Friday, January 27, 2012


To paraphrase Mark Twain, the dropoff in obedience entries is like the weather; everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.  The words ad nauseam must have been coined to describe that very conversation.

But those who are concerned -- including this writer/obedience competitor -- aren't Chicken Littles.  The problem is real.  We had two days of obedience trials here this weekend.  Attractive trials, great location, well-run.  There were six entries in Novice A on Saturday, three on Sunday,  Newbies aren't exactly storming the gates.

Novice A is the portal to the sport, the entry level for new blood.  And a transfusion is way,way overdue.  So let's follow that single thread of a rather complex problem -- effective recruitment.

Catherine Zinsky writes a column in Front & Finish.  It's called "Playing by the Rules."  In the July/August 2010 issue, she devoted her column to "Suggestions to Help Obedience Grow."  Catherine offered several suggestions of her own, then asked a few of us who are hopeless obedienceophiles for our suggestions.  Those that found their way into print were John Cox, Sue Cox, Betty Cunningham, Louise Meredith, Betty Ribble, and me. Their thoughtful comments related to several dimensions of the problem. But to keep the focus of this post on recruitment, I'm using only the material related to attracting newbies to the sport.

I'll lead off with my own comments because the first sentence offers logic from which all else must follow.  I wrote:  In order to embrace something, you've got to be aware that it exists.  In other words, no matter how attractive we make the portal into our sport, if our target audience isn't even aware of it, it'll have the same effect as the tree falling in the forest when no one is there to hear it.

Then I continued:  "I got into competition obedience because a substitute Parks Department pet obedience instructor (Billie Rosen) invited our class to come see an obedience fun match 90 miles away. I drove 180 miles that day . . . and was hooked.  That was 20 years ago.  I wouldn't have known the sport existed had Billie not pointed it out to our class."

In Catherine's column I went on to suggest that it might be worthwhile for the AKC to establish a relationship with organizations such as PetSmart and "encourage them to let their students know about the exciting world that lies just beyond pet obedience training.  I believe the timing is just perfect (and that was 16 months ago)  now that mixed breeds have been welcomed into our sport."

Sue Cox picked up on that, saying, "Think of all the 4-H groups across the country, and many of those leaders and kids in the dog program know nothing about earning AKC titles."  Sue went on to state, "There must be a way to connect with the national 4-H organization to spread the word about mixed breeds now being able to earn AKC titles . . . ."

Louise Meredith also went straight to the recruitment issue:  "I think we need to target students in and coming out of beginning training classes, including those from dog clubs and those from private classes such as Petco, private trainers, etc."  She then went on to suggest and describe in detail exhibition classes to be held at every trial . . . free to anyone in a beginning obedience training class.  Great idea.  But it brings us right back to the awareness issue.

Betty Cunningham hit on it, too.  ". . . maybe the clubs aren't giving the people who take their classes enough information and encouragement to go on."

Those suggestions appeared 16 months ago.  From highly credible people, some of the pillars of the sport.  Did they light a fire under anyone?  What are you betting?  We'll see in the next installment of this blog.


Sunday, January 15, 2012


As I worked with my commitment to the "seamless exercise," I was pleased with my progress toward focusing exclusively on my canine partner.  But I was totally surprised when out of the blue came a bonus benefit -- one that has had a major impact on my ring experiences.

Although I've been heavily engaged in competition obedience for more than two decades, I had been plagued by ring nerves every inch of the way -- a subject I've addressed in depth in my upcoming book.

Across the decades, I've tried it all:  visualizing, deep breathing, self-talk, positive thinking, meditation.  I've read and followed the principles suggested in two marvelous books:  Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, M.D.; and Conquering Ring Nerves by Diane Peters Mayer.  None of which did the trick.  All the theory and all the practice went right out the window when we entered the competition ring.

Until one day when I brought up the subject with Louise Meredith.  Without saying it directly, Louise reminded me that there's being there and then there's focus. 

Being in the ring with the dog, setting him up for the exercises, saying the commands -- that ain't focus!  Focus is being locked in on the dog to exactly the same degree that I expect him to be locked in on me during our ring run.  Louise was talking about exclusivity, singularly targeting one thing (the dog) to the exclusion of all else.

Hello! Suddenly I realized that, without being aware of it, she was reinforcing my then-fledgling concept of the ring appearance as a seamless exercise.  Only in a different context.

