Flyball emerged as an organized sport in the 1980s, after the inventor of the spring-loaded Flyball box demonstrated it on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. The North American Flyball Association was founded in 1984, and from there the rules took shape: A regulation Flyball course is 51 feet long, with two-foot-wide hurdles spaced 10 feet apart; dogs must clear all the hurdles and reach the finish line with their ball still in their mouths. All four dogs will ideally finish the relay in under 24 seconds, collectively; doing so earns them points toward Flyball titles (of which there are many).
Flubs are frequent. At the tournament here, several dogs dropped their balls before reaching the finish line, and some ran outside the hurdles or knocked them down. Part of the training regimen involves teaching the dog to ignore distractions.
“Last Labor Day, we were at a tournament and somebody brought their cat, because the dog loved the cat so much that it helped the dog perform at its best,” said Rose A. Kane, secretary of the tournament hosted here.
Although Flyball does not appeal to all dogs, those that have the temperament for it enjoy richer lives as a result of the training and competition, said Dr. James A. Serpell, professor of animal ethics and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
“These Flyball athletes and their owners are incredibly tuned in to each other, so you sometimes feel like they’re actually physically connected by a kind of invisible cord,” Dr. Serpell said.
For dogs that are not athletes, taking a walk, running off-leash or chasing a ball or a Frisbee can have similar health benefits, he said. “If your dog enjoys that sort of activity, it’s tremendously good for them, and it will make your life happier too, because when your dog is at home he or she will be calmer and less of a nuisance,” Dr. Serpell said.
A colleague of his, Dr. Cynthia M. Otto, who is executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, played Flyball for years with her bichon frisé mix, Dolce, which she describes as a “little white fluffy thing.”