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It Takes a Team to Play Flyball

Flyball is virtually the only dog sport which requires multiple people and dogs to perform together as a single team.

In almost every other canine performance event, one handler and one or more dogs make up the competing unit. It’s true for agility, dock diving, conformation, obedience, flying disc and sledding, to name just a few.

It certainly takes a lot of people to put on a sporting event, quite a huge team actually, or to create a top show dog, but when it comes time to compete, it’s just the handler and the dog.

Not so in flyball.

You have your own dog, of course, plus three human and three canine teammates. That’s quite a dynamic.

And you have another team running an identical course about 12 feet away at exactly the same time.

Rewards of the Race

Ask anyone who’s ever competed on a flyball team, and they’ll say it’s just plain fun.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Leerie Jenkins, president of the North American Flyball Association.
“We love our dogs and love doing things with them.” As a matter of fact, his current team is called “Fur Fun.”

”We’ve always got new people and dogs coming up,” he says. “We make new friends. It’s fun to play with your friends and your friends’ dogs.”

Leerie Jenkins, president of the North American Flyball Association, holds Dexter just before his turn to run the flyball course. Photo courtesy of Leerie Jenkins.

Lonnie Olson, who literally wrote the book on flyball – “Flyball Racing: The Dog Sport for Everyone” (Howell Book House, 1997, $14.95) – agrees. She’s competed in just about every canine sport that exists. Yet, flyball is “the only sport I’ve liked enough that I’d sit there and watch it,” she says. “You’re just sitting on the edge of your seat watching a close race. There’s nothing like it. It’s a marriage of the handler and the dog. It’s really great to see – people working in concert with their dogs.”

One reason dogs love it so much is the reward they get at the end of a run – a good tug on a favorite toy. But only after running the two-foot wide, 51-foot long course, leaping the four jumps, pushing the lever on the ball box, snatching the ball and racing back to their handlers.

Ins and Outs, or Downs and Backs

For the relay race, the dog has up to 50 feet from where his owner releases him to get up to speed before crossing the starting line. The trick, however, is that the previous canine runner, must cross that line before the next team member does. So, timing is critical. If two dogs are on the course at the same time, the dog moving onto the course too soon will be “red-flagged” and must run again.

Once past the starting line, the dog faces four jumps of the same height, determined by the shortest dog on the team. The jumps can be anywhere from seven to 14 inches high, but five inches lower than the shortest dog’s height at the withers. The jumps are solid, unlike most agility jumps, and ideally each dog except the smallest dog on the team, the height dog, will make just one contact with the 10 feet of floor between each jump.

Fifteen feet from the fourth jump is the flyball box. Over the years, this device has changed significantly. In the early ‘80s, when Olson was getting started in the sport and helping to write the bylaws for the North American Flyball Association, the box had essentially an angled platform that the dog stood on to release the ball. An arm, not unlike a trebuchet, stuck out from the back of the box and released the ball. Today, the box’s multiple releases are inside, and the balls pass through holes just big enough to allow their exit.

Flyball is one of the few dog sports in which multiple handlers and dogs compete together. Leerie Jenkins’ team is called “Fur Fun,” pink shirts not optional. Photo courtesy of Leerie Jenkins.

Jenkins says something like a swimmer’s turn is the key to efficiently releasing and catching the ball, while maintaining speed. He thinks it’s one of the most challenging parts of the sport. If the dog does it well, it won’t “lose momentum and have to start running again,” he says. But to do that, the dog must jump on the release pedal, push it, grab the ball and turn all at the same time.

Various balls are used by each team, the ball’s size and surface determined by each dog’s needs and abilities. Smaller dogs often compete with smaller balls. Many use standard, bright yellow tennis balls. Jenkins recalls a six-pound Yorkshire Terrier on his team who worked with a “squishy foam ball with a smiley face on it.” Stimpy started “playing” flyball, as Jenkins calls it, at age 7. “Whenever Stimpy ran, people went crazy.”

After grabbing the ball, the dog runs back down the lane, over the same four jumps, all the way into the arms of his waiting handler. Then comes that all-important reward.

This sport is all about speed and not breaking the rules. Dogs can’t cross the start line too soon, interfere with a dog on the opposing team, enter the competing team’s lane, go after the ball from the other lane or eliminate in the ring. That’s how Olson’s first team got its name. When her dog club set up to practice flyball for the first time, all of the dogs seemed to go to the bathroom at once. That’s how her team got its name – the Eliminators.

