116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A drag-strip-like Christmas tree signal drops from yellow to green, and leadoff dog Twitch streaks down the runway to the excited whoops of team handlers.
In a computer-timed 3.86 seconds, Twitch covers the 51.1-foot runway out and back, crossing four low hurdles before snatching a tennis ball from a box.
Before he reaches the end, crashing into a mattress barrier, a teammate is streaking off to continue the four-dog relay.
Paws, tails and saliva fly in flyball, a sport that returns to Amana for its two-day regional tournament this weekend. The host Hawkeye Hustlers team participate in about 10 tournaments each year and will be working to qualify for another trip to the national U-Fly tournament next month in Kearney, Neb.
It's drag racing with dogs - nearly the same amount of adrenaline, but more laughter and less danger.
“We really run to play the game,” says team member Annette Flugstad of Marion. “This is the kind of sport where you love to train and competition is where you get to show that off.”
Hawkeye Hustlers is one of several flyball teams in the Corridor. The team's training complex on Judy Hagan and Jim Sova's acreage includes a fully equipped flyball competition track with two lanes, temporary kenneling space for dogs and a swimming pool with flowing water current for aquatic exercise. On the outside of the main building, a sign asks the question, “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
The sheer joy of the participating dogs is one of the distinct pleasures of flyball, according to Hagan, a founding member of the 21-year-old team. Team dogs often begin barking with anticipation miles from the training facility when they turn onto Highway 13, she says.
“You'll see them running around outside the building, wanting to play flyball,” says Hagan, who has eight dogs, including one retired competitor and one who isn't yet ready.
Sova's ingenuity helped convert the hog barn into the flyball complex, and he also came up with a product used in the sport. His springback is the box that dispenses the tennis ball the participant retrieves, but it's adapted to absorb the shock of the dog's paws hitting it. That helps to reduce injuries and lessen the tendency of the box to slide when the dog strikes it.
Dogs work with humans in a variety of sports, from sled dog racing to sheepdog trials. Hagan and Sova say flyball is probably the most team-oriented sport, and the closest to herding.
As with any relay, flyball players must wait until the dog ahead of them reaches a certain point to make their pass.
“It's sort of an adrenaline rush to be able to run your dog and get a good pass,” Hagan says.
Amid the barking and cheering, spectators at this weekend's tournament will see “a lot of funny stuff” and “a lot of interesting stuff,” Sova says.
About 125 team members and their dogs will participate this weekend at the Amana RV Park, with the first day serving as a national qualifier. There will be several Corridor teams to cheer on, and admission is free.
All kinds of dogs can compete, but the faster breeds include border collies and “designer dogs” such as border collie-Staffordshire bull terrier crosses.
All the training, travel and expense might seem like a lot for a hobby with little financial reward. Flugstad says one payoff is a happy dog who isn't prone to chew up the furniture or scratch up the door frame.
“These dogs wouldn't do well if they didn't have a job,” she says.