What is Flyball Training for Dogs?

As I watched my sweet border collie, Nyx, race around the yard at lightning speed, I found myself wondering just how to harness all of that amazing energy. Through late night research fueled by copious amounts of coffee, I landed squarely in the middle of the world of dog sports. And, oh my goodness, there are an amazing array of options: dock diving, agility, lure coursing, herding, nose work, rally and, my favorite of all, flyball.

What is flyball training for dogs? Flyball training is about getting your dog to master a run, a catch and a leap in the fastest possible time in every leg of a race. The dogs must perfect making fluid leaps over the jumps, hitting the launch pad just in the right way to extract a ball to catch and getting back to the finish line as fast as possible to help their teams finish first.

With the right level of training, it is possible to join an established flyball team, or make your own, and compete in local and national competitions. Before you can forge ahead in confidence, however, there is a lot to learn about flyball training for dogs.

What Is Flyball?

Flyball is to dogs what abseiling is to humans. It’s an extreme dog sport. It’s super fast. It’s super technical. It’d super fun for the dog and the dog owner.

There are four dogs in each relay team. Two relay teams compete in 2 lanes next to each other. The first relay team to finish all four dogs takes the win .

With the right level of training, it is possible to join an established flyball team, or make your own, and compete in local and national competitions. Before you can forge ahead in confidence, however, there is a lot to learn about flyball training for dogs.

What Is Flyball Training For Dogs?

Flyball is a fast-paced dog sport. It seems to be about 3 skills to master – the run, the catch and the leap (over a hurdle) – all against the clock. Dig deeper. It’s not just about skill. It’s about determination, athleticism, agility, intelligence, and balance. All of these elements need to optimized in flyball training your dog.

The Purpose of Flyball

Although flyball is phenomenal in expelling dogs’ excess energy, its purpose transcends simple fitness by giving dogs a job.

At each of their turns in Flyball, the dogs have 3 jobs to complete:

  1. Running down the lane and over the hurdles
  2. Grabbing the tennis ball from the launcher and
  3. Taking the ball back over the finish line after jumping over the hurdles again.

With their celebratory exuberance upon crossing the Flyball finish line, it is plain to see that these dogs revel in doing a great job.

Understanding the Rules Is Key To Training Success

Most people who do flyball training for dogs aim to compete in local competitions and then bigger tournaments.

Training programs tend to closely follow the rules created by the North American Flyball Association, or NAFA. The 131-page flyball rulebook is absolutely packed with great information about authorized equipment, track setup, dog performance and behavior, judging and handler conduct.

Non tournament rules

Each dog in the 4 dog relay runs in succession. That is, Dog 1 must complete their run and return home before Dog 2 starts their run. This continues until Dog 4 completes their run and return home. That is the end of the race.

Flyball rules demand that each dog:

  1. Goes over all four jumps
  2. Triggers the box and grabs the tennis ball, and then
  3. Go back over all four jumps for their run to count.

Missing any jumps, dropping the ball or passing the starting line too soon can trigger a flag.

With a flag, the dog must run the course again and not break any rules for their team to finish and potentially win the heat.

Judges keep their eyes on the box loaders and handlers as well. They will issue penalties for any errors. This includes failing to load the launcher or sending the dog out before the prior racer (in the team of 4 dogs) crosses over the finish line.

Tournament rules

At local and national flyball tournaments, teams have to run all four of their dogs without any errors and finish first to win the heat.

As teams win, they advance through the competition while the slower teams are eliminated.

Each flyball tournament continues until there is only one champion team left standing.

To ensure all teams have a fair chance at winning, many competitions utilize seeding practices to match up teams of dogs with those of similar speeds. They are then placed in separate divisions.

Since teams report their own race times for the seeding process, the competitions use a breakout rule of one second faster than the top team in the division. If teams go faster than the indicated time, they are disqualified, which puts pressure on them to honestly and accurately place their dogs in the right division.  

Does Flyball Training Suit You and Your Dog?

If you want to know what is flyball training for dogs, you probably want to know if this dog sport is right for you and your dog. If neither you or your dog isn’t in the right place to succeed in this fastest growing dog sport, then you really should not take on the other commitments that flyball training requires. We cover these commitments later in this article.

What Motivates People To Participate in Dog Sports?

