Julie asked me to share my push board link and Beverly asked me a few questions I haven’t answered yet, so hopefully this covers all the bases!
I got into flyball for several indirect reasons. At the time it was the dead of winter and I was looking for a way for my dogs to get some exercise without me having to stand in the cold. Also, a new training facility opened up 15 minutes from my house (The Well Mannered Dog). Normally I’m driving almost three HOURS each way to training so I couldn’t miss an opportunity to train so close to home even if it’s not Schutzhund. Also, my friends were going with their dogs so it was somewhat of a social opportunity for me. I had several hesitations about doing flyball long term:
Wrong, wrong, wrong! In the big picture, flyball is basically one giant retrieve done in relay fashion, but there are so many components especially when racing on a team, it is anything but simple.
While my dogs are big and heavy compared to some, I’ve seen larger and heavier at tournaments. One of my favorite dogs to watch is a large Belgian Malinois that consistently runs 3.9 and 4.0. With a large breed dog, there are some things I need to take into consideration. It is crucial that my dogs use the correct technique for the box turn (a “simmer’s turn”) in order to protect their joints. I also have to carefully train passes and yielding the lane since a collision into a 4.0 second 75lb dog can be catastrophic, but if anything having a larger dog makes it all the more likely that my dogs are performing correctly and safely.
Certain breeds such as Border Collies, small to medium terriers, and sport mixes like Border Staffies and Border Jacks are the norm in flyball, I’ve never felt unwelcome or frowned upon for running German Shepherd dogs.
You can start flyball any time. Puppies of course should not be doing any jumps and turns. When the dog is ready to start jumping and turning depends on the individual dog. Since I have German Shepherds I prefer to wait until at least one year and have at least one set of hip and elbow x-rays evaluated to rule out any hereditary conditions. Pan started flyball when he was 15 months old. His hips and elbows had been evaluated at 6 months and were formally evaluated by the SV in Germany at 17 months old and were given the highest ratings possible. Nikon was already three and had his OFA certificates. Before your dog is cleared to begin jumping and turning there’s no reason you can’t start training. Generally we start by backchaining recalls down the lane – called “run backs” – with no jumps. Even at this stage you can imprint yielding the lane for passes as the dog does the run back (you move to the track on the left side). This stage is kind of boring but is important. If you are training with a club, this run back exercise will help your dog learn to focus on you and stay in his lane while other dogs are working in the other lane(s). Flyball is not going to work without a recall! You can also determine how to reward your dog (food, toy, praise, etc) and get your dog comfortable playing and “working” in a loud, chaotic atmosphere.
Once your dog is cleared to start jumping, you’ll start doing the run backs over jumps, backchaining as you go. Backchaining means training a complex behavior by breaking it into smaller steps and building them, backwards. So, first you would recall your dog over the last jump, then back up two jumps, then three, then all four from the box, etc.
You also need to know which way your dog turns. You don’t get to pick! As a former gymnast I can attest to how strongly one is “sided” and dogs are the same. There are some different ways I’ve seen people go about this. If your dog already retrieves, then observe whatever direction the dog turns during the pick up. Some people will send their dog to their crate and observe which way the dog turns as he goes into the crate. If I’m still not sure, I toss some treats out and observer which way the dog turns when I call him back to me.
I’m sure there are dozens of methods for training the box turn. Since I am a total novice I will just describe how my team trained my dogs. Once we knew which way the dog turned, we simply started luring the dog around the box to get the dog comfortable with the box. Slowly you build on this until the person standing at the box no longer holds the lure but the dog has to go around the person on the box and return to the owner.
The dog also needs to be able to willingly retrieve the tennis ball. For me it’s important that the tennis ball is neutral and *not* the reward. If the tennis ball is the reward, often the dog is slow coming back off the box and in training the dog is constantly distracted by all the loose balls. Nikon did not require any work in this department because he already knew a formal retrieve. I simply substituted the tennis ball for his dumbbell a few times to give him the idea and then moved on. Pan naturally has lots of toy drive and loves tennis balls, so at home I worked on having him bring the tennis ball all the way back to me and drop it for a tug reward, not retrieve it and then chew it or retrieve it and run off. You can train or shape this behavior however you want or are familiar with.
