Approaching Charles Brown Auditorium at the Tri-County Fairgrounds, it was hard to tell Bedlam in Bishop was really happening. But the excited yips gave it away.
For the fourth year, the Flyball tournament, hosted by Lickety Splits and X Flyball, was seriously under way.
Initially, the tournament looks like bedlam. Dogs of all shapes and sizes fly down a short course over hurdles, in two lanes, throw themselves at a box and tear back to their handlers with the prize tennis ball, passing the next pup in a four-dog relay. Some are rewarded with treats, others with a tug toy, nearly knocking their handlers off their feet, all with a whole lot of dog-praise.
Barking is not only allowed, it is encouraged.
Eventually, and with some explanation from Lickety Split’s Chris Davis, it all becomes clear.
The dog teams are competing in timed heats with each dog’s time flashing on the scoreboard, then the combined team run.
The release of the second through fourth dogs in the heat has to be timed perfectly. The dog on the course has to pass the timer before the next dog crosses it onto the course. That’s a clean run.
The winner in each category is awarded to the team with the most clean heats.
According to Davis, handlers have to calculate the speed of their dogs, moving closer to the timer or farther away, to ensure a clean run.
Davis’ dog, Gusto, a pit/border collie cross, teams up with three border collie brothers. “Gusto has drive, motivation,” explains Davis, comparing him to one more mellow collie.
The sport has been around since the late 1960s and does not discriminate – all dogs are welcome, any breed or combination of breeds, bully breeds and rescues. Some athletic, high-energy breeds are naturals. An owner of an Australian Shepherd explained the dog can get its “ya-yas” out with Flyball, making her a more effective, relaxed therapy dog. Terriers take the hurdles without seeming to touch paws to the ground until they fly past the timer.
Low-slung Corgis compete; mellow Goldens and Labs compete as do Dalmatians and Beauvias
The 51-foot course consists of four hurdles, 10-feet apart. The start/finish line is six feet from the first hurdle; the flyball box, 15-feet after the last hurdle.
The hurdle height is determined by the height of the smallest dog on the team, but no lower than six-inches or taller than 12-inches.
How fast is fast for a flyball dog? The record holder, a whippet named Dragon, covers the course in 3.45 seconds. Teams can finish in less than 15-seconds.
Like race horses in the starting gate, the competing dogs are hyped at the start of the competition but there’s not much in the way of aggressive.
Even during the competition, the dogs accept their rivals like any other athlete. There may be some sizing up, some trash talk, but these pups are amazingly socialized.
Following their heat, they get to go for a stroll on the lawn, take a dip in a kiddy pool, roll, frolic and generally act like pets.
“They know this is their job,” said Davis. “If I take Gusto into a (non-competitive) environment, he can be protective, but here he knows it’s work.”
The socialization starts at puppyhood. One future flyball dog, a 13-week-old foo-foo breed, attended the tournament just to get acclimated.
Many of the competing dogs are rescues, Davis said. “We even have animal agencies calling us if they have a particularly hyper dog that’s hard to find a home for.”
The tournament drew dogs and handlers from all over California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. “The dogs seem to like Bishop,” said Davis.