Have you noticed your dog is a bit of an undiscovered sports hero? If you have an athletic dog – or a fat dog who could do with a bit of athleticism – the dog sport of flyball could be a solution. Flyball is a team sport that dogs have played in America for many years. It got the British stamp of approval when it became part of Crufts in 1990. But many areas of the UK have a flyball club for your dog to join.
Flyball is the fastest-growing dog sport in the UK. But it was invented in California in the 1970s by Herbert Wagner. He invented the ball-release system at the game’s heart in order to demonstrate obedience in the dogs that he trained.
Wagner got on the news with his cute and furry alternative to the boredom of human athletics. And flyball-mania gradually spread across the States and into Canada. It is now played in Japan, Australia, and across Europe. There are annual European Championships that your dog can take part in, at least as long as it’s relatively easy to travel through Europe.
In 1994, the British Flyball Association was established to get UK-based dogs up and out and exercising competitively.
The sport of flyball hit the headlines in 2017 when Crufts-winning flyball coach Margaret Greaves, a human, was banned from keeping dogs for life. The RSPCA found that she had been keeping animals in cruel conditions at her home.
But this is the antithesis of the flyball spirit. While Greaves appears to have exploited dogs for her own good, a well-treated dog will actually love to play the sport. It’s a great way of exercising and socialising.
Flyball: rules of the game
Flyball is a race between two teams of four dogs along a 51-foot track. Each dog has to leap four hurdles, trigger the release of a ball, and then return with the ball along the track. It is a relay, so when a dog gets back to the start then her next teammate can take a turn.
Different clubs use different formats to judge a tournament. But there is a kind of league system in place so that the fastest teams end up racing each other to find the true champions.
Flyball: which breeds can play?
Flyball is suitable for any fit and healthy dog. To take part in official British Flyball Association (BFA) tournaments, dogs must be at least 18 months old. Of course, it takes a while for each dog to learn the game, but that’s part of the fun.
In general, flyball teams are made up of a mix of breeds. If you have a small dog in your team, you can have lower hurdles – which helps her teammates, too! If your dog is competing within the BFA system, she can only play for her registered team.
But there are also ‘multibreed’ contests. For these meet-ups, every dog on any given team must be of a different breed (crossbreeds count as ‘one breed’ so you can only have one cross in a team). Multibreed contests also allow dogs who are registered to different teams to play in a new multibreed team. Sort of a supergroup of flyballers, if you like.
Flyball: getting started
If this seems like something your dog would enjoy, it’s easy to get started.
Of course, flyball requires a lot of space and organisation, so you pretty much need to be part of a club to take part.
The BFA does not sanction starter races, but they are a good way for your dog to get an idea of what’s involved. Contact your local flyball club to find out how they prefer you to proceed.
The future of Flyball in the UK
Over the past quarter-century, flyball has gone from strength to strength in the UK. And with the launch of Dogstival – Chris Packham’s dogly answer to Glastonbury – it’s likely to gain in popularity. At the heart of Dogstival is dog well-being and health. So agility courses and flyball will brush up alongside dog-grooming and the K9 Aquasplash. If you’re based within travelling distance of the New Forest, it could be a great way to check out the sport first hand.
Are you ready to become the ‘soccer mom’ of flyball for dogs? Time to limber up!