Flyball – Drag Racing for Dogs?

I had the good fortune to compete this past weekend in Pawdemonium’s 10th annual flyball tournament in South San Jose. All of our big dogs did wonderfully well in the long weekend of racing, and we had the opportunity to do some nice catching up with some old friends, as well as with some other people whom we don’t get to see very often.

A flyball race is a 4-dog relay between two teams, with each dog having to run over the four hurdles to hit the spring-loaded box, retrieving a tennis ball from it then returning to his or her handler back over the hurdles as the next dog approaches to enter the course.  The fastest team to complete the course with all four dogs without errors (i.e. dropped balls or missed hurdles) wins the heat.

Buzz returns with the ball

Flyball was developed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Southern California by trainers who combined scent hurdle racing with retrieval of a tennis ball. Herbert Wagner, a trainer, is said to have developed the first flyball box, and he did a demonstration on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, making the sport known across the country. The first flyball competition was held in 1983. In 1985, the first flyball rulebook was written by Mike Randall, the first executive director of the fledgling North American Flyball Association or NAFA.  In 2004, the United Flyball League International (U-FLI)was founded to give people additional options for racing including singles and pairs racing.

When I began competing in flyball in 1992 with the Santa Barbara Flyers it was still a relatively young sport. The timing was by hand, and the training was very different than it is today. Back then, we were happy to just complete a race without errors, and a time under 24 seconds was considered outstanding.

Claire earns her Onyx award


Today, all timing is electronic, and the “Division 1” teams at tournaments are regularly running under 20 seconds, with the world record teams running all four dogs in under 15 seconds.  The average fast competitive dog runs between 4 seconds and 4.5 seconds now. Nevertheless, there has always been a place for the slower dog that just enjoys running, and for many, this is part of the allure of the sport.

Aside from the fast-paced action, there is something else that differentiates flyball from other dog sports, and that is the unparalleled camaraderie. Because flyball calls for teams of dogs, the flyball club is the core of any team. As with any club, people build relationships in them. For me, my club, Pawdemonium, is my extended family. They are as important to family events as my husband’s and my immediate families. Members of our club read at our wedding, and two of them are the godparents of our daughter. We support one another tremendously, and when one member is ill or going through hard times, we all pull together as a family.

Lining up at the start of a race

So, is flyball right for your dog? When people ask me this question, I suggest that they consider not just whether it is for their dog, but if it is for them. Because, aside from the breed-specific dog sports such as herding, hunting and go-to-ground, the sports that your dog enjoys will largely depend on what you enjoy. It is really all about spending quality time together with your dog.

If you are not sure about flyball, check out a club near you. Meet the people, take a class in the sport, and then decide if it’s something that you might be interested in pursuing with your best friend.

Becoming the Center of Your Dog’s Universe

OR: How to motivate your dog to want to work for you

In the world of modern, science based dog training, we often hear people calling treats a “bribe”, or saying that they just want their dogs to work for them “because they should”. What many of these people don’t understand is that dogs, like most other species, including people, usually need some kind of motivation in order to do something.  Victoria Stillwell recently wrote a wonderful article explaining in scientific terms why giving treats is actually not “bribing”, and why treats are actually so effective for training.

The things that dogs do naturally are often intrinsically motivated, or naturally satisfying, such as digging, eating, sleeping, running. But to do something specific at a specific time, dogs often need an extrinsic or external motivation. This motivation can come in the form of something good – a reward such as a treat or toy, or something bad – a punishment such as a prong collar “correction”. In other words, they will either be motivated by a potential reward for doing what you want, or by a potential punisher for not doing what you want. It is not only logical, but scientifically supported that rewarding – whether through treats or play – not only leads to better learning, but to a better relationship with your best friend.


Cecilia and Buzz at a Rally Trial

People who train using traditional, force-based methods do so typically with the goal of not needing the prong collar or choke chain for the life of the dog, yet many of them continue to use them throughout the dogs’ lives. The same is true with rewards – many people don’t understand that it is possible for their reward-trained dogs to work without the treats now and then, and so they get “hooked” on the treats and feel like it is a crutch. Now, let me pause here and ask: is that really so bad? Would you rather have your dog addicted to treats or dependant on a prong collar for all of his life? But, I digress…

The point is, it IS possible to not have to have treats with you every time you go out with your dogs. The key, as Susan Garrett likes to say, is to learn to “BE the cookie”, or as I like to tell my students, find a way to be “more interesting to your dog than dirt.” And we all know how interesting dirt can be to a dog!

The first part of being the cookie is to be interesting, exciting, and POSITIVE. I’m quite certain that you will not achieve being the cookie by punishing your dog harshly, or consistently using coercive training methods. It is even difficult to be the cookie if you are constantly showing your dog how frustrated you are. (See the link to the studies, below.) You will become the cookie by playing with your dog, and making sure all good things come from YOU. Following are some tips to achieving this:

  • Feed meals by hand whenever you get a chance. There is no hard and fast rule that says dogs must eat out of food bowls. My youngest dog did not even get a meal out of a bowl for the first 3 or 4 months that I had him. Instead, I took advantage of feeding times to incorporate more training into the routine. If you have the time, feed your dog his or her meals by hand several times per week, and take advantage of that time to work with the dog on whatever training exercises you are emphasizing that week.

Playing Tug with Holly P.

