Updated: Mar 19
By Katherine Anselm CPDT-KA -- Fly High Dog Training
Flyball is a fun and fast paced team dog sport that has been growing in popularity over the last few years (it's even recently been featured on ESPN!). It's one I enjoy playing with my dogs and love to share what makes it so special to me.
Flyball is essentially a relay race between two teams, each consisting of 4 handlers, 4 dogs, a box loader (person who set the balls in the flyball box), and a shagger (a person who collects the balls). Each team races in their own lane and all the dogs are repeating the same sequence. The dogs go over four hurdles, trigger a spring loaded box holding a ball, grab the ball from the box as it's popped out, carry the ball back over the jumps, and as they cross the start/finish line another dog is racing towards them to do their part of the relay. You are racing against another team of four dogs and whoever has completed the course without mistakes and has the fastest time wins. Generally it's a best-of situation where you will run several races to decide who wins that round.
Most dog sports are solo activities where one dog and one handler compete together as a team and do most of their training individually, but flyball is a true team sport. A single flyball team may consist of many dogs and many handlers which can foster fabulous camaraderie and plenty of fun during practices. The social aspect of this sport extends to the training process where you need multiple handlers to help each dog learn all the aspects of the game.
Since flyball is a team sport there are many different ways that you can help your team and be a part of the fun--even if you don't have a dog or a dog at that level. Every team needs a box loader, who is the person who puts the balls into the box for each dog. This person must be quick on their feet to make sure that the right ball is loaded into the right hole for the dog that is racing--some dogs use different textures of balls and the dogs turn different directions on the box so the box loader has to know which side to place the ball. Another job is a shagger. This person picks up all the balls that the dogs bring back so they don’t get in the way and so people don’t trip over them. When teaching a solid box turn you may have 3 people involved: box loader doing their job and motivating the dog, the handler releasing the dog and rewarding the dog, and a prop person who is sliding a stride regulator in and out of the lane. With all of these opportunities to help, it's great for newbies to be involved at higher levels as their dog is training on the basics.
Flyball is also unique in that the course never changes. It is always the exact same pattern for the dogs. The course is 51 feet each direction with 4 jumps spaced the exact same way every time. There is a large run back area so dogs can both gain speed before they hit the start line and continue to accelerate the whole course without needing to slow down at the finish (and also safely stop).
Since flyball is a consistent course that doesn’t change, back chaining is a great way to teach the sequence. You can start with one jump, then two and three until the dog is going over all four jumps to get back to their handler. Then we'll add the box turn into the sequence and then add the preceding jumps.
The box turn is its own process to train. Over the years, teams have developed fast, efficient, and safe ways to turn on the box while grabbing the ball. The turn should look like a swimmer’s turn, where they should have all four feet on the box to grab the ball. Teams often focus on the striding into and out of the turn to help deceleration (or collection) onto the box and proper striding towards the first jump after. Teaching foot targeting and body awareness makes box turning much easier to learn.
Another big part of training for flyball, and arguably one of the more difficult, is learning how to continue working with distractions around because there are plenty of distractions in flyball. Your dog has to ignore the teammates they will be running towards in the race and all 3 other teammates in the run back area who are wildly tugging on exciting tug toys, jumping on their owner, chasing tug toys, or more. Since they are running with dogs on their team and against another set of unfamiliar dogs, it is important that they can work around other dogs safely and comfortably. Because during a race there are 8 very excited dogs working in close proximity, it's important to start working with other dogs around them early on so they start to understand that their handler is the important part of the game, not the other dogs.
Some of my personal favorite things about flyball is that it is a team sport. You are surrounded by people who love dogs and love spending time with their dogs. I have made some of my best friends through flyball. Flyball has also taken me on some fun adventures. I have competed in six different states and traveled thousands of miles for this game that I love. I have also been featured on AKC TV when my team competed at the national tournament. While all these things are great at the end of the day it's just the amount of fun I have with my dogs and with my friends that keeps bringing me back for more.