One of the things I’ve always liked about obedience is that there is objectivity in it, and at least a certain amount of accountability. In our sport you can walk up to a judge (politely and respectfully!) after awards and a good judge can tell you if he deducted points on fronts, finishes, or heeling errors, so you know how to improve your performance. It’s not up for argument, but at least it’s specific. Compared to conformation, where many times the only information about what tipped the balance in favor of a particular dog is, “He really commanded the ring. He could not be denied today.”, we get a wealth of information from which we can learn.
Now let me be very clear here. I actually was very well educated on dog structure, form and function by my early mentors. One was a long-time breeder of Poodles and Greyhounds, Whippets and Salukis and a professional handler. Another was a Norwegian Elkhound breeder of world renown. While I’ve never had a breed champion myself, I actually respect the purpose behind conformation judging, which is to help guide people to improve their breeds and produce sound, healthy, stable dogs with temperaments and structures to facilitate their purposes.
But no matter what breeds we prefer, if you read articles in the Gazette or in breed-specific magazines, every one will eventually have an article discussing breeding trends that some folks believe are detrimental to their breeds. There is the common problem of seeing a trait admired and deeming that more of that quality might be even better. Whether it’s substance, reach and drive, head qualities, coat quantities, or showmanship, it’s a challenge for breeders to stay true to the standard, and for judges to judge to the standard rather than pick out extreme features on a consistent basis. I don’t think blame is constructive; I think that judges can only judge what breeders put in front of them, yet breeders will choose for virtues that are acknowledged, and risk over- emphasizing some. It irks me to see assumptions about what conformation judges are looking for, or to read scathing criticism of judges for what they are doing to a breed, when it is the breeders who decide which dogs to breed and show.
Why am I talking about this in a dog training magazine? Because I worry that our sport has the potential to develop a similar problem.
The regulations already call for judges to picture an ideal performance that embodies accuracy AND the utmost in willingness and enjoyment on the part of the dog. I was involved in the sport when this was added, in the 1980’s. At that time, some trainers were just starting to come out of the closet about using food rewards in training. It was quite controversial. But…there were still a lot of trainers who did nothing but pop-and-praise training in general, and there were a couple in our area who were blatantly pretty brutal, including kicking dogs hard on a hip for a crooked front, for example. One person in particular was winning pretty often with 2 dogs, because they were extremely accurate. But we witnessed the trainer more than once exit a ring after a performance that had a couple of crooked sits, and jerk the dog all the way back to its crate area and then use really harsh collar corrections and feet and hands to remind the dog sit better. Efforts to get him to stop that were met with extreme hostility. So that person inspired a local trainer who was on the next Advisory Committee to propose the change in the regulations. If dogs had to show willingness and enjoyment, training trends would have to change to help build that attitude. Pretty soon after the rule change, that obnoxious exhibitor disappeared from the sport, and honestly, nobody missed him.
But now we have folks who seem to think that willingness and enjoyment is embodied by very high head position, very flashy front feet, powerful rear end over-striding, over-all physical tension and lightening-fast motions, rather than being demonstrated in a confident and relaxed cooperative demeanor in all exercises. While I enjoy watching exuberant dogs perform and deeply admire the trainers who achieve both the energy and the accuracy, I am not so deeply pleased with what I hear people talking about outside the ring. I don’t think it’s a really good idea to generate uninhibited energy as a habit by allowing or outright encouraging obnoxious and dangerous social behaviors outside of the scope of the ring “tricks”.
The regulations state that the purpose of the sport of obedience is to demonstrate the usefulness of dogs as companions. Dogs who dance or practically levitate in heel position in the ring are a dream to watch; but when some of the dogs then drag their handlers all over the show grounds when not actually heeling, push into other dogs’ space, or lunge out at every person or dog they pass even in a “friendly” manner, something has gone a bit wrong.
When people start breeding fast energetic dogs to other fast energetic dogs and start getting fidgety dogs who cannot hold a stay when they grow up, or start using their mouths whenever they are frustrated by training efforts to control that energy, it’s a potentially harmful and dangerous trend.
I understand, and actually agree with folks who want to see happy dogs in the ring having a good time with their owners and performing with confidence. I just don’t think that has to be defined by lightening speed or extreme heeling postures. It’s important to not discourage people who have more serious or calm natured dogs. Such dogs still have to move briskly with definite intention to cooperate, but the fact that they are performing in a more stately manner does not mean that they are unhappy or inhibited. Not every person is a parson, and not every person is a cheerleader; but both sorts of people can be happy. Cheerleaders may be more obvious at any given moment, but the happy parson may be truly content more consistently. Some dogs will turn themselves inside out with wagging and panting and leaning and other attention-seeking behaviors, while others enjoy petting, kind words and the contentment of being close to their owners. That sort of dignified happiness should not be spurned. Nor should well-built dogs who heel accurately with powerful movement and a consistent but lower head posture be penalized for lack of flash. A lovely waltz is just as admirable as a jazz performance.
As the regulations stand, the bottom line is accuracy. We are each allowed to foster the attitudes our dogs are capable of giving us, and to seek to teach and exhibit our preferred level of flash. If your dog can be flashy and fast and hit the fronts and finishes and heel without appearing to crowd you or forge, you should do a lot of winning. If your dog is brisk, smooth, and consistently accurate about those fronts and finishes and flows powerfully through heeling, you should also do a lot of winning. The idea that flash is better is a dangerous one, an example of the power of trends similar to the evolution of preferences in conformation that cause headaches for breeders seriously trying to protect their breed standards.
Let’s be careful not to over-evolve our sport. Let’s remember its practical roots, coming from military training and basic field drills, all with the goal of developing reliable control. Let’s embrace motivational methods that help us develop the full potential of each dog; but let’s not allow the desire for flash to undermine the idea of having dogs who are actually well-mannered even when not performing a ring trick. Let’s remember that a truly happy dog is one who is confident because his trainer is clear about communication and consistent expectations, and is in a trusting relationship where dog and handler both can rely on each other.
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