Other infractions include missing a jump, not carrying the ball over each jump in succession, not triggering the box and not carrying the ball across the finish line.

The first team to get all four dogs down and back without getting “red-flagged,” which requires a re-run of the flagged dog, wins the heat. Several heats make up a race. Soon, it’s time for two more teams to face off.

All of this activity goes on with much barking, calling out, announcing and other noise. Olson admits it’s a loud sport. If you’re anywhere near an indoor flyball competition, but can’t quite find it, just roll down your car windows, then drive toward the noise. That’s sure to be the building where people and dogs are excitedly playing flyball.

For Jenkins, it’s definitely “play.” An “IT person” at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he got his first dog in the 1990s. He wanted a Border Collie to run and hike with, and to play Frisbee with. So, he got Bella as a pup. They joined a dog club that decided to try out flyball. At Jenkins and Bella’s first flyball tournament, they met a woman who’d been playing the sport since its beginning, Deb Norman. She became his mentor and hooked him up with a group of “flyball guys.”

Fifteen years of flyball, agility and sheepherding later, Jenkins married Norman’s daughter, Julie, who is the manager of the dog training program at Paws4ever shelter in Mebane.

The Ultimate Canine Competitor

Key to succeeding at flyball is a dog with good impulse control, Olson says. Dogs need “unflinching” control as they release their natural prey drives toward their goal – not the ball, but the toy at the end of the run. “That’s part of what makes the sport so addictive,” she says. The dogs are entirely focused on running the course as quickly and flawlessly as possible, just for a chance to grab and shake the plush, rope or rubber toy afterward.

In the early days, she says, not all competitors knew just how important control was. Dogs would go after the ball released for the other team or even a smaller dog. But it didn’t take long for everyone in the sport to realize that a strong “leave it” command and consistent training were musts for safety and success. To prevent the problem, an early rule was that if a dog went after another dog, it could never compete at a NAFA-sanctioned event again – ever.

Olson says controlling that instinct is a “tall order for some dogs because a strong prey drive” is important to flyball success. “But the dogs can’t just give in to their base instinct,” she says.

Whether a dog is a speedster or not, there’s a flyball team out there for anyone who wants to play. Photo courtesy of Leerie Jenkins.

Success has a variety of definitions for Jenkins.

“To me, you go back to play,” he says. “Any dog that’s having fun with any team, that’s successful, anytime you see dogs and people that are happy playing together.

“I have a Sheltie who just turned 10. He loves to do whatever his dad wants to do with him. He’s not the fastest dog in the world, but he loves doing it.” On the other hand, he and his wife have “several dogs on our ‘A’ team, if you will, that are running fast times. That’s one thing that’s good about flyball. I think there’s a team or a club for everyone.”

The goal of some teams is to run the world’s fastest record time. Other teams are trying to win blue ribbons and regional championships, or their division in a tournament. Another team may take pride in having the Number 1 dog of a certain breed.

But a dog does need a “lot of drive,” he says, a toy drive. It must “want” to work with you, like to retrieve and “play well with others.”

Jenkins’ 13-year-old dog, Scandal, is the Number 3 Sheltie in NAFA, and she still competes in agility too.

“I think that we sort of start off puppies the same, regardless of what they’re going to play. You have to make sure whatever it is we’re playing, the most fun game to play is when it’s with your owner,” he says.

Olson says, “You can train just about any dog to do it. But to be really good,” they need a high prey drive. The best are speedy, agile and “like psycho wanting to chase things.” Being lightly built is another plus.

Serious competitors sometimes breed American Staffordshire Terrier-Border Terrier or Border Collie-Border Terrier mixes for a combination of the best flyball qualities. Border Collies have always been a favorite, Olson says, because they were originally bred to listen to shepherds to know what to do with a herd of sheep.

The Ultimate Human Competitor

Jenkins recommends that people new to flyball look for teams with likeminded individuals and similar goals. You also need to enjoy accomplishing something as part of a group. “We always say, ‘It takes a village to train a flyball dog,’” he says. “It’s not usually something people can do by themselves. Even if you train them to do the pattern, there’s still the issue of being able to pass and be passed by other dogs, and to run in a lane next to other dogs. And it often takes more than one person to get a dog truly motivated to go as fast as they can.” Also, it’s important to learn how to do all the jobs of flyball competition.

