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Do Great Danes usually love water? Are they natural swimmers? Do they have a passion for retrieving? With many members of the breed, the answer to these questions would be “no.” But Millie the Great Dane, a gentle giant dubbed ‘Marmaduke’ by the hospitalized veterans she visits, would answer “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Four-year-old Millie and her owner, April Whitson of Blountville, Tenn., know Great Danes may be surprising to be seen in the water, but Whitson says it’s what Millie loves the most.

Discovering the Joy of Swimming

If you check the North America Diving Dogs (NADD) competition roster, you’ll see plenty of Labrador Retrievers and Border Collies participating. But a Great Dane at Diving Dog competitions? There certainly aren’t as many.

At first, Whitson took her Border Collie to a diving dogs’ clinic, but he wasn’t keen on jumping into the water. The next year, she took Millie. She was young but also big, difficult to teach, and nervous in the water.

“I wanted her to be able to swim so she’d be safe in my family’s pool, so I started working with her on my own,” says April. “One day Millie discovered she could get the toy from my Border Collie if she jumped over him into the pool, and the rest is history.”

Big Dog, Small Pond

“When we first started in the sport, I had no clue what I was doing. When the judge asked where Millie had been jumping, on average, so she could go stand at that general area for judging, I guessed about 10-12 feet.” Millie jumped 19.2 feet and soaked the judge.

Dog grabbing a toy in a pool
Photo by Gretel Player
Millie is often one of the bigger dogs at the sport, but she loves every minute of it.

Despite Millie’s love for the water, Whitson has run into a few challenges with diving dogs, due to her size. First of all, not everyone can hold on to a giant dog on the diving platform, so Whitson made sure to teach Millie a solid sit/stay.

Then there’s Millie’s excitement over the sport, because she often gets zoomies on the dock. “She shakes the whole thing, and this can be terrifying for us humans on a mobile dock,” Whitson says.

Millie also hates to be chilly. If the water is cold, she chatters her teeth, sucks air in her mouth, makes a weird noise, and refuses to function.

Great Dane Makes Big Waves

Although she stands out amongst other competitors, Millie lives for dock diving, according to Whitson. “I don’t ever see this dog that happy at any other time in her life.” As soon as she sees her owner pack the car with her dock bag and crate, she whines, paces, and drools with excitement. “Once we get to an event, Millie will literally tremble with excitement sometimes until she gets her turn to jump.”

While Millie also enjoys weight pull and Fast CAT, Dock Diving is certainly her favorite.

April and Millie have competed in Masters, Senior, and Elite competitions. Although Millie’s jumps are averaging a whopping 23 feet, her personal best is 24.5 feet. Jumping above 24 feet qualifies a diving dog in the top “Elite” category.

Gentle Giant

As a gift to herself upon finishing graduate school, Whitson got Millie from a breeder in Knoxville, Tenn., but she’s not her only dog, or her only animal. Whitson and Millie live on a farm with horses, and together, they will do “farm chores,” which helps Millie stay in shape for competitions.

On the farm, Whitson also has a 10-year-old rough-coated Collie, a 7-year-old Border Collie who barn hunts and dock dives, and a 1-year-old Biewer Terrier. Despite their vast size difference, that tiny terrier is Millie’s best friend.

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Despite her size, Millie is quite a gentle dog, to both humans and other dogs.

Whitson also had a Yorkshire Terrier named Shasta who passed away last January. “When Millie was young, Shasta would only play with her if she brought her a special tiny toy. Now it’s the only toy my dog will dive for, and it looks hilarious I frequently have the biggest dog with the smallest toy,” Whitson laughs.

True to her breed, Millie believes everyone she sees is there with the sole purpose of petting her and gets offended when they don’t. She’s a registered therapy dog and likes to visit the local nursing homes. But, according to Whitson, Dock Diving is still her favorite.

Join Millie and Other Diving Dogs

For more information about how to get involved in the sport in your local area with your dog, visit NADD. Regardless of how far they jump, water-loving dogs will likely enjoy the sport. The AKC recognizes titles earned through NADD. To apply, simply complete the Title Application.

The AKC Diving Dogs Challenge participants making a splash! The AKC Diving Dogs Challenge is taking place February 24-25 in Glendale, AZ. Stay tuned for ESPN broadcast information! 

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