Racy route to canine obedience

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It can be pretty disconcerting when your interviewee, one of the world's top hurdlers, has a vocabulary of just one word. I could probably have handled it if that word had been No, Yes or Maybe. But Woof?

Fortunately, Kevin McNicholas, chairman of the British Flyball Association, is a little more loquacious. He would also have done better than me at deciphering the nuances in my subject's monosyllabic replies. McNicholas, 40, is studying for an MSc in animal behaviour counselling, and would surely have known whether Woof meant "What a stupid question" or "Mostly Nietzsche's influence". But then my interviewee, best known as Twisty, had to dash off to see a man about a dog. So I had to settle for McNicholas to explain the intricacies of a sport that is a mix between drag racing, hurdling and the world's fastest relay.

Flyball started from a quirky interview on a 1970s Johnny Carson Show. It was one of those late-night spots where sundry fruitcakes talk about their dreams, hobbies and inventions. One week it was an inventor called Herbert Wagner who had a box that fired tennis balls in the air for dogs to catch. A sort of lazy man's canine exerciser, it worked by triggering the balls when a dog stepped on a pad.

Useful, huh? Well, someone thought so. A few dog clubs, particularly in Canada, started to use the flying ball as part of a training programme, but it was considered non-PC by doggy experts because of the potential damage a dog could incur on landing.

What changed things was an adjustment that fired the balls outwards rather than upwards. This was linked to the hurdles that are a standard part of dog obedience classes, and flyball was born. Anyone who owns a puppy will know that dog obedience classes are about as much fun as having your teeth pulled. Flyball changed all that by turning it into a team game.

Two teams of four race each other. Each dog must clear four 18-inch hurdles spaced 10 feet apart, run up a ramp and catch a ball, turn and clear the hurdles again. As one dog crosses the line, the next starts. It's extremely fast: the world record, set by Instant Replay, an American team, is 16.96sec for four dogs over a 102ft course. The British and European record, by the Jets from Southampton, is 17.94sec. The fastest dogs will reach nearly 30mph.

"It's a brilliant sport," McNicholas said. "It demands stamina, speed, agility and the ability to turn fast. It also satisfies my preference of training dogs to do something they like, rather than making them subdued and subservient. The whole concept is that the dog retrieves something and comes back to you in a stimulating environment. It doesn't take long to learn - I've taught dogs to do it in a day - and it's addictive. Dogs love it and get totally obsessed by it."

Then again, the overriding impression is that owners have all the fun without any of the exertion. A team will run at least 15 races in a typical competition at full pelt: an owner's contribution is largely confined to shouting.

McNicholas's own border collie team, the Tornadoes, have flyball training once a week to tune their changeovers, because hundredths of a second are critical. "They are also among the best in Europe, but have been unable to prove this because of our quarantine laws. It's very frustrating," said McNicholas, from Barnet, in north London. "We can't travel to competitions abroad, and we can't have dogs from other countries coming over here to compete against us. I have written to the Government saying that our dogs will be inocculated, microchipped, muzzled and that we will have a vet with us at all times, so how can we bring in rabies? I'm not very hopeful."

The sport has caught on so quickly that there is even a flyball page on the Internet. "We could run a flyball competition through it: virtual flyball, if you like," McNicholas said.

He thinks the sport's rapid growth can be attributed to three factors: you don't have to be athletic to do it - "We have quite a few disabled members" - it can be done by a family; and it is not limited to the fastest dogs. Border collies are favoured by the top teams, but anyone can play. "We have multi-breed as well as open classes," McNicholas said. "We get everything taking part, from Jack Russells and miniature poodles to labradors, golden retrievers, German shepherds, even great Danes and corgis." Now there's an idea to keep the Queen busy in retirement...

The next national flyball competition takes place in Stopsley Sports Centre, Luton, on 24 March. The British Flyball Association (0181 449 7539) will supply a free information pack.