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Flyball

This article by Karen Laren Bridge of G.E.T.Smart Dogs Sydney first appeared in Dogs Life Magazine May/June 2004 and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

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LET'S PLAY FLYBALL

The coloured lights of the start line are flashing and dogs are barking excitedly as team members take their places for the first heat of a flyball competition. The green light is given and the first dogs rush full speed over the four hurdles to the flyball box where an elegant swimmer's turn ensures the tennis ball releases from the box and pops into the eagerly awaiting jaws of the flyball fanatic. Holding the ball firmly, the dog turns for home, back over the hurdles and across the finish line freeing his team mate to explode down the flyball runway.

It's easy to see how people and dogs soon become spellbound by the energy and excitement of flyball racing. Basically, flyball is a relay race between teams of four dogs (with two reserves per team). Each dog in the team races down a lane of four jumps, triggers a flyball box, catches the ball and returns it safely home as quickly as possible. The first team to bring all dogs home without error wins the race.

Flyball started in the 1970s when American Herbert Wagner first demonstrated on television, a simple wooden box with a pedal, a swing arm and a tin cup (to hold the ball) that enabled a dog to propel and catch his own ball. People were so enthralled that it wasn't long before trainers and dog clubs everywhere were making and using these flyball boxes. The sport soon became formalized and regulated and today flyball is played in all over the world.

Boxes too have evolved into sophisticated rubber cushioned, spring loaded push boards that propel balls directly into the mouths of precision trained dogs . In Australia, flyball was a demonstration-only activity until 1996 when the Australian Flyball Association (AFA) was formed (visit them at: www.flyball.org.au) and competitions began across the country.

The Sport for Every dog

Flyball is a suitable activity for any healthy, well socialized dog over twelve months of age who enjoys running around and having fun. Being friendly to other dogs and people is really important because flyball generates high levels of excitement and arousal which you don't want redirected at another competitor instead of the ball and box!

Over 150 different breeds of dogs are registered to play flyball in the USA and cross breeds are also welcome. It is also one of the few sports were small dogs are able to compete side by side with larger dogs because the height of the jumps is determined by the size of the smallest team member.

Jumps for the whole team are set at 10.2cm lower then the shoulder height of the smallest dog. The lower jumps compensate for the shorter stride of the small dog. Teams are also placed in different divisions enabling every level of player to have a fair go and be competitive in their own division.

Getting Started

Basic obedience and a good response to come are a useful starting point as your dog will be off lead among many other dogs and people. There is no need however for a high level of formal obedience work.

Retrieving is an integral part of flyball and can initially be taught at home. Tennis balls are the most common ball used and most dogs find them soft and inviting to hold. The most important thing is for your dog to learn to pick up a ball cleanly and to hold on to it safely until told to release it. To build up speed, play a 'two toys of equal value' game. Throw a ball one way, when your dog has picked it up, show him another ball or other equally loved toy such as a tug. Wait to throw this ball until your dog has returned all the way to you then reward with another throw or a game of tug.

Balls on a rope make an excellent training tool and reward. Don't let your dog drop the first toy until he has returned all the way to you - then reward with a game. A flyball dog should run out to the box and home again with equal enthusiasm. If your dog is not a natural retriever don't give up! Seek the help of an experienced instructor who uses fun positive ways to teach retrieve. There are very few dogs who cant learn to retrieve if it is taught to them in a non-threatening way.

Once your dog is going around the cone from various distances, you should take a flat board and place this behind the cone (to simulate the face of the flyball box). Again work the dog going around the cone but this time your dog will also be stepping on the board behind the cone. Eventually you will raise the board at various angles from the ground. Once your dog is doing this, its ready to be introduced to the flyball box and catching the ball from the box.

Jump training can be begun simply by laying four poles of any kind in a circular pattern. Have your dog on lead and have him walk, then trot then canter over the poles. Be sure to work in both directions. At this stage you are just getting your dog aware of what his feet are doing and are giving a name to the 'jump' or 'over' command. Once your dog understands the flyball game however, he will complete the entire flyball course on one command alone.

You can train these basic skills at home however, flyball is very much a social activity and elements of it can only be trained in a group setting. Try to locate a team in your area by contacting the AFA. This is by far the best and easiest way to learn about flyball and get expert guidance in training your dog.

If there are no flyball teams in your area you may consider starting up your own team -all you need are a few keen dogs and owners, four jumps and a flyball box. The AFA can help provide plans for building jumps and boxes as well as information on professional suppliers, rules for competitions and everything else you'll need to know to get started.