"I think if you concentrate so hard on your dog, on what you must give him, on what you must do for him (in the ring), you'll lose your ring nerves," she told me.

At the time, she had recently attained an OTCH with her border collie named Luc.  A dog she describes as "a real scardy cat."  She continued, " The whole time I'm in there with him I'm thinking, What can I do to make him feel better about himself?  Each exercise, each step.  So much focus on him that I lose my anxieties."

And by God she's right!  Anytime I'm disciplined enough to practice what I'm preaching here, anytime I fully commit a ring run to my seamless exercise resolution, my ring nerves plummet.

Who knew that working on my own focused attention as much as I work on the attention of my dog would result in such an important freebie?


Thursday, January 12, 2012


Across recent months much has been written in this blog about dog attention.  We've sliced it, diced it; some might say we've beaten it to death.  Which simply reflects the amount of emphasis good obedience trainers put on getting their dogs to focus on them.  During heeling.  While the hand signals are being given.  Teaching.  Reinforcing.  Correcting.  Proofing.

Dog attention is the bedrock of a solid foundation for competition obedience performance.

As the blood, sweat and tears are shed trying to reinforce the four-legged partner's attention, all too often the flip side is being neglected.  I'm talking about the handler's attention to the dog.  More often than not it's ho-hum, if it's thought of at all.  Here are two real-life examples of how sloppy that side of the equation can be.

The problem can be strikingly apparent during practice for the group exercises (long sits and downs).  That's coffee klatch time.  And I'm not even talking about out-of-sight sits and downs.  I'm talking about Novice sits and downs where all of us are lined up directly across the ring from our dogs.  I wish I had $5 for every time I've participated in the following little scenario.

"Yackety-yak."  Ditzy So-and-So's dog goes down on the sit.  "Yackety-yak." 

I rudely interrupt the riveting conversation.  "Hey, uh, Ditzy," I say, "your dog's down."

"Oh!" Ditzy exclaims.  She snaps to, hurries over there and fixes her dog.  Then she returns . . . "Yackety-yak."

And when the dog never becomes solid on the group exercises, guess who gets blamed.

Then of course there's the socialization that so often goes on during scent article rub-up time between handler and judge.  (The judge, by the way, should know better.)  While the pleasantries are being exchanged, Fluffy is gazing vacantly around, having totally lost focus.

Such little focus-losing, NQ-inviting interludes don't have to happen.  I'm having none of it.  Without being rude, the moment I pick up the article I begin looking down past my left shoulder, talking to my dog while I hot-scent the  article.  Judges get it.  They understand.  I have yet to have a judge strike up a conversation while I'm in my holding-my-dog's-attention mode.

Once I figured out that I owe my dog as much attention as I ask of him -- and it took eons to penetrate -- I came up with an "exercise" that I practice myself and encourage my students to adopt.

I regard every foray into the ring (in trials, matches and practice) as a "seamless exercise."  It starts several minutes before I expect to be called into the ring.  When the team before us is about halfway finished with their run, I establish two-way focus with my dog.

If the order of the exercises in the ring we're about to enter begins with anything other than a heeling exercise, I first heel my dog a little bit, then we settle down to play.  Down means just that; I'm on my knees doing light roughhousing and tugging on the leash.  Our game is going on fairly close to the ring -- just far enough away so as not to disturb the dog that's already in there.  Ideally our game terminates when the steward calls us to enter the ring.  I jump up and in I go with a dog that's all wound up.

On the other hand, if the first order of business will be a heeling exercise, I reverse the order.  First we play. Then, as the team preceding us exits the ring we begin to heel, continue while the judge gets a drink of water and does whatever housekeeping she has to tend to.  Then we heel to the gate.

Once we enter the ring my goal is absolute, sustained focus on my dog until we exit that ring.  Specifically, I don't permit myself so much as a glance outside the ring.  The first time I catch myself sneaking a glance I assume, in terms of the standard of self-discipline I've set for myself, that I've flunked.

Sustaining that level of unbroken focus for that long is more difficult than it sounds.  But with practice it becomes easier and easier, a habit.  And not surprisingly, the dog's focus improves as well.

What did come as a pleasant surprise was a benefit that had not occurred to me.  A benefit that emanated directly from my regimen of extreme focus.  I'll discuss that pleasant surprise in my next post.