  • PLAY with your dog!  Tug is a great game, but even if your dog doesn’t tug, you can run and romp together. According to Dr. Karen London in her seminar on Using Play to Treat Canine Aggression, running can even be a form of play. How often have you seen dogs play together by just running after one another? You can incorporate that into your dog’s daily routine with you as well. If you don’t run, there are other games you can play with your dog including fetch and “find it”, where you hide things from your dog for him to find, or “hide and seek”, asking your dog to stay, then hiding and calling him to find you.
  • Spend more time SMILING with your dog! According to studies, dogs are masters at reading human social cues. The more you smile, the more your dog will realize that you are enjoying the time with him, and the more he will want to spend the time with you.

Overall, it’s about building your relationship, not by force, but by encouragement and mutual respect. It’s about rewarding your dog for doing the things that you want from him, and showing him that you are not only the leader to be respected, but the most fun that he could possibly have with anyone in the world.

Welcome to High Drive Dogs

The High Drive Dogs website, HDDogs,com, is dedicated to helping high energy dogs to find forever homes with families and individuals who are prepared to give them the mental and physical activity that they so desperately need. These homes include competitors in dog sports such as agility, flyball and disc dogs, as well as those involved in search and rescue, police work and the film industry.

As a professional dog trainer and dogs sports enthusiast, I’ve worked with these dogs for most of my life, including the past 20 years professionally. I have helped many of these dogs to be able to fulfill their callings by helping their owners to find outlets for their incredible physical and mental energy.

In this blog, I hope to offer insights and tips to dealing with your high drive dogs, or simply to help you have more fun with your already well-adjusted family dogs. Please feel free to offer feedback as we move along this journey together, including requests for topics that are of interest to you.

Tail wags,


What is a High Drive Dog anyway?

I’m certain that many of you are asking the questions, ”What is a ‘high drive dog’? How are High Drive Dogs different from the average dog? And why do we need an entire website dedicated to just them?”

As a professional dog trainer, I work with a wide variety of dogs of all sizes, temperaments and energy levels. Among the most challenging are the very high energy dogs with busy minds. These dogs often come from field or farm working lines, and have been bred over generations for physically and mentally rigorous work.  They are among the most intelligent and most active dogs, and their work ethic makes them excel at the work that they do. You see these dogs among the top competitors in sports such as agility, flyball and disc, as well as on television and on the big screen.  These are also the dogs that you see working alongside police officers and other professionals, finding criminal suspects and their contraband, or doing search and rescue amidst disasters.

My girl, Claire, competing in agility


To the casual observer, these digs often appear to be the “perfect dogs”, brilliant companions working alongside their humans. However, what many people don’t realize is that many of these dogs would not make ideal “family pets” in the traditional sense. Sure, they learn very quickly and will gladly take on whatever work you give them, but the problems begin if they don’t get enough work to do. When this occurs, they can become destructive or worse. I’ve seen working lines dogs who find themselves in pet homes “looking” for work in everything they do, and this can cause tremendous problems for their families. Among the challenges I have encountered have been…

  • Billie*, a beautiful Australian Shepherd dog from champion working ranch lines in a pet home with insufficient work, looking for things to herd. Her targets included cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and over time she became desperate and thus leash reactive from great distances when she didn’t get to chase them down. In her desperation to control something she even ended up nipping at her owner whenever she didn’t do whatever the dog had in mind at the moment. It has taken her owner many many months to get a handle on Billie’s energy level, and for a while it became nearly a full-time second job just to keep up.
  • Rocky*, a field bred Labrador retriever who become extremely destructive and obsessively barked at his owners whenever they would stop throwing the ball for him. He appeared never to get tired, and only finally relaxed for a moment when we did some rigorous obedience work with him to tire him out mentally. This became the daily norm and essentially resolved the issues over time.
  • Danny*, a brilliant little terrier mix who bounced from home to home because of severe resource guarding issues. He seemed to have the need to control everyone and everything around him. He would bond with people then guard them from others. He guarded his spaces and occasionally prized toys. But he also learned so quickly, and I saw in him a dog that needed more direction and much more mental exercise in an environment where he could feel completely safe. Unfortunately, I was not able to take him in personally and there were insufficient resources to work with him in training. I still miss that little guy.
  • And of course, Trevor, to whom the High Drive Dogs website is dedicated. He was fortunate to find his “forever home” on a working ranch in Minnesota and is doing well there with lots to do.

    Trevor at Home

    There are numerous other dogs with whom I have worked, who were harassing other household dogs, or trying to nip and herd their families, or repeatedly jumping over fences to escape their boredom, when all that they needed were *jobs* to keep them mentally and physically fulfilled. Many of these dogs did find their jobs, including a variety of sports, as well as tricks training and other household work including retrieving dropped objects. Many others were not so fortunate – not because they had bad owners but rather, because their families were unprepared for the energy level and time commitment needed to maintain such a dog.  This is why the really good breeders of such dogs as working border collies and field-bred Labradors carefully screen their prospective families, and will turn them down if they do not already have a job in mind for their puppies. Unfortunately, not all breeders are that responsible. Furthermore, there are so many mixed breeds as well, from truly irresponsible owners who don’t spay and neuter their pets when they are not well-suited for breeding. Many of these dogs go to unsuspecting owners, expecting to get their calm and quiet dog, but instead getting these whirlwinds of physical and mental activity for which they are unprepared.

So, it is to these dogs that I dedicate this website, with the hope that many of these wayward pooches may find their jobs… their life’s work… in homes that actively seek them out as partners in work and play. I’m one such home, but like everyone, I have limits as to how many dogs I may keep. I can’t personally save all the Billie’s, Rocky’s and Danny’s of the world, but hopefully, via this website as well as through other venues, I can somehow contribute to improving their lives.

* NOTE: the names of these real dogs have been changed, for their privacy and that of their owners.