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.”