If you follow dog behavior and training blogs or articles, YouTube videos, or other popular electronic media, it’s likely that you’ve heard of a recently imported European dog sport that is sweeping North America—treibball (pronounced “try-ball”). While the sport is very much still in development here, classes are popping up around the country quickly, most with a strong emphasis on clicker training to teach and refine the foundation skills associated with treibball.
Treibball adapts some of the exercises from conventional herding and applies the exercises to a teamwork-based sport that teaches dogs to “herd” inflatable exercise balls into a goal, following directions from the handler. There are a number of variables influencing the tenor and difficulty of each treibball competition; the variables depend on the competition level and the trialing venue. At this time, there are two trialing venues in the United States: Dog Scouts of America and the American Treibball Association.
Who can play?
Pretty much any dog!
Even if your dog does not normally like to play with balls, you can still try treibball. Virtually all types of play, from tugging to retrieving, can be taught—even to reluctant dogs. In reality, dogs that are the craziest about balls often have the hardest time in treibball because they find it so difficult to control themselves around the ball. In treibball, dogs need to push with their chests, shoulders, or closed mouths. Any dog that has established “bad habits” like biting or pawing at balls will find treibball more challenging than a dog that could care less about balls. Dogs that are not passionate about balls can be taught treibball-appropriate ball interactions from the start.
Treibball is a great sport for dogs that lack confidence. One of my current students is a rescue dog named Molly. Molly is a three-legged Beagle mix that initially came to my foundation class as a “wallflower.” Her owners are exceptionally dedicated and patient, and Molly has blossomed to the point where I invited her to participate in a treibball class. She quickly became the unexpected star of our class! Initially nervous about the balls and their movement, she now pushes a variety of objects with speed, confidence, and a happily wagging tail!
Treibball is also a good match for high-energy dogs that are prone to boredom—and for the handlers of these dogs who are often seeking a fun way to challenge their dogs’ brains and bodies while building cooperation and enthusiasm for training. The dogs in my treibball classes are often referred to by their owners as “crazy.” Many are ball fanatics! As I mentioned, working with a ball-crazy dog may actually be more challenging than working with a dog that doesn’t care about balls, but I find that the “crazies” are exactly the type of dog that require this type of impulse control and mental challenge. My goal is not to quell the drive that these dogs have to interact with balls, but to harness it to bring focus, establish stimulus control, and control arousal levels.
A Beginner Driving Exercise to Try at Home
There are some fun treibball exercises you can try at home with your dog. One of the critical skills for treibball is “driving”—pushing the ball toward the handler. Note that in my classes, I tend to introduce balls late in the teaching process, and I like to teach dogs (especially the “ball crazies”) to push a variety of other objects first. Try this sample exercise to launch your own treibball training.
You will need some small, soft, and smelly treats that your dog loves, a clicker, and either a 6’ x 2’ carpet runner (available for less than $10 at most dollar stores) or a rubber foam-type yoga mat.
- If you are using a new mat or rug, unroll and re-roll it a few times to loosen it up.
- Hold the rolled mat or rug in your hands so that a six to nine inch straight “tab” is dangling down. Place the mat on the floor between you and your dog with the “tab” facing your dog.
- Place a treat where the seam meets the roll. Click as your dog goes for the treat, immediately before the dog eats the treat.
- Begin placing the treat further under the roll. Only click as you see the carpet move.
- After your dog is confident pushing the rug to unroll it and get the treat, shape this same behavior without using a lure. First click your dog for approaching the mat, then for two paws on the mat, then for looking at the roll, for lowering a nose toward the roll, and eventually, for pushing.
- When your dog is enthusiastic about pushing the roll without the lure, start adding a verbal cue like “push” or “drive.”
- Practice transferring your push cue to other objects and situations. Can you teach your dog to close drawers and doors? Push a coffee can, soda bottle, or popcorn tin? Hard-plastic, wheeled toddler toys are great to push also. Can your dog push a wagon, toy truck, etc.?
