Agility, check. Obedience, check. Conformation, check.
Your knees can’t take those course dashes anymore. You’re ready for something that’s mostly just fun. Your performance dogs are aging and need an activity that’s a little less strenuous.
Treibball, urban mushing or K9 Nose Work might be just what you’re looking for.
These three sports take place in varied environments: treibball in grassy fields, urban mushing on park trails and K9 Nose Work in training schools, then outdoors around buildings and vehicles. They require very different equipment: fitness balls for treibball, a bike or scooter for mushing, and lots of treats and empty containers for nose work.
None, however, requires you to run, make sudden stops and turns, groom your dog to no end or spend hours upon hours training it to respond to your most subtle commands. Nor will your dog need to jump, climb, submit to exam or run to you from across a ring.
Any activity or sport takes training, but with these three, you’ll likely find the training every bit as fun as the event.
Let’s Herd Balls, Not Sheep
Treibball, sometimes called “driveball,” is a “new way to play with your dog,” according to the American Treibball Association. Rather than herding sheep, your dog herds fitness balls, those brightly colored orbs used at gyms for exercising. “It’s great fun for any energetic dog who works well off-leash and needs a job, or any dog who likes to herd and doesn’t have sheep,” the association’s website reads.
American Treibball Association President Dianna Stearns says the sport started about 10 years ago in Germany. Although it’s only been being played in the United States for about two years, it’s growing quickly, she says. It’s like “soccer for dogs,” she explains, and “herding without sheep.”
Dogs must use their muzzles and shoulders to move eight balls into a goal, not unlike those used for soccer. Before the test starts, the balls are arranged in a triangle, like in billiards. The dog first moves the farthest ball at the tip of the triangle into the goal, then the other seven, based on directions from its handler, who can use whistles, hand signals and verbal commands to direct the dog to move left or right.
“It’s very gentle, not fast and furious,” Stearns says. The dog has 10 minutes to get all eight balls into the goal. The handler stands at the goal within an arm’s length of either side and can use a walking stick to arrange the balls within the goal area once the dog has pushed each over the goal line.
Balls can be 25 to 85 centimeters in diameter, depending on the dog’s size. An actual soccer goal isn’t necessary. Stearns says ExPens or snow fencing can be used in the place of a net as long as the goal area has room for the eight balls, plus the handler.
“It’s a great way to teach control,” Stearns says, “and it builds attention to the handler.”
You begin simply by teaching your dog to target a fitness ball and to keep its teeth off of it. When that behavior is well established, you teach the dog to move the ball around, then to push it over a distance. For middle-sized dogs, the balls are pushed 37.5 feet to the goal. For Toys, it’s half that.
“It’s low cost, low impact, a lot of fun,” says Stearns. “We think of it as a relationship-building sport.”
Dogs compete in four classes, Beginner to Champion; two sizes, Standard and Teacup; and three age divisions, Juniors, Adults and Seniors.
Scores are based on the length of time it takes for the dog to move all eight balls into the goal, after which the dog must lie down next to the balls. Bonus points reduce the elapsed time, while demerits add to the time.
Dogs are disqualified for six behaviors, including showing aggression to a judge, destroying a ball by biting it and eliminating on the field during a run.
Three of Stearns’ four dogs are trained for treibball. Ironically her youngest, Fin, is a Border Collie-Australian Shepherd mix who “loves to play, but has no herding instinct whatsoever.” She adopted him at 8 weeks of age, hoping to make him a treibball champion. Two years later, he can only move about five balls into the goal from 20 feet out.
She admits that treibball is not the easiest of sports, however, it does give handlers more control and dogs more confidence, she says. “Flyball and agility people say their dogs’ attention improves once they incorporate treibball into their training.”
The association certifies treibball trainers, and board members travel around the country to give clinics and trainer academies.
Let’s Hit the Trails
Urban mushing can take several forms – from the rider’s perspective. But for the dogs, it’s all about running and pulling.
It’s a particularly great sport for dogs that were designed with pulling in mind, such as Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes and Samoyeds.
Rancy Reyes, who lives in sunny Orange County, Calif., got his first Siberian about seven years ago. Lyka, now almost 8, was in an animal shelter in Virginia. Reyes was her fourth owner. Next came Niko, adopted when he was 6 months old. He’s now 7.
