation on encountering the alterity of individual dogs on the field—and of interspecies harmony, where handlers design choreography (for competition or for life more broadly) and train with their dogs in order to smoothly execute those plans in the pursuit of a routine, whether theatrical or practical.

44The Otherness of dogs as agile, hyper-alert, bounding bodies is attractive to players and spectators alike in a manner that compliments the attractiveness of dogs as beings who enjoy human intimacy, for as Watson notes in Tao of Disc Dog, “Frisbee dogs make people smile, especially their handlers. There is a spirit of pure joy and freedom in a dog chasing a disc that is something to behold” (ch. 1). What the dynamically harmonious routine makes possible, then, is a dog who straddles both paths to ideal dog–human relations as they have been imagined in the US: one leading to a relationship with an untainted dog of “nature” and the other to a relationship with “man’s best friend”—the latter exemplified by the rough collie bitch Lassie in Eric Knight’s 1938 story and its subsequent Hollywood film adaptations. Therefore, in this arrangement, handlers encounter a dog that is both free and unfree since it is the “natural,” instinctive, high-energy dog manifesting on the field who becomes synchronized to their human’s desires in the performance of both the disc-dog routine and the routines of human society (in which a dog who “create[s] his own jobs,” in the quote from Heeter above, is also a “bad dog”).

  • 5 See Bunds and Casper for an introduction to the study of sporting culture through a critical enviro (...)
  • 6 In his book The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam promotes the act of failure as a creatively disrup (...)

45Moreover, canine frisbee dogs can be read as meaningful to contemporary US culture more broadly, for these dogs make possible an apparent reality—manifested on the disc-dog field—in which the interests of nature, embodied in the chasing, leaping, biting dogs, are “harmoniously” aligned with the interests of the human handlers. As the United States grapples with both its responsibility for the future of the environment and its origins as a settler-colonial state founded on institutionalized dispossession and extractivism, the triangulation of human, nature, and technology represented by the handler, dog, and frisbee, respectively, poses questions about what kind of relationship between these historical categories is to be deemed harmonious, and therefore celebrated, through American sport.5 Freestyle disc dog, we wish to emphasize, is an activity that neither inherently privileges human interests nor celebrates technology as a means of subordinating and controlling nature; in fact, the anthropocentrism of America’s settler colonialism is regularly challenged within the sport because, in practice, disc dog routines—to think queerly with Jack Halberstam—often fail:6 it could be that the handler’s dog is not interested in the frisbee; or perhaps they are too interested in chewing the frisbee on their own; perhaps the handler makes a poor throw; and so on. Failure in disc dog is common since disc-dog teams often struggle to coordinate themselves to make successful catches. Yet, significantly, media coverage of disc dog in training handbooks and online videos focuses not on what can be enjoyable about a failed catch, but, rather, on performances in and strategies through which the game is “played well”—where the efficient control of dogs exerted and evidenced through the technology of the frisbee not only mirrors a capitalist logic of success and efficiency but also makes possible the actual generation of capital from animal bodies with company sponsorship of canine frisbee events and the rise of star performers who, if they are to remain aspirational with regard to the image of human–canine harmony, are expected to provide a successful show. While these media are not the sport itself, the two can potentially work together in ways that reproduce American settler-colonial hierarchies of humans and nature.

46However, it is also worth highlighting American handlers’ sensitivity to the danger that arises when the pursuit of dynamic–routinized harmony is no longer anchored by a concern for what real dogs want and need, including fun. For instance, when the pursuit of connection on the field becomes a commercial product designed for mass entertainment and viewed beyond the informed world of dog trainers, what is being sold is the story and image of dog–human relating and, ultimately, the fun this spectacle organizes. The danger here is that the spectacle of dynamic–routinized harmony risks becoming the handler’s primary concern, replacing a focus on the interaction itself, is always under evaluation as something that might be at odds with mutual dog–handler fun. “The cardinal rule,” Bloeme and Perry write, “should always be paws before paycheck. Never let money cause you to ignore important safety considerations and the well-being of your best friend” (ch. 13). Yet, as Włodarczyk argues, it is not so simple to disentangle one from the other since disc dog’s DNA spirals around Stein’s original dreams of Hollywood fame and fortune—dreams that would lead him to put his dog Ashley at risk of homelessness as a result of his arrest (“Canine Disc” 287-88). The spectacle of disc dog, therefore, does not sit easily with most handlers’ genuine concern for their dogs’ welfare, for not only does the visual narrative of dynamic–routinized harmony entertain audiences, it also potentially distracts handlers from the responsibility of continuing to listen to their dogs’ changing needs and desires. Handlers feel and anxiously navigate such pitfalls, recognizing that their companion’s wellbeing may well sit perpendicular to both the dynamically harmonious routine and a chance at disc-dog glory.

Work on this article was supported by the National Science Centre, Poland, under the grant “Figurations of Interspecies Harmony in Literature, Film and Other Cultural Texts of the English-Speaking Sphere, from the mid-19th to the 21st Centuries” [UMO-2020/38/E/HS2/00130]

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1 “Frisbee” is a proprietary eponym for flying discs and was originally a trademark of the Wham-O toy manufacturer.

2 This is similar to psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, which he characterises as an “intense experiential involvement in moment-to-moment activity”; flow emerges when “Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity” (230).

3 As Jack Harrison notes, the desired quality of riding in the sport of dressage is, specifically, that of “harmony” between the horse and rider (149).

4 The handlers’ apparent refusal to privilege connection over fun or vice versa, in contrast to Haraway, is likely related to the different concepts that are accessible to these handlers and to the philosopher by which they might come to understand, categorize and hierarchize their experiences.

5 See Bunds and Casper for an introduction to the study of sporting culture through a critical environmental studies lens and Gems for an overview of the imperial history of American sport.

6 In his book The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam promotes the act of failure as a creatively disruptive force that works against constructed behavioral norms attempting to restrict or banish difference. As he writes: “Conversation rather than mastery indeed seems to offer one very concrete way of being in relation to another form of being and knowing without seeking to measure that life modality by the standards that are external to it” (12).

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Electronic reference

Jack Harrison and Sara Kruszona, “The Way of Disc Dog”: Navigating Harmonies in American Canine FrisbeeEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2024, Online since 07 February 2024, connection on 20 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Jack Harrison

Jack Harrison (he/him) is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Warsaw’s Institute of English Studies where he works as a member of the Figurations of Interspecies Harmony grant team, funded by the Polish National Science Centre. Before moving to Warsaw in 2021, Jack studied at the University of Toronto where he completed his PhD in ethnomusicology. His research explores the stakes involved when culturally constructed divisions between human and nonhuman animals are musically blurred or crossed in different sociocultural contexts, including canine and equine sports, transnational strategies of mosquito control and, most recently, in human–coyote encounters. His writing has been published in Ethnomusicology Forum and Sound Studies.

By this author

Sara Kruszona

Sara Kruszona is a graduate of Theater Studies and Interactive Media and Performances at Adam Mickiewicz University and is currently a doctoral student at the Interdisciplinary Doctoral School at the University of Warsaw. Her dissertation examines sport shows and trainer shows with nonhuman animals (specifically, dogs and horses). In addition to her research work, she is engaged in the practice of dog training and leads her private life in the company of her female dog Suli.

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