Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBC
When I got Nickel, my oldest dog, I heard about flyball and decided to take him to class. He seemed to enjoy it, and did all right, and I had fun. Since I knew little about structure, sports training, or related topics at the time, it took me a while to figure out that Nick actually was not cut out to dedicate his life to performance sports. He’s plenty smart, but low-key, and his structure isn’t so great, so he’s not that fast or efficient. He was satisfied after a few minutes and could not see the point in doing it another ten times. We wanted to adopt a second dog as a companion for him, and so I gave myself a crash course in dog structure and started identifying traits I hoped to find in a dog who would really love to do flyball with me.
After a careful search, I found a tremendously athletic, drivey, and beautiful female Aussie in rescue. In addition to these traits, I discovered, Cedi was also quite anxious and dog-reactive. Between that and various other life circumstances, a couple of years passed before we were really ready to dive into flyball. She had no trouble with the physical skills — running, jumping, box turn, ball carry. The mental skills, staying focused on me and unreactive when there were a lot of dogs zooming around and barking, were much more difficult. I got tremendous lessons in helping a reactive dog as I took her first through some basic obedience classes (no running, no balls), then some agility classes (running dogs, no balls!), and then back to flyball classes (running dogs carrying tennis balls). She became a stellar athlete, running any position in our club’s “A” team, participating in the team’s record time that stood for a couple of years, and often double-running the whole weekend with nary a mistake. One year she was even among the top 250 point-earning dogs in NAFA: North American Flyball Association. Flyball reduced her reactivity. She could walk around a tournament without a growl, and even just once-weekly practice took the edge off so she could live a comfortable life.
When she was six, she and Nickel and I moved from California to Oregon. I’d planned to join a team an hour from the house I bought, but this turned out to be a challenge. There was no competition-oriented team closer to me, so I started one myself. I then realized that no one in the area seemed to know how to teach a good box turn. Though I’d only assisted at my old club’s classes, I felt I had something to offer in this new market, so I started teaching classes. Meanwhile, it was time to add a puppy to my family, so I brought home Mellie, a Border Collie from a carefully researched breeder. I knew so much more now; it was so much easier to teach flyball to Mellie!
Flyball is now one of the main things I do for fun. My club, the Portland Tail Blazers, has grown slowly with a solid core of members who get along reasonably well and share goals of training well and competing with dedication and integrity. Flyball is a team sport, and attending tournaments can be grueling. Tournament days can be long, eight to ten or sometimes even twelve or more hours. In our region, the majority of the tournaments are held in British Columbia, at least a five or six-hour drive from Portland. Tournament days are a combination of “hurry up and wait” punctuated by several ten-minute intervals of intense excitement when your race comes up on the schedule. Exhaustion and stress can make it harder to get along even with people you get along well with! Having a wonderful group makes all the difference.
I should add that there is also some “non-team” flyball now. The newer league, United Flyball League International offers singles and pairs racing in addition to the regular four-dog format. Unaffiliated dogs can race, and the singles format allows for very accurately timed speed trials, making for some fun statistics.
In addition, we get to do some fun stuff closer to home. We receive quite a few requests to do demonstrations at events such as dog park fun days, and every year we participate in a number of these. Our favorite demo opportunity is half time at Portland Trail Blazers games. The staff get our equipment onto the court and set up in about two minutes; then we race six or seven rapid-fire heats; and then we get out. We often make the races a little closer for entertainment purposes, and put a little verve into our tug and disc rewards in the runback. A little showmanship doesn’t hurt! We’ve played to a full house a few times, but even when the game is not sold out, it’s exhilarating to feel the energy of around 20,000 spectators. The dogs seem totally unfazed. They see their jumps and box and know what to do! The more social ones often get to pose for pictures with Blazer Girls, and Spam, the tiny Staffordshire Bull Terrier, invariably gets a huge amount of attention as she looks like a toy pit bull. (Spam is the model for our club logo, and one of the reasons we take a firm anti-BSL stance.)
Although flyball seems far removed from my “real work” of being a dog behavior consultant, it’s actually been a big help for me. In flyball contexts, I work with some very intense, aroused, high-drive dogs. I’ve learned to tug like a pro, and how to use and control tug (and other intense play rewards) in a safe and positive way. Flyball directly presents the issue of a dog being able to focus and behave safely in the immediate presence of things that often trigger reactive or aggressive behavior: Running dogs, growling or barking dogs, people who run, yell, or wave stuff around, and so on. A flyball dog must pass another teammate nose to nose with both running near top speed, in a lane two feet wide. Being able to do this really helps dogs stop worrying so much about a dog invading their space! All this experience has built my confidence in working with dogs that intimidate many people (including some trainers) and has given me tools to help them more effectively. I just talked to a new client who specifically sought me out because I had experience with high-drive, reactive working dogs.
Of course, as Nickel taught me early on, flyball is not the right sport for every dog. In my next blog, I will talk about another specific type of dog that, surprisingly, may not be a good candidate for this sport.
Do you participate in flyball with your dog? What is it like to train your dog for flyball? Do you enjoy competitions? What is your favorite thing about this sport? What’s your least favorite? I can’t wait to hear from fellow flyball enthusiasts!