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Flyball for dogs is a canine sport where teams of dogs compete against each other in a relay race. Each member must run through hurdles towards a spring-loaded box that releases a ball.
Dogs must take the ball, run back through the hurdles, and cross the start/finish line before the next dog in the team can take their turn.
The winning team is the first one to have all four members complete the course without error.
History of Flyball for Dogs
Flyball’s history is rooted in scent discrimination. It all started in Southern California, around the late 1960s and early 1970s. A group of dog trainers created a hurdle race where dogs were lured forward by a scent and then were given a tennis ball to bring back to the start/finish line before the next dog can run the relay.
In the beginning, the tennis balls were thrown by a person at the end of the jump line. Over time, the group developed a special apparatus to launch the tennis balls. Eventually, they developed the flyball box as it is known today.
Herbert Wagner developed the first flyball box and was heavily involved in the development of the sport.
It is said that he went on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (the most popular talk show of that period) and did a demonstration of the newly developed sport. The exposure gained from that show helped propel its popularity among dog enthusiasts.
Along with the televised exposure, canine clubs around the area of Toronto and Detroit also got involved. In 1983, the first flyball tournament was held in the United States.
Over time, the popularity of the sport grew not only in the United States and Canada but also across Europe, Australia, and South Africa.
The North American Flyball Association (NAFA) is known as the first flyball organization in the world, as well as the main governing body for the sport in the United States and Canada. They were the first to develop uniform competition rules and have promoted as well as governed the sport ever since.
In 2004, an alternative organization called the United Flyball League International (U-FLI) was born. However, NAFA is still considered as the main flyball authority in both the United States and Canada.
How Flyball Competitions Work
Flyball competitions are composed of 3 to 5 heats where one heat is a single race through a 51-foot course. Teams are composed of 4 dogs and each one must take their turn to run the course.
The course involves running, jumping through hurdles, activating the flyball box to launch the ball, retrieving the ball, and running with it back to the start/finish line so the next team member can take their turn.
Teams run the heats simultaneously so there’s the added excitement and distraction of competing side-by-side. The division in which a team competes is determined by their speed so that they only compete with teams of similar speeds.
In a heat, the first team to complete the course wins. Typically, a team gets to compete with each team in the division, in a round-robin format. The team that wins the most number of heats wins the division.
Who is Involved?
Each team is composed of 4 dogs. Two additional dogs (for a total of 6 dogs) can be included in the team but only as substitutes. Only 4 dogs will run a heat and no substitutions can be made during a heat.
There are typically 4 handlers in a team so that there’s one per dog competing in the heat.
Handlers command or release their dogs at the start/finish line but are not allowed to assist them any further. They’re also there to catch their dogs upon return. Whenever a judge requires a rerun, the handler shall be the one to make it happen.
A team’s box loader stays by their flyball box and makes sure it’s properly loaded for each dog.
Teams are not required to have runners but they’re typically very helpful in miscellaneous tasks including setting up jumps that have been knocked down and picking up loose tennis balls. Without designated runners, the handlers would take on these tasks.
Electronic timing devices are used to time races but five different judges are sill involved. Two judges are positioned at the start/finish line and two are positioned close to the flyball boxes.
These judges watch for errors and violations committed by the teams assigned to them. The last judge is called the “head judge” and acts as both the race starter and the referee.
The Flyball Ring and Equipment
For NAFA, the standard flyball ring takes up approximately 110 x 30 feet. The rings are made of 2 lanes, one for each competing team. Lanes need to be 12-17 feet apart, measured from the center of each lane.
Each lane should have at least 50 feet of running space before the start/finish line, and there is 6 feet of space from the start/finish line to the first hurdle.
In total, there are 4 hurdles, which are placed 10 feet apart from each other. After the last hurdle, there is 15 feet of space to the box line where the flyball box is located. Backstops must be placed at least 5 feet from the box line.
When the tournament location has hard surfaces like concrete or other potentially harmful surfaces like carpets, the ring must be lined with matting. Matting isn’t required on safe surfaces like grass, dirt, and sod.
In NAFA-sanctioned tournaments, the executive director may grant exceptions to these ring layout standards.
In competitions, each team supplies their own flyball box. Flyball boxes are mechanical and don’t use electricity to launch the balls.
Balls are launched through a mechanical footplate. Boxes vary in size but may not exceed 24 inches in width, 30 inches in depth, and 18 inches in height. When released, balls should be able to fly no less than 24 inches from the launch point.
Teams supply their own balls as well. NAFA only requires the balls to bounce and be launched properly.
The size and safety would depend on the size of the dogs that will be competing. Tennis balls are generally accepted and there are smaller versions for dogs with smaller mouths.
The Jumps / Hurdles
NAFA requires jumps to have two uprights that are anywhere from 24 to 36 inches tall and placed 24 inches apart. The jump height is determined based on the smallest member of the team, generally referred to as the “height dog.”
The height dog is measured at the withers. That measurement is rounded down to the nearest inch before subtracting 5 inches to get the proper jump height for the race. Generally, the minimum jump height is 7 inches while the maximum is 14 inches.
Electronic Judging System
Electronic Judging Systems (EJS) are a series of lights and sensors that track race times as well as starts, passes, and finishes.
These are used to accurately determine the performance of each dog and the team as a whole in order to declare a winner. For NAFA-sanctioned tournaments, NAFA is able to provide the EJS.
Flyball Classes of Competition
In NAFA, there are 5 different classes of competition:
- Regular – Teams are made up of any breed, including mixed breeds
- Multi breed – Teams are either made up of 4 different breeds or 3 different breeds plus 1 mixed breed.
- Open – Teams are made up of dogs from different clubs.
