Many have heard of dog sports like agility, competitive rally obedience, and dog sledding, but those are far from the only activities you can partake in with your dog. Did you know that there is a sport for dogs (and owners) that love to play fetch? There is a sport that allows your dog to chase after a ball, and which requires discipline, training and great communication; a sport where your dogs get a chance to show what they can do, and where you can have fun together in a playful setting.
Flyball is the name of the sport, and if you hadn’t heard of it before, here is your chance to learn what it is all about. If you and your dog love fetch, adrenaline and if you work well under pressure – this dog sport might be right for you.
How Dog Flyball Works
The idea is simple in this adrenaline rush of a sport. Two teams of at least four dogs and four handlers compete in each race; where they run a 51-foot obstacle course with four jumps. Some of these relay races are held inside arenas on artificial grass, and others are held outdoors.
There needs to be an additional person loading up the spring-loaded boxes (more on this below), and each team might also have a line coach to motivate the dog along the course. However, no physical contact is allowed between dog and handler while the dog is racing.
The course consists of four jumps that are usually between 7 and 14 inches high (this is determined by the shoulder height of the smallest dog on the team), and they are placed 10 feet (3 meters) apart on a straight line along the course. The handlers and the dogs stand on one side, and on the other side, there is a spring-box that ejects a tennis ball.
Upon a given signal, one handler from each team will release their dog; the dog will run the course and jump over the four obstacles, grab the tennis ball from the spring-box and head back the same way that they came – again going over the four jumps. This needs to be completed without disruptions.
Once the first dog crosses the finish line – the next dog from the team can be released, and the team that finishes first by having all four dogs complete the course successfully wins the race. The rules are very simple, and the concept is easy for a dog to learn, which is why so many people (and dogs) love the sport.
It is the kind of sport anyone can participate in; especially considering that the handler does not need to do much more than to hold back the dog before it is his or her turn, and even though some dog breeds might be more suitable for it – and physically fit dog can learn to run and compete in Flyball.
These competitions will usually attract large (and often loud) audiences, and the dog needs to do well under pressure. It is a fast-paced sport; full of adrenaline, and if you ever see dogs compete in Flyball you can see and feel right away how much they love it. It becomes a game to them; where they are usually rewarded at the end with treats and/or praise, and where they are given the chance to burn off some steam.
It is a great activity for active dogs that love a fun challenge, and for owners that want a dog sport, they can easily learn. Flyball requires discipline and training, but it is a suitable sport for beginners and for those who want to be more active with their dogs.
History of the Sport
While many are new to Flyball, Flyball is in no way a new sport. It was invented back in the late 1960s (possibly early 1970s) in the southern parts of California; when dog trainers started combining the act of bringing back a tennis ball with the basic principles of scent hurdle racing.
A type of tennis ball launcher was added – serving as the first spring-box for Flyball – and the first authentic Flyball box was supposedly manufactured by a man named Herbert Wagner, who also made an appearance on The Tonight Show (starring Johnny Carson) to introduce the canine sport to the general public.
In 1983, the United States hosted its first tournament in Flyball, and the sport has since spread and become increasingly popular in multiple countries all over the world. Those who are active within different types of dog sports are usually familiar with this activity, but many of us regular dog owners may have been unaware of the existence of the sport, despite it having been around for decades.
These Dogs Can Play Flyball
Flyball is a physically demanding sport, and the dogs participating need to be in excellent health with no known heart conditions or other health concerns that could hold them back. You wouldn’t want to race a dog with a bone- and joint problems like arthritis, as this could cause unnecessary pain and discomfort, but provided the dog is deemed healthy by a licensed veterinarian – any dog can play Flyball.
Some dog breeds are naturally better suited for the sport due to their physical build, mentality, energy level and size; and breeds commonly seen in larger competitions are Border Collies, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Whippets, Australian Shepherds, agile terriers like the Jack Russell Terrier and the Irish Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, Poodles and mixed breeds. These are all known for being fast runners; quick to get started and to stop, great at jumping and agile enough to turn around fast at the spring-box.
You can play flyball with a dog any size – even a Chihuahua – but while you could build a team of small dogs and have tons of fun playing, it could be an issue if wanting to compete in larger competitions. The hurdle height is adjusted to the smallest dog of each team, yes, meaning your dogs would get to jump adequately sized jumps while razing, but they may not be as fast as a larger dog due to the length of their legs.
