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Flyball Is More Than a Sport

It’s 4 a.m. The world is still, dark, and eerily quiet; it’s far too early to function on normal days. Today isn’t a normal day, though. It’s the start of a flyball weekend. At 4 a.m., in my pajamas, slinging around half a cup of coffee, in a sleepy, disheveled, but purpose-driven-state — loading crates, coolers, fans, treats, tugs, and dogs into my little car to drive to our event a few hours away. Several years ago I adopted a pushy, energetic, workhorse of a Staffordshire terrier, named him Archer, and started my journey in the wild world of dog sports.

Saying that we started a journey doesn’t seem to do justice in describing what flyball is to me. It may be more apt to describe it as an addiction. I’m thoroughly addicted to the early morning drives, the late practices, and the pure joy of watching my dogs thrive in doing what they love. We’ve driven hours to compete, even as far north as Oregon, and each year, we try and plot travel to Indiana where Canadian and American flyballers gather to compete in an annual competition called CanAm.

By now you are probably asking, what is flyball? What is this thing that this poor woman is dragging her dogs to at 4 a.m.? It’s the best kind of addictive chaos. A team sport for all manner of dogs and handlers — sometimes described as drag racing for dogs. Put simply, its a relay race. Dogs race down a lane over four low hurdles, to retrieve a ball from a spring-loaded box, and then race back over the hurdles to their handler, holding onto that ball, all while another team of dogs is doing the same thing in a parallel lane. While the main focus of the game is speed, it is so much more than that. I have three very different dogs that compete in flyball.

Archer, my aforementioned Staffordshire, affectionately nicknamed “The Flying Bowling Ball,” loves to race. You can often hear him barking and straining to go when in the lineup. Flyball has been a beautiful test of our bond and training, in an environment that is loud, crazy, and full of adrenaline. Plus, Archer gets to display the versatility and athleticism of his breed.

Cooper is a Chihuahua mix who is soft, sensitive, and forever endearing. He likes the game, but he isn’t in it to race. He’s in it for the hot dogs and the cheerleaders. Flyball has been pivotal in building his confidence in this world and for building our relationship as a dog and handler team. In just two years Cooper went from being a dog who’d rather be carried and nestled in blankets to a dog who struts out into the field and practically jumps out of my hands in the line-up to play the game.

Then there is fiver, the border collie-Jack Russell mix — the dog who came to me to offer me a challenge as a dog trainer. He came from Canada, from high-drive, proven working dog lineage. He is barely 2 years old, a newbie in the grand scheme of his flyball career. He is fast and shows a ton of promise, having already earned some of his early flyball dog titles in a few competitions this year. Watching him develop a love for the game, keeping the pieces together, and loving the work brings me great happiness. There is a real chance that he may be the first of my personal dogs to earn an NAFA Iron Dog title (for a dog that has earned at least one NAFA point in 10 consecutive years of racing). Yes, that does mean I plan to continue being addicted to flyball for longer.

Flyball is fast, chaotic (in a controlled way), and loud. It is fun, challenging, and full of wonderful, supportive people. Is your dog fast? Does your dog love to retrieve? Flyball just may be the thing you and your dog didn’t know you were looking for. For more information I’d encourage you to check out the North American Flyball Association, or NAFA, and the United Flyball League International, or U-FLI, to find events and teams in your area.

Rebecca Hoffman is a CPDT-KA trainer serving the San Francisco Bay Area through her business Dognamics.

Top photo: Cooper about to catch the ball.

Photo below: Fiver flies toward a hurdle.

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Main article photo by: Photos by Jason Largent