Once the dog understands the concept of going to the box and turning, and also bringing back a tennis ball, we start putting a tennis ball on the box’s ledge in front of the appropriate hole, depending on which way the dog turns. This helps shape the turn before dealing with a loaded box.
Also at this time, I start doing a lot of work developing a swimmer’s turn at home. I train this turn using a home made push board and props that force the dog into the correct position. Since I have large dogs, I also elevate my push board to encourage the dog to jump onto the board. Many dogs will demonstrate a great turn with props and at slower speeds but once they start racing, most want to slide into the box. This causes them to burn their hocks and stop pads and also diminishes the quality of the turn, as the dog will start sliding head-on into the box or land lower and not get all four feet on the box. A lot of really fast dogs don’t have the greatest turns but since my dogs are large, I insist on proper turns for their own safety. Even now that my dogs are competing, we still work on turns on the push board once or twice a week.
My own plan for making three push boards (I make three at a time based on a standard sheet of lumber). This PDF also contains links to videos that demonstrate how to use the board.
Once the dog understands the pieces of going down the lane over the jumps and back, turning on the box, and retrieving a tennis ball, we start to put it all together. Again we use the backchaining technique by sending the dog to the loaded box and rewarding, then sending the dog over one jump to the loaded box and rewarding. Slowly we add in the jumps going to and from the box until the dog can run the whole sequence.
As the dog starts running side-by-side with another dog in the other lane, it is not uncommon to have to take several steps back. For example, sometimes when Pan sees another dog ahead of him, he gets competitive and will skip catching the ball because he wants to turn and race back faster than the other dog. When I am at a tournament, I always run through each piece during my warm-up. I have the dog do a few box turns with one or no jumps, then I have someone hold my dog at the box and do a run back, and then I send the dog from the start line for a full run.
This video includes a compilation of clips from Pan’s first flyball session to his most recent tournament where he broke his own record (and the GSD breed record) eight more times. You can see the training progression I’ve described here. (Unfortunately I don’t have nearly as much footage of Nikon, since he used to run against Jason’s dogs and Jason does the video)
So far, my dogs have been running Pre-Flight and Singles in tournaments (Pan anchored a few races as an alternate) and have just begun working on passes in training, so I won’t touch on that. Once your dog is ready to learn passes, this should be done with a team and a good trainer, it’s not really something you can do at home.
At first I was skeptical about making a commitment to flyball but now we are hooked. I actually prefer tournaments over practice. I am not necessarily a competitive person, but I am a perfectionist. Running dogs in tournaments is a great outlet for both. Most times, I’m so focused I’m completely unaware of what the other dogs are doing. I rarely even remember what breed of dog my dog was racing. It’s up to my dog to bring the speed and the drive, but it’s up to *me* to give my dog the advantage of a near perfect start time or a clean pass. Since I am a detail-oriented numbers kind of person, running my dogs in Singles races and obsessing over their start times has become a new “sport” for me as the handler. If this is making no sense, let me explain. In flyball, the clock starts when the light flashes green. The clock stops when the dog crosses the line. This is significant because very rarely does a dog begin a run AT the line. Most dogs start 20+ feet behind the line in order to hit full speed as the cross the line. If you play Mario Cart then you know what I’m talking about, you’ve got to hit the button at the exact moment *before* the green light in order to get the maximum acceleration. For example, I currently start Pan at 52 feet. This means we are 52 feet behind the start line. If I release him at the green light, I waste almost half a second allowing him to accelerate those 52 feet to the start line. When you are racing your start time is flashed but it still counts towards the overall time, it is not subtracted. This allows you to change when you release your dog or where you release the dog from in order to pursue that perfect start. The closest I’ve come (and likely will ever come) to a perfect start was 0.002, my dog was two thousandths of a second late. If your dog crosses the line early, it is a false start. Once a dog is running on a team, this same technique applies only to passing. A perfect pass is when the dogs are nose-to-nose at the line. A late pass wastes precious time and an early pass results in a flag and the dog has to re-run, also adding time, in order for the run to count. Passing takes even more skill than starting a lead dog (or Singles) dog because the previous dog’s time will fluctuate. Start times and passes can make as much difference in the time as the actual speed of the dog.
I hope that helps! If you are near GR and want to come play flyball, let me know!