Air Major isn't an Air Force top gun, but he's definitely a top dog. He is 20 sinewy pounds of fur constantly in pursuit of a spinning disc known as a Frisbee. Show him the disc, toss it _ and Air Major goes airborne with what looks like the thrust of an F-16 fighter. In a snap, dog and disc connect, and mission is accomplished.
It is the terrific mixed-terrier's tenacity and lovable looks that have made him the second-ranked canine disc catcher in the country, as well as a media darling. He has even become a representative for heartworm medicine, embarking on a nationwide tour that recently brought him through the Tampa Bay area.
Air Major's big break came a few years ago with a slot on Late Night with David Letterman, where he was a big hit in a stupid pet trick segment. That got him noticed by the Miller Brewery bigwigs. Now he's doing commercials for Miller Lite.
You probably know them _ the one where the cute little Frisbee-playing dog returns with a swimsuit top. Then there's the one when he doesn't come back, and when his master searches for him, he finds the pooch having a good time with a bathing beauty. The most recent spot featured Air Major and owner Bill Watters with other athletic greats of past Miller ads _ John Madden, Bob Uecker, Larry Csonka _ to celebrate the sale of Miller Lite's 3-billionth case.
Actually it was working for beer money that gave man and beast their start in show business and Watters a four-footed meal ticket.
Watters was a college student at California State University at Los Angeles when he adopted the pup. Before long, Watters realized his dog had an extraordinary talent for retrieving. They practiced their routine. When funds got low, the two would head for Southern California's Venice Beach, where they joined the array of street performers to earn some fast cash.
They were a howling success. Now Watters puts his communication and film degree to use marketing his very hot dog. When they are not competing, shooting commercials or on public appearance tours, Watters and Air Major team up with Bill Robertson, a professional skateboarder, and tour Los Angeles schools with The Bill and Bill Show.
"We perform at inner-city elementary schools, and afterward speak to the kids about the importance of staying in school and getting a good education," Watters says.
Watters, Air Major and one of the country's best-known veterinarians, Dr. Stephen M. Kritsick, were in the Tampa Bay area last week to alert dog owners to the importance of guarding against heartworm disease by practicing preventive medicine.
"I've been appearing on TV for the past 14 years, and nobody recognizes me but they do the dog," quipped Kritsick.
Air Major, taking a break from his Frisbee-catching demonstration during an interview session, proceeded to stretch out across the good doctor's shiny black shoes and brushed up against him, leaving some dog hairs on the impeccably dressed vet's gray suit. Despite being upstaged by a dog, Kritsick managed to smile in the circus-like atmosphere.
A staff veterinarian with the Humane Society of the United States, Kritsick is used to show business. He has done his share of TV, including an appearance two days ago on Good Morning America. In addition, he has done the PBS series The Gentle Doctor, which will air again this fall on WEDU-Ch. 3.
He also has written two books, Creature Comforts, The Adventures of a City Vet and Dr. Kritsick's Tender Loving Cat Care.
While he pats Air Major's head and listens to Watters reliving past adventures with his dog, Kritsick attempts to interject his thoughts on what it takes to keep your dog healthy.
"In the wild, animals maintain regular patterns of motion as they hunt for food, but, at home, the most exercise many dogs get is a walk to their food dish," he says. "Air Major here is a great example of a dog in top-notch condition. The way to monitor your dog's weight is: If you can't feel his ribs, he's probably overweight."
Kritsick suggests a once-a-day feeding of a well-balanced, quality brand pet food and regular exercise. "Walking or jogging with your pet can be beneficial for both owner and dog," he says.
Since mosquitoes are a year-round problem in Florida, Kritsick emphasized the importance of preventive care for heartworm. "Once a dog is infected by a carrier mosquito, the heartworm larvae make their way to the dog's heart and pulmonary arteries," he explained. "There they mature and can grow up to 14 inches in length and cause severe damage to the heart, lungs and other organs." To ward off the problem, have your dog checked by a veterinarian and then have the vet prescribe a heartworm preventive.
But back to Air Major, who has refreshed himself after a nap and is ready for action. While the 6-year-old mutt is going through his "hoops and loops," Kritsick cautions this isn't the best exercise for every dog.
Air Major is little and lithe and thus a prime candidate for Frisbee playing, says Kritsick, but even a veteran like Air Major someday will face the prospect of retirement. Watters thinks Air Major still has a couple of years left in him before he surrenders his disc.
Of course, there may someday be an Air Major II. Watters and his sidekick are looking over the field for the right high-flying female dog. Watters hopes to find a proper mate for Air Major and eventually breed other Frisbee-catching dogs.
If you want to begin training your dog to play canine Frisbee, here are some tips from Watters:
Feed your dog out of a Frisbee; this will allow him to overcome any fear of the disc and to associate it with something nice.
Begin fetch training by rolling the Frisbee on the ground. This way, your dog will master the disc before he is expected to retrieve it from the air.
Never practice canine Frisbee on a concrete court or black top driveway. It is extremely wearing on a dog's paws. Before you engage in play, inspect the playing field for holes, bottle caps and broken glass.
Who knows, you might even wind up in a TV commercial.