June 15, 2005 - At 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings, James D. Kriegh Park in Oro Valley goes to the dogs.
More than a dozen dogs of all breeds and sizes gather at the park for a new class, offered through the town's parks and recreation department, called Flyball.
Flyball may be new to Oro Valley, but it's been played for years in parks and yards across the nation. It is a competitive relay for a team of four dogs. One by one, they run the length of the course, jumping four hurdles along the way. At the end, a dog bounds onto a wooden box, which triggers a tennis ball to shoot out one of four small holes. The dog catches the ball and runs back over the hurdles, tagging the next dog in. The team that completes the course fastest, with the fewest penalties, wins.
When it first began, team handler Britta Penca-Rhoads said the fastest teams were finishing in about 24 seconds. Now, there are teams that can run the whole course in 14 seconds.
Penca-Rhoads has several of her dogs in the Flyball class.
"If you have a dog that will play ball with you, the team will teach you the rest," she said. "It's funny how people from all walks of life, experiences, jobs, they all love this."
Any dog can play Flyball, whether short, tall, small or fat, as instructor Robin Combs likes to say, as long as the handler is athletic enough to run a short distance.
Combs recently started teaching the class in Oro Valley in order to train the current Tucson team and to recruit new members. Hers is the only Flyball class in the area.
The class is held every Sunday at the park. Each six-week course costs $75. The next class is scheduled to start in mid-July, but Combs encourages anyone interested to go to the park to watch before enrolling.
Oro Valley offers several classes and activities for dogs, and their owners, to enjoy. This summer, in addition to Flyball, the town will offer a class to train family dogs for the show ring as well as teach them basic obedience.
The town also maintains a dog park at James D. Kriegh Park, on Calle Concordia, where dogs can frolic off their leashes. It is the only public place in town where this is allowed. Mornings and evenings at the park get crowded, as more than a dozen dogs and their owners crowd into the small, dusty area to stretch their legs.
There are about 20 dogs and their handlers enrolled in the Flyball class. On Sunday mornings they start trickling into the park as early as 7 a.m., to get some time on the course before the official instruction begins.
The owners huddle in small groups under the shady trees, offering tips to each other, given mostly from experience. One heeler-mix is having trouble with the game because she likes to nip at the other dogs when she runs up on them. Another owner suggests giving her something to carry in her mouth, such as a favorite chew toy, to keep her otherwise occupied as she trains.
Flyball is not an obedience class. Behaviors such as these are addressed only as a way to further the game or to help out a fellow owner.
Combs calls training for the game "controlled chaos" because she wants the dogs to come when they are called and to play by the rules, but to have fun.
"It can be very, very wild," she said.
She uses the village approach to training, saying it takes all the team handlers to train one dog to play.
"We're in each other's faces and in each other's spaces," Combs said. "We teach them respect."
Which, like everything in the class, goes for people and dogs.
The biggest challenge in training teams is getting everyone together for practice.
"It's like parents with little leaguers," she said.
The team was having a hard time finding a place to practice because a lot of space is need for Flyball. With team members coming from all over Pima County and southern Pinal County, Oro Valley provided a central location.
"Oro Valley has welcomed us and it's been great," Combs said.
Combs and the other handlers that are already on the team take it seriously and strive to improve their time with each practice. Once the dogs all get a handle on the basics, Combs will start filming practice so the handlers can watch and see where they are making mistakes. Com-petitions will take the team all over the state and region.
Ellen Grygotis rescued a mixed breed named Joseph from a local shelter about a year ago.
She enrolled him in Flyball after she learned about it in his obedience class.
Grygotis said she's not sure about joining the Flyball team but wanted to find an activity for Joseph in which he could have fun and get some exercise.
And, she said, it has been as much fun for her as it has been for her dog.
"This is a great group of people," she said.
She agrees with the others in the class that the game is easy to play, if the dogs have consistent training.
Joseph is learning not to chase other dogs. This is an important skill for Flyball, because in a competition there are dogs everywhere, racing and waiting to race.
So Joseph will learn how to focus on the task at hand, he is held back as his owner runs down the field, followed by another dog. When Joseph starts to run after the dog, there is a team of other dog owners shaking colorful pool noodles and making lots of noise, deterring Joseph from the other dog. Nearby, his owner waits, calling him and holding treats.
Joseph learned after a few tries which way to run for the treat. Soon, he paid no attention to the other dog.
With Joseph basking in the praise of his owner, Combs stood on the sidelines smiling.
"Joseph is really getting it," she said, and that's what it's all about.