"The Surest Jaws on All Four Paws": Ashley Whippet, Dog Frisbee Pioneer
The security guard at Dodgers Stadium eyed Alex Stein with suspicion. It was the top of the eighth inning, and Stein was coming from the parking lot and back into the arena. A dog followed a few feet behind him. Dogs were not welcome on the premises.
“That your dog?” the guard asked.
“Never seen him before in my life,” Stein said.
The man took the trespasser by his collar and shooed him out into the lot. Stein took his seat in the top row near the exit. A few moments later, the dog joined Stein and settled in under his seat. The guard’s attention had drifted elsewhere; the animal, Ashley, simply followed his owner’s scent into the bleachers.
This was, more or less, Stein’s plan. It was August 5, 1974, and the Los Angeles Dodgers were hosting the Cincinnati Reds during a nationally broadcast game on NBC. When the teams switched places at the bottom of the eighth, he was going to run on the field with Ashley and throw him a Frisbee.
He knew this would likely result in his arrest. But it would also be an opportunity to show off his dog’s talents, which included jumping nine feet into the air, running 35 miles per hour, and catching the flying discs with the balletic grace of Baryshnikov.
Stein watched the pitches being thrown during a warm-up. When 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 the Frisbee 40 yards. Ashley bounded over the three-foot wall and sunk his teeth into it before it could touch the ground.
Stein expected he could get off three or four throws before being hauled off, getting maybe a minute of exposure. “The police report said we were out there for eight minutes,” he tells mental_floss. “I think security knew that trying to catch a dog running that fast would not be a good idea.”
With fifty thousand people cheering in the stands and millions watching at home, Ashley and Stein effectively invented the phenomenon known as dog Frisbee. The animal seemed to linger in the air like Jordan off the rim, his massively-muscled hind legs propelling him skyward. His body contorted like a salamander swimming upstream, jaws gripping the disc. The outfielders sat down on the grass and watched.
Finally, Stein departed, jogging up the same set of stairs. Security was waiting near the top. They zip-tied his wrists and ushered him to a holding cell full of drunks and 8-track cassette thieves. Later, he and Ashley would perform on the White House lawn, on the Tonight Show and during the Super Bowl, earning the moniker of the “surest jaws on four paws” from no less an authority than Sports Illustrated.
For now, Ashley was still on the field, confused. He wanted to keep playing.
No one can say who first had the idea to launch a Frisbee into the air and watch their dog chase after it. Originally named Pluto Platters and marketed by the irreverent Wham-O toy company beginning in the late 1950s, the discs obviously held an inherent catch-and-fetch appeal. Stein knew he wasn’t innovating—but he did know he was the one of the few taking it seriously.
A sophomore at Ohio State University in 1971, Stein was gifted a three-week-old puppy named Ashley Whippet from his girlfriend, Lisa, who had named him after Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. Her family bred whippets, lean and muscular dogs reminiscent of greyhounds. Stein took Ashley back to the house he shared with 10 other students and began mixing food before he realized he hadn’t bought 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 would drag the empty disc across his bedroom floor with his toe, he noticed Ashley would stare at it like it held the secrets of the universe. Before long, Stein was tossing it to him outdoors and hanging it from a tree branch so Ashley could propel, piston-like, to retrieve it.
Stein was a man of casual plans. When winter came, he decided he’d rather live in Florida as a warm college drop-out than a cold student. It was in Stein's new home of Palm Beach where Ashley was forged into an athlete.
Measuring just 21 inches at the shoulder and 28 pounds on the scale, Ashley could leap eight feet into the air from the absorbent sand. Launching from such an unforgiving surface had given him a formidable physicality. “When he got back on grass, it was like being on a trampoline,” Stein says. Firmer footing added another 12 inches to his vertical.
Stein and Ashley went to the beach nearly every day for years, attracting crowds who couldn’t believe the agility and speed of the dog who caught 90 percent of Stein's throws. Stein would pass the Frisbee around after a performance looking for tips. He began to think there was a bigger audience for Ashley’s skills.
In 1974, the two headed for California, where Stein marched directly into the offices of Wham-O and told them he had a dog unlike anything they had ever seen. They weren’t interested. He left with a few collectible Frisbees.
Stein also tried cold-calling talent agencies, most of whom didn’t deal with animals or had no idea what Stein was trying to say. A neighbor in Manhattan Beach who was an agent shook his head when Stein told him he could throw a cape on Ashley and advertise things like Domino’s Pizza. No one, it seemed, shared Stein’s enthusiasm.
That’s when he was struck with the idea of storming Dodgers field. A radio broadcast mentioned the Reds would be in town the following evening, and so would NBC’s cameras. Stein figured it was his chance to get Ashley discovered. (Later, he’d have to explain to disbelieving Dodgers management that Wham-O hadn’t put him up to it.)
It went 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 a problem. After officials released him hours later, there was no sign of Ashley. The dog had seemingly vanished.
Stein called television stations and newspapers to spread the word of Ashley’s disappearance. One article caught the attention of a woman in Long Beach who noticed her 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.”
Stein and Ashley were soon 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 co-sponsored the First Annual Fearless Fido Frisbee Fetching Fracas dog competition. When Stein showed up to enter Ashley, however, he was told he wasn’t allowed.
“Your dog,” the woman said, “is a professional. This is for amateurs.”
An upstart Australian sheepdog named Hyper Hank won the Fracas and would later 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.
Owing to the sudden popularity of dogs and discs, the World Frisbee Championships decided to offer a canine division beginning in 1975. The rules have varied over the years, but were initially 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 like LeBron James playing pick-up basketball. He won the world title three years in a row, sometimes receiving byes 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.
The decorated performer also captured the attention of dog food companies like Gaines and Kal Kan. Like Olympic winners on a Wheaties box, Ashley endorsed their products in print ads; Stein would name-drop the brands during their many regional and national 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 and 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 was the one who 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. That same year, the two popped up during the Super Bowl XII pregame show and even appeared in an Academy Award-nominated short film about Frisbee competition, Floating Free.
Stein began getting requests for Ashley’s offspring. Like a champion steed, there was a belief that his abilities were in the blood. But of the 60-odd puppies he 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 on sand and innate desire to bring the Frisbee back just as quickly as he had caught it.
Ashley and Stein continued to make appearances at football games throughout the early 1980s. Though long retired from active competition, Ashley could still dart across a field, charging ahead for 50 to 60 yards before looking backward to gauge his catch. It seemed like age would never catch up with him.
In 1984, one of Ashley’s sons decided he wanted to take control of the Stein household. Ashley, normally of mild temperament, got into a fight and was put on the injury reserve. He stayed 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. A heartbroken Stein traveled for a few more years with Ashley’s family before calling it quits to run a deli business in Vermont.
Today, the Ashley Whippet Invitational hosts nearly a dozen regional and international competitions leading up to a finals event in October. Thousands of human and canine partners participate. Even though the sight of a dog frantically chasing after a Frisbee is no longer a novelty, few have been able to duplicate Ashley’s formidable speed and grace.
Stein remembers showing up to house parties while he was in college and not being allowed in if Ashley wasn’t with him. “That dog,” he says, “was loved by everybody.”