Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBC
I teach and coach flyball, a fun dog sport that is not often shown on TV, so most people have not seen it played before they come to class. Many people hear about the sport, and focus on the name of the game. Unsurprisingly, they think it is a ball game, and they conclude that because their dog loves balls, this would be a great game for their dog. It will never happen, but as a coach and instructor, I often wish we could change the name of the sport to remove the word “ball.” Flyball is not a ball game!
Flyball has been around in its current form for about 30 years. It resembles a cross between a drag race and a relay race. Every racing team consists of four dogs. In competition, two racing teams compete in parallel lanes. On each team, the following progression unfolds in each heat:
*The start dog runs, trying to cross the start line at top speed at the exact moment the start light turns green.
*The dog strides over four low jumps, set ten feet apart.
*He then approaches the flyball box, a spring loaded contraption with an angled, rubber front that spits a ball out of a hole when the dog’s feet hit the rubber.
*The dog simultaneously executes a U-turn on the angled rubber front of the box while grabbing the ball from the hole.
*The dog returns over the same four jumps and carries the ball over the start/finish line.
*The dog goes straight to his handler, releases the ball, and receives a reward, often a vigorous game of tug, or perhaps a food treat or some other type of reinforcer.
Meanwhile, the next dog’s handler releases her dog some dozens of feet back from the start line, aiming to have her dog’s nose cross the start line (measured by an electronic beam) just as the returning dog’s nose crosses the same line as he returns to his handler.
By the end of the heat, all four dogs have run down and back, stayed in the lane, carried the ball all the way over the line, and gone to their handlers for an reward (usually a game of tug, or a treat). Since this is happening in both lanes (about 30 feet apart), there are now eight high-energy, highly-aroused dogs, eating, tugging, barking, and bouncing around in a space the size of a large living room, getting ready for the next heat. (There are three to five heats per race. Each team has several races per day, for a total of about 20-30 heats.)
Now, review that description paying special attention to the role of the ball. The dog traps the ball at the surface of the box, takes it into her mouth, and carries it at least 51 feet until after she has crossed the finish line. The ball barely moves on its own. It is not thrown. It is not rolled. It is just something to be carried a specified distance, like a dumbbell in obedience, or the morning newspaper. As you can see, it’s really not about the joy so many dogs experience when we fling a tennis ball out over the grass, and our dog stretches out and runs, tracking it in the air, pouncing on it when it lands, and bringing it back so they can experience that predatory-based ecstasy all over again.
What if your dog really, really loves tennis balls? Many dogs do! I don’t know what they put in those things, but for some dogs, tennis balls are truly like crack — they are a mind-altering drug. If there is a tennis ball around, the dog cannot think about anything else. Not me, not my tug toy, not even a piece of roast beef in some cases. If there are five balls on the ground, this dog may obsessively try to pick them all up, inevitably dropping one, making it move so it has to be chased again, and so on. He can’t do a recall, or a sit, if there is a ball on the ground because his top priority is to get to that ball, and to chew it, or bring it to you and drop it at your feet. Let’s call this imaginary dog “Lola.”
Lola comes to flyball class, and we try to teach her to do a box turn. A well-done box-turn is a somewhat difficult skill. The dog must do a U-turn, at an angle, with all four feet striking the box (either simultaneously, or first front feet, then back feet, in rapid succession as the dog flips around in the air). At the same time, she must grab the ball. It takes a lot of coordination from any dog, and we spend a lot of time on it. We start without a ball in the box, and Lola is a star! She is pouncing on and pushing off, joyfully doing her turn for a food treat. Then it is time to introduce the ball… because, you know, you have to retrieve a ball to do flyball. And Lola sees the ball, loses her concentration, rushes to the box, runs her front feet into it with her body pointing straight at the box surface, grabs the ball, and settles down to chew it in ecstasy.
What happened to my carefully trained box turn? Oh… right. Lola can’t think around balls, so she went into a primitive lizard-brain place and all that training was left behind.
Of course, we have ways of helping the dogs learn to cope with this tension (do I get the ball ASAP vs. do I do what I was taught to do?). It can take months, or even years, longer for a Lola to learn to do a proper box turn, with ball, than it does for a dog who is eager to return to a tug or a disc, but it can be done.