Flyball will suit you if:

  1. You are looking for an activity to do with your dog so you can build a stronger relationship and have some fun together
  2. You like socailly interacting with like-minded people
  3. You appreciate the opportunity for physical activity for both dogs and humans
  4. You like to have a sense of belonging to something
  5. You like to be recognized for accomplishments
  6. You enjoy leanring and being knowedlgeable about varous doggie related tipics like agility, obedience

Notice how the sense of competition and the need to win does not make the list? Winning isn’t everything! These 6 motivations came from a research study done in Canada. They were looking at what motivates dog owners to participate in dog sporting events and why.

Is your dog suited to Flyball training?

Here are some characteristics of dogs that thrive in flyball:

  • Willingness and intelligence to learn commands (like how to come when called) and intense focus to get their task in the race completed. All this, even though there are distractions around them that are far more interesting!
  • Fast but not an over-achiever. This just means flyball isn’t just about speed alone. It’s about being smart with speed. This avoids injury and fouls during tournaments. In flyball a dog will be fouled if they take a turn too soon. They need to rerun, costing their team precious time in completing the 4 dog relay.
  • Agile and coordinated enough to sprint, jump and catch/carry a ball in their mouth. Balance also comes into play.
  • At least 1 year old. The earlier to start training your dog, the better.
  • Well socialized. Remember this is a team sport!
  • They’ve been given the stamp of approval to participate from your local vet.

Breeds That Excel in Flyball

Flyball has long been touted as a sport accessible to all dogs.

Although there are a few breeds known for excelling on the course, such as whippets, border collies and sport-bred mixes of the two, all purebred and mixed breed dogs can participate in this sport. From miniature poodles to great danes, and every dog in between, you will see all breeds competing at flyball tournaments held at the local and national levels.

Jump heights fixed for the smallest dog on the team

One reason the sport is so accessible is that the NAFA rules allow for the adjustment of the hurdles to suit the smallest dog on the team.

Under these guidelines, teams can adjust their hurdles to hit exactly five inches below the withers on the shortest dog on the team.

The overall hurdle height must remain over seven inches, which even the smallest toy breeds can leap over on their way up and down the course.

This makes flyball for small dogs a real possibility. It also means that other tallest breeds on the 4 dog team benefit from their smallest crew member.

It’s all about drive

What makes for a great flyball dog is not the breed, but the drive of each individual dog. This is why working and herding breeds show up most often.

Dogs with a strong drive to work take to structured sports activities, like flyball, with a shocking level of confidence and poise.

The flyball training process requires hours of work on perfecting the running and jumping style of each dog. Therefore, flyball dogs must love to work. They must also have a strong focus on getting that ball and bringing it back to succeed in flyball training and tournaments.

Simply put, there are no specific flyball dog breeds. All dogs are welcome as long as they want to participate in this fun activity.  

How Do Dogs Benefit From Flyball Training?

Positive behavior

Flyball channels the natural instincts of dogs and pushes them to use their intelligence, drive and energy to achieve an objective with their handlers.

Without a job, dogs are prone to behavioral problems, These can include incessant barking. digging, feeling bored and feeling unfulfilled on a daily basis.

When dogs have a way to apply their natural instincts, however, they become much more well-adjusted as a result.

Common behavioral problems start to disappear as the dogs have an outlet for their high energy levels and relief of their boredom.

Keeps them in great shape

As dogs release their energy with flyball training and competitions, the intense physical activity helps keep them trim and in great shape.

If you are tempted to ask, “Why is flyball good for dogs?,” just take a peek at the phenomenal physical condition of the top dogs in this sport.

High-performance flyball dogs build lean muscle and shed excess pounds to reach their peak condition in no time at all.

Dogs in peak physical condition tend to have fewer health problems and live longer lives than their couch potato counterparts.

Closer relationship with dog owner

With each flyball training session and competition, the bond between handlers and their dogs grows ever stronger.

These duos develop a unique way of communicating with each other. This helps to promote their success in training for all types of dog sports and everyday activities.

Dogs greatly benefit from close bonds with their handlers. They are social creatures with a strong need for love and understanding.

What’s Involved in Training Your Dog For Flyball?

