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Schipperke dog running flyball relay race with yellow ball in mouth

Photo courtesy of JLFurtography

All across North America, dogs of all breeds, sizes, and ages, are taking part in a team sport designed to encourage burning off energy through running, jumping hurdles, and catching tennis balls, all within a short amount of time. If this sounds like something your super quick, smart, energetic dog might be interested in, chances are you’re probably right!

The sport is known as “flyball,” a competitive canine relay race in which two teams, comprised of four dogs (and two substitutes), compete side by side against one another over a 51-foot-long course. The sport, which got its start in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Southern California, has expanded into other countries, as well. Today you’ll find it in all 50 U.S. states and in Canada.

According to Terri Parrow-Botsford, regional director for the North American Flyball Association (NAFA), some of the fastest teams right now come from the areas in Michigan and New York that border Canada. “I’ve personally competed all over the East Coast, from as far south as South Carolina, as far north as Nova Scotia, and then as far west as Indiana, where the NAFA CanAm Classic (the largest single regularly held flyball competition) is held,” she says. “I would love to go to Texas, California, and Florida to compete some day, as well.”

Botsford became involved in the sport 19 years ago after looking for an outlet for her Russell Terrier, a dog that was filled with tons of energy. “I had to find something to do with her,” she says. Living in Virginia at the time, she found a course in nearby Maryland and was hooked after attending a tournament.

“What I love about flyball is that it is a team sport,” she says. “It’s me and my dog hanging out with other people who like doing things with their dogs.”

Botsford has taught flyball courses for 17 years, and she started teams in her former city in Virginia and in Syracuse, N.Y., where she lives now.


Photo courtesy of JLFurtography

If you want to get your dog involved, taking classes is the first step. If there aren’t any being given in your immediate area, Botsford suggests looking into alternatives, such as online courses, sending your dog to a trainer, or finding a trainer who will come and conduct a seminar in your hometown.

“The hardest part when you are starting out is getting a team together from scratch,” she says. “Because you need four dogs on a team, you can’t do this sport alone.” Another option is to connect with an existing team. “I was lucky when I moved back to Syracuse, I was able to connect with the Syracuse Obedience Training Club (SOTC), an AKC-licensed obedience club,” says Botsford. “I was welcomed into the club and started teaching flyball right away.”

While there aren’t many requirements in order to participate, dogs cannot be aggressive toward other people or dogs, and owners must have control of their dog. Training starts off slowly, with dogs learning to master the hurdles and the swimmer’s turn (the turn off the flyball box), and perfect their passes. Once they have these down pat, it’s time to start practicing these skills with other dogs in front, behind, and next to them.

“Some dogs are blown away by the fact that there is another dog running next to them, so running consistently takes a little longer to master,” says Botsford. Although it might be strange for the dog, by the time they’ve reached this point the owner has figured out what type of reward — a treat or a tug — will keep their dog focused.

When it comes to training, health is an important factor, with emphasis placed on a dog’s growth plates. Most dogs stop growing around the age of one, but some of the larger breeds take a bit longer to mature. A dog cannot start competing until he is at least one year old, although there is no set age for retirement. NAFA even has an Iron Dog Award given to those that have run for 10 consecutive years.

Because most handlers are also the dog’s owner, they too are a part of the training process. As a handler, you are responsible for knowing the right time to release your dog from the starting line and to also run in the run-back part of the course when the dogs returns. This gives the dog the encouragement of chasing his handler as he returns to the finish line, encouraging him to run faster.


Photo courtesy of JLFurtography

“There are two types of dogs in this sport,” says Botsford. “The ball-crazy dog that will run faster to the flyball box to retrieve the ball, and the ones that will run back faster to take the ball to the handler.”

The sport of flyball is competitive, but it’s also a way for owners and their dogs to have fun together, as well as to establish a camaraderie. Teams can travel wherever there is a competition and compete as often or as infrequently as they want.

Botsford says her team aims to compete once a month, but she admits, “When you get hooked, you can’t wait for the next one.”

Tournaments are divided into divisions, so the teams competing against one another are of equal speeds. Titles are earned based on a point system; points are based on the time it takes a team to complete each heat.

Every time a team completes the entire course in less than 24 seconds, each dog receives 25 points toward earning a title. The longer it takes, the less points awarded; to date, the fastest completion by a team is 14.433 seconds.

Currently, flyball is not an administered AKC sport, but the AKC does recognize three of the flyball titles. Owners can apply to have their dog’s flyball title added to their AKC record.

See these dogs in action in the video below.
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