If a dog barks his head off in the forest and no one's around to hear him, is he still a bad dog?
There continues to be discussion regarding the safety of group exercises. Most agree that this is a important skill for dogs to learn and good trainers who have developed voice control over their dogs can train the exercise well. However concerns continue to impart that we see an ever-increasing number of dogs breaking during the stay exercises and this causes danger to other dogs in the group. Whether there is actually a increasing number of dog-on-dog attacks is in question because few of us have access to the data tracking these situations. Nevertheless it makes sense that if there are a greater number of dogs breaking the stays, there would be a greater probability of attacks. The “face validity” that these exercises are dangerous is not good for the sport. Whether experienced or novice, a good trainer or bad, we all share the same concerns over our dogs getting involved in a fight. It is not a positive situation and I have changed my opinion.
Like most I continue to believe the stays an important skill for dogs to learn but given the sensitivities of exhibitors nowadays it appears that something must be done. If for no other reason than the perception of danger is not healthy for the sport. Suggestions have been offered to make group exercises safer while still demonstrating that dogs can perform the skill. Personally I find these remediation's less than adequate substitutes.
Keep leashes on dogs during the stays. This suggestion appears to be an inadequate solution to me. I doubt that having a leash on will deter all dogs from breaking and/or engaging in battle. Especially those dogs who are now causing the problems. Furthermore I'm not confident that trainers who can't train reliable stays now will suddenly have the ability to do so if a lead is attached. Even if handlers can grab/hold the leashes, it would still be difficult to pull fighting dogs apart. Anyone witnessing a dog attack is aware that once dogs latch on to each other, many don’t release easily. Beyond that, it is still an alarming spectacle for anyone to witness. Unless we require 8' leads with dogs spaced10' apart this appears to be a poor solution. And... one that wouldn't really demonstrate the intent of the exercise anyhow.
Taking the dog to a separate location to perform stays. Some suggest doing these exercises in separate rings independently or grouped farther apart. While this idea might improve the situation it will only take one incident to reinstate the alarming concern. As well, obedience already appears idle enough as it is and I'm not sure this idea will make it more effective.
Stay and walk. Various versions of the exercise where handlers leave their dogs on a stay and then walk around the ring have been suggested. In my eyes this doesn’t appear to be a valuable substitute for the groups. If we were going to do that, why not leave the dog on a recall exercise, have the judge pause with the handler at the opposite end of the ring, and then order the handler to call the dog. Optionally you could have the handler walk around the ring to a point where the dog could be called. Combining recalls with the stay would be a more efficient solution while performing them separately makes little sense and only duplicates the idea that the dog must stay until the handler performs the next act (calling the dog or going to the dog). This idea will make obedience appear more lethargic.
Discussions about creating a substitute exercise for the stays indicates that exhibitors feel they are an important skill for dogs to demonstrate. For what it appears to matter in today’s obedience, dogs are already demonstrating that they must stay during recalls, examinations, retrieves, go-outs, broad jumps, and signals. If we want to make stays safer I recommend that we eliminate group exercises entirely and replace them with a more-in-depth exercise performed while the dog is initially in the ring.
As mentioned, one of my thoughts would include a longer pause within one of the aforementioned exercises (retrieves, recalls, jumps, signals, exams, etc.). Perhaps this could pause could be implemented at the judges discretion? Optionally having handlers walk a longer, indirect path, on the recalls could demonstrate a dog's capability to stay. Again, this path could be implemented at a judge's discretion.
My personal preference would be to include a more complex examination exercise. This type of exercise would demonstrate what most handlers appear to believe.... "that a dog should be able to stay in place while another human approaches and touches it." According to the regulations as they are today, no dog is required to be examined or touched at all during the open exercises. Unless a judge measures a dog's jump height, no one examines them after novice until (AND unless), they get to utility. Sometimes that's a looong time! Why not create an exercise that continues to build on a skill the dog learned in novice? Why not create an exercise that continues to demonstrate a dog's ability (AND stability) to stay and be touched by another human?
Everybody appears to want a safer obedience. Everybody appears to want a friendlier sport. Society has changed and the sport must change to keep in stride. Perhaps it’s time to eliminate the groups and remove this monkey from the back of obedience.