“I just like the breed,” Rancy says, “and I knew they were active. I like being outdoors.” He wanted dogs to go hiking, backpacking, running and biking with him. Lyka and Niko were both up for all of that. But Niko needed more. “I just knew Niko needed a lot of exercise.”
He tried rollerblading behind the dogs, but crashed three times, he says. “This isn’t going to work,” he recalls thinking. Then he came across the website Dogscooter.com and was bit by the scootering bug. Today he owns a Diggler, which he says is “built like a tank.”
The desire to pull is “just in them,” he says. “It’s in their breed. When you harness them up, they’re pulling from their chest. It gives them a lot of freedom without being off leash.” That freedom is because they’re running in front of you, “so you’re not leading them. It’s almost as if they’re running off leash. They have to be focused because they have to listen to your commands. In a way, they are taking the lead.”
Any high-energy dog of medium size or larger is a candidate for urban mushing, according to Reyes. One Doberman he knows “runs circles around the Huskies.” He’s also seen Standard Poodles, Dalmatians and German Shorthaired Pointers pulling their owners on scooters, bicycles and inline skates. “One lady runs with a Bull Terrier mix. That dog is just so motivated.”
Reyes meets up regularly with urban mushing friends at Fairview Park in Costa Mesa. See a video about mushers there by clicking here. It’s three miles from the beach, so there’s “a marine layer, a cool ocean breeze,” plus it has mostly dirt trails and connects to a nature preserve. During the summer, he limits runs to five miles, but “once it starts getting cooler again, we’ll do six to eight, sometimes 10 miles.”
To get started, you’ll need a harness, but Reyes says a tracking harness will do in the beginning. First you “just need to see how they are with pulling,” he says. “Hook them up to an old tire or an old duffle bag filled with firewood, something they can drag.” Your dogs can “start seeing what it’s like to pull.” Remember, though, to “keep it short. Make it fun,” he says.
“I taught all of my dogs the commands when we were on our daily walk.” While keeping a loose lead, he explains, as he begins to turn right, he says, “gee.” That’s “right” in mushing lingo. At a left turn, he says, “haw.” The other important command is “whoa.”
To learn more about the sport, Reyes suggests two books, “Training Lead Dogs” by Lee Fishback (Tun-Dra, $12, 1979) and “Dog Scooter: The Sport for Dogs Who Love to Run” by Daphne Lewis (Lulu.com, $19, 2006).
When dogs enjoy pulling, putting on the harness is “like putting on a uniform,” Reyes says. “Now the dog has the license to pull.”
Once your dogs have learned the commands and you want them to pull you, it’s time to invest in a pulling “X-back” harness and lines. You can start out using a bicycle if you’re not ready to invest in a scooter. However, Rancy points out, you’re safer on a scooter because “you’re only about 7 inches off the ground, and you can easily jump off.” He also recommends wearing a helmet.
When you are ready for a scooter, Reyes says it’s important to consider how big the platform is where you put your feet. “A lot of scooters were designed for kicking, so the platform is really small.”
Scooters range in price from about $200 to $600, he says, with his favorite, the Diggler, at the higher end of the range. He likes its platform because you can get both feet on it. “It’s a lot like being on a sled.” And, he says, “They can take a lot of abuse.”
Most people urban mush with one or two dogs, with the dogs 6 to 7 feet in front of the owner. The lines include a built-in bungee, “which serves as a shock absorber,” Reyes says. If you run with two dogs, they run side by side. Reyes says beginners should stick with no more than two dogs. “Once you go beyond two dogs, the formation is different. The line is much longer. You run the risk of tangles. You have much more power, so if you’re not experienced and you don’t have control over your dogs, your scooter can easily get dragged from underneath you.”
The first time one of his dogs actually pulled him, “It seemed like he was just having so much fun. I see that a lot with a lot of dogs. People swear that even when they stop, and they’re resting and they’re panting, they’re smiling.”
Reyes explains: “You can’t push a rope. They’re pulling me. I’m not pushing them, and I can’t push them. They’re doing this because they want to.”
Let’s Sniff Out Good Stuff
K9 Nose Work began in 2006 as a way for dogs to develop one of their most powerful instincts – scent detection. However, K9 Nose Work isn’t about “working,” it’s about “working” your dog’s nose.
