Photos by Steve Vollmer
By Ranny Green
If Staples is looking for a new spokesperson, make that spokesdog, I have the perfect candidate.
Meet Ian, a 3-year-old Doberman Pinscher-retriever mix, owned by Carol and Walt Sippel, of Renton, whose in-home training for one of America’s popular new dog sports, treibball, includes repeatedly placing his nose against Staples’ “That Was Easy” button and getting a desired response.
“It just kinda evolved,” says Carol Sippel, “and he loves it. Plus, it teaches him to use and direct his nose, which is key in treibball.”
Walt Sippel adds, “We started with Ian just learning to touch the palm of our hand. Then Kathy (instructor Kathy Weaver of Family Dog Training Center in Kent) had us put a piece of tape on our palm. We used blue painters’ tape. Once he learned to touch the tape, we could transfer that piece of tape to any other surface. He readily touched his nose to objects but didn’t have a strong enough push to move them.“
The couple began talking about finding something they could use to force Ian to push harder and encourage a reaction. “That’s when I remembered my co-worker’s Easy button. So we put the tape on it and he touched it, but not hard enough to activate it. We pushed on it a few times. He must have thought it was fun game or liked the voice, because he began activating it the same night we brought it home. Now we can use it as a game or as reward for accomplishing another objective,” says Walt Sippel.
Treibball involves the dog leaving its handler and going past eight balls set a specific distance away (called the “outrun” or “go-out”), waiting for a cue to push and then using low, hard pushes to maneuver one ball at a time into a netted goal within a time limit. Treibball originated in Germany (translated from German the meaning is “blowing ball,” “drifting ball” or “propelling ball”) several years ago as a game to attract herding dogs. Eventually it made its way to the U.S., where a national sanctioning organization, American Treibball Association, has been founded.
“We want the dogs to develop their own style of pushing the ball,” says Weaver, “within certain parameters. In classes, I encourage students to teach their dogs to use their nose, top of muzzle or head, but never their feet, which is not allowed in competition. Dogs that use their shoulders tend to work a lot harder to keep the ball moving in a straight path.”
In class, however, each handler-dog team moves forward at a different pace. There is widespread variety, Weaver says, in how quickly and how well dogs learn the various skills required for treibball. Most dogs get the gist of going to a target (usually a rubber foam mat), which becomes the basis of the treibball “outrun” in a few sessions. Some dogs take quite awhile to understand how to push the ball. Others learn to push it in a short period of time but may have difficulty perceiving the idea of orienting (lining up) behind the ball and moving it directly to their handlers. “I set up rotating stations, each focused on a different skill, in the beginning and intermediate classes.”
It’s not all about moving forward in Weaver’s classes. Sometimes one-on-one guidance is required when a particular skill deteriorates and a “fix” is needed. This occurs if something was skipped or not well developed in foundation training, she explains.
Before enrolling in a treibball class, participants must respond to basic obedience commands, which provide a solid starting foundation for learning the unique skills required in the sport.
Like many others, Weaver was attracted to treibball via a YouTube video, recommended by a friend. “She thought I would find the sport interesting because from 1983 to 2003 I trained border collies to herd sheep and cattle while managing a 500-ewe flock and groups of 20 feeder cattle in Southern Missouri. I also competed in the United States Border Collie Handler trials throughout the country in which we worked primarily sheep but on occasion, cattle. After my last border collie passed away in 2003, I moved to Seattle and eventually acquired my current Belgian Tervuren, Troy,” says Weaver.
Time and distance ruled out herding, hence the urban alternative became treibball. Advantages include: it can be trained in the backyard, park or training facility; it doesn’t require extensive equipment; it involves teaching the dog a variety of skills that are useful in everyday life and other dog sports; it provides an opportunity for dogs to work off excess energy.
Weaver began reading any treibball training materials she could find, and by early 2011, she created her own treibball curriculum, exploring what seemed to work best for the majority of handlers and dogs. Later she hosted a treibball training workshop with Sandi Pensinger, author of the “Treibball Handbook.”
