story: Sue Edmon photos: MaxDogPhotos.com
Reddings Flyball And Splash Dogs There’s something irresistible about a toy-obsessed dog. He drops his treasure at your feet and watches hopefully with those big brown eyes, tail whipping side to side. When you toss it for him, he’s so thrilled you can’t help but smile. But that smile fades at around the 30th throw, when your arm feels like it’s going to fall off. Of course, your dog doesn’t know that the only thing you feel like tossing is his sloppy-wet treasure into the trash. He’s still wagging his tail, waiting for that next throw. So what’s a dog lover to do?
Join Strike Force Flyball Racing Club or Shasta Splash Dogs Dock Jumping Club, suggests Barbara Darrow, a certified pet trainer and founder of both Redding-based clubs. “They’re loads of fun for dogs and people alike.”
What toy-obsessed dog wouldn’t love what Darrow describes as “the fastest game of fetch” on the planet? Flyball is the perfect name for this fast-moving, exciting sport, where two teams of four dogs each compete in a timed relay race. One dog from each team speeds down a 51-foot aisle (leaping over four hurdles along the way), triggers the spring-loaded “flyball box” to release a tennis ball, then races back (over the hurdles again) with ball in mouth. Once he crosses the finish line, the next dog goes. This is precision racing—time is electronically measured to the thousandth of a second.
If it sounds intimidating, Darrow assures it’s not. “Really, all you need is a dog who will do anything for a ball. That allows him to block out all the rest.” She laughs. “Flyball races are a three-ring circus.”
Of course, there is training involved. “Every dog is different, so there’s no set amount of training,” she says. “The average is three to four months before the first competition.” Netted lanes teach the dog to run straight and care is taken to teach dogs to land with all fours on the flyball box. “That avoids joint damage,” she says. “We want this sport to enhance a dog’s life, not detract from it, so safety comes first.” Distractions are eventually incorporated into the training. “We try to do whatever could happen in a real race—tipped over jumps, dropped balls, dogs crossing the lanes. We had a couple of small dogs that crossed the start line, then stopped and rolled around, playing like puppies. The hardest part of the whole thing isn’t the training, it’s hanging on to the dogs until it’s their turn to run. All they want to do is get that ball.”
Darrow and husband Ralph compete with their three border collies—Gypsy, Reno and Blaze. “Border collies and Jack Russells are popular, but any dog can compete. We’ve raced with beagles, Airedales, retrievers and labs. The more variety, the better.” They don’t have to be greyhound-fast, either. “We have different divisions in each tournament. We’ll place a slower dog on a team with faster dogs to even it out.”
While breed isn’t important, fitness is. “You can’t expect a couch potato dog to do flyball. They need to be in good shape in order to avoid injury,” she says.
The Strike Force Flyball Club offers free training to its members. “All we ask is a commitment that folks agree to travel to five or six tournaments a year,” she says.
You’d think that flyball would have been enough for Darrow. She laughs. “I was watching Animal Planet and saw a show about Splash Dogs. It looked like so much fun that I decided to research the sport.” In 2002, she started Shasta Splash Dogs.
The sport is all about fun, incorporating two things most dogs love—toys and water. Dogs run 40 feet down a ramp and leap as far as possible before splashing into the water. The motivation—to retrieve a favorite toy hurled into the water by their handlers.
Training is required, and is offered by Club Vice President Jeff Vanatta. “The dogs go nuts when it’s time to jump,” he says. “So they really need to learn to sit and stay while the handler walks to the end of the ramp to throw the toy.”
“Training the dog is the easy part,” says Darrow. “Do you know how hard it is to throw a toy straight out ahead of you?”
Successful dock diving dogs are toy-driven, says Vanatta, whose dog Teva loves her Dolly Duck and dog Bailey will do anything for his Thumper Bumper. “We tell people to save that special toy for practice and for competition.”
Competition is optional, says Darrow. “This is a sport you can do simply for fun.”
Dock diving is a great sport that the whole family can enjoy, Vanatta adds. “We usually have an open dock session for the public before our practice. Everyone is welcome to come out and give it a try.”
The sport is generally safe for the dogs, but they should be in good shape, he says. “In addition to our weekly practice, I take my dogs swimming at least once a week. The only real hazard is for people. There’s usually one person who’s so focused on the dog that he backs off the dock. They always make a big splash.”