by Mara Herba
Sometimes I speculate on whether an obsession with balls can be called an inherited trait. Certainly with Gundogs which are natural retrievers - but with Siberian Huskies? We enjoyed throwing balls for Robbie who had mastered to perfection the art of leaping up and plucking them out of the air – at our head height. He then dropped the ball at our feet for another throw and rarely tired of the game.
6 weeks old
Along came Robbie’s son Patches. I spent structured sessions with him when he was only a few weeks old, encouraging the chasing and bringing back of a stuffed toy, squeaky rubber critter or ball in our long corridor, carefully following theories expounded by trainers with much more knowledge and experience than myself. Over time, it became clear that Patches enjoyed chasing and returning the ball to us. Then we threw the ball for him outside, first in the enclosed yard, and months later as he grew into adolescence and an easy way of exercising him was needed, taking a tennis racket and hitting a ball up a grassed hill - as far and hard as I could.
Yes, the retrieve had become a natural extension of Patches’ way of life, and with it, dreams of advanced obedience titles involving fetching dumbbells over solid jumps and retrieving metal, wood or leather articles, as well as cotton gloves.
Along the way to that reality I was sidetracked by a small official notice in one Canine Journal: the ANKC was recognising Flyball titles. Wouldn’t that be something, I thought - imagine a Siberian Husky doing Flyball.
Around that time, we became part of a team competing in an event including many aspects of canine sports - obedience, agility, tricks and flyball. I assured them that I would teach Patches the routine needed and that he would be (close to) 100% reliable. Maybe not as fast as those super-obsessed sheepdog types, but reliable - a big plus with flyball dogs. Lateral thinking gave me a few ideas to try in the privacy of our quiet home, with no distractions and no grinning spectators.
I borrowed a ball throwing machine - the dog hits a padded area in the front of the box with his front paw(s), and that releases a spring which allows the arm to project a ball out of the top and towards the dog. I started with cooked pieces of chicken in place of the ball, and encouraged Patches to try to reach them by approaching closer. Sure enough, he stepped on the pad, which caused the food to be hurled at his face – an instant reward, and there was no mistake in his mind as to how he earned it. It took only a few pieces of food before Patches was actively stepping up to the box and hitting the pad. I knew that he had it figured out when I heard Patches triggering the ball thrower whenever he walked past it in the corridor. I had it constantly loaded, so he got the food reward just for trying it out on speculation.
Separately, I taught Patches to go and out return to me over four low jumps, a measured distance apart. It is important in Flyball that all four jumps are taken – both going out and returning. Putting those two actions together was the final step, then practising outside in our fenced yard, and later in open areas with increasing distractions and finally at the competition venue. All done in small steps with much enthusiasm on my part, and juicy treats for Patches after his runs.
Competition day (20 January 2001) dawned too hot (and too soon), but we fronted up to the noise and crowds, ready to do our best. We were lucky enough to have a few practice runs, just as well, as the sight of another dog running to the box adjacent to his was a big distraction - Patches veered off to investigate a few times initially, however, the conditioning and motivators soon got him back on track. He took his turns in our team of four dogs, and ran honestly, if not fast. The team ended up in 2nd place overall, which was a real boost to our confidence.
Patches was also part of a group of different breeds of dogs filmed doing flyball for a television advertisement. This is still screened periodically to publicise upcoming flyball competitions around Canberra. And yes, Patches is the only Siberian Husky playing this game!
In early 2003 I actively sought a place in one of the ACT Companion Dog Club teams for Patches. The teams practised every Wednesday evening in the lead up to the Canberra Royal Show and Patches learned to concentrate on doing his runs and to ignore the dog running in the adjacent lane. This was always going to be an issue for him as the Husky’s inherited trait of running with a pack (pulling a sled) meant that another dog running close by could distract him.
Richard helped out by being the Box Loader for my team (CDC Express) and his presence at the other end telling Patches to “Touch” the ball and “Go Hup” over the jumps reminded him of what was expected. Both of us being there was reassuring, more so to ourselves than to the dog. Pacthes took it calmly with none of the barking and jumping that many other dogs do prior to running. He gained 11 Flyball Points at the competition.
waiting our run at the Canberra Royal Show 2003
CDC Express team - 3rd in Division 5 at Canberra Royal Show, 1-2 March 2003
As we were in Sydney for breed judging on the day of the Flyball competition anyway, Patches was included in the CDC Scorchers team, which ran in Division 4 (faster times). In between runs the public crowded around to meet and pat Patches, and many conformation exhibitors wandered through to watch him run, having been told that he was doing Flyball. Our third run that day gave us enough points for that very fist Flyball Dog title. What a thrill when Steve Pitt announced over the PA to the spectators that Patches was the first Siberian Husky in Australia with a Flyball title. Our team, the CDC Scorchers, finished Third at that competiton.
Canberra Royal Show, Canberra, 1&2 March 2003
1st - T'Keilor Sunrises - BT 25.08 secs
2nd - Ballarat Eureka - BT 24.61
3rd - CDC Express - BT 27.69
Sydney Royal Easter Show, ProPlan Round 4 - 18 April 2003
1st - Leaps & Bounds Roadrunners - BT 24.77 secs
2nd - Parramatta Pitta Pattas - BT 24.76
3rd - CDC Scorchers - BT 26.03