- Gradually begin increasing the number of pushes you ask of your dog for each click and treat.
It’s a myth that the sport of treibball is only for herding breeds. While herding breeds certainly have a knack for the work, dogs of any breed can participate in treibball and do well. My own chow mix really loves the game, and I’ve had West Highland white terriers, All-American mixed breeds, boxers, pugs, border collies, shepherds, poodles, Labs and Lab crosses, a three-legged beagle mix, corgis, a Havanese, a coonhound, and other assorted breeds participate with enthusiasm! They have all had a blast with their handlers.
Not only can dogs of all breeds enjoy treibball, but dogs of virtually any age can participate as well. While high-impact sports like agility and flyball are best suited to fully mature dogs in optimal physical condition, you can modify most treibball exercises to be enjoyed by puppies and even senior dogs. Treibball is both a game and a sport. Depending on your goals, it can be a fun game you play with your dog or a sport in which you compete and trial.
Start off with basic skills
Many trainers believe that you and your dog should be proficient in critical foundation skills before treibball is introduced. These foundation skills are developed further in treibball. Expectations of prerequisite skills vary, but a dog should be able to offer the following behaviors:
- Focus in an environment where other dogs and handlers are moving quickly or off-lead
- Settle on a mat, sit, and lie down (with at least five seconds duration)
Basic impulse control skills are a big plus as well.
Intro to treibball
The basics of treibball are easy to pick up. In a treibball competition, both the handler and the dog start near the goal, with the dog sitting in heel position. On cue, the dog runs out past the ball/balls in play (appropriately called the “outrun”) and settles behind the balls. The dog waits there for at least five seconds, until the handler cues the dog to begin driving the balls toward the goal.
The following criteria will vary depending on the competition venue and level:
- The number of balls the dog has to herd
- The time the dog has to drive all of the balls to the handler/goal
- The distance of the outrun/specific ball placement
- The order in which the balls must be driven
- The presence or absence of obstacles (ditches, hills, gates, etc.)
If you try out an introductory treibball class, you’ll see that, like any other training class, the humans need as much, if not more, training than the dogs. When the handler knows what he or she is doing, training proceeds smoothly. The handler skills developed or improved in treibball can directly benefit “cross-training” in other areas, including other performances and basic manners around a wide variety of distractions.
Advanced treibball training is best done in a class, as it requires more instruction than can be offered in a short article. Here are just a few of the skills that can be developed and expanded in a treibball class:
- Refinement of shaping, reinforcement, and targeting skills
- Ability to teach your dog to work at a distance, around distractions, and to build stationary and moving behaviors for duration
- Prevent and remove reinforcement opportunities for unwanted behaviors
- Establish stimulus control for known behaviors
- Shape for increased speed, increased precision, and decreased latency
- Create behavior chains and using cues as reinforcers
- Advanced cueing concepts like modifier cues, teaching directionals
While treibball’s popularity is growing rapidly, it has not yet reached many geographic regions. To search for a class in your area, check with The American Treibball Association. The Treibball Yahoo Group is another source. Members can access a current listing of group class instructors in the “database” section.
If there are no trainers in your area, another option is to learn more on your own, The Yahoo! Treibball group mentioned above is a fantastic (and free!) resource where you can learn more before attempting some treibball exercises. The Yahoo group was created by, and is maintained by, Sandi Pennsinger of Living with Dogs. Sandi has published a short, but wonderful, e-book that is available as a digital download purchase on her website. This book lays out treibball foundation skills and clicker-friendly teaching frameworks for training them. In addition, the Dog Scouts of America organization has proposed a really wonderful treibball trialing system.
While I have chosen to work more on behavior modification and family dog training than on competitive dog sports, I admit that treibball has changed things for me. I’ve definitely caught the treibball bug! Give it a try with your own dog and you may find yourself similarly smitten. Have more fun than you thought possible training your dog to be not only a well-behaved companion, but an enthusiastic working partner!