If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to visit a flyball tournament — or even a flyball class or practice — one of your first thoughts was probably, “Those dogs look (and sound) like they are having so much fun.”
It’s true. Flyball dogs love to play flyball. As part of our training, flyball pros use several different games to help crank up the fun and increase our dogs’ enthusiasm for the game. Some of these games can be played at home — no special equipment required — whether you’re interested in pursuing flyball or just want to play with your dog. One of the best games for simulating the action of flyball is the dead ball (or toy or treat) retrieve. This game only requires one human. Obviously, if you’re interested in playing flyball, your dog will eventually need to retrieve a ball. If you’re just playing for fun, anything goes.
Flyball is mostly about the retrieve object (ball, toy, or treat), but you also need a reward that your dog really likes.
For flyball, many people use a 2- to 3-foot long tug for that reward. A tug is a great reward for flyball for several reasons: You can drag it on the ground for your dog to chase; playing a game of tug is a longer-lasting reward than a treat; and while tugging, your dog is connected to you and won’t wander off chasing balls in the lane or visiting other dogs.
Some dogs just don’t like to play tug, though, so many people do use treats. If you’re going to use treats, be mindful of calorie intake. If you can use part of your dog’s daily meals as the reward, that’s a great way to be sure you’re not inadvertently overfeeding your dog. Some dogs like veggies such as green beans or carrots — they’re low calorie and also help your dog feel full.
If you’re not interested in flyball competition, you can throw a ball for your dog as the reward for the recall. If you are interested in competition, however, you’ll ultimately need to find a different reward, because it is against the rules to throw balls at the end of a run. (It’s a safety issue, as there are seven other dogs and handlers in the ring with you, and extra balls flying around will inevitably lead to collisions.)
To teach the dead object retrieve, first, restrain your dog. Then, toss the retrieve object a few feet away from you but make sure your dog sees it. Wait for the object to stop moving (or become “dead”). This step is optional, although a good idea if you’re interested in competing in flyball; the ball in the flyball box is not moving while the dog runs toward it.
Rev your dog up and then release her to get the retrieve object. As soon as she has the retrieve object, call her name, turn, and start moving away from her as quickly as possible.
Once the dog catches you, play with your dog. If you’re using food, you can still move your hand around near the ground for the dog to chase before she “wins” the food (use gloves if she’s a piranha).
In an ideal world, your dog will carry the retrieve object until she catches up with you (unless it’s food, obviously), and then drop it to take the reward you’re offering. In the real world, your dog may not want to give up the retrieve object or may abandon the retrieve object in favor of chasing you and the reward. You may have to fiddle around with the relative value of the two objects to get the ideal behavior. For example, if your dog adores tennis balls and won’t give up his ball for a tug, you can try to increase the value of the tug by using a tug with a tennis ball on it, or you can try throwing a rubber ball, which the dog may not like as much — or both.
If you’re “just” playing for fun, you obviously have more flexibility with selecting retrieve objects and rewards to achieve success. If you’re interested in flyball competition, it is important that your dog bring a ball back to you so your team doesn’t get a fault. Your flyball instructor will have various suggestions for “bring it” and “exchange” training, which can be customized to help you and your furry friend be successful and join in the flyball fun.
Marin Humane Society: Training.marinhumane.org/oh-behave/dogs/dog-trainingclasses
Good Dog Day Care: GoodDogDaycare.com
Bay Racers Flyball Club: Facebook.com/bayracersflyball
Humane Society Silicon Valley: HSSV.org/what-we-do/behavior-and-training/training/obedience-dog-sports.html#landingpage
All Dogs Sports Park: AllDogsSportsPark.com/services/flyball
Using tug toys as a reward is a flyball training staple. Image of Zing by Debbie Oliver.
Heather Johnson has been playing flyball for 18 years. She is the coach for the Northern California wing of SoCal Frequent Flyers Flyball Club and teaches and trains at the Marin Humane Society in Novato on Sundays. Classes will resume once it finally stops raining.
Main article photo by: Photo of Xoom by Jason Largent