17 August 2001

Jumping dogs on the ball…

The Barney Bullets have a

keen eye for the ball, as

Wendy Owen discovered

when she met this

competitive team

SPEED and accuracy are the two qualities which make up a good flyball competition dog, says Mandy Bainbridge.

The farmers wife is a member of one of the smallest flyball clubs in the country, yet the Barney Bullets was one of only 16 teams to qualify for this years Crufts competition, where they reached the semi-finals.

The Barney Bullets were formed in Barnard Castle, Co Durham, just 18 months ago with only six collies in the club. This puts them at a serious disadvantage because six dogs – four in a team and two reserves – are needed in competitive flyball and that leaves no room for selection.

"Some clubs can have up to 60 dogs to choose from, so we were thrilled to qualify. We dont have any indoor facilities either and we were worried that the dogs would be distracted in the arena. But they were really focused and tried their hardest," says Mandy.

She farms with her husband, Marcus, at Laverock Hall, Eggleston, near Barnard Castle. As well as keeping Swaledale fell sheep, the couple also sell childrens toys and gifts – all with a collie motif.

The sport of flyball, or international flyball racing as it is offically known, came to Britain in the early 1990s from California and is now the fastest growing dog sport in this country.

Two teams compete against the clock and each handler sends their dog down a 60m (65yd) lane, jumping over four hurdles to reach the flyball box. The dog uses its paw to press a pedal on the box, releasing a tennis ball which is caught in mid-air and taken back over the hurdles before the next dog is sent.

A good run takes about six seconds and there are three legs in each contest. If the dog drops the ball or misses a jump, he is sent again, adding to time penalties.

"One of a handlers most difficult tasks is learning when to let her dog go so it crosses the line and sets off just as the previous dog is returning," says Mandy. "Youve got to take into account the speed of that particular dog and whether it is tired or running full pelt."

Mandy says that most dogs can learn the sport. "The dog must enjoy chasing a ball and even then it takes about six months to train the average dog for competition.

"Each part is taught separately, so the dog learns how to hit the pedal, then to go through the jumps without dodging any of them and so on."

At the moment, there are only sheepdogs in the team because their physical agility, speed and intelligence are ideally suited to the sport. Mandys collie, Pip, is the only working dog in the team – all the others are household pets.

"We welcome any breed of dog except long-backed types like Great Danes and St Bernards, which could get injured," she says. "We have had German Shepherds and Jack Russells, but sheepdogs seem to excel."

No potential recruit is allowed to start until it is 12- months-old and the bones have developed sufficiently to cope with the twisting and turning involved. Competition work is banned until the dog reaches 18 months.

Dogs also need to have a friendly temperament. "Anyone who wants to bring a pet along and have a go must have an animal that mixes well with others and has a basic level of obedience.

"They have to be sociable because when they are off the lead and crossing with another dog, we cant afford to have any fighting.

"But they dont need to be too highly trained, as long as they dont run off when they are let off the lead and will come when they are called."