Part Two of Making Flyball Safe (see Part One: Box Turns)
I often hear people mention that flyball is not a safe sport. Generally, these are people who are involved in other dog sports such as agility, disc, obedience, or freestyle. They are experienced dog people. They simply haven't been exposed to flyball in a proper way.
The flyball box is not the only component out on the flyball lanes, of course. When you ask a dog to run at top speed over hurdles, there are risks involved. The most important thing is to minimize those risks as much as is possible.
It is not unheard of for a dog to hit the jump with their feet or legs while navigating the course. It is our job as trainers and handlers to train the dogs to not hit the jumps, give them the skills to navigate properly, and minimize the risks for if they do hit a jump.
Flyball jumps, unlike those used in agility, are solid. A flyball jump is a 6 inch tall, two foot wide base board and two uprights on either side of it. The most common material for the jump to be made of is plywood, but more and more jumps are being made out of Sintra, a rigid foam board material. Sintra is softer than plywood, making it safer in case of collision between dog and jump. To adjust the height of the jumps, slats are added on top of the 6 inch base board. Slats can be 6, 4, 3, 2, or 1 inches wide, and any combination of them can be used to reach the appropriate height. However, a one inch slat is required to be on top. The one inch slat is the easiest to break due to how thin it is. Slats are made out of either very thin plywood or else, more desirably, Sintra.
Ideally, if a dog knocks a jump slightly, the bump won't be enough to cause injury. If the bump is harder, it will hopefully break the slat, giving way to prevent injury to the dog (Sintra does not become sharp when broken). In practice, to further minimize risk of injury, we put cut pieces of either foam pipe insulation or slit pool noodles over the top of the jumps. This greatly reduces the chance that a glancing blow of the paws on the top of the jump will cause any injury.
The equipment, however, is only part of the equation. Training is the other part. We spend time every practice having the dogs navigate over the jumps. Since the jumps are always ten feet apart and fifteen feet from the box, the dogs easily can learn an automatic pattern on how to jump safely. Various methods can be used to help dogs adjust their striding to additionally minimize risks of hitting the jumps. For example, dogs who launch early for the first jump can be at risk of hitting the jumps as they make themselves stretch and reach in midair to clear the jumps. Stride regulators can help train these dogs to make that first launch closer to the jump, so that the apex of their stride is directly over the jump.
Occasionally, it is helpful to teach the dogs about what to do if the jumps are NOT exactly 10 feet apart, or not straight, or are different heights. Mistakes can happen, another dog can knock a jump askew, and it is important to teach the dogs to deal with this. We don't do it often, as we want them to pattern to the jumps at regulation distance, but it can be very helpful to run jump drills with things askew occasionally.
Knocking the jumps over completely, making them a little crooked, setting them to different heights, all of these are ways to help teach a dog to deal with these same issues if they happen during a real race. I always start with a single jump and carefully encourage the dog to jump over it safely, be it askew, a strange height, or completely over on its side. Once the dog is comfortable with jumping the not-right obstacle, I will add in another jump. The goal isn't to train the dog to jump strange configurations of the jumps, and I would actually prefer, if the jump is extremely off during a competition, that I either not run my dog or, if it is too late, that my dog skip the jump. But I think that my dog is much safer on the course if introduced to irregularities in safe, controlled settings.