Dog Handling in Obedience Classes or Working Trials

Your objective from puppy to adult dog has been to achieve as near as possible perfect behaviour by the dog. Any information on dog training would not be complete, however, without some remarks on the correct behaviour of the handler.

Although my remarks are directed to competitors in Obedience Classes they also apply to Trials. Most people will agree that the atmosphere at the latter is less tense (dare I say more friendly?) and if you can cope with Obedience Classes you should have little trouble with Trials.

To start with I should advise you to go along as a spectator to as many Classes and Trials as you possibly can. Watch carefully the behaviour of dogs and handlers particularly the successful ones.

Next, try to attend some training classes, where you will be able to work your dog under strange conditions and someone with more experience than yourself will be able to criticize your mistakes. If this is impossible, try to find someone or, better still, several people who are keen on training, and work your dogs together, even if you have no expert instructor.

There are occasions when the latter may be the better course. As I have said before, training classes are only as good as their instructors. There are many excellent instructors who give their valuable time and knowledge free to help those less experienced than themselves. We should all be grateful to these people (I certainly was in my early days of training) but don’t assume that because someone has trained his own dog to become an obedience champion this automatically means that he knows how to train yours.

I am assuming that you have familiarized your dog with as many distractions as possible ever since you had him. Take him out and work him in as many strange places as possible, but use a little common-sense in the choice of venue. Some people make their dogs do Sits and Downs in chain-stores and such-like places, but who, in the hustle and bustle of shopping, expects to have to avoid dogs doing the Long Down? If someone accidentally steps on the dog it will undo any possible good. Any public park or village green, with its dozens of uncontrolled mongrels roaming around and children playing football, is a much better place.

Let us assume that your dog will do all the Class A exercises in various places and with various distractions and you decide to enter him in his (and your) first competition. Do not enter him in Class A. Enter him in Beginners or Novice. You will then be able to give him all the encouragement you like, and you will not have to leave him out of sight.

As the day of the Competition approaches do not be carried away by your enthusiasm and train, train, train, until, by the time the day arrives, the dog is thoroughly stale. If you have carefully studied your dog throughout his training, you should, by now, have a fair idea of how much work he requires to keep him nicely under control. If he is the type of dog that does everything he is asked, but very soon shows signs of getting fed up with it, give him as little work as possible. If, on the other hand, he appears to forget everything each time he misses a day’s training, you will have to keep at him.

Whatever type of dog you have, do not have a sudden attack of ‘training fever’. Just carry on along the lines that you have found to obtain best results, up to two days before the competition. Unless you have a very keen, headstrong dog, do not do any training at all the day before the event.

The great day has now arrived, and we hope that you and your dog are fighting fit. I say ‘you and your dog’ because, although I have dealt at considerable length with temperament in the dog, and have said very little about temperament in the handler, I am certain that far more first attempt failures are due to the handlers going to pieces than to any fault in the dogs. People who have seen me work my dogs in public may find it hard to believe that I should ever have suffered from nerves. But I have, on many occasions, one of which stands out clearly in my mind.

My first public appearance with a dog was at the age of eighteen when I entered a young bitch, Meggy, in a local sheepdog trial. She was the first dog I had ever trained from scratch (from well behind scratch, thanks to my father’s efforts before I took her over!) and one of the best I have ever owned. The competitors drew for order of running and I had no beginner’s luck. I drew to run first!

In sheepdog trials a post is usually driven in the ground from which the competitor starts his dog, himself staying within a certain distance of the post. Although quite a small trial, it was held near Crieff during the holiday season and there was an audience of 5,000. From the ringside the post did not seem far away. By the time I reached it I felt as though I had walked miles The sheep were let out about 600 yards away out of sight of the dog.

I sent Meggy out but she did not see the sheep until she was quite close to them. Finding them and suddenly, she went down on the spot without any command and the sheep turned to face her. Now Meggy had her failings and I knew that, if I were not careful, she was liable to whip in and bring three sheep 600 yards in record time! I wanted her to ‘lift’ them very gently and my command to come on is a low whistle. So I tried to whistle in a nice steady tone. But to my horror I couldn’t whistle at all! All that came from my lips resembled a very feeble attempt to blow out a candle. And the dog was 600 yards away, not just across the ring as yours is likely to be.

Yes, I know very well what beginner’s nerves are like. Having overcome them to the extent of now being officially classed as a showman, I hope I may be able to help you to overcome yours — if you have any.

First of all remember that the experts of today were the novices of yesterday. If, therefore, your performance is not quite what you would like, the experts are much more likely to sympathize with you than to ridicule you. Anyone who says he or she has never been let down by a dog is either a liar or has trained remarkably few dogs!

Remember too that even if the judge thinks very little of your dog’s performance there may be a lot of ringside spectators who think he is wonderful.

