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  The Truth About Flyball

December 22, 2002


FLYBALL - Page 1

Flyball is an original piece of work
by Canadian cartoonist Ron Leishman .

Order a Flyball t-shirt here!

Laughing Dog never intended to become an investigative reporter revealing the underbelly of the dog world. In fact, my highest aspiration was to be the "recess" of canine culture.

However, I was recently forced to reveal the existence of The Church of the Divine Border Collie. Now, I am thrust into that position again by information that I have stumbled upon in my latest research. Once certain facts have been unearthed, I feel a moral responsibility to share them with loyal readers.

I have discovered a cult. You know, those groups of people who gravitate to orange robes, Kool-Aid, or some sort of bizarre belief system. This cult is defined by their intense focus on speed and a belief that they will find nirvana in the presence of screaming dogs.

Let's take a look at the distant beginnings of this tight-knit group, innocuously hidden behind the name Flyball participants, and the current practices that bind them together.

How It All Began
Do you remember those relay games that your elementary teacher used to make you play on rainy days? Each member of the team would race to a predetermined point to leap through a hula hoop or spear a marshmallow with a toothpick, then hurry back to tag the next person to go do the same thing until the whole team had finished.

The adaptation of the relay to a dog sport began innocently enough around 1970. Somewhere on the west coast of the United States, someone invented a ball-tossing machine to exercise a crazed dog. Someone saw the box and thought of using it in a relay competition involving four jumps, four dogs, a box, and a tennis ball. The original boxes tossed a ball ten feet in the air and dogs had to catch it before they raced back to the start line. Hence, the name Flyball took hold. A few friends would get together to race or show off their dogs. Harmless stuff.


FLYBALL - Page 2

Then in the mid 80's, these benign relay games fell into the hands of a few demented dog owners. They took the basic premise of the relay and turned it into an event that closely resembled a bad acid trip. The emphasis switched to speed. Boxes were re-designed as a combination ball-triggering mechanism and turning surface for the dogs to reverse course. The ball now traveled only a ¼ inch or so from the box to the dog's mouth. Teams of four dogs began running whole courses in a total of sixteen seconds! Speed called for dogs that were wound up. Excited dogs bark and lunge. Traditional obedience became extraneous.

People have spent centuries bending dogs to their will. They have asked dogs to herd, track, and heel for them. On the other hand, the new sport let dogs run, jump, and get really really excited. Rather than being asked to be quiet, dogs were allowed to scream and express their excitement. Flyball completely reversed the proper order of things. The extreme ideas that would bind the cult began to take hold among participants.

The Cult Assembles
Over the past decade, the intensity of the sport has continued to accelerate. Let's take a look at a typical gathering as it has evolved.

The tournament is held in a large open room. One end of the room is filled with dozens of dogs and people grouped by t-shirts that bear the names like Afterburners and Pawdemonium. The dogs are yowling wildly. The noise is stunning. Tongues loll. Eyes bug. Their handlers are barely able to restrain the dogs by collar or harness. A stand of lights like they use to start drag races is flashing blue, yellow, and green. In the center of the building, dogs hurtle at blistering speeds from one end of the room to the other along narrow black mats across four low jumps. At the far end, they grab a tennis ball from a spring-loaded box. Banking off the box to reverse direction, they race back to the start line, passing their canine team member who has been turned loose. When things go perfectly, the dogs pass nose to nose at the start line. It is an obedience class gone berserk. It's dogs on speed.

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How Flyball Really Operates
If this were all, I would not be worried. I would simply say flyball is a sport that attracts a group of adrenaline junkies with whacked-out dogs. But there is much more going on beneath the surface in the Flyball world than just frenzied pups and a lack of doggie discipline. Let's identify the unorthodox practices that clearly establish flyball as a cult:

In the United States and Canada, Flyball is supposedly governed by an organization called the North American Flyball Association (NAFA). This is a cover. The truth is that NAFA is a disgruntled dog trainer who lives in seclusion outside a small town in Illinois. After failing the AKC heel exercise for the 63rd time, he decided to take matters into his own hands and form his own organization that rewards dogs who don't even know the stay or heel command.

The Supreme Rule Book
NAFA's original document about how Flyball would operate was one page long. However, over time, his edits have resulted in a sixty-page document that defines all the rules and behaviors for those who join his organization. Members are expected to memorize The Supreme Rule Book.

Cults monitor what their members see and hear. In Flyball, this is accomplished by having key members wear headsets at tournaments through which they are told exactly what to do. Communications are in code. While communications might sound like, "Stand in front of the box," it really means, "We're toppling AKC tonight."

Everyone who wants to be a part of Flyball, is required to form or join an established team. Members are discouraged from switching teams. Teams, of course, face the dreaded challenges of team dynamics-power struggles, jealousy, hurt feelings, and arguments. It is the responsibility of each team leader, who reports directly to NAFA, to keep members in line. Many team leaders have folded under this pressure.

FLYBALL - Page 4

Teams are seeded by their predicted race time. Teams are then grouped with similar teams. For example, possible 16-second teams race in the open division while possible 30-second teams race other similar teams. This is a ploy to limit communication between teams to make interactions easier to control.

Cults actively recruit new members. Recruiting for this sport is very clever. It is done under the guise of being inclusive. All dogs were included whether pure bred or mixed breed. Kids and senior citizens were encouraged to participate. Other countries were encouraged to form teams. As a result, Flyball has increased its membership exponentially in recent years.

Unique Skills
Cult members are initiated by being expected to acquire special skills. The most highly valued skill is that of passing. Passing is the skill of releasing a dog at exactly the right time so that it passes the incoming dog exactly at the start line. Members who cause a bad pass are disciplined in post-tournament meetings. Discipline may go as far as forcing individuals to watch their errors repeatedly on the VCR.

Unusual Jobs
Cult members are expected to learn tasks that support the larger group. Four key tasks include timekeeping, record keeping, pass evaluator, and box loader. These tasks are used to satisfy peoples' need for a sense of importance within the organization.

The clever NAFA has established a clear system of reward for dogs based on the team's relay times. The first award requires only 20 points. The top award requires 30,000. This serves to keep members interested over many years.

In Conclusion
Flyball continues to aggressively increase its ranks by using a creative variety of strategies. In 2000, NAFA created a new rule allowing 3-legged dogs to compete! Once in the fold, the initiation begins. Individuality is sacrificed to the team. Participants' lives begin to unravel.

There is hope. A retreat has been created for Flyball participants who want to regain their mental health and return to a normal life. The location is kept secret to protect those who have the courage to make a break. Contact Laughing Dog if you want to be put in touch with this organization. Your anonymity is guaranteed.

References. In writing this article, I have drawn heavily from Flyball Racing: The Sport for Everyone by Lonnie Olson. This book as well as two websites ( and are excellent resources if you still insist on learning more.


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