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Flyball is a popular team sport where a team of 4 dogs, “fly” down an obstacle course, one at a time, jump 4 hurdles, retrieve a ball, turn, “fly” back down the course, and through a gate before the next team member begins their leg of the race. Of course, the dogs don't really fly, they run and jump. But sometimes they are going so fast it seems like they're flying! With two teams of 4 very excited dogs competing at the same time, at speeds of up to 30 mph, this is a chaotic, and exciting sport to watch and participate in. If you have a ball-crazy dog with lots of energy to burn, this may be the sport for you and your high octane pup! There are flyball organizations in most major centers that can put you and your dog in touch with other flyball canines and their handlers to get you involved in this exciting sport, or you can teach your dog to run a flyball course just for fun and to provide great exercise.
Flyball is a physically demanding sport requiring dogs to run at extremely fast speeds, jump, grab a ball, and turn a dime. Dogs need to be physically mature before their joints and muscles are sufficiently developed to handle the stress of this activity. In addition, a flyball competition is noisy, with lots of other dogs, people, excitement, and distractions, so a mature dog that is used to being in a distracting environment and able to focus on the job at hand is necessary. Dogs must be well socialized with other dogs, since this is a team sport, and not aggressive with other dogs, or handlers.
In flyball, teams of dogs are restrained, one at a time, and then released. Each dog runs full speed through two upright poles that represent the gate, down a course with 4 hurdles. The dogs grab a ball from a box, which spring releases the balls at the top of a ramp. Dogs turn using the ramp and run full speed back over the 4 hurdles and through the gate before their next teammate is released. This is a fairly complex set of behaviors to teach a dog, but ball-crazy, motivated dogs usually enjoy learning this activity, and it is good fun and an excellent way to spend quality time with your dog.
If you are training for competitive flyball you will want to simulate a competitive course with appropriately sized hurdles and a spring-loaded ball box, the same as what is used in competition. Flyball uses a tennis ball for your dog to retrieve, and flyball jumps are between 8 and 16 inches high, 24 inches wide between the uprights, and have a spread or base of 16 inches. The height of the jump is set 4 inches below the height a the withers of the smallest dog on the team. Jumps are placed 6 feet from the start line, with 10 feet between jumps.
If you are just teaching your dog for fun, you can set up appropriately sized hurdles that are safe for your dog to jump, and place the ball on the ground, or have an assistant produce the ball.
Before starting training you should ensure your dog is in good physical shape, with no impediments, orthopedic or joint problems, that could be aggravated by strenuous activity. Dogs should also have good off-leash recall, and experience with obedience commands.
The Focus on the Ball Method
Throw a tennis ball. Train your dog to play fetch with a tennis ball, and not drop the ball until they reach you. Reward your dog with treats for bringing back the ball. Keep sessions 10 to 20 minutes long, repeat until behavior is well established.
Set up a hurdle. Start with your dog directly in front of the hurdle and throw the ball over the hurdle. When your dog jumps the hurdle and returns to you, reward him.
Increase hurdle distance
Increase the distance from the hurdle, and repeat. Reward the dog for going over the hurdle to get the ball, and jumping the hurdle to return to you. Direct your dog over the jump as necessary. An assistant may be helpful to direct your dog.
Set up a second hurdle and repeat, then add a third and fourth. Walk with your dog over the hurdles to direct him to up the hurdles both ways with the ball.
Introduce ball box
Present a flyball box to your dog. When your dog investigates, encourage and direct him to press on the box to release the ball.
Combine hurdles and ball box
Once the dog understands that he can get the ball from the flyball box, return your dog to the beginning of the course. Release your dog and run with him over the hurdles to the box, encourage him to retrieve the ball, then return, running next to your dog with the ball to the finish line.
Gradually start sending your dog solo to get the tennis ball from the box by going over the hurdles. If necessary, return to previous steps and accompany your dog if he misses hurdles.
The Reverse Training Method
Setup a complete flyball course.
Finish line first
Have a handler hold your dog facing away from the ball box, just in front of the finish line, while you stand across the finish line with your dog's favorite toy. The handler should release the dog as you call your dog and present the toy. When your dog runs to you, provide the toy and play.
Last jump first
Move your dog behind the first jump, facing away from the ball box, towards the finish line, have the dog released so they have to jump the hurdle and cross the finish line to reach the handler.
Repeat, adding one element at a time until the dog becomes confident and comfortable with each step, adding hurdles until all 4 are complete, along with the gate.
Launch from ball box
When all 4 jumps and the finish line are being performed, have the handler put the dog's hind legs on the ball box, facing the finish line. Call your dog so he learns to launch off the ball box.
Teach ball box trigger
Have your dog face the ball box, with the assistant holding them. Have the assistant load a tennis ball and teach your dog to press the panel on the box to release the ball and pick up the ball in their mouth. Call your dog back to you over the 4 hurdles and across the finish line with the ball in their mouth.
Now start your dog facing the ball box but on the other side of the hurdle next to the box. Have the assistant release your dog to jump the hurdle, trigger the box, launch off the box and return to you over the 4 hurdles.
Add the other 3 hurdles one at a time until your dog has the entire course mastered. Repeat each step many times before moving on to adding each obstacle.
The Break It Down Method
Teach your dog to jump agility hurdles.
Teach your dog to fetch a ball after you throw it and bring it back without dropping it.
Teach your dog to retrieve a ball placed on the floor at the end of an obstacle course.
Trigger ball box
Teach your dog to release a ball from a flyball box, by triggering the panel with his front feet. Use a clicker to reinforce and shape this behavior, or lure your dog to manipulate the box with a treat, until your dog figures out how to put pressure on the panel and release the ball.
Set up a pole in front of the ball box, teach your dog to run around the pole and return to you.
Teach your dog to launch off the inclined ball box, and return to you after running around the pole.
String skills together
Start putting the behaviors together one at a time until the course is complete.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 10/27/2017, edited: 01/08/2021