Like most dog people, I do not live on a farm, nor do I have l ivestock, unless you count the chipmunks squatting in our garage. This is one of the great disappointments of my dog Ginger Peach’s life. She’ll herd anything — people, other dogs, Jolly Balls, even the cats. Our friends in law enforcement insist she’s a Dutch Shepherd mix. No doubt she’d love to be out rounding up bad guys.
Short on both sheep and criminals, I eagerly signed us up for a Treibball (pronounced “try ball”) workshop at Wiggles ‘n’ Wags in Lombard, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. A new sport, Treibball is best described as urban herding: from varying distances, you direct your dog to move large exercise balls into a goal, like herding sheep into a pen. All dogs are welcome to play, regardless of breed or age. While the distance skills and verbal cues are similar to those used in agility, Treibball makes almost no physical demands on the handler, and so people of any age and athletic ability can play.
Treibball, also known as drive-ball, originated in Germany six years ago when Dutch dog trainer Jan Nijboer watched his Australian Cattle Dogs push their rubber water dishes around the field after finishing herding lessons. The dogs, who clearly still had energy to spare, had created their own game. He wondered if they would also push large exercise balls, and found that they easily took to the new “sheep.” After Nijboer introduced the game to his herding students, it quickly spread across Europe and then to the United States. In 2007, Sweden hosted the inaugural international Treibball competition.
American Treibball Association (ATA) founder Dianna Stearns first saw drive-ball videos in 2009. As a positive-reinforcement trainer, she appreciated Nijboer’s emphasis on a respectful relationship between dog and handler. “I could see it being used as a positive teaching tool,” says Stearns. “[It’s] fun, fosters a stronger bond without corrections or punishment, [and] improves communication skills and enhances a dog’s off-leash reliability.
“As a trainer and behavior consultant, a lot of the behavior problems I’m asked to address stem from the sad effects of dogs who are bored … who are expected to simply lie [around] while their owners watch TV,” says Stearns. “Most dogs are problem solvers. They need an outlet for their intelligence and energy before it gets funneled into destructive chewing, digging, barking and fence running.”
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Stearns enjoys the challenge of Treibball with her own four dogs: Terry, a still-feisty 13-year-old Westie; Chance, a nine-year-old Black Lab/German Shorthaired Pointer mix and demo dog extraordinaire; Huerro, a sweet, sixyear- old yellow Lab; and Fin, a one-yearold Border Collie/Aussie mix who, she jokes, is “currently suffering from teenage brain.” (Watch Stearns and Fin in action at youtube.com/americantreibball.)
“Chance and Fin have different approaches to the balls and to the game,” says Stearns. “I’ve had to adapt my training to each of their different learning styles. Because Treibball is a problem-solving game [in which the handler directs] the dog to go after a specific ball depending on where that ball rolls, both handler and dog must continually correct their positioning. It’s been a major problem-solving exercise in creative thinking and teaching.”
That was certainly the case when Ginger Peach (GP) and I followed our Treibball instructor’s directions. Since we have competitive agility and discdog backgrounds, the verbal and physical cues I used were different than those suggested in class. I made some adjustments and decided how to match up cues GP already knew with the various Treibball maneuvers. GP took it all in stride, eager to work on “sends” to her mat from 15 feet away and down on command at varying distances, and to target various objects — even a toy dump truck! — in preparation for our first ball.
We both pouted when we realized we wouldn’t get a ball right away, but like any canine sport, it’s important to master foundation skills first. Also, GP habitually retrieves her Jolly Balls with her mouth, which is frowned upon in Treibball. A dog who bites the ball will be eliminated; driving must be done with the nose only.
Through the ATA, Stearns hopes to offer a solution for high-energy dogs whose owners cannot match their activity level. “Our sedentary lifestyles are often at odds with what our dogs were bred or have evolved to do,” she says. “Most dogs need a job, and a thinking job or game that increases their bond with their owner in a nonaversive manner is a natural.”
The ATA, a young organization, is in the process of training Treibball instructors to increase the number of classes being offered around the country. Members are also drafting official rules for competition, which Stearns says will likely debut in early 2012. And Treibball enthusiasts will soon be able to register their dogs and earn points toward titles.
Ideally, GP’s and my skills will have progressed so that we’ll be ready to compete. Some of our classmates plan to play just for fun. Whether you pursue Treibball competitively or recreationally, suburban and city dogs will enjoy the physical and mental stimulation of tending to their inflatable ball flock.