  • Time commitment to attend classes, team practices, seminars, competitions and tournaments. This is separate to the time you need to invest to time to train with your dog at home, understanding the rules and basic training tasks before you head off to an event in your local area;
  • Money commitment to buy practice equipment, timer and track setup
  • Vet bills to manage injuries.

Team Strategy for Flyball Training

What is Flyball training for dogs? It is an activity where your dog is given a task/tasks which plays to their strength. This strength complements the strengths of the other dogs in their 4 dog relay team. Overall, strong strengths in the team create a competitive advantage on the course.

Let me explain this further.

The lead dog

The lead or starter dog is the first dog to run for the team. Just like in any human relay race, the lead position requires a dog whose best strength is speed.

If Dog 1 has a faster run than the other team, that creates an advantage that the other 3 dogs must maintain, based on their strengths.

Lead dogs have been clocked at up to an incredible 20 miles per hour. The canine players are so fast that an electronic sensor system is usually used to start the dogs and to judge their passes. Some dogs can complete the course in just 3.7 seconds, with entire teams zipping through at just more than 15 seconds.

Jennifer Viegas

The height dog

Remember the smallest dog in the team can have the height of the jump adjusted for all the dogs in their team. This height advantage also delivers a speed advantage.

In the sport of flyball, being small offers a great advantage to the team. Take a look in the video below for the little black and white Papillon and the Jack Russell Terrier at 1 minute and 53 seconds into the video. Check out their pace…they are flying!

Although smaller than their other team members, the smallest dog on the team still needs to perform. Flyball, after all, is a game of speed.

Anchor dog

The anchor dogs are steady and dependable. Performance is always consistent and predictable. They are typically placed in positions 2 and 3 to maintain the pace advantage set by Dog 1 in the team.

These dogs are great all-rounders, performing well on all legs.

Rocket dog

You guessed it! This is the dog that takes home the race. Their strength is smart speed.

Which position suits your dog?

Every person just like every dog, has strengths.

When you’re training your dog for Flyball, what position would play to your dog’s inherent strengths: all round athlete, the jumper, need for speed and/or fetch and catch crusader?

The Big Five Flyball Training Tasks

To effectively play flyball with your dog, you must commit to completing the initial training steps to teach them the game and its rules.

Here is a breakdown of the flyball training tasks you need to complete before your dog can participate in this sport.

By working on these flyball training tasks, you can start playing this fun sport with your dog. As your techniques and times improve, you could even participate in local flyball tournaments and work your way up to the nationals.

1. Basic Recall

As returning to the handler is an integral part of the event, most flyball training sessions start with establishing a solid recall.

Basic recall training occurs at home with short sessions throughout the day.

Handlers can simply carry a tasty treat or toy reward with them Then they randomly call their dogs over during the day for a reward. As dogs start to associate a strong recall with lavish rewards, handlers can phase out the treats or toys by gradually replacing them with praise only.

Once your dog has a solid recall, it is possible to apply their skills to learning how to play flyball.  

2. Flyball Course Recall

Flyball-centric recall training revolves around a helper holding the dog at the end of the course. At the end of their run, the handler call them back to create a strong reinforcement history for that task.

These training sessions occur on course to help familiarize the dog with staying in their lane and going over the hurdles.

Trainers may use barriers to keep the dogs running down their own lanes. This way their handlers can positively reinforce that behavior.

While training, you must strongly reinforce your dogs going over every single jump on the course. Going around even a single hurdle can result in a penalty.

3. Hurdle Jumping

Handlers have to help their dogs with their jumping style if they are losing time over the hurdles.

Most dogs need this extra help as they are prone to slowing to make the jump rather than smoothly gliding over the hurdles.

Starting with relatively low jumps assists in training dogs to properly move down the course without losing speed.

The dogs should have a long stride with single bounces between jumps to achieve the fastest times.

As dogs reach this point in their training, handlers can increase the height of the hurdles to slowly reach regulation height for the team.

4. Tap The Launch Box

Once the dogs start to understand the point of the game, handlers can introduce their dogs to the launch box.

Box training begins with the dog on lead to gauge interest and show them how the launch pad works.

Most dogs will immediately hop up to launch the ball. You should follow with ample praise once your dog has possession of the ball. Only start praising once the dog has the ball in their mouth.  Promptly end the praise when the ball is dropped. This teaches your dog to hold onto the ball for their reward.