- Veterans – Teams are made up of dogs that are 7 years old or older. There is a limit of 16 heats per day to keep senior dogs from overexertion. Additionally, jump heights are set at the minimum regardless of the competing breeds. This is in order to minimize the impact and risk of injury.
- Non-regular – Competitions can include classes other than the 4 described above, for as long as NAFA’s Executive Director approves them. Often, this includes Four-of-a-Kind and Pee-Wee.
Flyball titles are won via a point system. Whenever a team participates in a heat, each dog in that heat will receive points. For NAFA, the point system is as follows:
|Time Completed||NAFA Points|
|< 24 seconds||25|
Other points are granted in the following cases:
– When dogs compete in the Multi breed Class
– When a team that competes in the Regular Class wins the first place in a division. In this case, dogs in the winning team receive a 20% increase in their total NAFA points. Points are rounded down to the nearest whole number.
As dogs accumulate points, they earn titles and each title is awarded certificates, pins, or plaques. These titles are listed in the table below:
Regular NAFA Titles:
|Total Points||Awarded Title||Certificate||Pin||Plaque|
|100||FDX||Flyball Dog Excellent||X|
|500||FDCh||Flyball Dog Champion||X|
|1000||FDCh-S||Flyball Dog Champion – Silver||X|
|2500||FDCH-G||Flyball Dog Champion – Gold||X|
|10000||FMX||Flyball Master Excellent||X||X|
|15000||FMCh||Flyball Master Champion||X||X|
|30000||FGDCh||Flyball Grand Champion||X||X|
|40000||(No additional titles)||X||X|
|50000||(No additional titles)||X||(every 10,000 points)|
The Multi breed Class also has additional titles. Dogs that compete in this class earn an equal number of points. These points are accumulated to earn the following titles:
Multi breed NAFA Titles:
|Total Points||Awarded Title||Certificate||Pin||Plaque|
|100||MBDX||Multibreed Dog Excellent||X|
|500||MBDCh||Multibreed Dog Champion||X|
|1000||MBDCh-S||Multibreed Dog Champion – Silver||X|
|2500||MBDCh-G||Multibreed Dog Champion – Gold||X|
|10000||MBMX||Multibreed Master Excellent||X||X|
|15000||MCMCh||Multibreed Master Champion||X||X|
|30000||MBGDCh||Flyball Grand Champion||X||X|
|40,000+||(No additional titles)|
While the American Kennel Club (AKC) is not currently involved in the sport, they recognize three flyball titles. Members can add these to their dogs’ permanent AKC records and title certificates.
The Flyball titles recognized by the AKC include:
- Flyball Dog Champion (500 points)
- Flyball Master (5,000 points)
- ONYX (20,000 points)
How to Get Started in Flyball
Like every other canine sport, joining a local organization is the best way to get started in flyball. Usually, these organizations also offer classes, which would be the ideal way to learn.
Joining an organization is even more important because flyball is a team sport. The good news is that flyball is popular enough to guarantee that there’s a team accessible to you, no matter where you are.
If you’re based in North America, you can access the NAFA flyball team directory and reach out to the teams listed there. It’s always best to get legitimate guidance and mentorship from people who are actually involved in the sport before you start training.
However, there are a few things you can do independently to get started with flyball at home or at your local park.
Trying Flyball on Your Own
What you’ll need:
- The largest open space available to you
- 4 flyball hurdles
- 1 flyball box
- 1 tennis ball (find a 2-inch version if you have a small dog)
- Plenty of training treats.
Treats are only required if your dog is motivated by food. If your dog is motivated by verbal praises or the use of a clicker, just be sure you give plenty of it as you go along with the training.
No matter what, treat or praise them whenever they take the ball so they know they’re on the right track.
Remember that training your dog is best done frequently but in short periods of time. Don’t expect to get all these steps done in one day.
Don’t worry about how much time it takes to get to the next step. However, what’s important is how well your dog masters each step so that they can do it properly, no matter the circumstance.
Steps to Get Started with FlyBall
Step 1: Take the ball.
Present the ball to your dog and teach them to take it from your open hand.
Step 2: Catch the ball.
Next, teach your dog to catch the ball after you let it bounce once on the floor. Doing this makes the ball have a similar trajectory as when using a flyball box.
Step 3: Fetch the ball.
Place the ball on the floor, and teach your dog to fetch it. As they progress, place the ball farther and farther away from your dog’s starting point.
Step 4: Use the flyball box.
Place the ball in the flyball box and teach your dog to interact with it. Once they learn how to launch the ball, it’ll be easy to get them to fetch it and catch it with their mouths.
Step 5: Jump over a hurdle.
Once your dog has mastered fetching the ball using a flyball box, it’s time for them to learn how to use the hurdles. Start with one hurdle and use the ball to lure them to jump over it.
Then, you can get them to turn abruptly and jump back over the same hurdle, effectively teaching them how to turn and go back to the start/finish line when they get the ball from the flyball box.
Step 6: Jump over four hurdles
After learning how to jump over a hurdle, it’ll be easier for your dog to learn to jump over 4 hurdles in succession. Use the ball as a lure and run along with them until they get it right.
Step 7: Jump over four hurdles and fetch the ball
Once your dog has learned to jump over four hurdles in succession, teach them to do the same but also fetch the ball from the flyball box at the end of the lane.
Step 8: Run the entire race.
When your dog can already jump through all the hurdles and fetch the ball from the flyball box, all that’s left to do is to teach them to back to the start/finish line.
Once you get to this point, your dog will be ready to learn speed and work in a team. You’ll still have to join a local club to form a team and join tournaments.
A large part of flyball for dogs is socializing with like-minded dog enthusiasts. The social aspect and camaraderie are a huge part of why this canine sport has become as popular and successful as it is today.
If you are looking for other ways to exercise your dog click here!