Flyball racing has been described as “drag racing on four paws.” It’s high-energy and excitement throughout, and great fun for the dogs.
Flyball is perhaps the only true team dog sport, where four dogs run in a type of relay race as a team. Each dog in turn runs across a start/finish line, over four jumps, and jumps onto a flyball box, which shoots out a ball. The dog captures the ball, returns over the jumps, and crosses the finish line with the ball. As the first dog is finishing, the second dog begins his or her run, but cannot cross the start/finish line until the previous dog has returned and crossed the line. If a dog makes a mistake, such as dropping the ball before crossing finish line, or going around one or more jumps, that dog must rerun after his or her teammates have run. When all four dogs have run successfully, their race is over.
And all the while, there is a second team racing in a separate lane 15 feet away. Total of eight dogs, with eith handlers, with each team trying to finish in the fastest time. Sometimes it seems chaotic, sometimes like poetry.
The height of the jumps is determined by the smallest dog on the team — this dog, called the “height dog,” is measured at the withers, and 6 inches is subtracted to get the jump height (with a minimum of 7 inches). So a dog measuring 14 inches, minus 6 inches, would allow the whole team to jump 8 inches. There is an advantage for small to mid-sized dogs, which benefits the bigger dogs. Maximum jump height is 14 inches.
Racing times are measured using an electronic judging system. Competitors are able to track their starts and individual dog times to the thousandth of a second. Many teams run all four dogs through the course in less than 20 seconds. The NAFA Regular World Record is now 14.433 seconds.
Our tournaments are conducted under rules of the North American Flyball Association, or NAFA. Tournaments are divided into divisions so that teams compete against other teams of equal abilities. There is a special class of racing for multibreed teams, where each dog must be a different breed. All dogs including mixed breeds are eligible to compete and earn titles in NAFA sanctioned tournaments. Titles are earned via a point system based on the time it takes a dog’s team to complete each race. Tournaments are hosted by flyball clubs. These are usually weekend events. Last year there were seven tournaments in California.
The best way to get started in flyball is sign up for a class. Most beginning classes teach each dog and their handler a series of skill games. As they advance, the games are linked together until the dog can confidently complete a full run.
Some of the Bay Area resources for classes are: For classes in Union City and Santa Clara, contact Michelle Largent at firstname.lastname@example.org; in San Jose, contact FetchSam at email@example.com and check the website, FetchSam.com; in the North Bay, classes are at Marin Humane Society in Novato (check out https://training.marinhumane.org/oh-behave/dogs/dog-trainingclasses, go to “sports tab” and scroll down to “flyball”).
Steve O’Donnell is a 20-plus-year Flyball participant and serves as NAFA regional director for California. He and his three flyball dogs live in Oakland and are members of Pacific Pups Flyball Club. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top photo: Toby completes his box turn and heads to the finish line.
Photo, below: Steve with Toby, a 3-year-old terrier mix, ready to run his leg of the team’s race.
Main article photo by: Photos by John Savedra