The Pocket Guide to Flyball for Dogs

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Ever wished your dog could spend an afternoon running as fast as they can, jumping over obstacles, and retrieving balls alongside other canine friends?

It may sound like an unbelievably specific set of criteria. But as dog sports continue to grow in popularity (yes, even for everyday dog owners!) anyone with a flyball dog will tell you just how rewarding all of the above elements can be put together.

If you’re looking for a new outlet to exercise your active dog — especially if they have a knack for remaining focused and driven under pressure, like many working breeds do — flyball racing may be a fun and effective way to meet your canine companion’s physical and mental needs.

Here’s everything you need to know about the flyball dog sport.

What is flyball and how does it work?

At its simplest, flyball is a relay race. Two teams of dogs (eight total, four on each team) complete a straightforward yet challenging set of obstacles (hurdles, quickly turning and pressing a pad to launch a ball from a box, carrying the ball back over the hurdles) in order to reach the finish line.

The history of flyball

In the United States, flyball first showed up in Southern California in the 1960s. A group of dog trainers thought it would be fun to combine retrieving and scent hurdle racing to create a new, exciting dog sport. One man named Herbert Wagner invented a box apparatus to laugh tennis balls for his fetch-loving dog — he even presented it to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. This eventually became the mechanized flyball box you see today!

The first formal flyball competition was held in 1981. In the decades since, the sport has spread around the world — more than 16,000 flyball dogs are registered in a handful of countries. Flyball continues to grow in popularity as more owners realize how fulfilling it can be for their dogs.

How does flyball work, exactly?

To begin, two competing dogs run the length of a course in the same direction. They:

  • First jump over four hurdles
  • Once they reach the end of the course section, the dogs will then touch a spring-loaded pad on a flyball box with one of their paws (this is referred to as a “box turn”) to quickly flip 180 degrees while releasing a ball from the mechanized apparatus
  • The dogs grab the ball with their mouths
  • They carry the toy back over the hurdles
  • Finally cross the finish line

Once a competitor's nose crosses the finish line, the next dog can start their run. This continues until all dogs on both teams have completed the course.

The winning team is decided by the fastest times in three out of five races. All four dogs must complete the entire course with zero errors made — if they miss a jump or drop the ball, rules state they must rerun the course after the rest of their team has finished. This means that any deviations from the course make it hard to be the fastest team.

Flyball teams are made up of:

  • Four dogs to compete in the relay race
  • Four handlers to guide and encourage the racing dogs as well as release dogs onto the course following a series of yellow and green flashing lights, which signal the start of heats
  • One ball loader to replace balls for dogs to retrieve
  • One or two runners to collect any loose balls
  • The reserve crew consisting of two additional dogs and their two handlers

Flyball is an incredibly physical sport. According to the North American Flyball Association standard, flyball courses are 51 feet in length. Racing dogs must scale all hurdles both to and from the springboard that holds the ball. That’s no easy feat!

Because all breeds and sizes of dogs are encouraged to compete in flyball races, the height of the hurdles is determined by the smallest dog on a team. The hurdles measure five inches lower than the shortest dog’s shoulder height, and hurdles max out at a height of 14 inches. The relatively low hurdle height allows competing dogs to retain top speeds while still requiring them to focus and time their jumps properly.

dog playing flyball

Benefits of flyball

  • Flyball is an excellent way for high strung dogs to productively channel their mental and physical energy. It incorporates many natural canine tendencies like running, jumping, and retrieving to satisfy their innate instincts!
  • Because flyball is open to dogs of any breed, it’s a welcoming sport to a huge range of dog owners. This makes it the perfect environment to meet fellow dog lovers, form friendships, and ultimately feel part of a community. (This can be especially important in post-pandemic times, when many dogs and humans were unable to get enough socialization to keep them mentally healthy.)
  • Speaking of socialization: Because of the diversity of competitors, flyball is a great opportunity to give your dog safe, fun exposure to other dogs and people. While it’s generally not recommended for incredibly fearful dogs (you’ll want to do some foundational confidence building first) dog sports like flyball can help you take your dog’s self esteem to the next level.
  • Flyball is fun! While there are competitions, and some participants get pretty serious, many dog handlers pursue the sport simply for the joy of cooperating with their canine companion. Any dog with the ability to fetch (so really, just about any dog!) can experience the joy.
  • Dog sports, especially multi-faceted ones like flyball, can make your relationship with your dog even stronger. You’ll be working together around distractions in high energy environments. It’s a great way to reinforce your bond.

Is flyball right for me and my dog?

Flyball is open to just about any dog — but that doesn't mean every pet is going to enjoy it. And that’s okay! There’s a huge range of dog sports (and other noncompetitive activities) out there to pursue with your canine companion. No one type of exercise is inherently better than all the others.

That said, the majority of people who try out flyball end up loving it. Here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not flyball is right for you and your dog!

Flyball dogs should be in good physical health

Like many sports which rely on a dog’s agility, flyball as a competitive sport is great for dogs in good physical health. If your pet suffers from any gait, muscle, or joint issues, you should check with your veterinarian before pursuing a new activity.

Flyball dogs are often (but not always) of working breeds

Because flyball is an activity that involves athletic capability, focus, and determination, the sport is generally best suited to dogs who need to be stimulated — both physically and mentally — in order to feel their best. Many working and herding breeds thrive in the competitive environment.

If your dog isn’t naturally high drive, though, don’t fret! You’re still welcome to pursue flyball and hone your pet’s skills over time. It just might take a bit more work than someone entering the sport with a high energy, focused breed.

Flyball involves working in close proximity to other dogs

Dogs who participate in flyball competitions should be non-aggressive and not leash reactive toward other dogs. It’s impossible to get much distance from other animals during the competitions (unlike other sports like agility or rally, which many fearful and reactive dogs can thrive in).

If you’re interested in flyball but aren’t sure your dog can handle it yet, get in touch with a professional dog trainer! They’ll be able to help you develop a training plan and set realistic goals.We also have several articles on dog reactivity on the Sniffspot blog.

Flyball can be a chaotic environment

Dogs who succeed in flyball are usually not easily stressed or agitated. That’s because the sport creates a fast-paced and loud environment.

Flyball requires a strong relationship between dog and owner

A dog and their handler generally work as a unit within the team. Communication, trust, and a strong bond is an important aspect of scoring well in flyball competitions! Pets with strong recall abilities who readily follow directions and cues are great candidates for the sport.

dog playing flyball

How to get your dog started in flyball

Think flyball may be a good fit for your dog? How exciting!

Attend a flyball event in person first

The best way to get started is to attend a flyball event in your area. This lets you see for yourself what your canine is expected to do and the format of competitions.

To locate your local flyball community, there are a few things you can try: 

  • Search Facebook for flyball clubs, groups, and teams nearby
  • Research flyball online by searching for phrases like “flyball near me” and “flyball dog training near me”
  • Ask a local trainer or pet care professional if they have any information or experience with flyball

Like any dog sporting event, finding a community of dog guardians immersed in the sport can provide a great resource for answering any questions you may have, learning about future competitions, and finding out what it takes to train a flyball dog.

The North American Flyball Association sanctions over 300 competitions annually in various locations.

Begin foundational flyball training with your dog

If you can’t find a flyball community near you, or if you simply want to see if your dog would even enjoy participating in such an activity, there are some things you can do at home to assess your dog's interest and current skill level.

Ask your dog to return a ball to you

One way to do this is to have your dog return a ball to you. The ball should be stationary — try laying a tennis ball on the floor and encourage your dog to pick it up and deliver it to you rather than drop it onto the ground. This will discourage your dog from dropping a ball during a flyball race.

Make sure to work with positive reward training, where a high value treat is offered to your dog each time they return the ball to you!

You can read more about teaching your dog to fetch in this article.

Practice jumping

You should also practice — and generously reward! — jumping. This might sound complicated after reading about the official flyball setup, but you can use any household item tall enough for your dog to step over.

To practice jumping:

  • Start with something very low to the ground and easy to scale at first. You might prop a broom between the bottom rungs of two chairs, for example.
  • Reward your dog each time they step over the object. Throw a little party. Play in between attempts to keep the energy level up. Make your training fun!
  • Over time, add height to the item. Continue to offer rewards and encouragement.
  • Eventually start adding some running before and after the jump.

A relatively private outdoor space — like a Sniffspot location near you — is a great option for teaching a dog to retrieve or jump in preparation for flyball racing.

Work on other basic skills like focus and recall

You can read more about teaching your dog a basic cue in this article and learn about recall training in this one.

Practice settling in busy environments

While dog sports generally make us think of fast-paced action, resting is also a huge part of flyball tournaments. You should teach your dog to become comfortable at rest in a crate so that they won’t be disruptive or overly excited while other teams are competing during their downtime. This makes sure you’re respectful of the sport environment and sets your dog up for success by ensuring they’re well-rested for their own runs.

Other ways to exercise your dog

If flyball doesn’t sound like your thing — or even if it is and you’re just looking for some other fun activities, too — we’ve put together several guides on keeping our dogs in top physical and mental shape. Take a look below!

Trainer that reviewed this article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content. 

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Lindy Langum
Founder - K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer - Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies