The athletes, barking steadily, strain against their leashes toward the racing field. Their trainers, clad in team T-shirts, make final preparations: Do I have the string cheese in my pocket as a finish-line treat? Do I have his favourite toy? Are his paws taped properly?
Soon, the first dog on each team is off leash and running: Leaping four hurdles, tapping a spring-loaded box to release a mouth-sized ball, grabbing the ball and dashing back over the hurdles with it.
Flyball, a sport in which four-dog teams compete in a carefully choreographed relay race, is a weekend ritual for many people, as sacrosanct as youth soccer or bowling leagues are to others.
Aside from the occasional ribbon, trophy or title that its recipient cannot fully appreciate (Iron Dog, Master Champion), the main rewards are the sense of community that Flyball fosters and - perhaps more important - the emotional partnership it builds between people and their pets.
“Once you work with a dog, that bonds the two of you to a whole other level,” said Dr Peter J. Lotsikas, a veterinarian and founder of Skylos Sports Medicine of Maryland, which specialises in treating orthopaedic problems in dogs. Most of his patients participate in sports like Flyball, agility and obedience.
A HIGHER LEVEL OF COMMUNICATION
The training process makes clients of both species happier and healthier, Lotsikas said. “Everybody talks about the unconditional love dogs give you, how they’re always happy to see you at the end of the day, and that doesn’t change,” he said.
“But when you are really trying to accomplish a goal, there has to be a higher level of communication there - it’s amazing once you feel it click.”
At a tournament held here in August at the Oriole Dog Training Club, which, like many Flyball facilities, is in an industrial warehouse, people said they had gravitated to Flyball because it is the only team sport for dogs. It is also the only one in which the dogs are allowed to bark as freely as they want, which brings joy to the dogs (and prompts some spectators to don earplugs).
“Once a dog has a job rather than being just a pet, they just love it so much,” said Kerry D’Ascoli, a dog groomer from Laytonsville, who was racing her Boston terrier, Bertha, at the tournament here. “It’s a special bond.”
Bertha is her fourth Flyball racer; her first was an Australian Shepherd, a breed of herding dog known for its friskiness. “You get a high-energy dog like that, and you have to do something with him,” D’Ascoli said. “He was too fast for agility. For me, he was ripping through the course, and I couldn’t keep up with him.” This led her to Flyball.
Lauralee McGuire of Glen Burnie, who was here racing a border collie named Sulli, migrated from the sport of obedience. “Before I started Flyball, I just had pet dogs,” she said. “We would hang out together. Obedience definitely gives you that bond, but not as much as Flyball.”
WHAT IS FLYBALL?
Flyball emerged as an organised sport in the 1980s, after the inventor of the spring-loaded Flyball box demonstrated it on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
The North American Flyball Association was founded in 1984, and from there the rules took shape: A regulation Flyball course is 15.5m long, with 70cm-wide hurdles spaced 3m apart; dogs must clear all the hurdles and reach the finish line with their ball still in their mouths.
All four dogs will ideally finish the relay in under 24 seconds, collectively; doing so earns them points toward Flyball titles (of which there are many).
Flubs are frequent. At the tournament here, several dogs dropped their balls before reaching the finish line, and some ran outside the hurdles or knocked them down. Part of the training regimen involves teaching the dog to ignore distractions.
“Last Labour Day, we were at a tournament and somebody brought their cat because the dog loved the cat so much that it helped the dog perform at its best,” said Rose A. Kane, secretary of the tournament hosted here.
Although Flyball does not appeal to all dogs, those that have the temperament for it enjoy richer lives as a result of the training and competition, said James A. Serpell, professor of animal ethics and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
“These Flyball athletes and their owners are incredibly tuned in to each other, so you sometimes feel like they’re actually physically connected by a kind of invisible cord,” Serpell said.
For dogs that are not athletes, taking a walk, running off leash or chasing a ball or a Frisbee can have similar health benefits, he said. “If your dog enjoys that sort of activity, it’s tremendously good for them, and it will make your life happier too, because when your dog is at home, he or she will be calmer and less of a nuisance,” Serpell said.
A colleague of his, Cynthia M. Otto, who is executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, played Flyball for years with her bichon frise mix, Dolce, which she describes as a “little white fluffy thing”.
“He wasn’t terribly fast, but he did enjoy it,” Otto said. “He would get all excited and all barky, barky, barky.”
