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.

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