sports

"Run Fast, Run Clean, Big Party"

Dogs do the running, but humans wear the matching uniforms. Welcome to flyball, America's team sport for dogs.



chiliracing

As trainers prepare the next dog behind the start/finish line, a dog leaps one of four hurdles on the 51-foot flyball track.  Photo Courtesy of Neil Flood Buy Photos

INDIANAPOLIS — They were a mismatched bunch, those runners: two Australian shepherds, a towering Labrador retriever and a tiny border terrier. The four of them, known as Team Reprise, strutted to the track. They were minutes from a North American championship.

The captain, whispering into perked ears, weaved among them.

“Don’t worry about it,” he told them. “Ignore everybody.”

Trainers unclipped the runners’ leashes and put the dogs in race order. In the other lane, their opponents did the same. The two teams traded nervous glances.

At the line, the starter dogs stood ready, elite athletes eager to spring. Trainers set the hurdles in place as the captains backed away.

The referee lowered her hand. The stoplight flashed green. And Two Australian shepherds dashed down the track.

*  *  *

Flyball trainers like to call it a relay race for dogs. Watch a flyball tournament in person, though, and see that description fall short.

The lead dogs for each relay team race side-by-side down a 51-foot track, ropes of saliva flying from the dogs’ mouths. Each dog clears four hurdles and uses its paws to slap a box waiting at the other end. A tennis ball shoots out, and each dog catches it and sprints back down the lane. As one dog returns, the next member of their respective teams takes off, slaps the box again, catches a new ball and hurtles back. Top teams can finish four runs in 15 seconds.

Trainers scream and pound the mats. Others turn red as they run alongside, struggling to keep up with their dogs.

Every October, North America’s best teams come to Indianapolis for the CanAm Classic, one of flyball’s most prestigious tournaments.

The noise starts in the parking lot, a chorus of dogs pouring from Indiana State Fairgrounds’ West Pavilion. Once inside, casual conversations drown in the barks. A fanatical energy swirls through the building. Everything smells like dog.

Hundreds of people set up makeshift campsites around the building and spend the weekend in worn-out lawn chairs. Others settle nearby, consulting lists of hotels that allow dogs and those that don’t. In Indianapolis, the eastside La Quinta is the place to be.

Inside the pavilion, salesmen behind booths hawk paw-engraved wine glasses and body pillows for puppies. Flat-screen TVs flash race times and bracket updates.

Team Reprise, competing in the Multibreed Third Division final, faced problems from the start of the first of the championship’s five heats. Abby, the grinning Aussie, struggled to get her ball out of the box. It hit her in the mouth and she dropped it on the turn, costing the team valuable seconds.

They finished their run in a disappointing 24 seconds but won the first heat anyway. A dog from the other team stepped out of its lane — an automatic loss. Team Reprise took an early lead and scrambled to reset its dogs.

The seconds after a flyball heat are chaotic. Trainers hurry to corral their dogs and fight to pull the balls out of their mouths. Sometimes, a dog swallows a ball whole, not wanting to give it up. 

Dog sports play on the millennia-old relationship between man and canine. Since ancient times, humans have made use of dogs’ exuberance and athleticism by sending them to run and hunt in their place.

Flyball, born in southern California in the 1960s, is built on that rapport. For a decade, the sport was a local oddity before a demonstration on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” gave it a national platform.

Today, the North American Flyball Association has more than 1,000 member clubs across the United States and Canada. NAFA tournaments are often live-streamed online, which pick up a few international viewers. They’ve been broadcast on national TV a few times.

Flyball trainers can pour thousands of dollars into their sport. It adds up: travel to weekly tournaments across the country, practice facility rental fees, trips to the veterinarian, pay for tournament entry fees and for the all-important matching team uniforms — for the humans, of course.

In Indianapolis, a team from Texas donned custom-made football jerseys. Another wore head-to-toe tights topped with purple headbands. Team Reprise’s trainers dressed in personalized bright red T-shirts, the names of each dog embroidered on the sleeve.

Jane Kline, the team’s founder, sat at their campsite beneath a banner with the club’s motto: Run fast, run clean, big party. Still recovering from last year’s ACL surgery, Worth, the club’s star runner, lay quiet in a cage a few feet away.

Kline said she figured flyball cost each trainer in her club $200 a month. “But some of us spend more,” she said, holding up one of Worth’s many specialty compression jackets. There was ceramic in this one that kept his muscles warm, she explained. It was also entirely unnecessary. She admitted that.

*  *  *

Flyball races are a raucous balance between speed and agility. A good racer needs the straight-line speed to beat an opponent down the lane, but it needs to be nimble enough to clear four hurdles, catch a ball and turn without wasting time.

Ule James, NAFA regional director for most of the Midwest, has spent more than 25 years in the sport. When he started, there were no lights, no electronic timers and certainly no crowds.

