What do authors do when they’re not writing?
I race my dogs in a sport that is fun, loud, exciting, and crazy. It’s called flyball.
You may have seen this sport on Animal Planet or on ESPN. If not and you’re interesting in seeing what it’s all about, you can find racing videos on YouTube.
What is flyball? Whenever I explain it, people’s eyes glaze over. Here’s the description from NAFA–the official site of the North American Flyball Association.
“Flyball races match two teams of four dogs each, racing side-by-side over a 51 foot long course. Each dog must run in relay fashion down the jumps, trigger a flyball box, releasing the ball, retrieve the ball, and return over the jumps. The next dog is released to run the course, but can’t cross the start/finish line until the previous dog has returned over all 4 jumps and reached the start/finish line. The first team to have all 4 dogs finish the course without error wins the race.”
Got that? Like I said, go to YouTube and watch some of the races. Or, better yet, find a race being held your area and watch in person. Bring earplugs and wear old clothes!
Flyball tournaments are held on weekends in various locations throughout the US. We travel with our dogs, staying in dog-friendly motels or camping on site. Flyball is family sport. You will see kids helping mom and dad run their dogs, shagging balls, or cheering from the sidelines.
Races can be held indoors or outdoors. We keep the dogs in crates or pens when they’re not racing. This allows the dogs a chance to snooze between races and keeps them under control–necessary because dogs who aren’t racing think they should be! One of our team’s dogs named Duke broke out of his crate in one building, crossed the yard to the building where the racing was being held and added himself to the team!
What I enjoy most about flyball are the people, the dogs, and the time I get to spend with my dogs. I race two dogs, Dixie, a border collie, and Joey, a Sheltie. I got Dixie from a breeder. Her father was a flyball racer and her mother did Agility. At six weeks old, Dixie was playing with a tennis ball. She lives for flyball. She is obsessed with it. The minute I put her crate into the car, she knows where we’re going and she literally quivers with excitement.
Dixie takes flyball very seriously. When she is on the line she doesn’t bark. She pays no attention to the other dogs running past her. She focuses on the ball, crouches, digs in her paws, and waits for the release.
Joey, the Sheltie, is a rescue dog. We’re not sure where he came from, but I think he was the leader of a puppy mill gang. He is a little thug! He is always getting into scraps with my other dogs. And though the smallest, he is the instigator. He is the sweetest looking dog, but looks can be deceptive. (Witness the battle scars on his head and nose!)
Joey is the complete opposite of Dixie when he’s racing. For Joey, flyball is a chance to show that he’s “The Man”. On the line, he jumps up and down, twists and turns, and tangles himself in his harness so that once I accidentally dropped him on his head. He barks and lunges at the dog next to him. He barks and lunges at the judge. He barks at me. But when it’s finally his turn to run, he pulls it all together and scampers down the track (though he does sometimes try to grab a mouthful of fur from his teammate in passing!). Joey likes to race the dog in the other lane and he really pours it on if he thinks he might lose.
As for the flyball people, they’re great. They come from all walks of life. My teammates range in age from two who are freshmen in college up to us old folks like me. Between races we sit in our camp chairs among the dogs and talk about dogs and laugh over the crazy things that happen at tournament.
There was the bull mastiff who decided not to go over the wooden jumps but through them. He destroyed all four jumps. He wasn’t injured, but they had to stop the race to find replacements. Or Liz, the border collie, who took exception to a male dog on her team and decided that she wasn’t going to let him run. She raced to the box, got the ball, came back over three jumps, then laid down in front of the fourth jump with the ball in her mouth and glared over the top of the jump at her teammate, daring him to come get it.
The hardest part in training dogs for flyball is getting the dogs accustomed to the box, which moves, bangs, and shoots a tennis ball at them. The next hardest part is training two dogs who are running full tilt straight at each other to race pass each other without stopping to snap or “snarfle”, pull fur or “slime”.
The hardest part for those of us racing the dogs is knowing when to release the dog so that it will pass the returning dog as close as possible (to get the fastest time) without incurring a foul. If two dogs “bad pass” the dog that fouled has to run again and that eats up the clock. It’s all about getting the fastest time.
The current NAFA champions, a team called Springloaded, has a time of 15.22 seconds for all four dogs to finish the race. Sound amazing. It is! You have to see it to believe it.
What breed of dogs compete in flyball? I’ve seen almost all breeds, from Papillions and poodles, to daschunds, whippets, labs, retrievers, spaniels, beagles and the aforesaid bull mastiff. Herd dogs tend to have an affinity for the sport, so many teams run border collies, Australian shepherds, Shelties, and Corgis. Since the height of the jumps is based on the smallest dog on the team, most teams run a little dog known as the “height dog”. Jack Russels are popular height dogs, as are Shelties like Joey. If you have a dog that loves to chase tennis balls and loves to run, consider this sport. You can probably find a training facility in your area.
There’s no money to won in this sport. This is not horse racing! Dogs earn titles based on points they win during a race based on a complicated scale depending on how fast the team runs and whether or not it’s a “clean run”. Dixie has her Flyball Master Excellent title and Joey has his Flyball Champion-Silver.
Dogs can continue to race for as long as they enjoy racing. There are now special Veteran’s teams for dogs over seven. We have dogs as old as twelve who still love to race. One dog scored his fastest time ever at the age of nine!
When I race flyball, I’m not Margaret Weis, New York Times bestselling author. I’m just Margaret who runs Dixie and once dropped Joey on his head. I have so much fun competing and being with my dogs and my friends and their dogs. And that is why I have dedicated my latest book to the BC Boomerangs and all the dogs.