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Flyball Fun

By: Dawn Ruben & Alex Lieber

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Has the game of "catch and retrieve" become passé for you and your dog? If so, you may want to test your dog's abilities at the sport of flyball.

Flyball is an international sport that pits teams of four dogs against each other in relay races. With two teams competing at a time, dogs run a 51-foot-course. A dog leaps over four hurdles and then step on a spring-loaded box, which releases a tennis ball. The dog catches the ball in his mouth and then runs back over the four hurdles to his starting point. Another canine team member then begins the course. The team whose members finish first without any errors is the winner.

The sport has grown in popularity since it was first publicized in the 1970s on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. It's an offshoot of scent-hurdle racing, in which the dogs jump over four hurdles and pick up one of four articles that were previously scented by the handler. In the United States and Canada, the sport is organized under the North American Flyball Association. There are 300 clubs registered with NAFA, and more than 7,000 registered dogs.

Competition is open to all breeds, male or female (purebreds or mixed) but the dogs must be well-behaved. Aggressive dogs are quickly disqualified for the first offense. If they continue to be aggressive, they will not be allowed to compete.

Although all breeds are welcome, NAFA judges attempt to level the playing field to improve competition. For instance, a team with one or two Newfoundlands probably will not compete against a team comprising all border collies. The hurdles are set 4 inches lower than the height of the smallest dog.

Before registering your dog, you'll want to make sure the both of you have the patience and persistence for the sport. Your dog has to learn to focus on the course and not the other dogs in the competition; hurdle over the obstacles; hit the button to release the ball, then catch and return it back through the course again.

The competition appears suited to retrievers, but dogs of all types routinely compete: Great Danes, dachshunds and Shetland sheepdogs compete with and against border collies, golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers.

The best characteristics in a flyball competitor are as follows: the dog should be friendly and outgoing, fast, agile and loves to catch tennis balls. The owner should be patient and dedicated.

Competitions are held all over the country at various times of the year. You can learn more about flyball competitions by visiting NAFA's Web site at www.flyballdogs.com.

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