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Treibball - you gotta give it a try!

Okay, I confess...I am a dog class junkie. I've always got at least one dog enrolled in something, whether it is agility, obedience, conformation, Pet Therapy, name it, we like to try it. There are a lot of new, fun sports for dogs catching on, and since Biddy's show career is going to start slowing down a bit...I'm starting to look around for something new.

The one that keeps popping up and I had no idea what it was all about is Treibball (pronounce Try-ball)   What is it? How do you do it? Can all dogs participate? I took a visit to the American Treibball Association's webpage to see if this was something we might want to try...and wow does this look fun! It is a positive reinforcement based game that became sanctioned for competition in 2008.

The game originated in Germany and is popular with the herding breeds, but dogs of all ages, breeds and sizes can participate. In a nutshell, the dog needs to push or drive a series of eight inflatable balls from the center of the playing field into the goal area at the end of the field. Think of a soccer (or hockey) field with the goal net at the end. It can be played on an outdoor field or an indoor ring. The eight balls are set up in a triangle pattern (4 at the base, 3 in the middle, 1 on the point) similar to how you would rack billiard balls. On cue, the dog must drive one ball at a time into the goal net. The handler must stay at the net and give commands or cues to the dog.

One of the things I like the most about this sport is that the focus is on POSITIVE reinforcement and a handler can be DQ'd if they use in appropriate force with their voice or other cues. I like this...this should be a rule for parents at Little League too! The size of the balls and the size of the field is based on the the height of the the toy breeds are just as competitive as the bigger dogs. In a competition, your dog has 10 minutes to drive all 8 balls into the goal, the lie down in front of the goal. Points can then be added or deducted based on performance. As you move up the ladder in competition there is Beginner Level with Divisions A & B, Intermediate, Excellent and Champion Levels that dogs of all breeds can earn titles in. Division A competitors can use a clicker in competition in addition to verbal, whistle and hand signals. Division B can only use three things: verbal command, whistle and hand signals. In the Beginner Level the dog can bring the balls into the goal in any order, but must be under the full control of the handler at all time.

Remember - you are staying at the goal and using cues to encourage your dog to drive the balls toward you to the goal. It gets a LOT harder at the Intermediate Level. The Handler is required to call out the order that the dog has to bring the balls in (either by color, size or shape, or position) so that the Goal Judge and the Ball Judge can clearly see that the dog is bringing in the ball it was instructed to bring in. In Excellent, it is the JUDGE that signals to the Handler which order they would like the dog to bring the balls in and the Handler then needs to cue the dog based on the Judge's order. In Champion Class, the Judge can decide how the balls are initially positioned on the field and obstacles can be placed at the Judge's discretion in the field of play. The Judge then directs the handler of the order to cue the dog to bring the balls in.

The Judge is also allowed to place or reposition the obstacles in the field as well. Dog and Handler teams can earn bonus or demerit points. Each point is equivalent to 15 seconds either added to or subtracted from the team's final time.  Bonus points can be earned for reducing the number of cues the dog is given before it begins pushing the first ball from the peak set. Demerits can be given for the dog biting the ball or using it's claws to push the ball forward or the handler putting too much pressure on the dog - this is defined as physical punishment, threat, verbal abuse or berating. Teams can also receive a demerit if the dog approaches the wrong side of the ball set triangle, the handler moves into the field of play or the ball is pushed out of bounds. That is one smart dog to be able to do that! While this isn't a huge physical work out like agility or lure coursing, to me this is a great way to strengthen your bond with your dog, play, and give them a mental workout.

Even without a training room or a large amount of space, you can begin teaching your dog how to focus, target and move a ball around on command. You don't need a special ball...a light weight ball of any kind will work to get you started (think Toys R Us, Wal Mart etc). Biddy and Tristan are going to start out with the Disney Princess ball that is in my emergency stash from when kids come to visit. Some of the videos from the American Treibball Association show how they teach the dog to move the ball, back up  or walk backwards and then be sent out to go get the ball. If you notice in the videos with Ella - he is asking her to "back up" and she does! This is a skill I want to work on with my dogs. Being able to walk backwards helps build rear strength and awareness in your dog and is also a mental workout.  

One of the best free resources that I found for getting started and teaching your dog the ground work is from the Whole Dog Journal. The How to Train section of this article takes you through how to send your dog out to the ball and begin to bring the ball back. If you and your dog are new to shaping behaviors and targeting, click on some of the other links in the article for great tips on how to start teaching these skills to your dog.

I don't really see myself entering in a competition for Treibball since Biddy and Tristan both  compete in other sports.  I do see it as something that I want to teach my dogs and add to their skill set. I think it is great to have it as an activity you can do with your dog that doesn't require a lot of expensive equipment or space, since you can practice in your own back yard. I like the mental and skills aspect of this game the most. I think it breaks up the weekly exercise routine and really makes your dog (and you!) think. It is also a great alternative for bad weather days. If it is cold or rainy,  you can practice the skills inside. We are always faced with the heat. If you don't get that good run in early, it is way too hot for the dogs (and me!) and now we need a way to burn off some energy. This is something you can do outside without working your dog so hard physically in the heat. Big dogs, little dogs, old dogs and young dogs can all learn how to play this game - even if you never enter a competition. Have you ever tried Treibball? Do you have a story to share about shaping behaviors?

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