It’s all about dogs and their owners working as a team – a relay team.
The sport is flyball. It’s noisy, fast-actioned and fun.
Flyball entails teams of four dogs racing against each other on the clock over a flat, 51-foot course. Each dog runs from a starting line, over four hurdles to reach a box with a slanted surface that releases a tennis ball when the dog hits a plate on the lower part of the slated surface.
The dog grabs the ball in its mouth and then does a quick turnaround, similar to a turn made by a competitive human swimmer hitting the edge of a swimming pool..
With the ball in its mouth, the dog then re-traces the route back over the hurdles and past the starting line and to its handler. Just as the one dog crosses the line, the next one takes off.
Two flyball teams – one from Syracuse (Syracuse Flyball) and the other from Rochester (ROC Flight) – recently practiced against each other at the Syracuse Obedience Training Club’s indoor facility. The AKC-affiliated club has been around since 1965 and offers puppy classes, basic dog obedience classes, advanced obedience classes and competitive/agility training for dog-related sports such as flyball.
Judging from the barking and playful behavior, the dogs were enjoying themselves. As each dog finished its run, they were rewarded either by either a treat or a playful “tug” (grabbing on to a strand of rope, a frisbee or toy that the owner is holding).
“It’s a sport for dogs that love to run. You can’t make a dog run as fast as they do if they don’t enjoy themselves,” said Terri Parrow Botsford, captain of the Syracuse Flyball team who races a border collie/cattle dog mix and a Labradoodle.
There’s something in it for the owners as well.
“It’s the joy of spending time with your dog and working (and traveling together to competitions) with people you like. It’s a team sport,” said Lisa Grosser, of Rochester, captain of the Roc Flight team. She brought three dogs — a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever and two border collie mixes — to the practice.
Flyball is governed by the North American Flyball Ball Association, which was established in 1984. Today, there are more than 400 active clubs in every state in the U.S. and in Canada and an estimated 6,500 competing dogs, according to flyball.org. Read more about the history of the sport. http://showcase.netins.net/web/doublejj/Hist.html
Flyball practices and competitions are always noisy, according to Botsford and Grosser.
Lisa Phinney, of Phoenix, is a member of the Syracuse team. She and her husband, Brian, race three Australian cattle dogs. She was at the recent practice session at the Syracuse Obedience Training Club with Ellie, their two-month-old daughter. The infant seemed happy and unaffected by all the noise due to the fact she was wearing a cute, mini-set of earphones, complete with a ribbon and bow.
“They were given to me at my baby shower because my friends know I’m into flyball and things can get quite loud with all the dogs barking,” Phinney said.
The following are excerpts from interviews with Botsford, Grosser and other sources about the sport of flyball.
How popular is flyball? There are a few teams in New York, but it’s more popular elsewhere. “We’re in the Northeast division, which includes a lot of Canadian teams,” Botsford said. “There is national competition called the CanAm Classic, held each October in Indianapolis, Ind. It was cancelled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and has been scheduled for this year.”
Is there any money to be made at competitions? “It’s just for fun,” Grosser said. “We have to pay money to compete and it costs to travel. You win ribbons, trophies and titles. No cash prizes.”
What kind of dogs participate in the sport? According to the American Kennel Club: “All dogs 15 months of age or older are allowed to compete.. The sport is open to all breeds from Yorkshire Terriers to Great Danes to mixed breeds. Any dog can compete in the sport as long as they can behave around other dogs in a high drive, fast-paced environment (ie. the dog must listen to commands from a handler, have a strong recall, and have no aggression issues).
At the recent practice session at the Syracuse Obedience Training Club breeds included border collies and border collie mixes, Australian cattle dogs, a Hungarian collie, a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, a Labradoodle, a German shepherd – and a mini-dachshund.
How long does it take to train a dog to do this? It depends on the breed and the handler, Botsford said. “Border collies, whippets really excel,” she said. “A yellow Lab might be able to pick it up in about 8 weeks. Some dogs, up to four years. Sometimes dogs are social butterflies. When they’re out there they lose their brain and get off the course and say to themselves, ‘Oh I want to say hi to those people.’ “
What are the competitive divisions at Flyball competitions? The teams are grouped in four classes: regular (any four breeds); multi (all four dogs have to be different breeds); open (any breed on any team can run together); veterans (just like open, but all dogs have to be at least 7 years old).
How high are the hurdles the dogs have to jump over? According to the American Kennel Club: “The jump height of each team is determined by measuring the height of the team’s smallest dog at the withers (the highest point of a dog’s shoulder blades) and subtracting 5 inches. This dog is referred to as the “height dog.” Each team’s height dogs are measured at the beginning of the tournament by the head judge.” The minimum height for a jump is 7 inches.
How fast can these dogs run? Some dogs have been clocked at speeds of around 30 mph, Botsford said. The current North American record is 14.433 seconds by the Border Patrol team, set June, 5, 2016 in Rockton, Ontario.
As for the races, what are the rules if a dog messes up – starts prematurely, drops the ball, runs around rather than over a hurdle, etc.? Races are closely monitored by judges and there’s an electronic beam at the start (finish) line to catch premature starts by dogs. The dogs are supposed to stay in their lanes, jump all the hurdles and carry the tennis ball completely back and cross the line. If a dog messes up, it must run again. The clock stops after four dogs successfully complete the race with no errors.
How do ever have problems at practices or competitions with dogs from one team not getting along with others or going after other handlers? “You have to train them to do their job and when to focus,” Grosser said. “If they show aggression (to another dog or handler) they can get disqualified, kicked out of a tournament. There’s no tolerance for that.”
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