One-Legged Dog, Part 1 – Guest blog by Diane_in_MN
My working-breed club holds two rally and obedience trials each year, one of each on both days of a weekend at the end of January. Our entry is very small, as we restrict entries to working breed dogs (think Boxers, Great Danes, Mastiffs, Newfoundlands, Samoyeds, for example), and these are not the most common breeds in obedience competition. Our exhibitors like this, as it gives their dogs a chance to win the highest awards at the trial.* And the small entry means the room isn’t crowded and noisy, which makes it a great place to start an inexperienced dog in competition. So this year I entered Teddy in his first obedience trial.
Obedience competition is not a dog event that is often shown to the general public. It doesn’t have the glamour of conformation shows like Westminster or Crufts, or the excitement of agility trials, with dogs running through obstacle courses and leaping over steeplechase jumps. I like to compare obedience work to the school figures that competition figure skaters used to be judged on in the Olympics: a set of formalized exercises that must be done with great precision in order to obtain a top score. The basic, or Novice, obedience exercises are heeling (both on and off lead), standing for examination, recall, and sit and down stays. These sound like basic good behaviors for dogs, and so they are, but obedience competition requires that they be performed in certain very specific ways. Heel position is strictly defined, and the dog will lose points if he forges ahead or lags behind the handler. He is supposed to sit in heel position at every halt, and will lose points not only if he fails to sit, but if he sits slowly or crookedly or anywhere other than in heel position. He is supposed to come straight to the handler when called, sit in front—squarely in front, not crookedly—and return to sit squarely in heel position (“finish”) when told to do so. And the handler is not allowed to speak to the dog after giving a single command for each exercise. The sit and down exercises are performed in a group, with all the dogs in the class lined up against a wall or ring gate. There are many opportunities for the average well-mannered dog (or his handler) to fail to qualify (or “NQ”) in an obedience trial.
The first-level obedience title is Companion Dog, or CD, and requires the dog/handler team to get three qualifying scores (170 points out of a perfect 200) in the Novice class under at least two judges. I have obtained the CD title on one** dog, my bitch Zinka, who didn’t go into obedience competition until she was six years old. Zinka was a singleton puppy, so in order to socialize her with other dogs her own age I started her in puppy kindergarten at eleven weeks old, and she continued training throughout her life. But she showed in conformation until she earned her championship, so she had to remain intact—the historical reason for dog shows was to select the best breeding stock, and in American Kennel Club competition, dogs and bitches must be intact in the conformation ring. And her co-breeder and I had planned to breed her after she finished her championship, so it wasn’t until after she had had her puppies and was spayed that I showed her in obedience.*** After training for six years, Zinka was totally bored with Novice exercises and didn’t display much enthusiasm in the ring—she specialized in sluggish heeling and the death march recall—but she did qualify three times in spite of herself.****
I had great hopes for my last boy, Zinka’s son Atlas, who was a willing and enthusiastic obedience dog, but he lost a leg to cancer at age three and was then ineligible to compete. So I was very pleased when Teddy turned out to be a good worker. He started competing in rally obedience events when he was a year and a half old and earned two rally titles^, one requiring off-lead work. I had planned to move on to the third level of rally competition before looking for a CD, but found that Teddy had a big problem with distraction^^ in the ring when off lead. Given that obedience competition is more structured than rally, and that much Novice work is on lead, it seemed like a good time to get him into the obedience ring. So we entered the Novice B^^^ class to test the waters and see how he’d do.
* In an all-breed obedience trial, it’s possible but unlikely that a working-breed dog will win the top award of Highest Score in Trial. Our dogs are big (and so slower on sits) and were generally not bred to work closely with a human partner like herding dogs or gun dogs were. Border Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Golden Retrievers are the usual stars of obedience competition.
** In 17 years of training. This tells you that I am not a hotshot dog trainer.
*** It’s not easy to do obedience work with intact bitches. They can’t train effectively or compete at all for the three weeks that they’re in season, and even if they haven’t been bred, they have more or less symptomatic false pregnancies which definitely affect their behavior. If you have a bitch who takes her false pregnancy seriously, you can lose three months out of every six. Zinka took her falses very seriously indeed.
**** In her last trial, she followed the off-lead heeling pattern about fifteen feet behind me. I think she caught up with me on the halts, but I don’t recall that she sat once. I believe she was trying for a score of 165, but she didn’t quite make it and qualified with 171. You bet we got a picture!
^ Rally obedience, or rally, is a relatively new event that was designed to bridge the gap between basic good behavior training and competition obedience. Rally exercises use obedience skills in various combinations; less precision is required when performing the exercises, and the handler is encouraged to speak to the dog throughout their time in the ring.
^^ Let’s be honest and call it paranoia.
^^^ The Novice class is divided into two sections, A and B. The A section is open only to people who have never put an obedience title on any dog. I used up my one and only shot at Novice A with Zinka. The B section implies that even though the dog is green, the trainer is not, and handler errors are scored accordingly. You will always lose points if you screw up, but you’ll lose more in Novice B.
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