BILLINGS - A dog diving competition was held at MetraPark over the weekend with regional qualifying on the line, however, for one Belgrade woman, it was about much more than that.
When 70-year-old Heidi Palmer first met her dog Bella, the circumstances in her life were much different.
"My late husband brought her home because he wanted a hunting dog, and then he passed away," Palmer said Sunday following Bella's last jump. "So, this really was his dog."
After her husband passed away in 2017, Palmer didn't know what to do with Bella. The black lab had a lot of energy and was meant to be outside. Palmer reached out to friends in hopes of finding her a home where she could be active.
"I reached out to duck hunters just hoping they would take her in," Palmer said. "Everybody said, 'You keep her and do something with her.' I have, and this has just been a lifeline for both of us."
Eventually, Palmer and Bella got involved in dog diving. She's now made more than 80 dives in her career, including a 25-foot jump in Billings on Sunday afternoon.
"That is one of the best jumps she's had," Palmer said. "I'm really proud of her."
The duo has traveled to many places, earning many different accolades, but Palmer said nothing is more meaningful to her than the relationships she has formed.
"You travel, you meet people, and it's just been wonderful," Palmer said. "People have been so helpful. We just couldn't do it without them."
One of those people Palmer has met through the sport is Billings resident Paula Bergland. Bergland had two different dogs earn spots at regionals on Sunday, but even after her success, agreed that the best part of dog diving is the camaraderie.
"Eventually, as you get to know the people, it's a small community," Bergland said. "For the most part, there's a lot of camaraderie there."
Bergland just recently got into the sport, but she said it's been a great way to help her two energetic dogs blow off some steam.
"It's just a time to bond with your animal," Bergland said. "I've never done it before up until this past year and every time we go, I love it more and more."
Many owners just like Bergland enjoy the sport, but not many consider it to be life-changing. For Palmer, that is exactly the case.
"I learned a lot about grief," Palmer said. "Something like this helps you kind of navigate that. The dog gets to do something she likes, and I've met all of these wonderful people. It's been a journey."