Diego, a whippet/border collie mix, runs at breakneck speed, jumping four barriers in a row, snatching a ball and triumphantly delivering it to his handler. He’s practicing for a demonstration at Bark in the Park, a dogfest happening Saturday in downtown San Jose.

The demonstration is one of many offerings at the event including an owner/dog look-alike contest, food and drink, kids’ activities and a tail-wagging contest. Bark in the Park is billed as the largest dog festival in the U.S., with over 15,000 dog lovers and 3,900 canines. It runs from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 17 at William Street Park.

A dog/owner look-alike contest is among the highlights of the annual Bark in the Park event. (Photo courtesy of Bark in the Park)

“It’s one of the biggest dog-related events in the country,” said Judy Conner, a volunteer with the event, which is hosted by the Naglee Park Campus Community Association, a neighborhood group. Admission is $10 for human adults — all others are free — and proceeds go to charities including Humane Society Silicon Valley.

The event has been happening for 24 years, and while it’s a good time, make no mistake: folks take it seriously.

“We’ve had in the past some people as young as eighth grade who have spent months making costumes for the dog costume contest,” Conner said.

Past costumes include a dachshund decked out Snoopy-style, wearing aviator sunglasses, a helmet and a scarf and flying a Sopwith Camel plane, as well as a Chihuahua in a hand-knitted Pikachu costume and a fluffy dog dressed as a Lego, Conner said.

And then there’s Diego, who has been training in flyball for two years, according to Alex Le of Redwood City, who owns the dog and the Fighting for Freedom Flyball Club.

The game of flyball started in the 1970s, according to Le. In flyball, a team of four dogs and handlers complete in each heat of a race. Each dog leaps obstacles, grabs a ball and returns it to its handler.

YouTube video
A flyball competition in action. (Video courtesy of Fighting for Freedom Flyball Club/YouTube)

“Diego has the speed of a whippet and the intelligence of a border collie. He was horrendous to train because he was always looking one step ahead,” Le said. Usually it takes 6-12 months.

While some canine-related events, such as dog shows, have a bit of a snooty connotation, any dog can compete in flyball, said Le.

“Mutts are welcome, especially those who have been abandoned because they’re crazy,” Le said. “‘He eats the drywall, he zooms around like a wild thing’ — that’s the ideal candidate. We can re-harness that energy. We give the dog a job and he or she becomes an athlete.”

Le is bringing 16 dogs to Saturday’s event for the demonstration.

In addition to Freedom Flyball, there will be other demonstrations such as “puppy makeover packages including face-painting and more,” according to the organizers.

The puppy makeovers will be performed in the kids’ entertainment zone, a staple at this long-running festival. The zone also features a do-it-yourself agility course and a dog-themed bounce house.

As with most festivals, food trucks, comestibles such as frozen yogurt and adult beverages will be available. William Street Park is located at South 16th and East William streets.

Paws for thought: obviously, dogs are welcome at the event, but they must be leashed.