Olson says it’s best if you already work well with others. “The breakups on flyball teams are rampant,” she says. “Every team is split off from another team. That’s how most of the teams develop.” You need “thick skin” to succeed, Olson says, pointing out that’s how United Flyball League International, another flyball association, got started. A number of NAFA members wanted the sport to run differently, so they started U-FLI in 2004.

You don’t, however, have to be athletic. Olson has actually competed in flyball from a wheelchair after surgery. Handlers remain at the beginning of the course as their dogs run. You do need to be able to train your dog to jump, release the ball, etc.

“It’s a lot of fun for people of all ages and skill levels,” Jenkins says. “It’s a very friendly sport for young people.”

It’s also less expensive than some other dog sports. He and his wife can run eight dogs all weekend at a flyball tournament for what it costs to enter two dogs in agility, he says.

Most importantly, Olson says, “One thing’s for sure – the dogs really like it a lot.”

Written by

Susan Chaney has been on the editorial side of publishing since 1990, starting her career as a newspaper features writer and editor. A lifelong lover of dogs, Susan has lived with German Shepherds, Labs, Yorkies, an Irish Setter, a Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, a Sheltie and currently a Chihuahua mix of unknown pedigree. She was the editor of Dog Fancy magazine, content editor of DogChannel.com and group editor of Dog World, Dogs USA, Puppies USA, Natural Dog, Cat Fancy, Cats USA and Kittens USA from March 2005 to December 2009 when she left her position to work at home, part-time. Susan lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her artist husband, Tim, that Chi mix and two big cats. As an editor and writer for Best In Show Daily, she is reveling in the amalgam of three loves: writing, editing and dogs.
  • Tooie Crooks June 2, 2012 at 1:10 PM

    Wonderful article!
    Well written and informative!
    Great read!

    • Susan Chaney
      Susan Chaney June 4, 2012 at 1:14 PM

      Thanks, Tooie. So happy that you enjoyed it.

  • Linda Downs June 2, 2012 at 4:41 PM

    Well, I certainly would have liked to have seen a video of this fly ball game.

    • Susan Chaney
      Susan Chaney June 4, 2012 at 1:15 PM

      You’re so right, Linda. I forgot to mention that you can see all kinds of flyball tournaments by searching on “flyball competition” in YouTube. Enjoy!

  • Collin June 7, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    Flyball looks like a blast! I’m thinking of maybe trying it with my dogs.

    • Susan Chaney
      Susan Chaney June 8, 2012 at 2:57 PM

      I hope you do, Collin. I’ve been wanting to try itself myself.

  • Mike Metague November 29, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    Leery, Deb Norman, and Julie:

    We know how to get our kicks: You have an energetic OCD tennis-ball-lovin’ doggie, ‘n’ ya just gotta play flyball, cuz it’s plain ol’ unleashed fun (Earplugs advised)!

    Your Friend Mike (Release the Hounds Flyball Team)

    • Susan Chaney
      Susan Chaney November 30, 2012 at 1:58 PM

      Mike, I know you didn’t write that comment for me, but even without every having been to a tournament, I’m positive you’re right. Gotta get myself to one ASAP. Thanks for commenting. Cheers, Susan

  • Craig January 10, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    A well written flyball article.
    I understand that In the interest of keeping the discussion of flyball flowing, just the running team members are discussed. There are other important team positions that contribute to the sucess of a flyball team beyond the 4 dogs/handlers.
    I’m not aware of any successful flyball teams running without a boxloader. ~4-6 seconds is typically what the box loader gets to load the appropriate ball on the appropriate box side for each of the 4 dogs running to the box. Additionally, a box loader needs to remember which dogs were flagged and in what order for dogs being re-run. While only 4 dogs run in a given heat; up to 6 dogs can be listed on the running teams roster. The additional 2 dogs on the roster can be swapped in/out between heats. Success for team does depend on the box loader knowing dog ball preferences / dog run order / new dog changes before the start of a heat!
    Pass caller and stats collector positions seem to be a team/club/regional preference thing. Both of the aforementioned positions allow for making adjustments to safely maximize a 4 dog/handler teams performance, both during/after a heat/race/tournament.
    For each heat/race, the stats collector keeps track of dogs time/pass/errors, heat time and win/loss.
    The pass caller, when the returning dog reaches the starting line,
    either visual or via recording, determines the distance between the start line and the dog going to the box. At the end of a heat,
    this information is then provided to each of the handlers.
    Team captain and ball shagger positions, while not as critial as a box loader, do help the team dog handlers focus solely on racing their dog. Team captain typically handles informing the box loader of changes, managing dog changes, and keeping handlers informed of the need to rerun. Ball shagger handles picking up the returned balls and/or where
    needed getting them back to the box loader.

