The dog sport of flyball is a little like drag racing. First, a set of lights blink as dogs line up and wait for the race to begin. Green means go. Soon, the first dog on each team sprints down the lane, over a set of hurdles, triggering a box with their paw to release a ball that they catch at lightning speed. Then, banking off the box like a swimmer pushing off the wall in a pool, the dog dashes back over the hurdles and returns to their handler—all in less than five seconds. Then, the next dog goes.
Flyball is the extreme sport of the canine world; it requires skill, athleticism, balance and guts on the part of both dog and handler. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jack, one of the stars of Jacksonville’s Jumpin’ Jax Flyball Club, to gain insight into the game.
Davi: How is flyball different from fetch?
Jack: It’s “fetch” to the 10th power. Not only do you retrieve a ball, but you must pass another dog coming fast toward you, leap over hurdles, catch a ball hurling out of a box, then run back to your owner. I’m tired just thinking about it!
What traits make a good flyball dog?
Obviously, speed is important, but focus, drive and a love for a tennis ball are key, too.
What makes a flyball team?
A team consists of four dogs running; usually one is a lot smaller than the others. People watching a competition always wonder why there is a small dog on the team. They think we are just being nice to let the little dogs play. In fact, the hurdle heights are determined by the smallest dog on the team, so the small dog is an asset.
What foods give you the energy to do your best?
I keep hinting that I should carb-load before a tournament, but that’s been vetoed. However, I get string cheese as a reward during practice and meatballs at events. They really help rev up my motor.
How do you mentally prepare yourself for the competition?
I think about what my mom tells me before every race: “Jack, you’re good enough, you’re fast enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you!” It puts my mind at ease.
What do you love most about flyball?
Flyball saved my life. Before I discovered the sport, I was incorrigible. Luckily, my mom never gave up on me. The sport has given me a job, a purpose in life. We are all winners in this game, and the lessons reach far beyond the lanes.
In three words, sum up flyball.
Fast. Furious. Fun.
Flyball is an obvious choice for ball-crazed dogs, but even if your dog is not into retrieving, he can be taught to hit the pedal, grab the ball, and race back to you. Flyball is open to every breed, speed and size of dog. From Border Collies to Chihuahuas, blind dogs, and even seniors—the dogs have a great time. What’s more, it’s the only sport in which dogs can bark as freely as they want, which brings joy to the dogs—and prompts some spectators to wear earplugs.