Every aspect of flyball has been modernized. The balls now come in varying sizes and air pressures. The rulebook has 128 pages that includes regulations on aggressive dogs, the official stance for measuring a dog and fouls for defecating on the track. Trainers analyze each run with frame-by-frame video. The only innovation left is the dogs.

“Ultimately, flyball is going to come up with a flyball breed,” James said.

That process has already started — trainers slip names like BoWhip, border jack and border pit into regular conversation — but for now, medium-sized breeds like border collies, Australian shepherds and whippets dominate flyball rosters. The best runners bring speed without sacrificing stride length.

At the elite level, some dogs are selected and trained specifically for competition. Hyper-competitive trainers can spend hundreds of dollars on a promising puppy to ensure a genetic head start, but most dogs were rescued from a shelter or are family pets.

It can take up to a year to train a dog for flyball. It’s in a dog’s nature to run, but teaching one to catch a ball, turn in place and sprint back takes hundreds of repetitions.

Trainers start with the tug by encouraging their dogs to latch on to the end of a rope or chew toy. In a race, tugging helps bring a dog from full speed to a stop. After dropping the ball, some dogs grab a waiting rope and are swung high around their humans.

Once a dog masters tugging, they learn the jumps by chasing a toy or a piece of food over hurdles. Then they set to work finding out whether their dog is left or right-handed — dogs naturally like to turn over a certain shoulder.

Passing is the hardest part. When one dog returns, its teammate passes just inches away, both at a full sprint. Some dogs hog the lane. Others bail out. A perfect run would see two dogs cross the line at the exact same time.

It’s the captain’s responsibility to coordinate those exchanges. Captains don’t handle dogs directly, but they do decide their team’s running order and often signal when to release the next runner.

“Just like the manager of a baseball team,” Team Reprise captain John Donahue said.

To win a national championship, Donahue needed to time his team’s passes perfectly. None of Team Reprise’s dogs were bred for racing. None would be considered for a top club.

*  *  *

Fifteen years after she started playing flyball, Kline’s legs don’t move like they used to.

She grew up before Title IX, before young girls were given the chance to play organized sports. By the time women’s sports became widely accepted, she was past her athletic prime.

Now on the brink of old age — ask her age, and she’s “just old” — Kline turned to flyball to release the competitiveness she buried as a girl. Most of her club’s trainers are nearing retirement age, with a little expendable income and a newfound chunk of free time.

For dogs, flyball is a chance to run, to follow that most innate instinct and be rewarded with praise and the occasional treat. For humans, it’s a little simpler.

“Ribbons,” Kline said. “It’s all about the ribbons.”

Before the second championship heat, Team Reprise’s opponent brought out a new runner. One of their dogs had injured a leg and couldn’t continue.

“I only brought one spare!” the other captain told Donahue.

*  *  *

Multiple practices a week. Weight-loss sessions for the dogs. A mental rolodex of every club’s dogs. Kline even tried to start a fantasy flyball league, but the scoring took too much time away from training.

Flyball’s small group of fanatics leaves the nation’s best teams traveling in unison. Trainers know each other, asking about a certain dog’s knee surgery or how somebody’s son is adjusting to college.

Once a club’s name is called to race, though, it’s just as serious as any team sport. Flyball trainers throw their hands up in agony over a dropped tennis ball and obsess over hundredths of a second. The world record has fallen seven times in the last four years.

Sometimes, it gets dirty. Trainers have been known to false start intentionally, trying to tire out the other team’s dogs. Teams throw races to drop into a less competitive matchup. NAFA requires as many as five judges — two at the starting line, two at the box and one roaming the track — at each race to prevent cheating.

Dogs snarl and trash-bark at each other. Some brawl.

The most underhanded tactic? Sex. Some teams place dogs in heat just outside the track to distract opponents.

Technically, it’s not against the rules.

*  *  *

Team Reprise didn’t think they had a chance in the finals, but they got lucky. After two heats, they were tied with Team Rubber Room Rockets, each team two points from a North American title.

“OK, now we’ve got the good stuff!” Donahue said, rubbing each dog’s head.

Team Reprise’s dogs were exhausted. Like their trainers, they were getting older and needed more time to recover. While their opponents sprung back to the line, Team Reprise’s dogs, with drooping tongues, lay on the floor.

Another drop of the hand, another green light and Team Reprise was immediately trailing. The third heat was never competitive. The fourth, even less so. They finished in 22.549 seconds, almost two full seconds behind their opponents. It was over. Three hours of waiting. A minute and a half of racing.

“We couldn’t beat them anyway, right?” a trainer asked Kline.

“No, no,” she responded. “Let’s get out of here. Time to hit the road.”

They loaded cages and coolers into the team van and headed back to camp. No time to waste — the dogs would recover for a few days, then get back to training. They would be hosts in two weeks to a tournament in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Kline said she thought they had a shot.

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