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Locals participate in dog relay

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | APRIL 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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Poised and ready, 11-year old Chloe crouches, staring straight down the 100-foot stretch of mat. A momentary silence falls as the Australian shepherd waits for the signal.

"Ready. Set. Go," rings throughout the room, as Chloe takes off to cheers of encouragement. She is greeted at the end with her favorite chew toy.

Chloe is a part of Skidmarkz, an Iowa City area fly-ball competition team operated by Jayne and Steve McQuillen.

The two first started competing in fly ball — a fast-paced relay sport for dogs — in the late-1990s with the team Iowa Flydogs. In 2002, the McQuillens and three others broke off from the now discontinued team and founded Skidmarkz with roughly 15 dogs. More than half the dogs on the team have been rescued from animal shelters.

Since 2002, the team has doubled in size and competes all over the nation. The pups are gearing up for their next competition on May 6.

In fly ball, dogs take turns running down a 100-foot mat, retrieving a ball, and running back. As the dogs use a slanted surface to quickly turn, then pass each other on relay starts, they most closely resemble swimmers on a relay team.

Jayne McQuillen said she first started as a 21-year-old, after she and her dogs participated in a different canine sport, "agility."

"Mostly, dogs need something to do besides just a walk around the block," said McQuillen, whose five dogs compete with the team.

Though the handlers — the dog's owners — attentively watch as the dogs work on honing their skills, the sport really is about fun.

As stated on the team's website and iterated throughout practice: Dogs are pets first and athletes second.

"People have a common goal of doing well with their teams," Jayne McQuillen said of the competitively relaxed atmosphere of the sport. "You really foster a lot of relationships."

When training in the facility in McQuillen's backyard, the team breaks down the sport's components into small segments. Beginners such as 2-year-old Phinn practice retrieving a ball, while Chloe, a veteran, works on her speedwork.

And keeping the dogs focused requires finding the reward of choice each dog likes. For Phinn, it's a squeaky toy, for other dogs, it can be a rope or a piece of cheese.

"The key is to find what's special for each dog," said Jo Pearson, Chloe's handler.

The sport started in the late-1980s and took off after a demonstration on the "Tonight Show." In 1999, there were 3,945 dogs competing in 145 tournaments. In 2009, 7,160 dogs participated in 291 competitions, according to the North American Fly Ball Association.

Today, fly ball is played all over the world. In addition to around four other local teams, Skidmarkz competes in international competitions, and it has faced off against Canadian and Australian teams.

Pearson said the team's record is 17.87 seconds and the world record is 15.10 seconds.

After a recent workout, both four- and two-legged team members congregated outside as the dogs ran around playing with each other.

"It's nice to have a team to celebrate and compete with," said Bekka Borg, a team member who has competed in the sport for 10 years.

In addition to competitions, the team annually appears at Carver-Hawkeye Arena halftime shows during both the men's and women's basketball seasons.

As for the meaning behind the team's name, Skidmarkz, it isn't too hard to discover.

"It's a speed thing," McQuillen said. "Our dogs can make skidmarks on the mats with their paws and not with their butts."


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