Zeke the Wonderdog charms Michigan State fans, thanks to hard work
The presence of Zeke, a staple of MSU home games, delights fans with his array of tricks. Behind the scenes, the ease of Zeke’s skills comes from dedicated training with his owner.
EAST LANSING, Mich.– There is always a need to cheer when Zeke the Wonderdog is near. Zeke, a six-year-old firecracker yellow Labrador retriever, is a staple of Michigan State athletics. The Wonderdog devotes his time to maintaining the crowd’s energy at MSU football and basketball games.
Zeke is the star during breaks in the on-field action. He leaps through the air and flies off his trainers back to catch Frisbees. He reels in long throws in the endzone and receives cheers from thousands of spectators with each catch.
However, today is not a game day in East Lansing. The mid-November chill rolled through MSU’s campus. The modest surroundings of Demonstration Field held no cheering spectators. Today, Zeke works on learning a new trick, far from his typical training grounds at his home in Holland, Michigan.
Zeke reaches a max height of 26 inches, but his landing is off. Video credit: Thomas Chavez
A few people turned their heads as they walked by. One brave student walked over to ask what Zeke was doing.
Zeke practices on the confines of this isolated field. His trainer, Jim Foley, is teaching the Wonderdog a new trick. Foley is training him to execute an over, a trick where Zeke jumps over Foley instead of springing off him. Foley said the trick will take Zeke three days to learn and a few weeks to master.
“The important part is teaching him how to land. I have to teach him how to get on all fours when he lands,” Foley said. “It is a simple trick, but it takes time. It takes about six weeks to get this one straight.”
Foley’s experience training dogs started in his youth. He remembers training the dogs on his farm when he was just 12. He trained ranch dogs to run cattle up chutes and bring them in from the field.
Getting Zeke’s back legs to land with his front legs is important to teaching him a proper landing. When Zeke knocks over the bar, he learns to raise his back legs higher resulting in a better landing coming down. Video Credit: Thomas Chavez
The trainer credits many of his techniques to Richard Wolters’s book “Water Dog”, where Foley simply replaced the word duck with Frisbee in the lessons. He has been training Zekes for 21 years.
Foley found his current one, Zeke IV, when the dog was just 49 days old. He started training the firecracker Lab right off the bat.
“First, we developed his play drive,” Foley said. “Then we taught him the basic sit, stay and come. Finally, he learned to retrieve to hand. That took about four weeks.”
Foley describes Zeke’s early training as like going to elementary school and learning the ABCs. It was just the basic commands. The trainer had to develop Zeke’s prey drive when he began training his dog with a Frisbee.
“They use that prey drive to get the Frisbee. It is like their hunt. Zeke has that drive; he will go forever,” Foley said as Zeke ran around Demonstration Field ripping discs and a football out of the trainer's bag.
Foley is able to teach Zeke how to execute an over in three days because of the intensive training the pair put in since he was a puppy.
Zeke was not going to immediately start jumping over Foley on his first day of learning how to do an over. Foley started Zeke’s training by having the Labrador jump over a hurdle and gradually raise the height.
The first day of training was a good one. Foley started with Zeke clearing the hurdle 18 inches off the ground. The goal today was not getting Zeke to perfect the trick. Instead, today was simply about teaching Zeke how to land properly on all four feet. Zeke topped out at 22 inches with a proper four-footed landing.
Zeke gets his back legs raised in this jump. Video Credit: Thomas Chavez
As Foley packed up his stuff, Zeke tried to pull it all back out and keep playing. He ran around with a disc in his mouth. He ran up to trees and bushes and around the field, never losing that play drive. However, after an hour of work on Demonstration Field, it is time for the Wonderdog to go home.
Foley and Zeke put in hours of practice to be ready to perform on game days. Foley said he still loves doing it all after 21 years.
“All the goodwill we bring to the students is our reward. We cherish it,” Foley said. “It has been an honor and a privilege. He is the student’s dog; we are just his caretakers.”