Who says you need to aim at national and international competitions when playing Flyball, though? You can practice and play just for fun or look for other small-dog teams to compete against! Any dog can play Flyball if they are healthy enough to do so, and it comes down to your dog’s personality and whether he or she enjoys the activity. If they do – let them play!
Flyball in Different Parts of the World
The sport may have started in California, in the United States, but it has since spread to many other parts of the globe. The sport is big in Australia, South Africa and in Canada, as well as in many countries in Europe; with examples being Finland, Germany, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Czech Republic, and the UK.
Flyball is usually practiced at local kennel clubs and many trainers offer classes in Flyball for people and dogs that are interested in trying something new, and this is true for the United States and for other countries where the sport has gained popularity. Some Flyball teams will practice for fun and leisure, while others practice with the intention to compete.
The European championships are held annually in different countries in Europe, and they are currently the largest international Flyball championships in the world. The CanAm Classic (North American Flyball Championships) is even larger, but it is currently only open for North American teams.
Getting Started with Your Dog
The first step for those interested in Flyball is to take your dog to the vet for a routine check-up. You may think your dog is doing great (and you might be right, because after all – nobody knows your dog as you do), but it is always a good idea to get a professional opinion before you enroll them in a new activity.
There are a few things that could prevent your dog from playing Flyball; with cardiac health, breathing abilities, bone- and joint health and overall fitness being important factors, so let your veterinarian know that you would like to try a new canine sport with your fur friend to see what they think.
Secondly, always start slow and don’t expect too much in the beginning. It could take some time for your dog to understand what it is you want him to do, so don’t lose patience if you end up having to practice for a few days or even weeks before he gets the hang of it.
Dogs are very intelligent, and they can learn amazing things, but if you have a dog that hasn’t been obedience trained or that isn’t used to the concept of training – it could take additional time for things to click. Always offer rewards and use positive reinforcement methods (where the focus lies on rewarding correct behaviors rather than punishing failure or incorrect acts).
The best way to learn is to contact a local trainer with Flyball experience, as they can teach you tips and tricks for how to see results faster and for how to get started. Not everyone has Flyball teams and trainers available, though, and the solution for that is learning through YouTube videos and online tips. Watch videos of dogs playing Flyball first to get an idea of how it is supposed to look like on a professional level.
There are several videos from large Championships up, and it can help you by creating a visual goal. You will then want to follow step-by-step online guides for how to teach the different elements of Flyball because no dog is going to get the full concept right away. Have fun with your dog also during the training process and see it as part of the game instead of focusing entirely on the goal.
Official contests are hosted under the sanction of national governing bodies but are usually held by local kennel clubs and Flyball organizations. Some of the organizers might be devoted solemnly to Flyball, while others (like kennel clubs) might also host events for other dog sports like Agility, competitive obedience and more, and the competitions are judged by head judges with valid licenses from the national sanctioning organization, and it is also this organization that issues the permit to host a competition on a chosen and pre-authorized date.
Many of the larger Flyball competitions are held over the course of a weekend or two consecutive days.
Depending on the size of the competitions, the teams may have been divided into groups where the teams have similar speed records, to make the competitions more exciting both for the viewers and for the teams competing. This depends on how many participants there are and on the general customs in the location where the competition is held, as there is no rule to state which two teams can compete against one another.
In tournaments, your team will first compete against another team, and the winning team will then go on to compete against another winning team and so on until there is only one team remaining. This may vary depending on the competition or the championship.
While winning is what most participants are hoping for, it is not the only goal and reason for competing. You also tend to be hoping to improve the team’s own speed record, and to become a little faster every time to prove that the training and practice have been paying off.
Do some research to see if there are any local Flyball clubs in your area or groups of people practicing Flyball with their dogs. The easiest way to do this is by the internet to search for the websites of local kennel clubs or groups on social media like Facebook, and you can then check to see if there are any competitions or events you could attend to get a better idea of how the sport works. You won’t know for sure if it is right for you and your dog until you try, and you don’t lose anything by giving Flyball a fair chance.
This article focuses on the most common way to play Flyball internationally, but the rules might differentiate depending on the country and the organization hosting the event. Always consult a veterinarian before getting started, and don’t forget to start slow and to keep it fun for your dog throughout the experience.