It is a cool, overcast May morning in Huntington Beach, Calif., and I have just arrived at the beachside site of the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge (IDC) Western Regional competition. Already, the bleachers are filling with spectators who will spend the weekend watching dogs compete in events like diving dog, flying disc, Jack Russell hurdle racing, surf dogs and the agility course.
From the smallest papillon to the muscular Doberman and the tail-wagging, ball-chomping Labrador, more than 60 dogs have come to show their stuff. Many are past competitors who received a personal invitation from Purina; others showed up to see if they could qualify to compete against the veterans.
The Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge (IDC) is considered one of the premier human-dog sporting competitions in the country. Since 1997, the games have been played in cities throughout the U.S., bringing the best canine athletes together for a test of skill, speed and endurance.
Small Company, Big Events
One might think that this large, complicated event involving dogs and people from all over the country, plus a mega sponsor like Nestlé Purina, would be produced by a sizeable company out of New York or Los Angeles. But the program was the brainchild of Kathy and Paul Carson, two Ketchum locals whose sports promotion company, Carson International, has overseen and built the event over the past 18 years.
Its beginnings were modest. “We were putting on pro beach volleyball competitions for Jose Cuervo, and we were doing a Super Bowl event in San Diego,” explained Kathy Carson, president of Carson International. “Our halftime show was a Frisbee dog exhibition, and the ESPN executives who were there thought it was cool and said, ‘We should talk about doing this on TV.’ So we came up with an idea for sort of an X Games for dogs. Once ESPN agreed to do one show, we reached out to Purina in a cold call. They had just changed their marketing slogan to ‘Incredible dog food, incredible dogs,’ and it has been a success ever since.”
At the same time, Carson International and Purina introduced the original diving dog event. That first year, dogs dove perhaps 15 feet off a dock into a pond at Purina Farms. Today, with the IDC’s specialized runway and a 45-foot diving pool, dives can reach 34 feet.
Carson produces and manages the IDC events with only a small team in its Ketchum office, another 30 employees stationed around the country, and numerous freelance television and event staff who arrive like clockwork to work at the competitions. The company routinely uses many Ketchum vendors and services for the events to support the local community and economy.
–Kathy Carson, Co-Founder of Carson International
The privilege of being able to produce an internationally known event from a remote Idaho mountain community is not lost on Kathy and Paul Carson. “We love Ketchum, the outdoors and the people,” Kathy said. “We are so lucky to do these amazing events in places around the country, and then come back here to our home and raise our family and live in this paradise.”
Every year Carson International produces two regional IDC competitions and a national championship, all of which are filmed and syndicated for national broadcast by Carson’s television production arm.
They also produce another well-known dog event, The National Dog Show Presented by Purina, which airs every Thanksgiving Day on NBC. This partnership between Carson, NBC, Nestlé Purina, and the Philadelphia Kennel Club is one of the most watched dog shows of its kind, with more than 20 million people tuning in last year.
“We may be small, but we do big things,” laughed Kathy Carson
If You Build It, They Will Come
In Huntington Beach, the Carson team worked more than 27 hours to set up the event site atop an asphalt beachside parking lot, transforming it into a sprawling athletic arena with an ocean view to die for.
In the center of the expansive site, a 9,800-square-foot sod field has been installed for the agility, flying disc and Jack Russell racing events. At the end of the weekend, Carson and Purina will donate the sod to a local school’s soccer club.
Next to the field sits a gargantuan stage and the 25,000-gallon pool for the diving dog events. All the water from the pool will also be donated to the city of Huntington Beach for its drought-suffering plants and parks.
There are VIP and merchandise tents, television production trucks, jumbo video screens, bleachers and television cameras encircling the event area. Nothing has been overlooked, from unlimited dog watering bowls, to all-day catering for competitors, and a never-ending beat of funk, hip hop, and rock music to fuel the crowd.
A mile down the beach is the site of the unique surf dog competition where dogs of all sizes are riding the waves. The Carson team worked with lifeguards to find the safest spot for the dogs to surf. Kathy Carson noted that safety is always the highest importance. “Every surf dog wears a life vest and has three lifeguards surrounding them during their ride,” she said.
Dive Dog, Dive!
Amy Peterson and her Belgian Malinois, Hudson, drove from Vacaville, Calif., to compete for the fourth time in the diving dog event. In 2014, Hudson tied the world record but missed taking second place by 3 inches. She and Hudson have made it to the IDC Nationals twice but have not won…yet.
The team competes in diving events sponsored by other organizations, but Peterson said about the IDC, “This is, by far, the most fun and well-run event that we attend. The caliber of dogs is amazing; the crowds are huge, which always makes the dogs jump bigger. The dogs really feed off the energy of the crowd.”
And crowds love to watch diving dogs run full-throttle across a runway and jump as far as possible into a pool, splashing spectators in the process. Hudson had a monster 30-foot dive, yet he still placed fourth, which was a testament to the level of competition. The winning diving dog flew 30 feet, 10 inches.
“The best part is seeing your dog have fun,” said Peterson, a professional dog trainer. “I do a lot of obedience training with my dogs, and there are a lot of rules involved in that, so it’s nice to have a sport they can just enjoy.”
Run Dog, Run!
Keith Highley and his 6-year-old corgi-cattle dog mix, “Cisco,” traveled from Riverton, Utah, to compete in the small dog agility, a fast-paced sport in which a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course as fast and as accurately as possible. Cisco, a short-legged former rescue dog, zipped through the course in record time, earning first place and a trip to the IDC Nationals in St. Louis.
“Cisco is such a fierce competitor,” said Highley, a freelance sound mixer for reality television shows and documentaries. “We’ve been competing together for about five years. He’s the true athlete on the team, and it was up to me to come up to his level.
“Agility means different things to different people,” he added. “Some people feel it’s like playing with their dog; some people want to get ribbons and titles. I admit, I love the competition, but I love running with him as fast as we can while staying on course. It’s a rush.”
Dog people compete in the IDC not for money or rankings, but for a beautiful gold medal, bragging rights and the chance to win a national championship. In addition, Peterson and Highley agree that the IDC has rewarded them with longlasting friendships. “I’ve met people all over the U.S. and Canada who I would’ve never met. I’ve even been on national TV, and it’s all because of my dog,” Peterson laughed.
“There is so much mutual respect among us,” Highley said of his fellow competitors.” Almost without exception, people are so encouraging, and they really want you to succeed.”
At the end of the weekend, Carson’s sleek, black 18-wheel semi-tractor trailer rumbled away, packed to the brim with nearly every piece of equipment used during the competition. On the trailer, graphics depict some of the large national events Carson has managed over the years, from ski races and beach volleyball, to speed boat races and dog events. The motto, “We Bring It!” reflects Carson’s goal to create cutting-edge programs.
It’s a Lifestyle
Back in Ketchum, Kathy Carson reflected on what the IDC and other competitions have brought to both the competitors and the spectators.
“It’s a lifestyle, and it has truly built a bond and companionship between people and their dogs,” she said. “It gets people off the couch; it gets them active. We’ve had people who have gone through cancer treatment and have come out and done this. Today we have competitors in their early 20s who watched this event when they were kids and said, ‘I want to do that one day,’ and here they are.
“We have so much love for this program that we’ve helped to build, and we hope it will continue for many generations to come.”