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Fun Dog Sport: Flyball!

What is Flyball, you ask? It’s a relay race! Each dog in turn races over four hurdles, triggers a box that releases a ball, and then carries the ball back over the four hurdles to the start/finish line. Two teams of (usually) four dogs race against each other at a time. Makes sense? Here’s our team (not Loki, he’s still in training) during a tournament this past weekend:

It’s fun because there are a ton of training/focus challenges for the dogs, and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the humans on the team. Training-wise, getting a dog to do anything on command while there are seven other dogs off leash in the immediate vicinity is a challenge right off the bat. Then there’s the difficulty in getting a dog to run away from you and perform a specific task at a distance. (One of the Flyball rules is that the human handlers have to stay back behind the start/finish line, so once you release your dog he’s on his own until he gets back to you.)

Generally when a dog starts learning Flyball you start him at a distance from you (being restrained by another human) and you just get him to run straight to you when you call him. Then you start upping the ante by having other dogs around (that he has to ignore) when you call him, then you start adding hurdles for him to jump over as he runs to you. Loki made slowย  but steady progress at this, and now he’s almost always very good about ignoring other dogs and jumping hurdles when he’s focused and knows it’s time to be in “Flyball mode”.

From there you can have the dog run away from you, grab a ball, and bring it back to you. For Loki that was a big challenge at first because he’s not really a ball-motivated dog. He is however very strongly motivated by treats, so we started out having him touch the ball, get a treat, then mouth the ball, get a treat, then spit the ball into my hand, get a treat. After several weeks of this slow progression we worked up to a point where he will chase a ball and bring it back, but he expects a reward of some kind at the end! This is actually pretty useful because he’s not attached to the ball at all, he’s bringing it back and immediately giving it up because he wants the treat. It still boggles my mind slightly that it took weeks to train a dog how to play fetch!

The second big challenge is teaching the dog to trigger the box. It makes a loud clang as the mechanism releases the ball, so at first we just had to desensitize Loki to the loud noise. Easy enough, just have him sit near the box and give him a treat every time there’s a clang. ๐Ÿ™‚ But if you want the dog to have a pretty good race time, you want him to be able to trigger the box, catch the ball, and spring off of it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Here are some of the dogs with the best box turns on our team:

And here’s Loki:

Sigh. He’s just not very coordinated. Ideally when you’re teaching a dog the box turn, you first shape the movement without a ball. So in this case you want to dog to land on the box with all four feet, already halfway turned, and then push off with all four feet to complete the turn. (It’s often compared to how a swimmer turns and pushes off the wall in the pool, if that makes sense.) It takes a bit of extra motivation, but we can get Loki to perform this swimmer’s turn decently when there is no ball. But when we try to add a ball in he runs straight up to it, comes to a full stop while triggering the box, and then oftentimes has to chase the ball down since he doesn’t always get his mouth in the right spot to catch the ball as it flies out.

But that doesn’t keep him from running the race correctly, it just makes him very slow. The other big challenge that Loki is working on right now is passing other dogs. Like with most relay races, the closer you can get each participant to pass at the start/finish line, the faster the overall time will be. But it can be quite intimidating running towards a hurdle with another dog running full speed seemingly straight at you. This angle shows a little better how close the dogs pass each other:

Loki did get to try running in two heats at the tournament, but both times he got intimidated by the dog running at him and veered wide, skipping the first hurdle. But both times he then got back on course, retrieving the ball and jumping over the rest of the hurdles, which is pretty impressive even if it doesn’t count! We’ll be working on that pass with Loki for the next few weeks for sure, I know he’ll get it figured out eventually.

The current world record for a four dog flyball team is 14.768 seconds, but my impression from watching the races at the tournament is that a decently fast 4 dog team at our competition level might finish the course in 19 seconds. Or at least I saw some pretty experienced teams, but I don’t think I saw any team go below 19 seconds at the tournament. The tricky part is that you generally want a short dog to run with 3 other tall/fast dogs, because the height of the jumps is based on the height of the shortest dog (aka the “height dog”) on the team. I’m sure there’s some optimization that goes on, but theoretically if you could get a dog that stands 12″ at the withers (which gives you the shortest possible jump height of 7″) and 3 speedy bigger dogs, you could get splits of something like 4 seconds for each of the tall dogs and 5 seconds for the short dog. Even if there was zero time lost on the passes, that would still be a 17 second race time, which makes the current world record even more impressive. Then again that world record team had 2 whippets on it, and I imagine they have very fast splits. ๐Ÿ™‚ We do have a whippet training on our team, but he’s even newer than Loki, so we’ll have to see how he progresses. Our team is actually a bit short (no pun intended) on height dogs at the moment, so Loki definitely has a good role on the team if we can get him trained up the rest of the way.

Most of our team is made up of border collies, but at one point we had quite a few Danish Swedish Farmdogs (all of whom were related to each other) and Belgian Tervurians (I think at least some of these were also related). There were also quite a few Belgian Malinois that I saw across the various teams at the tournament. I guess when you hang out a lot with similarly-minded dog owners and you’re thinking about getting a new sports dog, it makes sense to keep it in the family, so to speak. ๐Ÿ™‚ But there were tons of really cool mix/rescue dogs that were awesome at Flyball too.

I didn’t manage to get any video of the two heats Loki attempted at the tournament, but here he is at practice a few weeks ago. For practice we use training gates to either side of the jumps to make it really really obvious to the dogs where they should be going. Loki isn’t exactly a speed demon, but he’s running the whole course!

Love it! whatย  trooper. ๐Ÿ™‚