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Winning's Just Gravy for Dog Relay Team

The humans on the Orange Crush flyball team make sure everybody plays—and has a good time.

With a name like Orange Crush, this flyball team sounds as if its goal is to grind opponents into the ground, but since its founding in October 1992, the Orange County team has been all about making sure all the members enjoy the sport and get to take part. Having fast dogs and winning tournaments in their competition region of California, Nevada and Arizona is good, don’t get them wrong, but it’s not their overarching goal.

“Our club has never been that aggressive about trying to always have a fast team,” says owner Judy Redburn of Foothill Ranch. “Our club has always been much more about everyone having a good time and trying to be fair to all the members so that all the dogs get to run, even if some of the dogs aren’t so fast.”

Flyball, if you’ve never seen it played, is a rowdy relay race that involves four hurdles and a tennis ball. The twist? The dogs operate the equipment that delivers the ball, pouncing on a spring-loaded box that ejects the ball when the dog steps on it. The dog must catch the ball and race back over the hurdles, crossing the starting line before the next dog goes. A flyball team has at least four dogs and five people per team. Speed and clean runs (no fouls or errors) determine the winning team.

Part of the fun of flyball for Redburn is that it’s open to any dog and owner, regardless of pedigree.

“It’s not an exclusive sport,” she says.

That said, she and her husband, Stacey, compete with two unusual dogs. Cooper, 9 years old, is a Danish-Swedish farm dog. He’s been racing since he was a year old. The playful and agile working breed excels in the sport.

Their other dog, Shelby, 3½ years old, is what’s known as a sport dog, a purpose-bred cross of border collie and Jack Russell terrier, with some border terrier a couple of generations back in her pedigree. She serves as one of the team’s “height dogs,” which ensure that hurdles are set as low as possible for the entire team.

For Stacey Redburn, the key to success in flyball is to have fun. “I think a lot of people in other sports are overly competitive, and in flyball I think having fun is the No. 1 one goal for everybody.”

Training director Addy Lerner sets up weekly practices, develops a plan to work through any training issues and stays current on training techniques. She and her husband Matt, who live in North Tustin, have three dogs that play flyball: Buz, a 6-year-old border collie/Staffordshire terrier mix, who is often handled by the Lerners’ 8-year-old daughter; Rev, a 5-year-old rat terrier who is another of the team’s height dogs; and Tinker Bell, a 4-year-old German shepherd who is new to the sport but proving to be a consistent teammate. A mixed breed named Zombie is in training.

Lerner says a good flyball dog consistently comes when called and can ignore distractions.

The sport has changed her life. “Because of the challenges I experienced with my first pups, I have learned about positive training methods and actually turned it into a career,” Lerner says.  “In addition to a career change, my family and I have made many lasting friends playing this sport.” 

Matt Lerner doesn’t currently have a dog in training—his first Aussie, Jaz, died last year at age 15—so he has been running a couple of the dogs that Addy has trained or other dogs on the team if their owners can’t make a tournament.

Find a club with compatible people and dogs, he says.

“This is a true team sport, and you have to get along with and trust each other for the dogs’ safety and for scoring points and winning tournaments, and everyone needs to pull their weight,” he says. “Each club has their own personality, style and training philosophy.”

Elaine DeSantis of Rancho Santa Margarita discovered flyball when she was looking for a way to help her border collie, Skye, stay active. It worked. Skye, who is now 10½ years old, got an ONYX award Sept. 4, 2011, meaning she had earned 20,000 points over her flyball career. The sport is Skye’s passion, DeSantis says. She loves it, too. “I thought it was just a dog sport, but I met really good friends through it as well.” 

Like so many flyball enthusiasts, Greg and Lorrie Fletcher of Foothill Ranch got into the sport five years ago to keep their border collie busy. Now they have two, Jinx and Zoe, both 6 years old and avid flyball dogs.

Greg appreciates the excitement of flyball, calling it a three-dimensional chess game that moves at 25 mph.

“It’s unique as a sport, I think. You have to know your dog so well, and your dog has to know what to do, and you have to know your team members so well, and you have to know their dogs well, and all the team members have to get along, and of course all the dogs have to get along.”

But more than the technical challenge, he appreciates the bond he has developed not only with his dogs but also with other team members.

“They know what they have to do now, and they really want to do it. They always want to please me and do a good job, and they know when they do a good job. It’s very rewarding, especially as a team, because everybody’s working together, and there’s a lot of camaraderie.”

Jena Smith of Fountain Valley and 6-year-old Taj, a miniature Australian shepherd, have what Smith’s friends call “doggie date night” every Tuesday. That’s when they go to flyball practice. They’ve been on the team for five years now, although Taj has only been racing for one year. He loves to run and loves the ball, but it has taken time for him to completely understand exactly what he was supposed to do.

“We kept with it because it was really fun and everybody was very patient with us taking our time learning how to do it,” Smith says. “He gets really proud of himself now that he can do it. Every time he completes a race, he gets up there and smiles like ‘I did it! I did it again!’ ”

Smith says the past five years have been a positive time of her life, in large part because of the friends she has made on the team.

“I was a newlywed when I first met them. My daughter’s 3 now, and I’m about to have my second child and they’ve watched all of that happen, so they’ve been there along the way.”

Lori Dendel of Dana Point is another who was looking for something to do with her border collie. Abby, 6 years old, comes from a working cattle ranch in Utah. She’s a great runner and loves the sport, but sometimes, well, she becomes a little too obsessed with the ball.

“We’ve got really good stretches where she’s great, phenomenal, and then sometimes she just shuts down and all she wants to do is get that ball and forgets all of the other stuff that goes along with it,” Dendel says with a laugh.  

For herself, she loves the camaraderie of flyball, as well as the team aspect of the sport.

“It’s a great thing,” she says.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a great time to adopt a new dog or cat because most people have time off to help the new pet adjust and learn the household rules and routines.

Available pets at Orange County Animal Care include Rio, a gorgeous Siamese who is 4 years old. If you want a pet who will carry on a good conversation with you, Rio’s your man, er, cat. He’s already neutered, and his ID number is A1222507.

If a dog is what’s on your Christmas list, check out Cagney, a darling black-and-white terrier mix. The bewhiskered boy is 1 year old and already neutered. His ID number is A1220555.

Ellen Girardeau Kempler December 24, 2012 at 06:22 PM
I love the anecdote about the ball-obsessed dog. Thanks for a fun story.
Oc Flyball January 07, 2013 at 11:29 PM
Orange Crush Flyball Club occasionally has classes for dogs and their handlers who are interested in learning to compete in flyball. Our focus is on fun and safe training. For additional information or to signup, contact Addy Lerner addy.lerner@ocflyball.org or 714/390-3939

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