Ellie, a 3-year-old Golden Retriever, barked joyously as she raced around an agility course one recent evening. Through tunnels, over jumps, and around weave poles, dogs and owners were both challenged to know the course and complete it without running each other over.
Ellie’s owner, Donna Martinson, at times had trouble keeping pace with her energetic dog. “She’s so much faster than I am,” Martinson said. For Martinson, running the course is a fun way to bond with her dog and exercise.
The evening’s Fun Run at teacher Jane Burlison’s house allowed dogs who have already completed agility classes the chance to practice their skills. Some ran through the entire course without incident, other dogs needed more help.
Some owners needed help too — an owner’s shoulders and other forms of body language need to be consistent to guide a dog through the course. If an owner forgets where the next jump is or fails to plan the proper route, a dog can become confused and miss the obstacle. After a dog is trained, the majority of errors on agility courses can be attributed to humans, according to Burlison.
Owners say taking agility classes develops a dog’s attentiveness.
“You’d be surprised how much dogs watch your body language,” said Burlison. Body language can send mixed signals. Before leading a dog on a course, an owner walks it and plots the best path, the best way to lead to avoid becoming trapped in a corner.
Positive reinforcement is key. Burlison said, corrections are minimal.
Dale Klausner has competed with her 7-year-old Australian Shepherd, Zeke, for about a year. “He likes to be able to run fast off-leash,” Klausner said. Learning agility courses has also helped Zeke’s confidence.
Mastering difficult obstacles helps a dog’s self-esteem. One of the more difficult tricks involves a seesaw-like element where a dog walks on one side of a plank, balances his weight in the middle until the other side falls, and then walks off the other side.
This trick frightens most dogs because of the loud bang when the plank hits the ground, said Burlison. But once mastered, that which caused fright can instead become a source of confidence.
Klausner says the relationship building between dog and owner is also important. “That’s really what they want — to work with their handler,” she said.
Burlison first took an agility course in the early ’90s with a friend who convinced her to try it. “I finished the class and she didn’t,” Burlison said, laughing.
The animal lover also runs an Australian Shepherd rescue organization and houses many of the dogs at her home. Although Burlison does not train her rescue dogs in agility, some of her dogs have learned after adoption.
“They don’t need to be a full-fledged obedience dog,” to learn agility, Burlison said. Basic commands like come, sit, stay and wait are helpful to start.
“The secret is patience and taking little pieces of the whole and putting it together at the end,” said pet owner Jonnie Geen. Dogs learn one trick at a time, and then eventually connect the separate parts.
Geen is Payson’s regional director for the North American Flyball Association.
Flyball involves teams of dogs relay racing and fetching.
“Once my Golden Retriever found out about flyball, she never wanted to do agility again,” Geen said.
Geen’s other dogs, however, still enjoy running agility courses. And it seems the owners love it just as much.
What is Flyball?
From the North American Flyball Association Web site
The North American Flyball Association, Inc. (NAFA®) was established in 1984, when 12 flyball clubs in Michigan and Ontario banded together to guide the development of flyball in North America. Today, with over 400 active clubs and 6,500 competing dogs, NAFA is recognized as the world’s leading authority on flyball and the sport’s top sanctioning organization. NAFA is a nonprofit organization.
Flyball got its start in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a group of dog trainers in Southern California created scent discrimination hurdle racing, then put a guy at the end to throw tennis balls to the dogs when they finished the jump line. It didn't take long for the group to decide to build some sort of tennis ball-launching apparatus, and the first flyball box was born. Herbert Wagner is credited with developing the first flyball box, and apparently he did a flyball demo on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson that got a lot of people’s attention. Subsequently, the new dog sport for dog enthusiasts was introduced in the Toronto-Detroit area by several dog training clubs. After a few small tournaments were held in conjunction with dog shows, the first-ever flyball tournament was held in 1983.
Mike Randall wrote the first NAFA rulebook in 1985, and was also the first NAFA executive director. The first head judge was Dave Samuels.
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 four jumps and reached the start/finish line. The first team to have all four dogs finish the course without error wins the heat.
Jump height is determined by the smallest dog on the team — this dog, called the “height dog,” is measured at the withers, then that number is rounded down to the nearest inch and another 5 inches is subtracted to get the jump height (with the minimum jump height being 7 inches). So a 13-1/4-inch dog would round down to 13 inches, minus 5 inches, would jump 8 inches. Maximum jump height is 14 inches.
In the early days of flyball, there were no start lights and no passing lights. All of the starts and passes were called by the line judges, who also used hand-held stopwatches to time the races. The race was started by the head judge; the judge would do a basic “ready, set, go” and blow the whistle on the “go.” Minimum jump heights were 10 inches, and were determined by measuring the smallest dog on the team at the withers and rounding up or down to the nearest inch (so a 13-1/2-inch dog would jump 13 inches, while a 13-3/4-inch dog would jump 14 inches).
With the onset of the Electronic Judging System (EJS), which uses lights and infrared timing sensors, competitors were suddenly able to track their starts, passes, finishes, and individual dogs’ times to the thousandth of a second. It’s hard to imagine racing without an EJS in this day and age. Many teams run all four dogs through the course in less than 20 seconds. The NAFA world record is now 15.22.
NAFA tournaments are divided into divisions so that teams compete against other teams of equal abilities. All dogs including mixed breeds are eligible to compete and earn titles in NAFA-sanctioned tournaments. Titles are earned via a point system based on the time it takes a team to complete each heat race.
NAFA sanctions more than 300 tournaments a year across North America.