Atop Flag Pole Hill on a Sunday morning, a commanding voice interrupts pleasant picnic-table banter.

“Everyone out of the shade to do Antar patrol,” trainer Melissa Sheehan shouts. “Places!”

Members of the No Big Woof Flyball team, uniformed in fluorescent yellow shirts, rise and form a wide perimeter around a small-scale obstacle course.

Antar the whippet-Labrador mix is something of an “escape artist,” team member Howard Jackson explains.

“She doesn’t mean to run away. She just sort of wants to take a victory lap to celebrate being unleashed. She usually only does it on the first run.”

At the starting line, Antar’s tail is a frantically ticking metronome, yet the newbie remains razor-focused. At her handler’s command she sprints and clears four hurdles en route to her destination — a box featuring a spring-loaded pad that, when pressed by paw, releases a tennis ball. In a single motion the dog snatches the spherical prize, pivots and darts back to her expectant owner, Aafke Brouwer, a local artist who joined the team last spring.

Cheers erupt from the outer circle. Treats are awarded.

In actual competition, Antar would be part of a four-dog relay team. Those who drop balls or miss hurdles have to restart, forfeiting valuable seconds. The fastest foursomes win or move on to the next round.

Antar is fast and driven by an obsession with balls. Whippets are bred for speed.

But this is no elitist flyball organization.

“Melissa allows every dog on the team. There’s a dog with three legs … there’s little Bandit.” Brouwer gestures toward a dachshund-mix whose legs are no more than 2-inches long.

Another member calls Bandit a secret weapon, because hurdles are lowered to accommodate a team’s shortest member.

Jackson’s dog Huck isn’t as fast as Antar or team member Angela Miles’ Staffordshire bull terriers, a breed born sturdy and built for swiftness.

But the silky amber-and-white Australian shepherd-mix is diligent and eager to please.

Jackson happened upon the flyball practice three years ago while walking Huck, then a skittish and fearful recent rescue. They returned the next week to the beginner session, which precedes team practice each Sunday.

“Huck wouldn’t even let people pet him before,” Jackson says. “He had no confidence, no ball drive. Melissa had to find out what motivated him. Turns out treats make him tick, but it took a year.”

Since starting flyball, Huck is a new animal, Jackson says.

“It’s been so rewarding to watch him grow into the dog that he is today through coaching and socializing at practice every week.”

Coach Sheehan started 20 years ago, looking for something to do with her Jack Russell terrier Jake.

She is the dog whisperer, the team members concur.

“Most of the old-timers have been through more than one dog with Melissa,” says Nancy Howse, whose border collie Moss is a veteran flyballer.

With any breed, she can glean success. That doesn’t always mean winning.

No Big Woof has two competition teams: Dogs at Work and Dogs Under Construction.

Sheehan points out that they have the most diverse breed roster in the entire United Flyball League International.

“We are the street team,” Jackson quips.

But this lovable band of misfits is gritty and hardworking enough to steal the show at events.

“People start out watching the fastest teams, but they wind up watching the interesting ones,” Howse says. “We are interesting — the whole place stops just to watch Bandit.”

Still these dogs and owners are serious when it comes to training and competition.

“It is not easy to make a perfect run,” Howse says. “Timing is important. Avoiding collisions and false starts.”

No Big Woof-ers are driven by a rewarding combination of hard work and recreation, she says.

“The neat thing is that we are contenders, but we are having fun. And we win occasionally.”

More info:
No Big Woof Flyball Club meets at 9 a.m. most Sundays at Flag Pole Hill.
Visit https://www.facebook.com/pages/No-Big-Woof-Flyball-Club/223145042888 for news and announcements.
Fee is $20 per month plus equipment costs.