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Tom Wehrli has spent 30 years working with disc-catching dogs
By Amanda Luevano | Daily Herald Staff

Tom Wehrli with his dog Coco go through their paces. Wehrli is in charge of the Ashley Whippet World Championship event Sept. 6 as part of Naperville's annual Last Fling celebration.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

This Frisbee was made in Japan for Tom Wehrli.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Coco and Wehrli show their stuff.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Wehrli's Naperville basement now houses the official Ashley Whippet Museum.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Tom Wehrli of Naperville has spent 30 years working with disc-catching dogs and his basement contains a vast array of the sport's memorabilia.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Wehrli's dog Sienna snares a flying disc.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

If Wehrli's Naperville basement looks a little like a museum, it's because it is.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/3/2009 11:52 AM

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If you go

What: UFO Windy City K-9 Classic and Ashley Whippet Invitational World Championship

When: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Grand Pavilion at Naperville Riverwalk, 500 W. Jackson Ave.

Cost: Free

Info: (630) 355-2777 or

For Tom Wehrli, redecorating the basement of his Naperville home has been, quite literally, his pet project.

Lining the walls and arranged neatly on shelves are hundreds of colorful Frisbees and assorted memorabilia from Wehrli's nearly 30 years in the sport of canine disc catching.

Since entering championship competition in 1980 with his dog Nuggets, Wehrli has accumulated at least 2,000 flying discs.

The collection, in fact, is so large that Wehrli has taken it upon himself to turn part of his home into a disc-dog museum.

"This isn't an obsession for me, it's been a lifestyle," he said. "I'm just trying to keep the history of our sport alive."

Wehrli spent most of his free time this summer organizing the various memorabilia he had stored away over the years, including world championship jackets, posters and photographs.

"He's been down there every night working very hard," said his wife, Chris.

This weekend, during Naperville's Last Fling celebration, disc-dog competitors from all over the world will tour the Wehrli home after competing in the UFO Windy City K-9 Classic on Saturday and the Ashley Whippet Invitational World Championship on Sunday.

"All of the best Frisbee dogs in the world will be in Naperville," Wehrli said. "It's going to be great entertainment."

As event coordinator for the contests, Wehrli said he has been happy to work with and support the Naperville Jaycees, the community group behind Last Fling. Eric Sunila, a member of the Last Fling executive committee, praised Wehrli for bringing "awesome" world championship events to the community year after year.

"Tom is instrumental in bringing an international event to Naperville," Sunila said. "It's great for Last Fling and the community as a whole."

One guest Wehrli said people should be particularly excited to see this weekend is not a competitor, but rather the sport's creator, Alex Stein.

"To have him here this weekend is huge," Wehrli said.

In August 1974, Stein and his dog, Ashley Whippet, grabbed national attention when they ran into center field during a nationally televised Los Angeles Dodgers game. For eight minutes, the duo wowed the audience with acrobatic Frisbee tricks before being escorted off the field.

Soon after, Stein received offers to appear with Ashley everywhere from "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" to the Los Angeles Rams' halftime show.

Inspired by Ashley's success, the World Frisbee Championships created a Catch and Fetch competition for dogs and their handlers in 1975. Stein and Ashley won the event three times from 1975 to 1977, and in 1982 the event was renamed in honor of Ashley.

Now retired from competition, Stein travels the world as an ambassador for flying disc dogs. The Ashley Whippet, he said, remains one of his favorite events of the year.

"It's like a family reunion," Stein said. "I love Naperville."

Stein's also excited to see the progress in Wehrli's basement, which Stein has designated the official Ashley Whippet Museum.

"I gave Tom the moniker of 'curator of the Ashley Whippet Museum,'" Stein said. "He watches over it, builds it, develops it and promotes it."

Promoting the sport, in fact, is now Tom Wehrli's primary interest.

"For about 20 years we had dogs that were good enough, and I had the drive to compete," he said. "Now my energy has turned more to the historical and administrative parts."

When he's not organizing local events or traveling to international competitions, Wehrli leads seminars for dog owners interested in learning the sport.

"When people get dogs, it's often difficult because the dogs have so much energy," he said. "Dogs have retrieving instincts, so playing with a Frisbee is a great way to give them a workout."

As often as they can, Tom and Chris Wehrli bring their four dogs - Sienna, Champ, Gem and Coco - out to the backyard for a Frisbee session of their own.

Disc catching also has been important to the couple's daughters, Ginny and Vicky, who now volunteer with their parents at events.

"It's a family affair," Chris Wehrli said. "We all run the shows together."

More important than competitions, Tom Wehrli said, is the family's love for their pets.

The Wehrlis have had 16 dogs over the years. All of them were rescued from shelters with the exception of Winston, one of Ashley Whippet's pups.

"We don't believe in breeding at all," Wehrli said. "There are shelters all across America full of dogs that need homes."

Ask Wehrli to describe his passion and he says, "Dogs are not our whole lives, but dogs make our lives whole."

"At the end of the day it's about bonding with your animal," he said. "Spending time with them and developing the bond is priceless."