Puddle Jumpers

With the greatest of ease: The Air Dogs make it look so easy. Other dogs must be jealous; they’re not allowed at the festival. But they can stay and play at the Doggie Jail in front of City Hall.

Ultimate Air Dogs might be the luckiest dogs at Bele Chere. In addition to touching down in a refreshing pool of water, they are the only animals allowed at the festival (other than service dogs).

Ultimate Air Dogs was created by former Detroit Tigers pitcher Milt Wilcox (he won the 1984 World Series with the team). Wilcox and his dog, Sparky, started the contest as part of a grassroots dock-jumping club in Michigan. (Sparky has performed on Good Morning America and The Late Show with David Letterman — making Sparky a very famous dog.) Wilcox is the still the main announcer for the events.

Who will win this year? The dogs we interviewed had little to say on the matter, but you could pretty much tell they were feeling competitive. And hungry. And distracted by squirrels.

Non-Ultimate dogs aren’t allowed downtown during the festival, and enforcement is strict. Forgot about that rule? This year, Animal Compassion Network, an Asheville-based animal rescue foundation, will be carrying on the tradition of the “Doggie Jail.”

“The most important thing for the dogs is a safe environment where they are comfortable and having fun. People can go in and enjoy the festivities knowing that their animals are taken care of,” says Cappy Tosetti, Animal Compassion Network’s volunteer coordinator. Instead of burning their paws and tripping pedestrians with their leashes, dogs are invited to relax. The lawn in front of City Hall will be transformed into a sanctuary of cold water, safe fences and large crates covered in sheets and blankets. Dogs get walked every 45 minutes, and the large magnolia tree provides shade. For an hourly fee, Animal Compassion Network keeps dogs out of harm’s way and raises money for its foster animal program.

Although you won’t see animals roaming the streets of Asheville, there will be plenty of opportunities to watch dogs soar through the air and lounge in the comfort of grassy Bele Chere Island.

The Doggie Jail accepts dogs on Friday from noon to 10 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. Cost is $5 for the first hour, $4 for subsequent hours, with a maximum of $20.

Ultimate Air Dogs will fly on Friday, starting at 6 p.m., Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Limited spots for demonstration rounds and splashes are available on the day of the jump.

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