Francoise Mira of California will never forget the day advanced obedience skills saved the life of her beloved mixed-breed dog Leilah. She had been hiking with Leilah and her Australian Shepherd, Copper, in a canyon near her home. On weekends, the area was closed off to automobile traffic, making it safe for off-leash dogs.
“All of a sudden, I heard a car coming, illegally off-roading,” says Mira. “I called Copper to me but Leilah was on the other side of the road. I told him to sit and at the same time, I gave the down-stay visual signal to Leilah and she dropped [to the ground]. Because I was able to give her that Utility down signal, a hand signal, I was able to have them both stay still and let this car go through.”
In competition, obedience at its best can look like magic. With every nod of the handler’s head or sweep of her arm, the dog responds with an enthusiastic burst of motion or a quick halt or down. Dog and handler glide together in perfect sync as the judge calls out instructions, and the small crowd gathered outside the ring quietly admires their performance. At the conclusion of the class, the judge announces which teams qualified, and to those pairs he hands out the placement ribbons, as the audience applauds and the dogs’ tails wag.
“Obedience builds confidence in the dog,” says Kate Cowles of Iowa, who competes with four shelter dogs in UKC obedience, St. Hubert’s Companion Dog Sports Program and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ Rally O. “For me, the point of doing competitive obedience is to build the bond.”
At its worst, competitive obedience can look like torture for both partners. Some handlers constantly jerk at their dog’s leash or practically drag the poor thing around the ring. Other handlers become so nervous about the trial setting that they pass on that stress to their dogs, who constantly lick their lips and look for a chance to bolt.
If this is your idea of obedience, then it certainly does not conjure up images of fun with your dog. But for many people nationwide, it is a favorite pastime, and their dogs enjoy the extra attention, travel and overall excitement. Perhaps if it were called something more flashy, like “precision teamwork” or “synchronized stepping,” more dog-lovers would pursue this challenging sport and discover its many benefits.
At its most basic, obedience comprises a variety of exercises that demonstrate controlled communication between handler and dog. Depending on the level, required skills can include sit, down, stand for exam, recall, heel, retrieve, jump and scent. The degree of difficulty increases as you progress from one class to the next, known as Novice, Open and Utility in most venues.
Modern obedience in North America derives from exercises created by the world’s first Working Trial society, the Associated Sheep, Police and Army Dog Society of England. The society hosted its first Working Trial in 1924 as a practical test of each dog’s knowledge in three areas: control, agility (over varied terrain) and scent work.
Helene Whitehouse Walker is widely regarded as the founder of American obedience. In 1933, she adapted the society’s exercises to hold her own test in New York to prove the intelligence of her Standard Poodles. In 1937, Walker and her assistant, Blanche Saunders, promoted the young sport by taking their dogs on the road for a nationwide traveling obedience exhibition.
Today, the society’s three fundamental applications can still be found at an obedience trial, no matter what the venue. Control is exhibited at all levels of obedience, especially through heeling and the dog’s response to the handler’s verbal commands or, as they progress as a team, silent hand signals. Agility is demonstrated at the Open level by asking the dog to jump over a panel jump, broad jump and bar jump. Lastly, scent work is found at the highest level, Utility, in which the dog must find an object with his handler’s scent among a pile of articles and return with the correct one.