Costs are minimal with membership to the AFA being $12 per year and the average cost of a competition entry being $50- $80 for the entire team.

Getting Serious the finer points of competition

Once your dog has mastered the basics it's time to start working on race tactics. The better the catches, the smoother the turns and the more precise the relay crossovers the faster the team. To be competitive your dog will also need to be reasonably fit and certainly not overweight, as in a typical tournament each individual dog may have as many as 12 to 32 runs. Many owners find swimming, jogging and bike riding a useful adjunct to their dogs fitness regime.

Racing dogs wear harnesses with loop handles on the back to enable handlers to easily restrain and release their dogs. Lights like drag racing lights count down to signal the start of the race when the green light flashes timing has commenced. In order for dogs to reach the start line at full speed just as the green light flashes, most handlers start their dogs at least 10 meters from the start line. If the first dog on either team crosses the start line too early, the heat has to be restarted. A second false start and the offending dog must rerun the course after all his team mates have run incurring a tremendous loss in time. Other penalties requiring reruns are:

  • If a dog reaches the start/finish line before the preceding dog has reached the start/finish line. As in any top relay team a lot of time needs to be spent training the perfect cross over if optimal times are to be achieved.
  • If a dog does not take every jump
  • If a dog does not trigger the box, or takes the ball from the cup
  • If a dog does not return with the ball.
  • If the handler's feet cross the start/finish line during his/her dogs run.

The first team to have all four dogs successfully complete a run wins the heat. The team that wins the majority of heats wins the race. The team that wins the most races wins the tournament.

Titles

Dogs earn points toward flyball titles based on team times:

  • Faster than 32 seconds each dog in the team receives 1 point.
  • Faster than 28 seconds each dog in the team receives 5 points.
  • Faster than 24 seconds each dog in the team receives 25 point.

Titles range from Flyball Dog for scoring a total of 20 points to Flyball Grand Champion requiring 30,000 points!

There's a job for everyone in a Flyball Team

Successful flyball racing is truly a team effort - and the team isn't only made up of dogs and handlers! There are lots of important jobs for anyone attracted to this wonderful sport whether they own a dog or not. An ideal flyball team consists of:

  • Dogs and handlers.
  • A box loader to load tennis balls into the box. Some boxes have more then one hole for the ball. Dogs that naturally turn right have their ball loaded in the one hole; dogs that naturally turn left would have the ball loaded in the other hole. Balls may also vary slightly for different dogs such as a smaller squash ball for a smaller dog so the box loader needs to keep track of whose running next and what their requirements are.
  • A Ball Shagger (to collect any loose balls between races and return them to the box loader.
  • A team manager to arrange team uniforms (optional), transport, accommodation, training days, enter tournaments, set up jumps and boxes at competitions, organize reserves, relay information and generally co-ordinate the team as a whole.
  • A statistician to collect and analyse date provided by the Electronic Judging System used at most competitions. This system not only clocks the official times for each heat of the team as a whole but can also provide data on individual dogs times including early starts and passes. This information provides invaluable feedback on what areas of the flyball run need improving and which areas are working well.
  • A coach to learn from all the information available and develop the team into a successful single working unit.

A long time promoter of Flyball in Australia is Steve Pitt of K-9 Sports and Equipment in Queensland (visit Steve at www.k-9sportsandequipment.com.au). Steve builds flyball equipment and runs seminars all around the country. He agrees that it is the team element that sets Flyball apart from all other canine activities:

Flyball is the only canine team sport in the country if not the world. It is for that very same reason team (human) members behave like they have just won Lotto every time they reach a mile stone at training or competition, the sport of Flyball Racing encompasses everything Australians love about team sports and the great outdoors, except they are including their pet pooches!

Flyball is about having fun. Ask any member of such colourfully named and uniformed teams such as the Hastings Howlers Hit and Run, the Parramatta Shockwaves, the K9 Krusaders or the St. George Mismatched Mutts! While the seriously competitive teams might post world record times of 15.54 seconds, the Mutts probably had just as much fun recording a time of 33.76 at last year's Sydney Royal with pet dogs bought for loving more then racing.

Certainly the cheering spectators didn't seem to care because ultimately every run is a one on one race with the team in the next lane an adrenalin rush for dogs, owners and spectators alike. So, are YOU ready to play FLYBALL?!

Contact

The Australian Flyball Association
PO Box 8027 Rivett, ACT 2611

Ph (03) 9779 9601 or (02) 6288 6611
Fax(03) 9779 9601
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