Obedience: An Introduction

by Burton Goldstein

Who’s Training Who?
I tell my students that the race starts the second that you get your new dog / puppy. Are you going to train them, or are they going to train you? If you do not train them, they have trained you, and won that race. My second lesson is that it is not that hard to train a dog some behavior. It is very difficult to UNTRAIN something. Putting these two principles together means that you had better start shaping your dog’s behavior, the sooner the better.

An “obedient” dog is a pleasure to have around. Not only is he cute and lovable, but he will actually do what you want him to do. Obedience is the groundwork for anything else that you might want to do with your dog. Not only does it make for a great pet, it makes training for other dog companion sports, like agility, tracking, free style, flyball, and so on, so much easier.

Dog Shows
Like anything else, we can take dog training from a valuable tool to a competitive venue. When people say that they compete in “dog shows,” most people think of conformation shows, perhaps because of the popularity of televised shows like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. By contrast, an obedience trial is a rather “formal” demonstration of the teamwork between the handler and the dog. It is independent of what the dog looks like. It is only testing how well one team performs a given set of exercises, versus the other teams, on that particular day.

There are several dog organizations that sponsor obedience trials. We will focus on the American Kennel Club (AKC). The AKC maintains very strict rules and regulations for their various sports, and are updating them constantly. Therefore, anything said here might change in the future. However, this is how things are at the writing of this article, and what we encounter as we compete today.

Teams just starting compete in the “novice” class. Once they demonstrate some proficiency, they compete in the “open” class. When they show that they have developed true teamwork, they compete in the “utility” class.

Each of these classes is a plateau. For example, a team competing on the novice level performs novice exercises and is judged against other teams of the same experience level who are also competing for the novice title, called the “Companion Dog,” or C.D. To qualify, a team must perform all of the exercises correctly and earn at least one-half of the point value of each exercise. How each team does in comparison to all of the other teams at this level determines who finishes in first, second, third, or fourth place, with the blue, red, yellow, or white ribbon. More important, if you “qualify,” you earn a green ribbon. Three qualifying scores and you move up one level, in this case to the open level. Its title is Companion Dog Excellence, or the C.D.X. Three qualifying scores and you move up to the utility level; its title is the “Utility Dog”, or U.D.

In the novice ring, the team is asked to do basic obedience exercises. “Heeling” is walking with your dog at your left side, dog’s ear along the outside seam of handler’s pant leg. One story has it that in the old Wild West, the gun was worn on the right side. Not wanting to accidentally shot their dogs, people put them on their left side.

Obedience trials are held where “rings” can be set up. Dogs competing for their novice title enter the ring and perform a heeling pattern, moving at a “normal,” “slow,” or “fast” pace, turning left or right, and halting as instructed by the judge. Then two stewards stand eight feet apart, and the team is asked to perform a figure eight pattern around each of these two “posts.” Do the dog and handler move as a team? As the handler does an about-turn, or moves so the dog is on the outside of the figure eight (dog, handler, post), or the inside (handler, dog, post), or as the handler speeds up or slows down, does the dog adjust, not lagging nor forging? Every time the handler stops, the dog must automatically sit. Both the initial heeling pattern and the figure eight are performed “on-lead”. The dog is then taken off-lead, and asked to stand for examination. The heeling pattern is repeated, but this time the dog is off-lead. This is the real challenge for new teams. After off-lead heeling, the dog is asked to perform a “recall“.

All of these exercises are performed one team at a time, in the ring with the judge and any ring stewards as may be necessary for a particular exercise. Later, several teams will be brought into the ring for group exercises. In the first group exercise, the dogs sit for one minute, while the handlers are across the ring watching them. Then the dogs are asked to remain in a down position for three minutes, with the handlers across the ring.

Perform the significant portion of each of the exercises, and earn at least one-half of the points for each exercises, and you “qualify”. Qualify three times, and you have earned your C.D., and may continue competing in the open ring. If the novice exercises were fairly basic, the open exercises allow the dog more freedom to move about without the handler.

Heel free and figure eight are similar to those in novice. This time, when the dog is requested to do a recall, they are signaled to drop mid way. The dog is asked to retrieve a dumbbell, once on the flat and once over a high jump. The dog is asked to jump over a board jump. The group sits are three minutes and the downs are five minutes, with the handlers out-of-sight of their dogs. The dogs have to demonstrate their ability to perform the open exercises working independent of the handler.

The utility class exercises are even more dependent on the dog. The heeling pattern is performed with hand signals only. The dog is commanded to stop in a standing position, and the handler leaves the dog standing, walks across the ring, and turns to face the dog. At the judge’s instruction, the handler has the dog go from its standing position to a down, then to a sit, come to a sit in front of the handler, and then return to the stationary heel position. All of these commands are given with hand signals only.

