When the Canine Dirt Diggers formed a Flyball team in 1992, options were limited. Without a proper training facility in rural New Richmond, Wisconsin, the group wound up practicing together in a horse barn, which offered a long enough stretch to practice the relay sport, hence the team name.
“A lot of times it was kind of a nice thing if it was cement, and we’d do it in between the horse stalls and things like that, so at least we weren’t sitting in the dirt with the manure and everything,” says Michelle Koch, a longtime Flyball competitor and member of the Canine Dirt Diggers.
As the longest-running Flyball team in Wisconsin and the oldest team competing in the Regular “Premier” Class at the CanAm Flyball Classic, run by the North American Flyball Association (NAFA). As the world’s largest Flyball tournament, more than 100 teams of four dogs each come to compete from across the U.S. and Canada.
Getting into Flyball
Koch initially found Flyball through a demonstration at an obedience class. Watching the dogs jump over four hurdles to grab a ball from a spring box was unlike anything she had seen before. Thought it was the perfect outlet for her then 6-year-old Weimaraner named Piper.
“She was the dog that got me into Flyball because she was kind of a crazy dog, so I just needed an outlet for her energy, and I didn’t hunt with her,” she says. “So, it was just something we both could do, and she could get her crazy out.”
She decided to join the Canine Dirt Diggers in 2005 and has competed and grown in her handling since.
When Koch first joined, she was excited to see all the different breeds involved and that people competed with multiple dogs, which allowed her to handle other teammates’ dogs when hers weren’t quite ready to compete.
“It’s fun doing stuff with your dog, but it’s a great community. I mean, everybody’s willing to help each other and offer advice, and it’s just really good camaraderie.”
Horse barns were initially the best fit for training as if they attempted practicing outdoors, they needed to make sure the dogs had a good recall. But as the team grew, they continued to get scrappy, practicing everywhere from expo grounds to the pet store Koch worked by pushing away the shelving after hours.
“It doesn’t matter where, just as long as it’s long enough,” Koch says. “That was the big thing. We’ll move whatever we need to move, just as long as the building’s big enough.”
Now, she travels an hour and a half each way to their current facility in Minneapolis where the team nails down their passing and timing. But at home, she practices for 15 minutes a day in the hallways.
“When you tell people, they always ask, ‘How fast does it take your dog to go down and back?” And you’re like, ‘Well, one of my dogs will do it in 3.6 seconds.’ And they’re like, ‘What?’” Koch says. “Like it’s just unimaginable.”
Competing at a National Level
The group has competed at the CanAm since it began in 2009, taking the 10-hour drive together from Wisconsin with their dogs. Boyd Renick leads the team as the captain and the team’s official coach is John Rohling.
“The Classic is fun because you get to see teams from all over Canada and then all over the United States. When we get to these bigger events where you get to see other people and new faces and stuff like that, it’s always a good time.”
While the entire team is naturally competitive, their strategy really lives in giving each dog a fair chance and earning as many points as they can. Koch did remark that the competition was stiffer this year.
The team has reached some milestones as well. Renick received the Josh Bessiel Spirit of Flyball award in 2014 and Koch’s Italian Greyhound still ranks as the No. 1 in Flyball. An English Shepherd on the team was in the NAFA Hall of Fame in 2006, and she’s still the highest-ranked English Shepherd in NAFA history.
“It does take some dedication,” Koch says. “Some of these dogs will take a year or two years to learn the sport. For people that are interested, I always say, ‘Don’t get frustrated and just stick with the process. Give it some time, and the outcome will be amazing.’”
The CanAm Flyball Classic was held on October 7 to 9 and airs on ESPN2 on Sunday, October 23 at 9 p.m. ET.