Some dogs can catch a frisbee. But it takes a truly special dog to handle catching one thrown out of the hands of the monstrous, green Phillie Phanatic without running the other way. But Phame, an 8-year-old Labrador Retriever, is up for the challenge, performing Disc Dog routines at halftime shows across the country.
Phame is used to remaining calm during intense situations as a Search and Rescue Certified Human Remains Detection Dog with her handler and owner Dr. Jennifer Brown, DVM.
The frisbee is Phame’s reward for this important and often draining work. She began competing in Disc Dog with Brown’s friend Gary Duke in 2015 and has qualified and participated in every UpDog Challenge International Final since it began in 2016. This year, she competed in Frizgility, Time Warp, and Greedy at the competition, which will air as the Disc Dog Challenge on ESPN2 on Friday December 9 at 2 p.m. EST.
Becoming Fierce with a Frisbee
Despite Phame’s ability to wow an audience, she actually wasn’t too impressed with disc sports as a puppy or any toy for that matter. But after watching her mom, Phanesse, have fun playing disc along with a few months of training and perseverance, she turned into a what Duke refers to as a “Frizbeast” and goes bonkers to play if a disc is in the vicinity.
Duke became connected to Dr. Brown for her veterinary services and has become Phame’s main handler for these competitions.
“I’ve been competing with her ever since and had a nice little journey along the way,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to see how a dog that really didn’t show the natural ability right off the bat to ultimately turn onto it and start to enjoy it.”
Because Phame lives with Dr. Brown, most of her training happens at home and is perfected leading up to the competition. For the Disc Dog Challenge, Duke took her a week before the show to work on the games. Then the pair drove from Tampa, Florida, to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the competition.
However, Phame is happy to go where a frisbee is.
“She’s used to going off with Gary, she loves Gary,” Dr. Brown says. She’s one of those kinds of dogs that’ll go with anybody she loves, like ‘You’ve got the disc, I’ll go with you. No, problem.’”
Greedy is Duke’s favorite game to play with Phame as it requires the most movement from the handler. Phame is the first Labrador Retriever to earn the Disc Dog Unobtanium Elite title, and based on her past performances, Duke believes she can place in the top 10.
Entertaining With a Catch
Duke first got involved in Disc Dog halftime shows through a local club that works with some of the local sports teams in Tampa. As his prominence became known, he was eventually sponsored by the disc company Hero Disk USA, which opened the door to more shows nationwide.
This has involved him and Phame showing off their skills during halftime shows for NFL, AFL, MLS, MLB, NWSL teams. But the highlight might have been the halftime show for the Philadelphia Phillies where Phame played with the iconic (but frightening) Phillie Phanatic for the mascot’s 40th birthday.
“We got invited to come out and do the pregame and in-game entertainment, and Fame even went as far as to let the fanatic throw her a couple of Frisbees during one of the middle of innings,” Gary says. “And she caught two or three discs that he threw while he was in costume. So, that was really cool.”
While some dogs might be a bit wary of a giant green costume, Phame remained unphased so long as there was a disc to catch, which Duke contributed to her focus as a Human Remains Detection Dog. Although she’s a steady and accurate catcher, he says that doesn’t always translate to every dog performing well with a camera and cheers in the mix.
Phame has proved herself to be an excellent performer, and Duke wants to continue performing with her for as long as possible.
“The buildup in a stadium, which is so big compared to what fields that we’re accustomed to playing on, it translates so well when you get the buildup of that chase for the disc,” he says. “Once the dog snags it out of the air, the crowd just erupts and goes wild.”
An Important Job Off the Field
Phame has another important job. She’s a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Certified Human Remains Detection Dog with Florida Task Force 2 and has done the work to find missing bodies and provide closure for families and loved ones. She’s been deployed for disasters like the aftermath of 2022 Hurricane Ian to the 2021 Champlain Towers collapse in Surfside, Florida.
Dr. Brown first got involved in Search and Rescue initially as a responder on the veterinarian side as an equine surgeon. Though she never thought she’d be a dog handler, she learned about search and rescue from her friend Cindy Ado and found Maranatha Farm Kennels in Maine.
She now has five certified dogs.
The Labs start their training at Maranatha and Dr. Brown finishes and keeps them sharp at home. She then does the heavy labor of going to deployments.
“We have a lot of emotions surrounding what we do because we’re trying to help people in need either alive or deceased and it’s a disaster situation,” Dr. Brown says. “So, it’s always a lot going on in that regard. But the dogs are taught that it’s just a game of hide and seek. We just tell them, go find. And their expectation is I’ll get a reward at the end.”
While she’s not as good of a thrower as Duke, she still feels just as much pride for all of Phame’s achievements.
The frisbee still remains a reward for this hardworking dog, and for anyone wanting to get involved, Duke recommends going to your local club, which he believes is one of the most welcoming communities. Plus, all you need is a disc and a dog.
“My most athletic days are well behind me,” Duke says. “So, living vicariously through my canine athlete by letting them do the hard work is my favorite part. I just deliver the goods to them and let them do all the showing off.”