Ten years ago, I adopted a rescue dog. Have you heard the expression “No good deed goes unpunished?” He bit everyone but me, tried to attack anything that moved, from dogs to buses, screamed the house down when I went out, and lifted his leg anywhere. He was 12 pounds of pure evil.

I saw a dog behaviourist, a masseuse, a vet, went to training classes and discussed the problem with numerous friends and trainers. The smart money was on euthanasia. Or trying to find a hermit with no house pride.

Instead, I took him to flyball.

What is flyball? It is a relay race where teams of four dogs jump over four hurdles, hit a box with a spring-loaded pad which releases a ball, and then return over the jumps with the ball to their handlers. Fastest team with clean runs wins.  Any dog can play, although it is best suited to small to medium dogs with light builds. Jumps are not high; they are five inches below the shoulder of the shortest dog on the team (the “height dog”). But the dogs hit the box at high speed, grab the ball and turn in one fluid movement, so they must be in good shape.

There are a lot of pieces to training a flyball dog. Our club trains in the following way: the dog first learns to be held at the box by a stranger and then jump over the hurdles to his handler. Then he learns to jump onto the box and turn. (Most dogs turn left, but some naturally turn right.)  Next he must grab the ball and carry it over the jumps. If he fumbles the ball or drops it, he must retrieve it and continue. When he can do all these things individually, we put all the pieces together and do a full run from 30-50 feet from the first jump. The real challenge is when the dog has to do all of this with a team of other dogs, passing them on the down and back as closely as possible. At every practice, the dogs repeat each of the pieces before we do actual races. Practice is just as important for a veteran dog as a newbie. It can take a few months to several years to get a dog race ready, depending on ball drive, temperament and other factors. My dog took a year to accept other people touching him and learning to hit the box and turn. He wore a muzzle the whole time.

It seems counter-intuitive to take a reactive, aggressive dog into a situation where he will be surrounded by people, dogs, noise and chaos. An average tournament might have a couple of dozen teams, with six dogs per team. During a race, each ring will have a judge, eight dogs, eight handlers, two box loaders, four line judges watching the box turns and passes and flagging errors, and two shaggers (ball collectors). With two races running at a time, there can be up to forty people and twenty-four dogs in the rings, as well as another hundred dogs and nearly as many people in the building. And flyball is LOUD. Obviously, all the dogs in the building cannot be barking at once, but it seems like they are.

Why aren’t the difficult dogs freaking out? Accidents happen. Sometimes a dog will cross the lanes and end up jumping in the other team’s lane. Or a dog will drop his ball unexpectedly when the next dog is already heading down the jumps. Or there is a head-on collision. Or a dog crashes into a jump. Why aren’t there dog fights breaking out all over the place? Our club trainer says it is because the dogs understand their job and they know exactly what to do. In practice, if they make a mistake, they must repeat until they get it right. In a tournament, when there is a dog-on-dog situation, the dogs are run again to allow them to “get back on the horse”, as it were. They feel safe knowing what is expected of them, and knowing that nothing bad will happen. We currently have three young dogs on our team who are blossoming under the strict rules of the game. They are far more confident around people and other dogs, and you can see the excitement in them when it is time to play. It is fun to watch the competitive spirit emerge as they try to outrun each other.

When you see a formerly frightened, snappy little dog run his heart out for you, go up to everyone at the tournament and say hi – because MOST people at a flyball tournament have treats, and EVERYONE loves dogs – and ignore the other dogs, it is a high point in your training career. I am no trainer, but I am so proud of what we (my whole flyball team) accomplished with my problem dog. I developed a stronger bond with him than with any of my other normal, easy dogs.

Flyball is just running, jumping and catching a ball, but it can save a life. RIP Kilbee.

Author: Barb Smith