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Frisbee Dog

Frisbee, The Game of Champions

By Gayle Silberhorn of Big Run Australian Shepherds

I rule the skies in my domain and there is no Frisbee on this earth safe from my obsession. I will not be outdone by the birds, for I am a dog of the highest order, born with invisible wings and the ability to rise above all that would keep me from my pursuit of a great catch and some worthy praise…

~ from The Frisbee Dog Creed by Colleen Gray


Nellie was a canine athlete. She was so amazing that she appeared on ESPN and Animal Planet. There were numerous articles and pictures of her in various newspapers. Her high-flying acrobatics attracted constant attention and cars almost went off the road in front of our house while the driver watched her wondrous feats of agility. She could fly through the air. No, she didn’t have wings: Nellie was a Frisbee dog. An Australian Shepherd.

  Frisbee Dog Nellie with Paul Silberhorn
  Courtesy of Sun Publications, Inc., Naperville, IL
Paul Silberhorn and Nellie

My husband and I have competed in canine disc for close to 20 years. We have had 5 of our dogs compete at various levels. Three of our Aussies have competed at the regional level and have done quite well. Katie [Nellie’s mom], Nellie and Sera [Nellie’s daughter] have all placed in regional competition and Katie even had her picture taken with canine disc founders Alex Stein and Irv Lander.

Frequently, we are approached by people who ask how they can get their dog to “do that” – play Frisbee. The simple answer is to say that she is just a natural and, yes, many times that is true. The dog is just a natural retriever who would spend all waking hours catching and retrieving. With our Aussies, the retrieve is part of their herding instinct. If a dog has high prey drive, it is relatively easy to teach the retrieve. I always start when they are very young, as early as 7 weeks, getting them to chase objects that have caught the pup’s interest. Balls, rope toys, small soft bite Frisbees work well for teaching the retrieve. I never use a hard, competition Frisbee with a small pup. Once the pup has learned to retrieve, they will bring most anything to you.

I have an 11 month old pup, Bryn, who is still learning to play Frisbee. She has been quite successful in picking up the concept quickly. She learned to transfer her retrieval skills to the Frisbee with no problem at all. One of the biggest problems I have seen in teaching this skill is that the handler throws the Frisbee too far and the pup loses interest. Keep the disc in your hand and have the pup take it directly from you before you start to throw the long ones. Roll the disc on the ground so that the pup chases it. When Bryn was successfully catching discs at close range in the air, I gradually widened the distance. Now she is consistently catching the long ones at about 75 to 100 feet.

One of the most difficult problems I have had with Bryn is getting her to drop the disc. She still likes to hang on. I could probably lift her in the air and swing her in a circle with the disc in her mouth. Yes, this could look showy in a freestyle performance, but she needs to give up the Frisbee so that I can throw it again. We have been working on the “leave it” command which usually works. Our winters here in the Midwest are usually very cold, snowy and long. This year we have had all that to the extreme. Frisbees left outside for the duration are just being uncovered. When the weather breaks, we will be working on multiple discs. I will be having little Bryn bring in her disc and trade me for the one I have in my hand. Letting go of the one in her mouth will be much easier if she knows that she will be able to retrieve the one that is presently in my hand.

Once the disc is in my hand she is focused on my throwing and where the disc will land. The dog’s ability to figure out precisely where the disc will land is amazing. Bryn seems to like to play with a strong wind blowing just so that she can figure out which way the disc will go. Her great grandmother placed 4th in regional competition because she had the ability to do the same. The disc got caught by the wind, ended up in the judge’s tent and Katie was right on it. Competition in Chicago can be a challenge.

Bryn is also my first dog in which I have applied clicker training to Frisbee. I have taught other retrieval skills with the clicker such as the dumbbell and utility articles, so I thought that I should try it on Frisbee. Bryn was started on clicker training as soon as she could hear at about 4 weeks when she started eating solid food. In that way she was accustomed to associating the click with her food. We transferred this process to grabbing the Frisbee out of my hand with a click and a treat. Then, I would click and treat when she brought me her Frisbee or any toy of her choice. When we moved outside, I would click and treat when she would bring her Frisbee back to me. This has been a fun and positive way to train for both of us.

If you and your best friend should get the competition bug there are many venues in which to test your skills. Our first crazy Frisbee girl, Martini [ Katie’s mom], was transferred from playing basketball with my son --yes basketball-- to the Frisbee. She was so consistent that we decided to write to the Alpo company about competitions in out area and found that there were actually quite a few. We were approached by a local club and we decided to make Frisbee competition a part of our lives. Of course, this was in the “dark ages” 20 years ago when there was no internet to find instantaneous information . Now there are even more choices for competition.

You will be able to find guidelines for competition on any of the following websites:
United Frisbee Dog Operations
Ashley Whippet Invitational

Frisbee is a fun, exciting way to exercise your Aussie. She does most of the work. All you have to do is stand there and throw that disc again and again and again while your dog, hopefully, gets tired and attracts lots of attention. Above all, make certain that your dog is safe. Leave the vaults to the professionals.

Nellie was a Frisbee Dog. She loved the game. She lived for the game. She began winning competitions at 15 months old. At age 2 she went to regional competition for the first time. She knew her freestyle song, Jump, Jive and Wail, and ran for her Frisbee every time she heard it. At age 4 Nellie tied for 4th place at Alpo regionals with another Aussie who had been to World Finals for 2 years in a row. When she was 5, she qualified for the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge freestyle disc regional finals. Apparently that legacy has been passed on to her lovely and sweet granddaughter, Bryn. We can hope. See you at world finals in 2015!

"…I am a Frisbee dog. I am my master’s best friend and until time ends, we will always be together and those Frisbees will always hide in fear. From the invention of the very first disc, it is a bond that has become older than time. FRISBEE and dog… dog and bud!!!"

~ from The Frisbee Dog Creed by Colleen Gray

Gayle Silberhorn
Martini, Katie & Nellie – always in our hearts with Frisbees in their mouths
Sera & Bryn – the Frisbee Girls
Big Run Australian Shepherds

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