Is Lola going to be a fast racing dog? On the way to the box, she will run like the wind! Her ball is down there! On the way back… not so much. She’s got her number one prize, and she knows from experience that she’s not going to be able to go play an extended game of fetch once she gives it up to her handler. She may dawdle a bit. Sometimes we can fix this with careful, extended training… and sometimes not.
How is Lola going to handle it when she sees a dog in the other lane heading for another box, with a ball in it? Likely, she will get quite anxious; that other dog is going to get a ball, and any ball is hers! She must get to it! She is at a high risk of crossing over to the other lane, distracting and possibly injuring the other dog, or herself, even if she does not direct her frustration at the other dog. Or maybe she does aggress. That’s obviously very bad news in any sport, and especially one where numerous dogs are in the ring, offleash, at once. (Two written-up offenses result in expulsion from competition.) With careful training, we can convince Lola that she still gets her ball no matter what is going on in the other lane, but it can take time, because this is quite an emotional issue for Lola.
What if a dog running before Lola in the lineup dropped his ball in the lane? It happens sometimes; it’s an error, and we try to train the dogs not to do it, but if they get a bad grip or bump a jump or the dog loses focus, the ball can drop early, between the jumps. Not a problem for the dog who’s focused on getting back to his handler for a tug, but a huge problem for Lola, who may skid to a halt, trying to pick up the other ball, leaving the lane, preventing another dog from running and causing the heat to be called off and her team to lose that heat. We can teach Lola to ignore loose balls on the ground in the lane, but it takes work.
Now, what about the part where Lola has to carry this ball back to her handler? Her handler is on the far side of the start/finish line, along with seven other handlers and dogs. Every one of those dogs may have carried a ball back over that line, and then dropped it. The balls rolled around… that is what they do. Lola is now confronted with a plethora of ball options. Being Lola, she loses it! She pounces on one, then another. She runs in front of a running dog to get to a third ball, oblivious of her handler calling her back. She might get into a fight with another ball crazy dog after the same target. It takes her handler extra long minutes to regain attention and control, to get the ball out of Lola’s mouth, and to get her set for the next heat. We can teach Lola to give up the ball even in the height of arousal with a lot of competition, but it can be really difficult because we are trying to contradict a very intense instinctive behavior for her.
Often, Lola is not even having fun. Her ball obsession is so intense that having a million rules around what balls she can and can’t have, and when, and what she has to do to get them, when other dogs want them, is very stressful. Meanwhile, she is tripping dogs and people, or smashing into them in her fanatical pursuit. She’s costing the team time if not throwing the entire heat with a technical error. She’s delaying starts. People are getting frustrated with her. She’s stressed!
Compare Lola with Cedi, my wonderful retired flyball Aussie. Cedi loves balls, but she’s not obsessed with them, and she really loves her soft disc, too. Cedi waits quietly at the start line. She runs to her box, brings the ball back, and drops it to get to play with her frisbee. Because she could think around the ball, she retains a very pretty box turn. She does not leave the lane to pick up stray balls, nor does she get agitated if another dog heads for her box. (And I should add that Cedi is a grumpy, dog-reactive resource guarder in real life.) She runs down fast, and back faster, because the best part of the game awaits her in the runback: A game of tug with me and her soft disc.
Flyball is a team sport. It is a complicated, multi-skill game. The hardest skills for most dogs are the box turn and staying on task around other dogs running straight at them or close past them, or playing tug violently a couple of feet away. The ball retrieve is just one part of it, and it is much easier to train to a regular old dog (not ball-obsessed) to do a simple obedience retrieve than it is to train a ball-obsessed dog to do all those other skills in the presence of balls. Flyball is not a ball game!
Ball-obsessed dogs remain welcome in my classes. Some owners get discouraged and quit. Some, like the owner of the real-life Lola (an absolutely wonderful dog — and owner — by the way!) stick with it. Lola, a happy, intelligent, and athletic dog, might possibly earn her very first points in just two weeks. It has been more than two years since she started training with me, and about 20 of those months have been spent in simply teaching her to be able to do the whole routine with balls around. Most people do not want to go through this… and I don’t blame them. If only folks with tug-obsessed dogs thought flyball was great for their pets! That would make this all so much easier. On everyone, including Lola!