Flyball is a wild and crazy ride. It is unique among dog sports because it is a team sport. This aspect of the game makes it a nice entry level activity. The club trains, practices and camps together at the event so a newbie is able to bypass a lot of the stress involved with competing in a new activity. The other advantage of flyball as a debut sport is that the game itself is relatively simple. Flyball is also family friendly. Junior handlers are enjoyed and applauded.
A flyball race consists of four dog/handler teams racing against another club’s team of four dog/handler teams. Each dog runs over four jumps spaced ten feet apart, whereupon he does a swimmer’s turn on a wooden or plastic flyball box that ejects a ball when triggered by the dog’s turn. The dog carries said ball back over the four jumps and when Dog #1 passes the finish line Dog #2 begins his run. The fastest four dogs to complete a clean run win that heat. A really fast heat is over in 16 seconds. Did I mention the other team is racing ten feet away? And, yes, you counted correctly; there are eight off-leash dogs on the field. Wow!
Many trainers of other dog sports pooh-pooh Flyball because it is noisy and is incorrectly devalued as a sport with little skilled training involved. The concept is simple, but it requires skilled training. There are three main skills a dog must master to be “on the team.” First, the technical swimmer’s turn on a box. This behavior is often taught on a vertical surface. Secondly, the dog must learn jump commitment. Finally, the dog has to learn to do these activities while racing full speed against another competitor dog while running toward and past a teammate dog who is exiting the course and running out against the next dog. Just think about those herding breeds ignoring all that movement to stay on target! It is simply fascinating to watch all of these dogs working with a complete understanding of their jobs.
Denise Fenzi, owner and founder of Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is a world-renowned obedience and ring sport competitor. She recently started training her young sport dog in flyball. She comments, “I was surprised about how much really good training is happening at club practice. Behaviors are very clearly sliced into fine slivers and criteria are consistently raised based upon an individual dog’s pace. Novice handlers to the sport get hands on coaching and physical support from all of the other club members so training errors are minimized”.
Why do dogs love the game? First off there is running and jumping and ball grabbing and a whole lot of tugging and, hey, let’s not forget the treats. There are terriers in flyball, after all! It is also a game that allows dogs to pit their skills against other dogs in a safe manner. Many dogs have insecurities about other dogs and therefore don’t get the opportunity to test themselves in this manner. We all know the pitfalls of a bad dog park experience and not all dogs have sibling play partners. In flyball, insecure dogs learn to build confidence as direct interaction with another dog isn’t part of the game, and overly social dogs learn that all good things end with a game of tug with their person. Then there are the people. Every club member ends up handling each dog during one exercise or another over the course of a club practice. The dogs experience “stranger” contact while having a whole lot of fun. It is hard to beat that counterconditioning!
Denise shares, “Training in flyball is the best thing that I could have done with Xen. He is learning to focus on off leash training with me in the presence of other dogs. He learns that he can be around and work with a lot of dogs without direct interaction. He sees the same team dogs week after week and he learns to trust them while racing side-by-side or passing in tight quarters at high speed. The end of every activity is an exciting chase to my tug toy. He has become much more comfortable with other dogs and with people holding his harness or playing with him.”
So, what is the bad news? Well, it is a noisy sport so sound sensitive dogs might take a pass. Dogs need to be at a sports healthy weight and enjoy balls, tugs and/or treats. As the jump heights are dictated by the shortest dog on the team, small dogs are prized and some jumbo- sized dogs struggle with a good box turn. Mixed breeds are welcome. However, it isn’t a sport for dog aggressive dogs although many reactive dogs overcome their fear or frustration after learning flyball. You are also committing to a team which is accompanied by a variety of responsibilities. Pro tip: choose your team well and get ready to shop for tug toys!