Dolce has retired from Flyball, but Otto engages in a daily fitness routine with him that she recommends to other dog owners: Each morning, Dolce is instructed through a series of moves. “He does a sit-pretty, then he gives me the left paw and then the right paw,” and so on. As a result, Otto said Dolce looks much younger than his 16 years.
For competitive teams, Flyball involves a lot of strategy. Kate Bobb, the president of the Scallywags, puts together her team with an eye toward which dogs are compatible and which can serve as the height dog or smallest one.
The Flyball rulebook, which runs 128 pages, dictates that the hurdles can be set from 18cm to 36cm high, as determined by the height of the shortest dog on the team from the ground to the withers. Dogs are measured on race day.
The goal of the height rule is “to encourage small dogs to be included”, said Bobb, who works in a research laboratory. “We have a corgi and a cavalier. Jack Russell terriers are very popular as height dogs.”
Bobb races an Australian shepherd named Quest that has Iron Dog status; her husband, Russell Bobb, president of the Orioles training club, races a border collie named Mischief that holds the Hobbes Award, the highest honour in Flyball.
The couple’s third dog, a border collie named Whisper, is two years old and began racing in September. Puppies are not allowed to start Flyball until they are at least a year old, and then they train slowly, lest they harm their developing joints.
Some dogs learn quickly. Kane boasts that her dog Moose, an Australian shepherd, learned Flyball in just three months. But others need more time. The trickiest steps include introducing the ball (after a dog has learned to jump the hurdles) and teaching the dog to do a “swimmer’s turn” at the box, so that it grabs the ball gently and doesn’t slam into the device, risking injury.
At a training session at the Oriole club, Azula, a young Belgian sheepdog, practised the fundamentals with her owners. Ashley Musser stood at the start line holding a toy, while her husband, Joe Martinez stood with another toy at the other end. Azula ran back and forth between the two of them; soon, a single hurdle would be introduced to her.
“She’s a very trainable dog. We got lucky with her,” said Martinez, who owns a pest control business.
Musser said the couple enjoys watching dog videos on YouTube. Videos of the Crufts dog show in England, which includes competitive Flyball, helped them decide to train Azula.
“Obviously, we have always been close, but you kind of feel a stronger connection once you start working together often,” Musser said of the couple’s relationship with their dog.
Steve Corona, chairman of the North American Flyball Association, said that Flyball has been growing in popularity, and now has around 700 clubs with 16,000 registered dogs.
As a sign of how the sport has flourished, he said, dog breeders have started mixing breeds that are specifically meant to excel at Flyball: They may pair a border collie with a whippet, a Staffordshire bull terrier or a Jack Russell, for example.
At the Oriole club tournament here, Carle Lee Detweiler, who works in customer service for a label printer in Baltimore, showed off her dog Lessa, a border collie/whippet mix that was purpose-bred for Flyball. “Lessa has real potential on the national scale,” Detweiler said in a conspiratorial whisper.
But Flyball is meant for everyone. Even three-legged dogs compete, said Corona, who runs a dog-boarding business near Austin, Texas. He and his wife have six dogs, two of which compete in Flyball. His personal dog, Cayenne, is a border collie that was rescued from a parking lot and is now a Flyball grand champion.
“We just have an incredible bond,” Corona said.
Lotsikas, the veterinarian, said he had heard similar stories from clients who trained their dogs for sport. “You understand what they think, you understand when they are having a bad day or a good day,” he said. “It’s a non-verbal relationship in an elevated way.”
Each weekend, Emily Neal, an information technology worker from Richmond, Virginia, and her husband, Bryan Roper, a transit driver for a senior centre, travel to Flyball tournaments across the Eastern Seaboard. The couple has skipped a cousin’s wedding last October to attend the sport’s equivalent to the Super Bowl: The North American Flyball Association’s CanAm Classic, a yearly event in Indianapolis.
“Our whole life has basically changed because of the dogs,” Neal said. She races a greyhound named Mordecai, and her husband races a terrier mix named Blanche.
In conversation, Roper is the quieter half of the couple, but during one of Blanche’s races, he was the loudest trainer on the field, shouting non-stop encouragement.
Flyball, his wife said, “is a real community. It’s changed our whole lives.”
By Jennifer A. Kingson © 2018 The New York Times