You may have noticed competitors practising all the exercises before they enter the ring. As these include many of the most successful trainers, the novice, naturally, thinks that this must be the thing to do. What he or she overlooks is that many of these experts train dogs which the average novice could not handle at all.

I am referring to the very hard, boisterous type, whose handler has to keep on top all the time and who must, therefore, keep on working the dog right up to the time he enters the ring. It is fortunate that all dogs do not belong to this class, and I am certain that there are far more novices who ruin their chances of success by practising beforehand than there are who improve them.

One can see at any show handlers, not all novices, taking their dogs out to practice beforehand, starting off with really good heel work and entering the ring with a dog which is fed up with the whole proceeding.

To avoid this, study your own individual dog and don’t worry what other people do with theirs. If you have a hard, wilful dog, keep him with you as much as you can, take him round the rings, catch him out several times by giving him a sharp jerk when his mind is wandering, do some heel work, Sits and Downs. By the time he goes into the ring you can hope that he has settled down and is prepared to do what you want, without too much argument.

If, on the other hand, you have a dog that very soon gets slow and loses interest you will have to treat him very differently. First of all, never forget to take him out to run loose and relieve himself thoroughly just when your class has started or is about to start (depending on how many entries there are). That, of course, applies to the former type of dog, too. Now put him back on his bench and go round to the ring and ask the steward when he wants you to go in. Obedience dogs seldon run strictly in the order of catalogue, but the steward will have his list and will tell you that he would like you to compete after number so-and-so.

Perhaps you have a rather lazy dog. If so, leave him on his bench till the last minute, especially if the weather is hot. Wait by the ring until number so-and-so has done some of his exercises. If your bench is near the ring, you can wait until he is ready to do the retrieve, the last of his exercises. Then rush to your bench, take your dog off quickly, giving him the impression that something terrific is going to happen, and rush back to the ring. If number so-and-so had not quite finished, do some smart about-turns and halts, and always go into the ring quickly, doing one or to sharp halts, with a good jerk if necessary, on your way to the bridge. That will impress on the dog that he is not just out for a stroll, but is expected to jump to it. It will have a far more beneficial effect on the average dog than constant practising beforehand.

The majority of dogs, I think, fall between the two extremes I have just tried to describe, and it is up to you to study your own dog to find out how he works best.

Once in the ring you are under judge’s orders. Listen carefully to what he tells you. If there are points not quite clear, especially if this is your first attempt, ask the judge before you start. Don’t be afraid it will make you look silly. You will not look half so silly as if you misunderstand and do the wrong thing!

There will also be one or two stewards whom the judge may ask to pass on instructions to you. Remember that a steward’s job is to help the judge and the competitors. He or she is therefore merely doing his or her duty, not doing you a favour, in answering any queries you may have. Concentrate on your dog, the judge and/or stewards — ignore everyone and everything else.

Besides doing everything the judge or steward tells you, be careful not to do anything until you are told. For example, in the Retrieve do not throw your dumb-bell or send your dog, or take your dumb-bell or make the dog finish to heel until you are told to do so.

The commands in heel work are quite simple — Forward; Right Turn; Left Turn; About Turn and Halt. These are all, until you come to the more advanced ‘double’ and ‘slow’ paces. Nothing could be simpler than that — but it is quite amazing the number of handlers at training and obedience classes (especially ladies) who do not appear to know right from left!

  • Do try to practise until you know without having to think, as it is very hard on a judge to have to penalize an obviously good dog because of the handler’s stupidity!
  • About-turns are always to the right, and the right and left turns should be right-angled turns, not just a slovenly half-circled wander round the corner.
  • And don’t forget that when the judge says forward, you keep going forward until he stops you. If he forgets to do so and you walk into the ropes it is he who will look a fool, not you!
  • Don’t get upset because the judge or steward shouts his commands at you. If he did not, you might not hear, and that would be worse.

Remember that two of the first objects of competitions are to provide pleasure for competitors and to encourage others to take up training as a recreation. Please, I beseech you, try to look as if you were enjoying yourself! I am certain that the looks of grim determination and sheer agony on the faces of many competitors, not to mention some of the poor dogs, turn far more people against training than are won over by the competition itself.

After all, whether your dog does well or does badly in competitions he is still the same dog. You can still have the same enjoyment in training him, in taking him for walks and in doing all the other things which give so much pleasure to so many dogs and owners. If he wins in competitions he will add a thrill to your life, a thrill derived through the human desire to be ‘top dog’.

I hope that this may have helped some owners to realize that satisfaction. My greatest hope, however, is that it has helped you, my reader, to have a more obedient dog than when you started — a dog that will give you more pleasure and which will derive more pleasure from you. And possibly neighbours who will derive greater pleasure from both you and your dog! If he does not win every time you compete in an Obedience Class or Working Trial, does it really matter all that much?

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