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Ashley Whippet and His Great Leap to Stardom

December 19, 1986|MARILYN OLIVER

Alex Stein had a dream 15 years ago while a college student at Ohio State University. He dreamed that the 3-week-old puppy he'd just adopted would be famous.

In fact, the puppy would become Ashley Whippet, the dog who captured the World Frisbee Disc Canine Championship in 1975, 1976 and 1977, clinching the popularity of the sport that pairs a dog's speed and agility with human strength. Irv Lander, Stein's partner and co-promoter of the Ashley Whippet Invitational, a yearly contest held throughout the United States, says, "The sport provides both dog and owner with an excellent cardiovascular workout."

Stein, 35, and his dogs have appeared on a number of television shows and have performed as part of half-time and pregame shows in most of the major stadiums in the country. In 1977 they appeared at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. They even gave a performance at the White House for Amy Carter, after which they taught her dog, Grits, to catch a Frisbee. All this caused envy in some of Stein's more traditional classmates at Ohio State, who are still incredulous that someone could make a living and find fame in so unconventional a manner.

Fed From a Frisbee

While still a student, Stein knew that he had stumbled on something that had never been done before. He weaned his 3-week old puppy, a gift from a girlfriend, by feeding him from a Frisbee. Then, when Stein threw the disc, the dog learned to retrieve it, thinking it was his food dish.

By the time Ashley was 6 months old, he could jump 12 feet in the air to retrieve the disc. Stein would take the dog to the college green on the main campus around the time classes let out, and start throwing the Frisbee. He says, "The next thing I knew, there would be a crowd making a circle around us. Ashley would run, soar through the air, catch the Frisbee and bark. His loud, piercing bark would bring out people who were on the other side of the green. I did this every day on the campus, and I'd always get the same kind of crowd. The thought came to me, 'This dog is something special.' The dog amazed me. He would jump in the air and extend himself to the greatest limit that a dog could leap. It was like ballet. I knew there was some money to be made on it."

In 1972, Stein decided to try his luck in Hollywood. He says, "I thought I might take the dog out to make a commercial, but then I met with one of the trainers of dog actors. He said, 'Hey, kid, if you think you're going to make the big time off your dog, you had better think again. All they pay you is $100 a day, and if you can get one commercial a year, you're lucky.' "

Talent agents were also negative. Stein says, "I would call agents on the phone and say, 'I have a dog who weighs 28 pounds and stands 21 inches high at the shoulder, who can jump upwards of 9 feet in the air and can catch a Frisbee at 100 yards. They would answer, 'You have a what that does what?' and hang up. One even called me a crackpot and said they didn't talk to people like that."

Discouraging Contacts

His first contacts with the manufacturers of the Frisbee, Whammo Corp., were also discouraging. Stein says that some of the executives were put off by his wild looks and brash manner. He admits that at that time he looked like a typical student of the 1970s, with long hair adding to his rebellious appearance. At that time Frisbee catching was a rarity although the International Frisbee Assn. had a canine corps.

At one of the meetings with Whammo, Stein met Irv Lander, then president of the International Frisbee Assn. and now his partner. Lander was attracted by Ashley's talent and by Stein's optimism and determination. Lander says, "If I had to cut through red tape to accomplish something, I would ask Alex Stein to do it because he can cut through any obstacle and get success. He has been a good person for me to be around." Lander also shares Stein's love of dogs. Finally in 1974, Stein's persistence led Whammo to invite him to appear at the World Frisbee Championships, to be held later that year in the Rose Bowl.

In the meantime, Stein had been living at the beach for a year, painting houses for a living and training Ashley to further refine his skills. He finally realized that he would have to do something spectacular to get attention. This opportunity came in August, 1974, at a televised game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds at Dodger Stadium. Stein sneaked Ashley into the stadium, and at a fortuitous moment dashed out onto the outfield, timing their appearance to come after the commercial break preceding the ninth inning. Stein tossed his Frisbee, and Ashley went after it, soaring into the sky. The crowd roared and cheered at the unscheduled performance. The show went on for about eight minutes, after which Stein was arrested and separated from his dog. A 15-year-old boy sitting in the front row managed to lure Ashley off the field, taking him home to Long Beach.

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