By Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer
Southborough – While residents throughout town spend their weekends at ballgames and going on bike rides, Barbara Black can be found training her dogs for disc dog shows and competing in flyball competitions.
Black, a garment decorator and promotional products distributor, has three dogs – her “fur kids” – two Border collies, Whit and Trim, and one Jack Russell Terrier, Secret. All of the dogs participate in flyball competitions. Whit and Secret perform in disc dog shows throughout the year at venues such as the Quechee Vermont Hot Air Balloon Festival, the Pet Rock Festival in Worcester, and other country fairs and events in southern New England as part of the New England Disc Dog Shows.
Flyball is a relay sport in which teams of four dogs race against each other from a start/finish line, over a line of four hurdles (spaced 10 feet apart) to a box that releases a tennis ball to be caught when the dog presses the spring-loaded pad (doing a swimmer's turn). The dog then runs back over the hurdles to their handlers while carrying the ball. Each dog must return its ball all the way across the start line before the next dog crosses. The first team to have all four dogs cross the finish line error-free wins the heat.
“Flyball got its start in the 1970s when Californian Herbert Wagner developed the first tennis ball launcher. Subsequently, the new 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,” according to the North American Flyball Association website at www.flyball.org.
Black is team captain for the Awesome Racing Flyball Fanatics (ARFF), a flyball club located in the Metrowest area. All members of ARFF are dedicated to the weekly practices at Gemini Dog in Littleton and all work together to make the sport a success at home and on the road. Everyone contributes some effort toward the team, whether it be box loading, helping to train a “green” dog, rolling up the mats, calling passes, or just cheering on teammates. It is this camaraderie, along with a shared philosophy, which Black said has helped ARFF build a strong foundation that she believes will keep them playing together for years to come.
“Almost any breed can play, but dogs that are aggressive or overweight are not good candidates,” Black said. “The breeds most commonly seen in flyball are Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Jack Russell Terriers, Labrador Retrievers and mixes. However, there are many, many other breeds that do well, like Giant Schnauzers, Golden Retrievers, Corgis, Papillons, Whippets, Belgian Malinois, West Highland, Boston (and other) Terriers and Pit Bulls.”
Black practices flyball on Sundays with the team and spends the rest of the week (weather permitting) working with Whit and Secret on their freestyle disc routines – often at Neary School where the dogs and their tricks are a big hit with the schoolchildren.
“Training a flyball dog can take as little as a few months to as long as four-plus years,” Black said. “Usually, the most difficult part of the training is getting the dog to focus on the task of running up and back with a ball in his mouth without chasing other dogs and/or becoming distracted. The team is tasked with training every dog, as this is not an individual sport. The biggest thrill for the team comes when a “green” (beginner) dog completes its first successful runs in competition,” Black added.
Although flyball appears to be a very competitive sport due to the speed and racing lights, Black said that the camaraderie both within and among clubs is amazing.
“You will often see members of one club helping another out with box loading, running a dog and pass calling when a team is shorthanded,” she said. “Some clubs work very hard to try to be the fastest in the world, while others are happy to accumulate points and titles for their dogs. The important thing is that everyone within a club subscribes to the same goals and philosophy – or there will be problems.”
Black believes that the best part of flyball is that it is a team sport. A cohesive team spends a lot of social time together, especially at “away” events.
“The critters keep me pretty busy, but they’re my passion,” Black said.
To learn more about AARF, visit http://www.arff-flyball.com/.
To take a look at a training session, go to: