Play BALL !

Chasing fuzzy tennis balls is no hurdle for dogs who pant for the latest extreme sport.

June 10, 2000|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Sydnee is ready for some action.

The 8-year-old seems anxious. She simply can't sit still. She tugs her "mom," Gail Robinson, this way and that way. She greets her buddies, scans the room then voices her opinion - loudly - about the fact that it's time to get things going.

Sydnee, her mom will testify, enjoys living life to the max - to the extreme, one might say. Fact is, Sydnee, an Australian Shepherd, is the perfect dog for the hottest "extreme" dog sport: flyball.

Although it's been around for a while, lately flyball has been growing (forgive us) by leaps and bounds, with its fastest four-legged contestants pushing the boundaries of speed and agility.

In flyball, a sort of relay/obstacle race, dogs race down a course at lightning speed, leap over a series of structures, snag a tennis ball and make a mad dash back. All for the sake of doing it faster than the competing team - and, of course, a hug and a treat.

"They love it!" says Sally Zinkhan, a flyball trainer with the Oriole Dog Training Club.

Sydnee and the rest of the "No Speed Limit" team train Thursday evenings inside a building rented by the Oriole club near Security Square Mall. They'll get to show their stuff this weekend at a flyball tournament in Westminster.

According to the North American Flyball Association, the sport has been around in some form since the 1970s. It is believed to have originated in dog obedience classes before becoming a sport on its own. The Flyball Association originally had a few dozen teams across the country, but today more than 300 flyball clubs with 7,000 dogs are registered with the organization.

"We started three years ago, and we were lucky to have nine teams," Zinkhan says of the Oriole flyball group . "Now we have 48 teams, with four or five dogs on a team."

The sport works this way: Two teams of four dogs each race each other along a 51-foot-long course. As they race, the dogs leap over four hurdles that are placed 10 feet apart. A box loaded with tennis balls is at the halfway point on the course. When the dog steps on the box's spring mechanism, a tennis ball pops out. The dog grabs the ball with his mouth and races down the course jumping once again over the hurdles.

As soon as one dog on a team reaches the end of the course, the next dog on the team takes off. The team that completes the course the fastest without errors - such as going around a hurdle instead of over it - wins.

The world record-holding team ran the course in 16.06 seconds during a tournament held in Ontario. Zinkhan says the top team from the Oriole Dog Training Club has run the course in slightly under 19 seconds.

At practice

At this Thursday evening practice session, about 20 dogs have arrived, eager to begin honing their skills. Some sit in their cages waiting for their turn to race the obstacle course. Others wait by their owners' sides. But absolutely none of them are quiet.

For Robinson and Sydnee, who took up the sport about a year ago, this weekend's tournament will be just their second. "It looked like a lot of fun," she says, "for me and the dog.

"She did good at her first tournament," she adds, "though she got a little stressed out."

The effervescent Sydnee looks anything but stressed now. Robinson has to rein in her attempt to demonstrate her enthusiasm by jumping up on any human in the vicinity. She wants Sydnee to conserve her energy for practice.

Flyball is still an amateur sport. So the dogs don't compete for cash, but for ribbons and certificates that earn them titles such as "Flyball Dog Champion" and "Flyball Master Champion." And it's open to competitors of every stripe, or spot.

No one particular breed is better at flyball than any other breed, Zinkham says. "We do have a lot of border collies, Australian Shepherds and Jack Russell [terriers]," she says. "Of course, it helps if they really love tennis balls."

On this evening there are dogs of various sizes and breeds, including shelties, fox terriers and corgis. They all seem to love tennis balls, and to be in tip-top shape, though Robinson thinks Sydnee's physique could use a little tweaking. "She's actually a little heavy," she confides.

Robinson, though, is no drill sergeant. She's a gentle dog "mom" who knows the importance of positive reinforcement. She explains that absolutely no prong collars - collars with sharp, pointed ends sometimes used for training dogs - are used on any of the dogs. In fact, this evening Sydnee is sporting a smart pink and blue paisley number around her neck.

"You don't want any negative feedback," Robinson says. "You have to make it fun for them."

Motivations

According to fans of the sport, flyball allows dogs to do three of their favorite things; run, jump and retrieve.

CarleLee works as a judge at flyball tournaments. She says that besides loving to exercise their legs, the canine athletes, just like their human counterparts, have different motivations for running the course.

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