BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Big dogs barked, little dogs yipped and all dogs appeared to go airborne with excitement Saturday afternoon at the Boothbay Region YMCA Fieldhouse during a Flyball Maineia tournament that brought the canines — and their human companions — from all over the northeast.
During the fast-paced sport of flyball, two teams of four dogs race side by side over a 51-foot-long course, each dog jumping over four hurdles before retrieving a tennis ball and then coming back to the starting line.
“I love playing on a team, and the dogs love it,” said Rebeccah Aube of Buxton, the captain of the Flyball Maineiacs club.
Her club was hosting the tournament for all the teams in the northeast region, including teams in Atlantic Canada. The events happen about every month, Aube said over the din of the excited competitors, adding that flyball enthusiasts are dedicated and often will travel far for the chance to see their dogs race.
The sport began in the late 1960s after a group of Southern California dog trainers decided to teach dogs to race over hurdles and added a guy to throw tennis balls to the dogs after they finished the jumps, according to the website for the North American Flyball Association.
The tennis balls are spring-loaded onto something called a “flyball box,” which is triggered when a dog steps on it. The dog must bring the tennis ball back to the starting line, and then the next dog in the relay starts running. The first team to have all four dogs finish the course without error wins the heat.
After one trainer did a flyball demonstration on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, the sport began to grow in popularity, and the first tournament was held in 1983.
Now, Aube said, dogs are even specially bred for flyball.
“Take a fast Jack Russell, a fast border collie and breed them together,” she said, with the resulting crossbreed called a border Jack. “You want that small, fast dog.”
Although some border Jacks were spotted in the fieldhouse, there were plenty of other breeds and even mutts there, too.
Jolene DiFazio of Sanford brought Tess, a whippet, to compete with the Maine Coast Runners. The sleek, skinny dog looked raring to go during a break between races.
“Her favorite part is just to run,” DiFazio said. “Everything else is secondary. The ball’s OK. The food reward’s OK. Mostly, she likes to run.”
Cheryl Steadman and her two shelties came all the way from Saint John, New Brunswick, to compete with their team, Push Play. She said she has been involved with flyball since 1993, after her sister had a dog who competed on a world-record team. She explained some of the finer points of the race — such as how the height of the jump varies according to the height of the smallest dog — and smiled to see the humans and animals run around the fieldhouse in apparently equal excitement.
“My dogs love it, number one, and I love it,” she said. “The people we compete with are fantastic. They’re some of my best friends, and the whole atmosphere is like one big happy family.”
In addition to the social element for participants, many of whom sat and talked together while watching the dogs race up and down the course, there can also be an economic benefit to communities that host the tournament. Many of the competitors said they were lodging in local hotels, eating at favorite restaurants in the area, and some, like Steadman, said they planned to do some shopping after the event ended Sunday.
“We hit the Bangor Mall on the way down,” she said with a smile.
Dave Strauss of Needham, Mass., competes with the Weston Whirlwinds. He has been doing flyball for four years.
“It’s addictive,” he said. “We got into it because we had this dog who needed to do things.”
Like others, he stressed the team element and the democratic nature of the sport, which brings together all kinds of dogs.
“There aren’t any other dog team sports,” Strauss said. “The dogs have to work together, and the people have to work together. It’s a nice camaraderie.”