Then scent articles, five leather and five metal, are brought into the ring. Four of each material are placed in a pile while the dog and handler watch, then turn away. The handler has taken one of either the remaining leather or metal articles, and puts his “scent” on that particular article by rubbing the article in his hands. The judge carefully takes that scented article and places it in the pile. The dog is directed to go out and bring back just the scented article. Nine articles are in the pile, but only one is the correct one. This exercise is then repeated using the other scented article.

In the next exercise, the team stands in the middle of the ring. Three gloves are placed along the same side of the ring, in the two corners and in the middle. The judge instructs the handler to have their dog retrieve either glove one (left corner), two (middle), or three (right corner). Again, the dog has “options.” There are three gloves, but only one is the correct one. This time, instead of scent, the dog is working in the direction indicated by his handler.

The next examination begins with the team heeling forward. On the judge’s signal, the dog is commanded to “freeze” in standing position, as the handler continues walking ten feet ahead, stops, and turns. The judge’s examination is far more thorough. The dog is then commanded to go directly to heel position, as opposed to first sitting in front of the handler, as he has done in every instance up until this level of competition.

A solid panel jump and a bar jump are already in place in the ring. The team lines up at the center of one side of the ring. The dog is commanded to “go out” to the opposite side of the ring, with nothing there to do but to stop, turn, and sit on one single command. Next the dog is given a signal to jump either the “high” (solid) jump, or the bar jump. This is performed a second time, when the dog is commanded to jump the opposite jump.

Utility exercises are far more difficult than those at the earlier levels of competition. They are based far more on the dog’s ability to work independently. There are several options available when performing each exercise, but only one of them is correct. This level of teamwork demands that both the handler and the dog do their jobs correctly. It is not surprising that this level is often referred to as “futility”.

“Performing” the exercises can be done to different degrees. One dog might be very quick while another may be slow, doing the correct action, but not as promptly as the first dog. If the dog does not perform the correct action, it fails that particular exercise, or does “not qualify,” (N.Q.). If he does the correct action but lacks speed or precision, the judge might take off points -- a minor deduction, or a major deduction. The number of points deducted can vary from judge to judge. What is considered a minor deduction and what is a major one might also vary from judge to judge. As long as the judge is consistent, the judging is fair. One judge might have what we refer to as a “sharper pencil” than the next judge.

Judges are looking at how to score each team. Which team should be their first, second, third, and fourth place finishers? If a team is working just barely borderline, right near the 170 point threshold, the judge might consider whether that team might really deserve that title. After all, the judge might be giving that team their third leg, and hence that title. You will notice that judges do not let anyone see their score sheets until all of the scoring is finished, and they do have the liberty to makes changes to any of their scoring until the very end.

Higher Titles
Once a team has earned a utility title, it can compete at both the open and the utility levels in the same show. If it can qualify in both levels on the same day ten times, the team can earn the “Utility Dog Excellence”, or U.D.X., title. Do it more than once, and you can earn the U.D.X.-2, -3, etc.

By virtue of the number of dogs defeated, there is a matrix of so many dogs showing and so many dogs defeated that can enable a team to earn “obedience trial championship” points. For an obedience trial championship, the team has to have earned a first place in the open class, a first place in the utility class, and a third first place in either class at a show with at least a certain number of teams competing. This is the ultimate in obedience completion, and known as the Obedience Trial Champion, or OTCH.

The A.K.C. has recently introduced another title, earned by constantly scoring high but perhaps not winning. The “obedience master” title is earned with high scores, at least one-third coming from the open class, one-third coming from the utility class, and another third from either class.

In Conclusion
There are many facets to this sport that we have not covered here. Novice “A” classes are for inexperienced handlers and dogs, while Novice “B” classes are for experienced handlers with inexperienced dogs. There are “optional titling classes”, like “versatility”. There are “non-titling classes”, like “pre-novice”, and even “team obedience“, with four dog / handler teams competing together. We never intended to give a full explanation of the AKC obedience regulations, but just to whet your interest. Go watch an obedience trial. Like any other sport, the really good performers make it look easy. It’s not. It takes a lot of hard work, instruction, training, practicing, and competing. But if you are looking to form a bond between yourself and your dog, this is a great opportunity.

People say that dogs have a limited “vocabulary” and capability. Once you watch an obedience trained dog respond to voice commands, hand signals, scent discrimination, and direction, you will surely doubt this adage. Not only that, but all of this comes in a furry, lovable package!

It is said that at the end of each trial, win or lose, each handler gets to take home the very best dog in that show … their own!