Dog trainer Karin Larsen Bridge delves into the competitive world of obedience dog trials.
While most dog owners are happy with a pet that will come when called, sit when asked and go for a walk without pulling their arms off, obedience competitors strive for nothing short of perfection from their canine partners.
Developed after the Second World War, competitive obedience trials were devised to demonstrate the usefulness of the dog as the companion and guardian of man (Rules for the Conduct of Obedience Trials, ANKC, 2000). Dog-training clubs were a natural progression, dedicated to helping owners and their dogs achieve the standard of training required for competition.
The original aim of dog-training clubs therefore was not so much to help pet owners with the basics of training, as it was to promote dog training as a new and growing competitive sport. The curriculum of dog clubs was, and in many cases still is, based on the exercises required to pass the obedience tests prescribed by the Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC), rather than specifically for the needs of average pet owners. Many would argue, however, that the foundations for a well-behaved dog are the same, regardless of whether your ambitions are for a pet you can be proud of or an obedience champion.
Pet dog vs obedience dog
It’s true that both pet owners and competitors want a dog that will come, sit, drop and walk nicely on a lead, but an obedience dog has to perform these behaviours to a much higher level. For example, in all levels of obedience competitions:
- The dog must perform all behaviours on one command only no second chances.
- The dog must hold the position until commanded to move.
- The dog must sit, stand or down straight by your side.
- The dog must heel by your left side on or off the lead at slow, medium and fast pace. Points are lost for being too far in front or behind, too wide or crowding in too close.
- The handler may use single word commands only. For example, fetch instead of go get it.
- The handler may not praise the dog while it is working.
- The handler may not change body position or facial expression except to signal a command, as the judge could consider any extra movement a secondary signal.
- The handler cannot take any rewards into the ring, such as food or toys.
- The handler may not jerk or manipulate the dog physically in any way while in the ring.
The high standard of performance required, the strict regulations and the pressure of being scrutinised individually by a judge for up to 10 minutes means obedience trialling is not a sport for every pet owner. For some, however, it is these very challenges that make it so appealing.
Obedience trialling is an international sport enjoyed in countries such as the USA, UK, Europe and Japan. The five levels of tests offered by the ANKC are not only standard nationally but are substantially the same as those contested around the world. The tests are:
1. Community Companion Dog (CCD)
This test is a recent addition to the sport of obedience. It was designed specifically to encourage new people into the sport by allowing all of the heelwork to be performed on lead. Heelwork is generally acknowledged as one of the more difficult exercises for novice dogs and handlers to perform well. By having an entry-level test where heelwork could be performed on lead, many more owners could be encouraged to compete. The exercises in the CCD Award are:
Heel on lead: 30 points
Stand for examination on lead: 10 points
Recall (come): 20 points
1 min sit stay: 20 points
2 min down stay: 20 points
TOTAL: 100 points
To gain a CCD title, a dog must score over 75 points at three separate events.
2. Companion Dog (CD)
To achieve the Companion Dog title, the dog must perform the same behaviours as in CCD, but all heelwork is off lead, the down stay is longer and there is a choice of retrieving a dumbbell or a position change at a distance. From this point on, the dog must achieve a score of 170 or higher out of a possible 200 points (at least 85%) to qualify at that level. Three performances at three separate events are once again required to gain the CD title.
3. Companion Dog Excellent (CDX)
At this level, all heelwork is off-lead, the dog is required to retrieve a dumbbell, to jump, to drop when running towards the owner on a recall, and to perform longer sit and down stays with the owner out of sight for up to five minutes. The same pass rate as for CD is required.
4. Utility Dog (UD)
A whole new set of skills is required of dogs in the Utility class, many of which are enjoyable and stimulating for the dog. Two exercises challenge the dogs scenting abilities. The first is called the seek back, and it requires the dog to retrace the handlers steps to find a dropped article and return it swiftly to the owner.
The second, the scent discrimination exercise, requires the dog to find three articles one made from wood, one from metal and one from leather which have been touched by the handler. The three scented articles are then placed among 12 similar articles that have not been touched by the handler. The dog must select the scented articles without picking up any of the unscented articles and deliver them promptly to the owner. UD exercises may also involve a send-away from the owner, directed jumping, refusing offered food while the handler turns his back, position changes at a distance and speak on command.
5. Utility Dog Excellent (UDX)
This class is also a recent addition to the obedience competition schedule designed to offer further challenges for top obedience dogs. It builds on skills from the UD ring, such as adding a decoy to the seek back exercise, offering multiple retrieves and increasing distance control.
Successful completion of each class gains a different title that is then permanently recorded on the dogs pedigree or registration papers. Outstanding obedience dogs who have already attained a UDX title and who repeatedly gain high scores may also achieve an Obedience Champion title, the ultimate accolade for any dog and handler team.
Competitive obedience is a well-organised activity throughout Australia, New Zealand and around the world. Join any dog-training club and chances are they will automatically begin teaching you the basic requirements for obedience trialling. Dog-training clubs use volunteer instructors, so costs are kept to a minimum, making this as inexpensive a sport as you will find in todays world.
The amount of equipment required is also minimal. A good, non-slip pair of shoes, a dog, a collar and a lead are all you really need to get started. A few inexpensive retrieve articles are required in the CDX and Utility classes, but any other equipment is generally provided by the clubs.
Competitions are conducted under the auspices of the ANKC and their affiliated state bodies. You must be a financial member of your state canine council and your dog must also be registered with them. Purebred dogs and neutered crossbreeds are eligible.
Gaining any obedience title, from Community Companion Dog to Obedience Champion, is a great achievement and reflects a significant amount of time and effort devoted to developing a deep and trusting relationship with your dog. Top competitors find the exacting rules and criteria only add to the satisfaction of a well-executed test. They are always striving for that rare but possible perfect score a living testament to a perfect understanding between handler and dog.