To prevent injuries and promote swift transitions on and off the launcher, you must teach your dog to come at the box from the side. This is called a swimmers’ turn.

You can teach a strong box turn by using a ramp to encourage your dog to jump on and off at the right angles for improved speed and safety.

As you transition to the launcher, you want to continue only reinforcing optimal turns to fully covert your dog to the consistent use of an optimal turning style.

With the correct box turn technique, dogs experience much less stress on their bodies and lose very little speed at the launcher. A successful turn is about using speed smartly.

5. Changeovers

After acclimating your dog to the launcher, it is time to start training change overs. This is the release of one dog as the other completes their run.

The timing of this switch matters greatly, especially at the upper levels of flyball tournaments.

Handlers must practice the changeover process together to build the timing and muscle memory needed for this process.

Accuracy is key. Flyball judges use high-tech sensors to track the arrival and release times to the millisecond.

Teams can actively practice changeovers and push their dogs to achieve new personal records at weekly training sessions. During these sessions, handlers can split into two teams and run their dogs against each other to build up their skills together.

Protecting Your Dog from Flyball Injuries

Keeping an eye on safety through injury prevention will kee your dog playing flyball through the years.

To prevent tendon and joint injuries, for example, you should always use flyball leg wraps to give your dog additional support. These compression bandages gently brace the tendons and joints at the wrists and ankles to prevent damage to those structures. The wraps also protect the dewclaws from getting caught on the launch box or hurdles while running at full speed.

If severe enough, any of these injuries could put a halt to a dog’s flyball career and reduce their quality of life. Therefore, handlers take using flyball leg wraps seriously and even have fun with it by using ones with fun color schemes and designs. With their handlers’ commitment to injury prevention, and the right level of training, dogs can stay on course and beat their personal records to become a top contender at local and national flyball tournaments.

Where to Go to Get Started Playing Flyball

So now that you know what is Flyball training for dogs, it is time to get started playing this amazing sport with your dog.

Depending on the resources in your area, getting started playing flyball with your dog can prove challenging. In some locations, dog training facilities offer flyball training, while other regions shift this task to the local teams.

To help you find where to go, NAFA offers a helpful Flyball Locator tool that shows all the regional clubs across the United States and Canada. You can contact the regional director for your state to acquire contact information for the teams and training centers nearest to you.

Initial flyball training courses take six weeks to complete and the need for additional training depends on the progress made during that time. When your dog shows their readiness in training, you may receive an invite to join a local team and begin competing at nearby flyball tournaments.

In most regions, you can usually find training courses centered around flyball for puppies and adult dogs. Even if you never end up competing, your training efforts can help reinforce the bond you have with your dog and support your future dog sports activities.

Giving Your Dog A Job

Remember the core purpose of Flyball is to give your dog a job – 3 specific jobs for each run in their relay race. This concept of giving a dog a job stimulates dogs mentally and physically and helps fulfill their need to please their owners.

Flyball at the extreme end of giving a dog a job. I get it! And Flyball may not be for you or your dog. But there are many more (simpler) ways to give your dog a job. You can read about 17 easier alternative jobs to give your dog here. Below is Sue Brown’s daily routine of giving her dog Romeo daily jobs he needs to complete.

Let’s Wrap This Up

I hope by now you understand what is Flyball training for dogs. More importantly, I hope the article has made you consider and decide if Flyball is for you and your dog.

If you take away anything from this article, know that dogs need mental and physical stimulation on a daily basis through “jobs”. From basic tasks like fetch, hide, tug, catch (during your daily walk or hike) through to frisbee, Treibball, Skatejoring or Flyball, there are many ways you and your dog can have a close and long-lasting relationship. Even if your dog isn’t interested in a dog sport, we talk about 41 things you can do with your dog outside of the house here.

Author - Marie

With 2 Border Collies (Nyx and Bandit) and a Red Heeler (Ruby). With no livestock, Marie spends most of her time outdoors with her dogs, letting them release all their energy as farm dogs. They are fiends for fetch - even in the snow. Marie has started formal flyball training with Nyx, with the other dog likely follow. Marie is also interested in joining dock diving, sheep herding, and agility activities so that her dogs can burn more energy. All three are adept trick dogs with the ability to wave, shake hands, roll over, sit pretty, walk like people and much more. She has much to share with this community of outdoor dog lovers.

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