CHIEFLAND, Florida — Off a dirt road in this north central Florida town, 30 dogs howled in anticipation. With wide eyes and open mouths, they drooled at the 45-foot-long pool on a recent weekend.
In January, Chris and Kim Hutchko developed a five-acre facility for dog competitions called the Tracks K-9 Club, which is an affiliate club of the professional organization Ultimate Air Dogs.
Ultimate Air Dogs, founded by Milt Wilcox and his son in 2005, works with Purina Incredible Dog Challenge, a televised dog show, and hosts national dog competitions and events. There are 22 affiliated clubs across the U.S. and one coming soon in Australia, but the Tracks K9 Club is the only one in north central Florida.
“This is something that we brought to this area that nobody knows nothing about,” Chris Hutchko said. “No matter where we go here, we walk into Walmart or Tractor Supply, people are like, ‘Oh, you guys own that dog place, I’ve been wanting to stop by there.’”
Since retiring from the Bradenton Police Department last year, Chris Hutchko has devoted his time to competing two of his five dogs in water competitions while helping others train their own. He built the facility for personal training, but it has quickly become a club and now has almost 80 members.
“This is what we love to do,” he said. “All I do now is play with dogs all day long.”
He and his wife have hosted three of their own events as well as an Ultimate Air Dogs regional competition held at their facility. Their third event, Fall-tastic Splash, was earlier this month and featured three competition categories: Splash, Fetch-It and Chase-It.
Each category involves the dog jumping off a 40-foot-long dock into a pool. The first is judged by the distance the dog jumps, the second by how far it can grab a hanging toy and the third by how fast it can swim to the opposite end of the pool.
Hayley Cook, 27, competed in the splash category with her 9-month-old Czech German shepherd, Magni, an all-black dog who is obsessed with water. She said competing is expensive, but it is worth it when she sees how much fun he has.
“I’ve always known about the Ocala Dog Ranch, and they have a pool, and swimming is really good for dogs’ muscles,” she said. “So, we would go swimming and just hanging out, and he was obsessed with it from the beginning.”
Cook decided to try competing, and she said Magni immediately caught on. They have competed at the Ocala Dog Ranch since September, and this was their first time at Tracks K-9 Club.
Meanwhile, Jerri Rogers has gone to every Tracks K-9 Club event, making a 13-hour drive through the night from southeast Missouri with her two labs, Apple and Chilly.
She competes in other organizations closer to home, but she keeps coming back to Florida because of the people she has met at the events.
“Everyone here is family,” Kim Hutchko said.
Despite opening less than a year ago and moving into town shortly before that, the Hutchkos have built a community through their club. Competitors were not required to be Tracks K-9 Club members, but many of those who were wore matching shirts.
The shirts connected a common theme across the competition: a thin blue line. As a retired police officer, Chris Hutchko incorporated the “blue lives matter” statement across his merchandise and facility.
The blue-line flags waved from poles and trucks, and political messages in support of Donald Trump dominated the field. A flag reading “Let’s go, Brandon,” a conservative code for “F— Joe Biden,” waved from the We Gators Be Chillin’ mobile shaved ice and snow cone trailer catering at the event. Cars in the surrounding area showcased “MAGA” stickers and Confederate flag plates.
But not everyone proudly represented these messages.
Cook said she was taken aback by the emphasis on the blue line in the competition. She noted the welcoming environment but questioned how far those hospitalities actually went.
“If I come back to this venue, I’m gonna vend and sell a lot of LGBTQ stuff,” she said.
When the event came to a close on a recent Sunday evening, the nearly full moon shone through the darkening clouds. The top three finalists in each of the seven competing divisions received rosette ribbons and Tracks K-9 Club merchandise.
“We have brand new ribbons coming that are unbelievable,” Chris Hutchko said. “We literally take all the money we earn and put it back into giving people nice stuff.”