If your dog is a runner, jumper, leaper, and furry bundle of joy around other dogs then Dog Flyball may be the perfect sport for them. Does your dog like to play fetch? Do they like being around other dogs and can behave themselves? Do they like to leap over objects (e.g., your couch) to catch ‘the prize’? They may be the next dog flyball champ of the world! Ok, maybe not the world but a dog can dream. Curious? Read on!
Dog flyball is a team sport in which four dogs leap over hurdles in a relay style race, to pounce on a box that ejects a ball they catch and bring back to their human handler. Teams are placed into divisions so that teams of equal ability are paired against each other. Teams compete in heats against 1 other team. The team with the fastest time without errors wins the heat. The team that wins the most heats, wins the race. The course is 102 feet long – 51 feet to the box and 51 feet back. It is a great sport for dogs with a lot of energy to burn and humans who aren’t necessarily looking to burn it with them. You know who you are!
Dog Flyball originated in Southern California in the 70s. It was then demonstrated on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and gained popularity in both Canada and America. The first Dog Flyball tournament was held in 1983 in the United States. The North American Flyball Association, Inc. (“NAFA”), a non-profit organization, is now the official sanctioning body of the sport and the leading authority on Dog Flyball. NAFA has an official rule book. Judging is done electronically but there are referees and sometimes commentators at the competitions.
Each team and individual dog gets points when they compete. Winning teams in a competition have the highest points in that competition. The points that are given to individual dogs accumulate over the lifetime of a dog. The pinnacle of success in Dog Flyball is being named Flyball Grand Champion (FGDCh). In partnership with NAFA, the American Kennel Club (“AKC”) recognizes 4 regular title levels, which can be put on a dog’s AKC record - Flyball Dog Champion (FDCh), Flyball Master (FM), ONYX, and finally Flyball Grand Champion (FGDCh). NAFA has more titles that are not recognized by the AKC and has titles for Multibreed dogs. In order to win the titles, dogs earn points in competitions that they can accumulate to meet the thresholds for titles. For example, the point threshold for Flyball Dog Champion (FDCh) is 500 points. If a dog team finished a race in under 24 seconds, each individual dog gets 25 points towards a title. Most teams can run all four dogs through a course in under 20 seconds so individual points are commonly earned, even if a team doesn’t do well in a competition.
NAFA sanctioned competitions are held all over Canada and the United States. Typically, clubs enter teams. The racing year starts October 1 and ends September 30 the following year. Since speed and accuracy is the key to winning in Dog Flyball, the height of the hurdles is very important.
The height of the hurdles for a team is set using the height of the shortest dog in the team (a.k.a “the height dog”). This is why it pays to have a zippy, bouncy Chihuahua in your team! Flyball dogs are fast. It is quite common for a team to finish under 20 seconds. The NAFA world record is 15.22 seconds. Those are fast dogs!
How do you get started with Dog Flyball? Any dog over the age of 15 months can compete. First, check with your Vet to make sure it is safe for your dog to participate and your dog has the right immunizations for group activities. It is commonly thought that working breeds that herd and retrievers are usually a great fit for Flyball, but any breed may excel once they get the hang of it. Interestingly, NAFA won’t sanction a flyball competition that excludes dogs based on breed, unless a law prevents participation, and the club was not able to get an exception. It truly is a sport for all dogs! Mixed and all purebred breeds can compete, including bulldog breeds.
After you determine it is safe for your dog to participate, you may want to explore Flyball clubs. NAFA has a club locator on its website. Most clubs allow visitors and spectators so that you can see what it is all about before you join. The club will teach your dog the basics, recall and box turn skills, rules and find matches for teams. You will also get to meet other canine parents!
To get started at home, you could try to teach your dog the most important skill – recall. That is where dogs go to a point and race back to their human handler. This will get your pup ready for the more challenging skill of pouncing on the box, getting the ball, and doing a swimmer’s-type turn to efficiently bring it back to you.
It will also give you a sense of whether your dog is ready for the challenges of Flyball. Another thing to test is whether your dog can handle being around large groups of very loud dogs. Dogs doing flyball tend to bark a lot out of excitement. You could take your dog to the dog park and see how they react to large groups of loud and playful dogs.
Like any other dog sport, Flyball is not suitable for all dogs. Your dog may not like team sports or the loud atmosphere at Flyball competitions. Your dog may not be the best at the box turn skill but love to jump. If so, you could look into Dog Parkour or Dog Agility. If you have a body of water near you, you could check out Dock Diving or Dog Surfing. Or, if you are in a snowy climate, you might want to look into dog sledding competitions or skijoring. If your dog likes to run, you could try out Dog Biking. There are many options for you and your dog to get outside, have fun, and get some exercise!