Dog Sports 101: Flyball

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Got a ball-crazy dog who’s smart and fast? Looking for a way to burn some of his energy and meet some people? Then we’ve got a sport for you! 

Flyball is a canine relay race in which teams of dogs take turns jumping hurdles and retrieving a tennis ball. But there’s a twist: To get the tennis ball, each dog must pounce on a spring-loaded box that ejects the ball — and once he has the ball, he has to return to his team before the next dog can start the course.

Sound like fun? We think so!

Flyball teams consist of a minimum of four dogs, with a handler for each dog, plus a box loader. Teams may also have line coaches who help bring out the best in the dogs as they navigate the course.

The best thing about flyball is that any dog can play (as long as his veterinarian finds him healthy enough to run and leap). Herding breeds and retrievers tend to excel at the sport, but Bulldogs, Basset Hounds and Chihuahuas may also enjoy participating. In fact, little dogs are often MVPs because a team’s jump height — which ranges from 7 to 14 inches — is determined by the height of that team’s smallest dog, known as the height dog. A short dog is an asset to a team because the larger dogs benefit from the lower hurdles.

How It Works

Two teams race each other over a 51-foot course lined with four jumps. Each dog navigates the jumps, hits the box to eject the ball, catches it in his mouth and races back to the start. The dog with the ball must cross the starting line before the next dog on his team can go. Each dog on the team must successfully complete the course, and the first team to finish without any errors wins.

Judging is done electronically; lights and infrared timing sensors track starts, passes, finishes and individual dogs’ times to the thousandth of a second. Dogs earn points toward flyball titles based on a team’s time. Dogs whose teams complete a heat in less than 24 seconds receive 25 points toward a flyball title; less than 28 seconds, 5 points; and less than 32 seconds, 1 point.

A dog must earn 20 points to achieve the title Flyball Dog (FD), 100 points for Flyball Dog Excellent (FDX) and 500 points for Flyball Dog Champion (FDCh). Flyball Dog Champions can progress to Silver (1,000 points) and Gold (2,500 points) levels. From there, dogs can move up to Flyball Master (FM, 5,000 points), Flyball Master Excellent (FMX, 10,000 points) and Flyball Master Champion (FMCh, 15,000 points). The Onyx Award, named for the Doberman Pinscher who was its first recipient, is achieved with 20,000 points. A dog with 30,000 points is named a Flyball Grand Champion (FDGCh). Above that level, there are commemorative pins, plaques and plates — and plenty of treats — to mark the dog’s success.

If your dog can retrieve a tennis ball and learn to jump a hurdle, he can play flyball. It helps if he’s fast and accurate — top performers tend to be Border Collies, American Staffordshire Terriers, Jack Russell Terriers and Whippets — but there are different classes for different teams, including a veteran’s class for dogs older than 7 and a combination breed class in which each dog on the team must be a different breed, with a mix counting as a single breed.

What’s most important, though, is attitude. Spectators cheer on the Bassets, the Bulldogs and the little dogs because they admire their effort and heart.

Flyball is different from agility and obedience because the team consists of multiple dogs and humans. To be successful, they must all work well together. It’s complex, challenging and fun. One player describes it as “a three-dimensional chess game going at 25 mph.”

Flyball is perfect for dogs of all sizes and abilities — and for humans of all ages and experience as well, from kids to seniors. Each team needs handlers who can win while still playing safely and box loaders and line coaches who can maximize the performance of dogs and handlers, but those aren’t the only jobs. Every team needs people who can pick up balls, record statistics, film tournaments and manage the dogs who aren’t racing. Besides simply doing something fun with their dogs, the camaraderie of other dog owners is often appealing for the human team members.

Want to give flyball a try? To get started, ask your veterinarian to examine your dog to make sure he doesn’t have any underlying conditions that might prevent him from competing. Then, all you really need is a dog who will chase a tennis ball and bring it back to you. Flyball training builds off that simple desire and ability to retrieve. If you and your dog want to do more, you can easily find a club near you with compatible people and dogs where you can both build your skills.

The most important secrets to flyball success? Let your dog set the pace — and have fun!