    The more team involvement/coordination, the easier things go.

    Alamo Racing Canines

  • Richard Phillips January 11, 2014 at 5:09 PM

    Well said Craig. I don’t box load, I am not good enough to help my team. I wish I could, but it is a skill I can’t seem to master. A team can hide a bad handler, make the pass wide or move them off to the side. You can’t hide a bad box loader. The most important position on the team.
    Richard Phillips
    Stumptown Racers

    • Craig January 13, 2014 at 1:07 PM

      Ok, Richard,
      Perhaps a better approach would be to look at the box loader position independent of it’s obvious necessity to a running team; since one could argue that if any of the 4 dogs/handlers and/or box loader doesn’t perform, a heat/race/tournament is lost.

      The box loader position is both often undervalued and most influence by
      a team’s strategy. For a single position, it also highlights the influence of the team nature of the sport.
      The following are two extreme club strategy examples to get things started:

      a) Simple case for a box loader:
      — Minimal team of only 4 dogs/handlers
      — Dogs run in same order all of the time
      — All dogs only get same type of ball
      — All balls placed on the same side of the box.
      — No reruns are done.

      b) Complex case for a box loader:
      — Maximum team of 6 dogs/handlers
      — Changing run order of dogs independent of dog swaps
      — Different balls for different dogs
      — Balls placed on different side depending on dog running
      (far left, left, center, right, far right)
      — Reruns of mistakes done

      Variations on strategy “a” are most commonly used in flyball.
      *It is by default the easiest for a team to do.
      *Minimal number of team members required.
      *It is also the least flexible. The team is locked into what they practiced before the tournament.
      *No process to mitigate the impact of an inexperienced handler/dog
      *Any issues with one dog, and the team is done for the tournament.
      *For teams that run under 16 seconds, where a dog can run from startline to box in under 2 seconds; variations on strategy “a” are a reality.
      *The quick box loading turn around time can be stressful; but can be practiced until things are 2nd nature. The emphasis is solely on
      mechanics. Outside of a tournament, at practice, a 20-24 second team
      would provide for a simple introduction to box loading using strategy “a”.
      *No need for being informed of linup changes / aware of dogs being rerun!

      Strategy “b” is not common in flyball.
      *By default, strategy “b” requires the most amount of manpower/time/effort/coordination/cooperation between members of the team.
      *This stragegy requires a siginificant number of team members/postions beyond the 4 dogs/handlers & box loader in order to to work (captain, pass caller, stats collector, ball shagger).
      *It is the most flexible/broadest strategy. This strategy is flexible enough to allow things that haven’t been practiced before the tournament be tried out.
      *The dogs/handlers can be coached/assisted in the run-back area by additional people during a heat. An inexperienced handler/dog can learn/participate without severly impacting the team.
      *Almost all situations that occur during a tournament can be handled with this strategy.
      *For a box loader, it is not a reasonable approach for an under 16 second team because of the difficulty in being mindful of loading changes while not increasing the amount of time to load the box.
      *A box loader can not be assisted/coached during a heat.
      While run order/dog changes can be relayed to the box loader inbetween heats; the box loader has to be on the lookout for dogs being rerun in order for things to work.

      Side note about “selecting a flyball team with likeminded strategy”:
      A person in some geographic areas does not have the luxury of being able to “select the most suitable club”. The flyball region that I participate in has one tournament a month, typically at least a 4 hour drive to get to for most of the clubs participating in the tournament.
      Due to geography, clubs are typically several hours away from each other. So, by geographic necessity, the clubs that travel long distances tend to support more than one team strategy.

      Alamo Racing Canines

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