Dog Care 101 Tip #182 – Dog Sports: Flyball

It’s time again to delve into the great world of Dog Sports with! We won’t go too heavy on the sports commentary here, but we will let you in on one of the most exciting canine competitions out there: Flyball!

What it is Flyball?
Fast paced, “Edge of your seat,” nail-biting excitement. If you’ve never heard of Flyball, you’re in for a great time. This sport might be a new favorite!

More specifically, Flyball is a two-team dog sport where teams compete in a hurdle jumping & ball fetching relay race. A dog must run and jump quickly over a series of low hurdles in a line, step on a spring-loaded pedestal releasing a tennis ball, catch the ball, then return back over the hurdles to the starting line with the ball in tow. We’ll talk more about the specifics later, so let’s talk about how this crazy dog sport got started!

Flyball was started in Southern California in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and since then the sport hasn’t really divulged from its origins. The architects of the sport combined scent-based hurdle racing with a retrieval of a tennis ball, which was carried back to the starting line. The actual box apparatus that releases tennis balls wasn’t added until later.

The first Flyball tournaments were held in the U.S. in 1983, but since this sport has spread to the UK, Germany, Australia, Canada and South Africa. These European countries have especially jumped on Flyball and hold an International European Flyball Championship each year.  

Field & Play
Now let’s talk about specifics!

Is Your Dog Right for Flyball?
The all-important question. The “players” of this dog sport tend to be Border Collies, but one of the beauties of this sport is that any dog can play. Mixed breeds are common because there are the most commonly owned dog. Labs and Australian Shepherds are also great at this sport. Whippets and Miniature Poodles have even been known to compete in Flyball. As long as your dog has lots of energy to burn, is willing to be trained and you are happy to teach, Flyball is an extremely rewarding and fun way to bond with your dog!

There are six dogs on a team, but only four are run during each heat. The two alternates are used for switching out dogs if needed between heats.

Three types of divisions exist in Flyball: Open, Regular and Multi-breed.  Open means just that: open. Any combination of breeds can run together and clubs don’t matter either. Regular races are similar, but all dogs must belong to the same club.  Multi-breed races allow duplicate breeds on the team but the 4 dogs running during a heat “must” all be different breeds.

A Flyball field is a total of 51 feet long and consists of 4 hurdles spaced 10 feet apart. The starting line is 6 feet in front of the first hurdle and the ball box is 15 feet after the last hurdle.

The height of the hurdles is determined by the smallest dog on the team, called the “Height Dog.” The two U.S. Associations, the North American Flyball Association (NAFA) and the United Flyball League International (U-FLI), determine their jump height differently. NAFA measures the Height Dog at the shoulder and subtracts 5 inches. U-FLI measures the Height Dog from the elbow to the heel and uses this number as the dog’s jump height.

The Flyball Box is a spring-loaded wooden box that has a large pedal mechanism on the front, which dogs must press to release the tennis ball. The “Box Turn” is how the dogs quickly use the box then speed off for the return trip. When reaching the box, ideally dogs will put all four feet high on the box to release and catch the ball, then complete a swimmers turn where the dog will push off the box to spring off for speed for the return journey. Some dogs leave one foot on the ground to pivot and turn around.

There are two holes in the top of box where the balls are placed. The choice of left or right is determined by the turn direction of the dog. A handler behind the box triggers the spring and replaces the ball after each dog has pressed the box’s pedal.

A dog has to be comfortable with passing another dog at high speeds over the start/finish line. This is the last part of training after a dog has mastered all other parts of Flyball. It truly comes down to trust and organization. In training, handlers line up dogs on the right side of the start line and teach them to return on the left. Practicing this over and over is important as well as the handler knowing the perfect time to release the next dog. Focus is the most important in this step.

To help you understand the play of the game, watch the Crufts 2012 Flyball Finals! They’re so much fun to watch! If you think it looks fun and you have the time and energy to train your dog, find out more about this sport at NAFA or U-FLI.

Interested in more dog sports? Read up on Dog Agility and Bikejoring on the BBS Healthy Dog Blog. Check back for next week’s Dog Care 101 Dog Sports blog! Have something to add? Tell us your Dog Sports story in the comments section! 

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