“We make it pretty clear that it’s not a training ground to become a detection dog handler,” says K9 Nose Work’s co-founder Amy Herot. She is a detection dog handler, though, who is contracted for detection services in the transport business, traveling to ports, military installations and other organizations that have trucks going in and out.
In the early days of the sport, “it was just dogs searching for rewards,” Herot says. “About a year and a half into the activity, we added target odors. We had this eager class.”
K9 Nose Work’s inaugural competition took place in August 2008.
Despite competition opportunities, it’s still “really just about the dog having a good time. Most people get into it because they are interested in dogs using their noses,” Herot says.
One great thing about this activity is that it’s easy to get started. Neither you nor your dog needs any special skills. You could actually adopt a dog from a shelter, she says, and immediately start it in K9 Nose Work. That’s because “we’re not really teaching the dogs to do anything. They use their noses naturally. We sort of cultivate and steer their motivation and make it very worthwhile for them to do it. We just build on what nature put in place. We’re not fighting the dogs’ instinct. We’re working with that instinct.”
If you sign up for a K9 Nose Work class, you’ll spend the first “lesson” just relaxing in the training school and acclimating to the environment, Herot explains. “The first thing we want to do is let people know that our mission is about the dogs having a good time. Part of this journey is exploring the discovery process with your dog.” Each handler is asked to take a “bunch of toys or treats” that his or her dog “really wants.”
“We take all these cardboard boxes and put the food or a toy in one of the boxes. What we want the dog to do is see us put the chicken in the box. It’s not a targeting exercise. We build the trust that we’re putting something they want in the box, and it’s really easy to get to.”
Once the dog finds its treat or toy in that box, it starts checking the other boxes. “That investigative process is all that happens in the first step,” Herot says.
Owners allowing their dogs to search at their own pace is the hardest part, she says. “So much of all the training is about us doing something. It’s hard for people to relinquish that control. You’re telling the dog: ‘You take the lead. You’re the one with the nose.’ You need the dog to know himself that he’s on the right track.” He also has to learn to work independently from his owner.
Herot says that dogs that do K9 Nose Work never learn to manipulate the handler “because right from the get go we have the dog rewarding himself. The food is like the dog in pursuit of a bunny rabbit. The act of seeking and investigating is self-rewarding and very powerful. The dog realizes, ‘Well, that works, I’m going to do that again.’ It’s instinctive in them. All we’re doing is giving them a construct.” The boxes, she says, just let them know that the game is on.
Once dogs feel comfortable investigating and know that they’re always going to find something good, “the food becomes less visible,” Herot says, “And they switch to using their noses.”
Next comes the introduction of a target odor. In K9 Nose Work, the odors are birch, anise and clove.
“We basically associate something that was previously not important, and through association make it important,” Herot explains. So, at this stage the dog’s favorite treat is placed with a small tin containing one of the three scents. The tins are created by drizzling essential oil over cotton swabs in a glass jar. Then, half of a swab is placed in an aerated tin so the dog can smell it, but can’t access the swab.
The reason the target odors aren’t introduced at the beginning of the training process is that the goal is to create a dog “that really loves hunting,” Herot says. Once the dog has the hunting bug, it won’t matter that it’s hunting for a tin of odor, rather than a yummy treat.
The competitive fever, so to speak, often starts for owners when they see their dogs find things “just by odor.” Also, “when you suddenly realize that you can read your dog’s body language, it is such a thrill for people. It’s a magic moment. You’re really entering his world when you go into the world of scent.”
When dogs are comfortable and successful detecting scents indoors, they move on to outdoor and vehicle searches.
Herot says one benefit of such scent work is that often dogs that have behavioral challenges tend to gain a confidence. “You end up with a way more confident dog.”
If you’re bitten by the bug, your dog can do a pre-qualifier that’s a simple odor recognition test. Then you can start working on nose work titles, NW1 through NW3. The Doberman Pinscher Club of America recognizes K9 Nose Work titles, and several more are in line to do so, Herot says.
With hundreds of certified K9 Nose Work instructors around the U.S., you should be able to find a dog training school that offers the classes.
So, though you and your dogs may be done with some of the more common and traditional dog sports, it’s not the end. It could be just the right time for a new beginning.