A Silken Windhound Plays Flyball: Training and Retrieve

by Laura Green
photos by Byron Dillard

Flyball is one of the world’s fastest growing dog sports. It combines basic obedience skills with the athleticism of agility, the fun of playing fetch in the backyard, and the thrill of drag racing.
According to the North American Flyball Association website: “Flyball races match two teams of four dogs each, racing side-by-side over a 102 foot long course. Each dog must run in relay fashion down the jumps, trigger a flyball box, releasing the ball, retrieve the ball, and return over the jumps. The next dog is released to run the course but can't cross the start/finish line until the previous dog has returned over all 4 jumps and reached the start/finish line. The first team to have all 4 dogs finish the course without error wins the heat.” Dogs earn points based on the overall speed of the team. They can earn 25 points for races under 24 seconds, 5 points for races under 28 seconds, and 1 point for races under 32 seconds. The fastest teams in North America run four dogs down and back around 16 seconds or less. The fastest dogs are clocking times about 3.8 seconds. For a Flyball Dog Champion title, a dog must earn 500 points. Derby (Debs SmallWorld Kentucky Derby), the first and currently only competing Silken, earned his Flyball Dog Champion Gold title, at 2,500 points in October 2011. His fastest clocked time is 5.1 seconds, though his average is about 5.8 seconds. The secret to finding his speed lies in pulling him out of his crate, running him into the lane and releasing him almost immediately, similar to opening the box for a track race. He does not like to stand around waiting for everyone else to get ready. He is working on his next big title, Flyball Dog Master, at 5,000 points.
Every dog has the opportunity to compete in Flyball; there are no rules regarding size, shape, age, or purity of pedigree to keep dogs and their handlers from enjoying this exciting sport. However, certain dogs and breeds seem to excel in the sport. There are nine traits that a good Flyball dog prospect possesses:

  1. Not dog-aggressive
  2. Comfortable with loud noise and environments
  3. Crates well, without stress
  4. Confident
  5. Enjoys interacting with people
  6. Good conformation, healthy, lean
  7. Likes being out and active
  8. Well-socialized
  9. Has some to a lot of drive
    Although Sighthounds, in general, and Silkens, in particular, have many of these traits, there are relatively few Sighthounds competing worldwide and most of them are Whippets. So, where does that leave the Silken Windhound?

The answer usually lies here: retrieving a ball. The biggest hurdle for most Sighthounds is the ball – whether interest is the problem or holding it in their mouths while running and jumping. In Flyball, the ball is of utmost importance. Retrieving can be taught using positive reinforcement, and depending on the dog, this can be the perfect way to go. And, because the balls are not moving, except when triggered, dogs do not have to like or even know how to play fetch. Not all balls in Flyball have to be tennis balls – as long as a ball acts like a tennis ball, bounces and rolls, it can be used. In fact, at this point, many of the Sighthounds (and other “softer” breeds) are using a foam stress ball which is easier to catch, grab, and hold onto than a regular tennis ball. Derby finds the foam stress ball much easier to grab while in motion. Because Flyball boxes are set in size, Derby, like some other Sighthounds, finds his legs are too long and his neck proportionally too short to be able to hit the box and turn off it smoothly all the while getting his mouth down low enough to grab a hard ball. Instead, the foam balls offer a bit more give in strategic ways allowing a dog to grab only a side or part of the ball and still be able to carry it back.

I have found the best method for training a Silken to retrieve involves back-chaining, in which the final step of the process is trained first, then each backward step is trained until the entire process is complete. The best resource on this method can be found in Lana Mitchell’s The Clicked Retriever. Basically, the steps follow as such:

  1. Hold a ball in your hand. Whenever your dog looks at the ball or even glances in the direction of the ball, reward with a tasty, small, bite-sized treat.
  2. Once your dog is consistently looking at the ball, move the ball in different directions. If your dog follows the ball with his eyes, reward.
  3. Once your dog is following a moving ball with a great deal of focus and intent, hold the ball still and wait. If you are patient enough, your dog will eventually move forward and touch the ball with his nose or put his mouth on the ball. Reward. If not, try moving the ball closer to your dog’s nose. Patience is key here.
  4. If your dog is touching the ball with his nose and pushing the ball a bit with enthusiasm, wait a second. Your dog will probably push harder and harder. If you are patient enough, it is a good chance your dog will eventually put his mouth on the ball. Reward.
  5. Once your dog is putting the ball in his mouth, wait a split second and then let go of the ball and immediately reward right as your dog drops the ball. You are teaching your dog a drop. The drop should be named.
  6. Offer the ball to your dog. When he puts his mouth on it, loosen your grip some, but do not let go. Have your dog stand still with the ball in his mouth, then release and reward as he drops the ball. Only reward if your dog holds the ball until asked to drop it.
  7. Alternate long and short holds on the ball. Begin holding onto to the ball less and less. Slowly begin moving your hand away from the ball and still asking your dog to hold onto it.
  8. As long as your dog will hold the ball in his mouth, toss it a few feet away, hold your dog until the ball stops moving, then send your dog to the ball. Your dog should always bring the ball back to you and drop it either at your feet or in your hand when asked.

The overall best hint I can offer on training a retrieve is this: short and often.

I began training Derby to retrieve following these steps. In an effort to limit myself and keep the sessions short, even if Derby was performing well, I used prime time television. During my favorite show each weekday, I used five commercial breaks to train. I would only train for as long as the commercial break lasted, no longer. Three minutes, on average, five times in an hour turned out to be perfect. I kept Derby’s interest and never overtrained the beginning skills. In all, it took about four months to teach him a solid retrieve. I used sharp cheddar cheese as incentive to get what I was asking for and a lot of patience. We began in a basement, with few distractions, and eventually graduated into a gymnasium full of barking dogs. In the beginning, each time I moved to a new location, I had to restart the process detailed above, although much quicker since he had already grasped the concept of a retrieve. For quite a while, in order to make the transition from practice to competition as smooth as possible, I sat in the middle of the Flyball lane calling Derby back from the Flyball box. Since I trained him almost exclusively at eye level, any motion I made to stand up caused Derby doubt. Luckily, this phase of his on-going training lasted only about three months. Derby will still turn up his nose at playing fetch with other dogs and will not retrieve a ball in grass, but rarely leaves a ball behind during competition and has even been known to chase his ball out of the racing lanes in order to complete the retrieve. Also, because Derby lacks some confidence regarding other dogs (the result of an early collision in a dog park while we practiced retrieving) he will not run past another dog, who is also in motion, with a ball in his mouth. Due to the relay nature of Flyball this issue does limit Derby’s position in the lineup to the final spot.

Flyball is an exciting sport in which Silken Windhounds can excel if given patience, lots of encouragement, and a chance to learn to retrieve in a friendly, stress-free and positive way.

Silken Windhound playing flyball


This article first appeared in Sight and Scent magazine.