“I made some mistakes training Troy,” admits Weaver, “because I was so excited about his eagerness to push the ball that I skipped some very important skill-building steps, such as teaching ball orientation, which means that the dog pushes the ball only toward the handler, curbing its excitement to just push, push, push. Fortunately, I recognized those mistakes before I started working with my friends.”
Weaver’s classes at Family Dog Training Center range from four to six students. “That’s a good manageable size,” she explains. “The class is designed not only to engage owner and dog in a fun, no-pressure activity, but also to help students teach their dogs to respond at a distance, build self-control, listen for cues and be aware of where their handlers are at all times. One of the aspects students enjoy most is the first time they see their dogs begin to solve problems on their own.”
It’s not in any training book, but the Sippels have come up with another little twist of their own at home to keep Ian’s treibball skills sharp. That includes opening several kitchen doors, then watching him come along later and nose them shut. “It’s become kinda a game with him,” adds Carol Sippel.
The doors twist and eventually the ball came after the Easy button. “We started with the doors being open just slightly so that he wouldn’t be too startled. We were able to progress fairly rapidly from hand touch to Ian pushing the doors on his own within two weeks,” says Walt Sippel.
Ian has graduated from a soft Nerf-type ball about the size of a basketball to a beach ball and finally a large treibball. On the final day of the six-week class in mid-June, he pushed the game ball from start to the goal with a single command. “Not bad for a dog that was labeled as ‘unadoptable’ just over a year ago,” Walt Sippel smiled.
While Ian showcased his prowess in class, Callie, a 4-year-old border collie mix owned by Alyssa Shewey, of Covington, focused on food rewards wrapped in a small mat on the floor. This exercise is designed to teach the dog to nose its way to the treats and in the process eventually open the mat entirely.
“I’ve had a problem keeping Callie focused,” admits Shewey. “Food doesn’t seem to motivate her like it does other dogs, so we’re continuing to try other means of developing an interest in nose touch.”
Once the dog understands the nose touch, Weaver explains, students can move onto to teaching the animal to push a variety of objects, including unrolling yoga mats and rolling cylinders. “This is the starting point for teaching the dogs to properly push the large balls.”
In the intermediate level, students expand the basic skills, increasing the “go-out” distance, decreasing or eliminating the target mat, helping the dog to solve problems such as extricating the ball out of corners, working with multiple balls, maintaining correct ball-pushing direction (toward the handler).
Another area treibball pioneer, Diane Garrod, of Langley (Whidbey Island), sees seven to 15 students in her beginner and intermediate classes. To provide an incentive for them to stay involved as they progress, she and Weaver are hoping to organize an American Treibball Association Northwest Division with informal competitions.
Because pawing and mouthing are disallowed, Garrod says the sport attracts dogs on both ends of the exuberance scale. “The ideal one,” she explains, “is right in the middle, as treibball is all about exhibiting impulse control and being attentive to the handler. One of my most enthusiastic students was a Mexican hairless. If you had to single out one group of dogs which may do better than another, it would, of course, be the herding dogs. However, treibball is more like pool (with the dog as a cue stick) rather than herding.”
Because the sport is still somewhat in its infancy in the U.S., the American Treibball Association, headquartered in Colorado, has not developed a sanctioned competition schedule as yet.
Recently, ATA leaders asked membership to suggest changes to the original set of rules it developed. The board is studying those recommendations to create a new package of competition regulations that it will send to the membership for a vote this summer.
“The sport is so new that even those of us teaching are constantly tweaking our curriculum and goals,” emphasizes Weaver. “In obedience, we know exactly what our students and their dogs need to know in order to compete. In treibball, we’re not yet sure exactly what the competition rules will be. But, even so, it’s a great adventure being at the starting point in a new sport and contributing to its development. For dogs that need a new job to burn off excess energy or are no longer able to handle high-impact sports, treibball will definitely provide them with an activity that’ll be fun for both the dogs and their handlers, either as a hobby or eventually in competition.”