If you have a dog that is nuts for fetching a ball and has apparently unlimited stores of energy to spend on running, fetching and returning, flyball just may be the perfect competitive sport for you and your dog.
What is Flyball?
Flyball is a relay sport, in which teams of dogs -- four dogs to a team -- are pitted against each other. Each dog must race across a 51-foot course that is set with a series of four hurdles, at the end of which is a box, a “flyball box,” that releases a tennis ball when the spring catch is pressed by the dog. The dog then carries the ball back over the hurdles to the start line and the next dog in the team runs the course. Each dog must return the ball and cross the line before the next dog can start, the winning team is determined by which team successfully completes the race first, with the fewest or no penalties (e.g., Points are deducted for dropping the ball, when a team player leaves the start line before the last dog has reached the start line, or when a dog urinates/defecates on the field.) The first team to complete the relay without significant penalties wins a heat (a single round in the competition) and moves up to the next round.
This sporting event is particularly popular because owners and their dogs work closely together, and because any breed can compete -- it is not limited by size or breed. Flyball does tend to draw the more high energy dogs, herding breeds like the border collies, but any high energy dog that has the will and the ability to work with a team can compete successfully. It helps, of course, if the dog is strong enough to trigger the flyball catch to release the tennis ball, but even a small dog can be trained to leap on the catch with just the right pressure to release it.
Each team is made up of four dogs, and they can be of various sizes. In fact, because the overall height of the hurdles is determined by the shoulder height (withers) of the shortest dog on each team, small dogs are valued members of the team. To make the races more exciting, teams are usually paired up with teams of similar speed.
Training Your Dog
Before you begin, have your dog looked over by your veterinarian to makes sure that he is in good health and is physically capable of competitive racing. You will want to be sure that there are no underlying conditions that could be worsened by this activity, and no reasons to worry about traits like hip dysplasia, a common affliction in some breeds. Once you have received a clean bill of health and you and your dog have passed basic obedience and proper social behavior, you can start training and getting together with other flyball players.
Training begins with motivating your dog to run toward an object that interests him. Dogs will then advance to jumping low hurdles and eventually going off leash while learning to ignore any distractions. The handler (that’s you) will be running along with the dog, so be prepared for some high octane action. In fact, you may want to get a health check with your own doctor before beginning!
It may also be more instructive and fun -- for both you and your dog – to join a training group or flyball club and learn the basics of the game. Then, if you find you and your dog are a good fit for the sport, you can join a team and play flyball competitively.
Dogs must be older than one year of age to compete, but can then go on competing into their senior years. There is even a special division for dogs over eight years old, to keep the playing field level.
Flyball events are sanctioned by the North American Flyball Association (NAFA). Dogs earn points, which go towards championships and titles throughout the year. If your dog is particularly talented at this sport, you may find that you will have the opportunity to travel across the country, meeting new people who share the love of animals and competition that you do.
For more information on Flyball, check out the following websites:
Image: Don DeBold / via Flickr