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.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) is perhaps the largest and most well-known venue for obedience. Though it currently only allows purebred dogs, the AKC Board of Directors is considering a listing service that would allow mixed breeds to participate in obedience, rally, agility and tracking. All dogs, including mixed breeds, are welcome to participate in obedience programs through the American Mixed Breed Obedience Registry (AMBOR), the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), St. Hubert’s Companion Dog Sports Program and the United Kennel Club (UKC).
UKC obedience competitor Ray Czubek of Illinois recently retired his mixed breed, J.D., one of only three dogs to earn her AMBOR Obedience Trial Championship. Having competed in both UKC with J.D. and in AKC with German Shepherds, Czubek finds the former to be more relaxing and family-oriented. But no matter where he participates, it’s working together with his dog that counts. “Most people are instant-gratification-oriented,” says Czubek. “I like the precision teamwork, and find it challenging to keep my dog motivated. You have to make the effort.”
At its earliest stages and well into the 1970s, dogs were taught obedience using punishment-avoidance techniques such as the “jerk and pull” method. People believed that if the dog experienced a negative consequence for not doing what was asked, that would be enough to create the preferred behavior. This worked for some dogs, though not all. Obedience training pioneer Terri Arnold of Massachusetts, who has earned multiple Obedience Trial Championships (OTCh) in AKC over more than 30 years, was one of the first to question and improve upon traditional training methods.
In the 1970s, when Arnold started training a Shetland Sheepdog, she soon realized that choke collars, harsh commands, and withholding praise or play would not work. But, she discovered, food was an excellent motivator, and she asked her trainer if she could bring some to class. He told her no. Her Sheltie performed wonderfully and happily at home with the food, but was miserable without it in class.
“I decided to sneak food into class, and it fell on the floor from her mouth,” says Arnold. “The instructor started screaming at me in front of the class, and I said, ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ I turned around and walked away. I knew there had to be a better way. I will never forget that day as long as I live. It was a turning point in my whole life.”
The introduction of operant conditioning and clicker training to competitive obedience over the past 10 years has fostered a growing movement toward more positive and motivational instruction. In his book Clicker Training for Obedience, Morgan Spector explains how operant conditioning and the use of the clicker can shape behaviors that, together, combine into a complete obedience exercise. Dogs learn step by step instead of being expected to learn an entire skill set all at once.
The Birth of Rally-O
For someone who has never shown a dog before, the formality of competitive obedience can be intimidating. With that in mind, the AKC and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) now offer Rally-O, a more fast-paced version of traditional obedience exercises, which takes place in a relaxed, though still competitive, setting. The judge creates a course in which the handler and dog follow numbered signs and perform the exercise described at each station. Rather than standing stiff and silent, handlers may use their upper bodies and talk to their dogs for encouragement.
“I love Rally,” says Certified Pet Dog Trainer Diane Lavigne of New York. “I think it’s a great way for a dog to get ring experience without going into the Novice [Obedience] ring. The exercises are based on what you need to do to get a Novice title.” Lavigne also competes in UKC and AMBOR obedience with her mixed breed Hershey, AKC obedience with her Golden Retriever Skye, and is training her young Golden, Eagle, for his competition debut. In December 2005, Hershey was ranked third in the nation by AMBOR for UKC Novice Obedience.
If you take the time to find an instructor with whom you feel comfortable, you and your dog will enjoy obedience, rally or both. “As long as the training is not abusive, the benefits of training are immense,” says Lori Waters, whose pack includes AKC Obedience Trial Champion German Shepherd Lou, and Border Collie Mitch, who was the first dog in AKC history to earn Conformation Champion, Obedience Trial Champion and Champion Tracker titles. “Spending time together, and learning to communicate with each other strengthens the dog–handler bond like nothing else can. After spending thousands of hours training, traveling thousands of miles showing—not to mention spending thousands of dollars—with my dogs, the way you both grow together is unbelievable. Your dog gets the attention and goes places that other dogs can only dream about. They get to live a very full life and the handler gets to share it.”
Even if you’re not interested in competition, obedience training has value. “Obedience doesn’t benefit the dog,” says Arnold. “The obedient dog benefits, because then the dog can have a good life, a chance to run free and be a dog, whether it’s in a dog park or out in the woods somewhere. It’s the most amazing thing to me, people who let dogs free that they can’t control. Love is taking the time to train the dog to keep it safe.”