THE FAST, adrenaline-pumping sport of flyball was discovered in the 1970s in California. Today, the sport has grown in popularity and many nations compete across the globe.
Flyball is high-speed relay race for dogs where two teams send four dogs in sequence over identical courses. The team which has all four dogs back in the fastest time fault-free wins the heat.
Each flyball lane is 51ft long and contains a start and finish line, four jumps set ten feet apart and a flyball box which is positioned 15ft from the fourth jump. There is also an electronic timing system which records the team’s time and gives a starting sequence for the race to start.
Each team can be made up of six dogs, four of whom will run in the race with the other two acting as reserves. Each must run through the start/finish line, jump over the four jumps then turn on the flyball box while catching the tennis ball which has been triggered by the dog itself, then return over all four jumps.
The second dog can be released when the first dog is returning over the jumps, but it must not cross the start/finish line before the first dog has crossed it.
Once all four dogs have completed the course correctly, the fastest time determines which team has won.
One of the UK’s most successful flyball teams is the High Flyers, which is based in Aston, Hertfordshire. It was established in September 2007 by a group of flyball friends and is registered with both the British Flyball Association and Belgische Flyball Belgej.
One of its team members, Kristian Allcorn, said: "We pride ourselves as being an enthusiastic and competitive team while maintaining a fun and friendly environment at training and competitions.
"Working well as a team is of huge importance and what is achieved is shared and celebrated by the whole club.
"Currently we are running five open teams under the High Flyers umbrella which will soon be six once our next generation of dogs is old enough. Our teams are organised by speed with the first group of fastest dogs running in the first team and the second group running in the second team and so on.
"High Flyers is the club’s top team and has the huge task of maintaining its place as one of the top teams in the country. High Drive, High Tempo, High Impact and High Pressure are the club’s other open teams which have been revamped for the 2012 season.
"We focus heavily on the latest flyball training techniques available as we feel it paramount that we can train the dogs to the best of their ability in the safest manner possible. We believe that good, positive training will not only improve the dogs’ performance but will also, and most importantly, reduce the risk of injury from poor techniques.”
High Flyers were UK national champions in 2008, UK record holders in September 2009, multi-breed team of the year in 2010 and are the current UK multibreed record holders .
Flyball in GB started in the early ‘90s and has grown rapidly in the past five years. To date, there are more than 100 active registered flyball clubs throughout the UK and more than 450 teams listed on the British flyball seed list.
There are many annual championships across flyballing nations including CanAm which is the championship for North American and Canadian teams. This is competed in October and showcases the fastest flyball teams in the world.
Other European nations also have their own annual national competition including Belgium and Germany. The current NAFA world record is 15.09 sec by Rocket Relay of Canada. The current British and European record is 16.06 by Extreme Racers of Sheffield.
The British Flyball Championships is located in Warwickshire and is hosted by the British Flyball Association committee every August. This year will see around 270 teams in 45 divisions compete over three days of racing.
Each year a European country hosts the European Flyball Championships. This year it was hosted in July by High Flyers and Alpha Dogz in Cambridgeshire and they were attended by nearly 100 teams representing Austria, Belgium, England, Germany, Poland and Scotland and was won by Live Wires from Cheshire, the first British team to win the European title.
"Flyball is a fantastic way for dogs to keep fit and healthy,” Kristian said. "Frequent competitions and weekly training builds up the dog’s stamina and helps keep any extra weight off.
"It is also a good way for dogs to socialise with other dogs in the team as they are running together. It has been great to see many rescue dogs to really excel and become more confident due to playing flyball.
"The wonderful thing about the sport is that anyone can participate in this sport; all ages, abilities and sizes. There is a division for all, whether your dog can finish in ten seconds or 3.8 seconds, whether you are eight or 80 years of age – all are welcomed.
"And any breed can take part. The jump height is determined by the smallest dog on the team so this allows not only big dogs but small dogs to also be able play. Border Collies are great athletes and excel in flyball, but there are many crossbreeds and other breeds such as Belgian Shepherd Malinois, Whippets, Cocker Spaniels and Jack Russells who are fantastic canine athletes too.”
The nature of the sport ensures that all are racing against teams of similar speed; seed times are used to allocate divisions at tournaments thus promoting exciting racing. And the bond between dog and handler is vital – from the time training starts to the very first tournament.
"This bond begins in the home, as all flyball dogs are pets first and foremost,” Kristian said. "Many of them are rescued or rehomed dogs who have been given a second chance. There are numerous success stories of dogs who were in rescue centres who are now enjoying their new life with their flyball family.
"Flyball is a great spectator sport and it is not uncommon to see flyballers surrounding the arenas watching other teams race. The camaraderie between them is a large component of the sport," Kristian explained, "and friendships forged between participants last for many years.”