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Flyball in the Media

Flyball in the Media

It's the fast and the furriest in game of high-tech fetch
Kate Santich, Sentinel Staff Writer

June 3, 2006

Apparently it is not enough for dogs to hunt or parade around in front of judges or snatch a Frisbee in midair.

Now they are playing team sports.

From the Panhandle Supersonics in Pensacola to the Tampa Bay Barkineers in St. Petersburg to the Conch Cruisers in the Florida Keys, teams of pooches are playing a fast, frenzied and noisy sport called flyball.

"There is barking -- loud and frequent," says Barbara Craig, a 60-year-old mail carrier whose true passion is being captain of the Lakeland-based Florida Air Xpress. "We just tune it out because we know what the dogs are saying. They're saying, It's my turn! Why am I not out there?!"

Flyball is actually a relay race pitting teams of four dogs against one another as they charge down a 51-foot course over four hurdles to a spring-loaded box. There, a well-placed pounce makes a tennis ball pop out. The dogs snag the ball and race back to the start, where the next dog is released. The handlers try to time it so that the two teammates pass exactly at the start-finish line.

The dogs can be any breed -- the smallest on record with the North American Flyball Association is a 3.5-pound Pomeranian, the largest a 189-pound Great Dane -- although border collies and whippets are common. The fastest team on record is a Michigan foursome that has run an astonishing 15.36 seconds.

"I call it either controlled chaos or drag-racing for dogs," says Rob Bitler, a 39-year-old software salesman who founded the Sanford-based Express Delivery flyball team. "But the main point of flyball is to have fun with your dog."

Unlike staid, hushed obedience competitions or dog shows, flyball lets dogs be their excitable selves. Although participants need to be comfortable in crowds and able to follow directions -- no chasing after the competition or starting fights allowed -- enthusiasm is essential to a fast performance. Craig says that getting her Jack Russell, Cruizer, psyched up is part of their prerace ritual.

"He's not as much of a barking nut as some of the other dogs are," she says. "He doesn't bark until he gets on the lane, and then we say, 'Are you ready? Are you ready?' He'll respond, bark, bark, bark, bark, bark! So we know he's tuned in."

Since the sport made its Florida debut in Tampa in 1998, it has blossomed to 28 clubs throughout the state, although only about half train regularly and attend competitions. They include the High Tailers of Fort Myers, Dog Gone of Sarasota and 3-2-1 Lift Off from Cape Canaveral.

Most teams practice weekly, and, for Central Floridians, the height of competition comes during the late spring and summer, when there is a series of tournaments in DeLand and Lakeland.

"It's an awesome thing to watch," Craig says.

"But," Bitler adds, "you might want to bring some ear plugs."

© 2005 North American Flyball Association
Header photo by Mark Fletcher