By Savannah Morgan
Bullet lifts his hind legs off the flyball box in anticipation. A human teammate holds and steadies him, keeping him from sprinting forward. His front paws press firmly on the mat-covered ground. His dark eyes focus on his owner, Gary Gundacker, who waits beyond the jumps at the end of the 51-foot lane. It’s just a practice drill on a laid-back Saturday afternoon, but Bullet loves this game and is raring to go. He barks, perks his ears and braces his hind legs back against the box. Finally, the human and dog teammates are in place.
“BULLET!” Gundacker calls.
The steadying hands release their grip, and Bullet sprints forward like a horse on Derby Day. He flies over one, two, three, four jumps and past the cones marking the start/finish line, where a treat and a head pat reward him for his good work. Bullet has just completed half of a flyball run, an exercise that helps young dogs learn the relay process of the game.
What is flyball?
Flyball is a dog sport involving two teams of four dogs and two parallel, 51-foot lanes. Each dog is required to sprint down its lane, jumping over four hurdles as it goes. When the dog reaches the end of the lane, it jumps onto an inclined ramp attached to a spring-loaded box, triggering the release of a tennis ball. The dog must catch and carry the ball, turn while jumping off the box and make its way back down the lane and over the hurdles to the start/finish line, where it can drop the ball. Upon the first dog’s return, the second dog is released, and the process continues until all four dogs have returned to the finish line. In a tournament, the first team of dogs to finish wins the heat.
Three flyball clubs — DogGone Fast, New River Rapids Flyball and TurboPaws — practice together in an old industrial-sized chicken coop located in Holly Springs, North Carolina. The flyball teams that practice there lovingly call it “Hillbilly Flyball.” The chickens are all gone, and flyball equipment fills the space instead. Black rubber mats cover the red dust ground to prevent the dogs from slipping as they speed up and down the lanes. The white jumps are spaced 10 feet apart along the mats. They are scarred by years of dirt, scratches and accidental run-ins. Collapsible gates, tennis balls and L-shaped pieces of wood with bright green and blue pool noodles duct-taped on the edges are scattered around. Black boxes covered with black sandpaper sit at the end of the lanes. The dogs alternate as they practice, getting to complete runs or work on trouble spots.
“Flyball is like the kegger of dog sports,” laughs Laura Kroeger, who organizes the chicken coop practices. “I love the friends and team aspect of it. It’s like a big party.”
From across the chicken coop, Cris Lane adds, “It’s also sort of like being in the National Guard because you just get so committed to your club.”
Continuing the legacy
Bullet’s owners and handlers, Gary Gundacker and Barbara Klag, are flyball veterans. They started two dogs, Sally and Jesse, in the sport about 20 years ago. Jesse went on to win the highest flyball honor, the Hobbes, which is awarded for accumulating 100,000 points. Gundacker and Klag are so dedicated to the sport that they moved to North Carolina from New Jersey about 12 years ago for North Carolina’s many flyball clubs and tournaments. They joined the DogGone Fast club, and their dogs have been running and having fun ever since.
Bullet has been playing flyball for seven years. Gundacker and Klag brought him home from a sports dog breeder in Las Vegas. He is a mix of Malinois, Border Collie, Border Terrier, Jack Russell and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. His shoulders reach about 15 inches off the ground when he’s standing, making him average-sized compared to the dogs he practices with. Bullet’s chestnut-colored fur is short and, in some places, wiry. Black fur mingles with the brown on his back and through his long, thick tail — growing darkest and most wiry at his shoulders, lightest and softest on his toned hind legs. Soft, dark hair grows along his nose and is fused with white patches.
“I liked the name Bullet,” Gundacker said. “It’s the name of the dog on the Roy Rogers Show, which I liked to watch growing up.” He pauses and then adds with a wink, “And you know, I look a little like Roy.”
Bullet started flyball training early, when he was just about a year old. Now dogs have to wait until they are 15 months old to start training. The North American Flyball Association (NAFA) determines the rules for flyball training and tournaments. Training a dog for flyball usually takes about two years. Trainers break down the game into digestible portions, teaching the dog one obstacle at a time.
Teaching the game
“First you have to teach the dog to have fun with you before you can introduce jumps or other obstacles,” Kroeger said. “The next step is to teach recall — getting the dog to run back to you as fast as possible.”
Then the dog can begin learning jumps. Getting the dog to jump over all four jumps without going around them or hitting them is a crucial part of the game. The handler must also determine what the dog will run for. Some dogs want to be rewarded with treats, while others prefer a toy or game of tug with the handler. Bullet likes to be rewarded with treats and balls when he completes a run. Once the dog can run up and down the lane, return to the owner and complete all four jumps, he or she is introduced to the box.
After a dog learns to complete a full run with little to no mistakes, the handler can begin entering it in tournaments. The club puts together as many teams of four as possible. The smallest dog on each team is called the “height dog” because its jump height determines its team’s jump height. Jump heights range from 7 inches to 14 inches.
Tournaments usually take two days, and the winning team of the tournament is the team that wins the most races by being the fastest. On average, a single dog will run the course in four to seven seconds. Bullet usually runs a time of 5.4 seconds. A good time for a team run is 18 to 20 seconds, but the record is 14.433.
“Bullet isn’t the speediest dog, but he does the job that needs to be done,” Gundacker said.
Teams are also given points for the runs they complete, but the points are for dogs’ individual flyball records and don’t impact which team wins the tournament. If a team completes its run in less than 24 seconds, the dogs are each awarded 25 points. Flyball dogs accumulate points over time and win awards for high point totals. In 2016, Bullet received an ONYX award for garnering 20,000 points over his career. He competes in one or two tournaments every month.
“It’s a game for him,” Gundacker said. “He likes working with us and pleasing us. And it doesn’t hurt that he gets some treats here and there.”
Edited by Paige Colpo.