February 14, 2011 12:00 PM

Melissa Ness’ Chesapeake Bay retriever Smoke has always been…well, a bit jumpy. His previous owners got rid of him because of his annoying habit of leaping over their 6-ft. fence. “He was just a bored dog trying to entertain himself,” says Ness.

Now he’s entertaining the rest of us-as a national champion in the who-knew-this-was-a-sport sport of dock jumping, in which dogs of all breeds race down a dock and jump as far as they can after a toy their owner hurls in the air. Smoke, whom Ness, 40, adopted from a rescue group, has appeared everywhere from Late Show with David Letterman to ESPN, where the sport’s fans are growing. “It’s really taken off,” explains Shannon Nardi, who used to produce TV specials on dock jumping for ESPN and now organizes competitions. Dog owners “see it on TV and want to try it,” she says.

Last July Smoke, who is 4 and loves watching videos of himself, set a world record when he leaped 29 ft. 1 in. “I was amazed when I saw it,” says dock-jumping judge Milt Wilcox. But Ness knows her pup has 30 ft. in him. “I’m the weak link,” she says. “He’ll only jump as far as I can throw.”

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