Tuesday, February 28, 2012


My recent posts concerning the dropoff in competition obedience entries drew several responses worthy of highlighting in this space.  Here they are.

1. There's a bright, active lady in Pullman, Washington who comments on these posts from time to time.  I think she's retired, but I'm not sure.  She was or is a vertebrate museum curator.  Anyhow, she has interesting things to say, and I wish she lived in our neck of the woods.  She blogs under the "handle" Palouse Dogs."

Recently she posted this comment:

. . . I disagree that obedience only needs more recruits.  Just look at agility.  I don't see anymore effort to get youngsters involved in agility than in obedience, yet agility is thriving.

Agility requires far more space and equipment (or access to such) than obedience.  You hardly need any equipment for obedience and you can find a way to train in a house, on the sidewalk, in a park, etc. And yet, agility, not obedience, is thriving.  Obedience never has been as popular as agility, even when obedience was practically the only dog game around.

Just about everyone in obedience has an opinion on how this or that change could improve obedience.  I have a million ideas.  Only thing is, it doesn't MATTER what anyone's ideas are.  Obedience is etched in stone.  And that, I think, is the real problem.  Regular obedience doesn't seem to be able to try anything new.

Agility and rally can make dramatic changes practically overnight.  Changing anything about obedience requires decades of pushing, and then the changes are little more than chips around the edges of the stone into which the rules have been carved.

I'm not talking about making obedience "easier."  I'm thinking of things like more variety in the routines, maybe a "Preferred" option with lower jumps, higher and harder levels of obedience to move teams beyond the endless perfection of the same old, a reassessment of the value of exercises that people have complained about for decades (like the Open groups), etc.  But mostly, I think obedience just needs to TRY some new ideas.  Maybe they won't work and maybe they will.

Evolution:  It's not just for antibiotic-resistant bacteria anymore.

Well, AMEN!  Helen Phillips, one of the great thinkers in our sport, has been saying the same thing for decades.  Is anyone out there listening?

2.  There is a person here in our local environment who has participated in conformation and agility but has only watched competition obedience from ringside for more than two decades.  What she brings to the table in this discussion is 40 years of national award-winning experience as a marketing excecutive.  For at least a decade she's been saying:

Over the years I've heard a lot of people lamenting the dwindling number of young people in obedience.  One thing that might help would be to award the winners in Novice an entry into their next trial, rather than giving  them a tchotchke.  Young people don't have a lot of money and it's expensive to show a dog in obedience.  An award of their next show entry is more likely to bring them back than is a fuzzy duck.

3.  Finally, an observation of my own.  I'll make the comments that follow, then show up for the rally trials at the Fiesta Cluster in Scottsdale this weekend with a paper bag over my head.

One need look no farther than rally to identify a major contributor to the decline in competition obedience entries.

Firstof all, rally obedience is a misnomer.  Better the sport should be called rally coaxing or rally luring or rally arm waving.  To use the word obedience to identify the sport of rally and then turn around and apply it to the venerable sport of competition obedience is, I submit, a lot like the use of the word beauty -- it's in the eye of the beholder.

Traditionally, in AKC dog sports, obedience has implied a strong commitment to training the dog.  That's absolutely not true of rally.  Give me a dog that -- with sufficient coaxing, cajoling, begging, pleading, and above all arm-waving -- will sit, down and take a low jump, and I can qualify that dog in rally.  I see it umpteen times at every rally trial.  Blood, sweat and tears not required.

That's not to say that rally is easy.  What's hard -- what trips up so many of us (Yes, us; I lose far more points than my dog does.) -- is keeping our heads together so as not to make silly handler errors.  But training the dog, naw!

I was at a rally trial last weekend here in the Phoenix area.  There were 39 entries, which meant there were quite a few less people than dogs.  I counted 14 people that I knew and was personally aware of that had either started out in dog sports with the intention of doing competition obedience or had been in competition obedience -- some for many years -- but had dropped out and had gone into rally.

Those who had started out to do traditional obedience had discovered that training a dog to be competitive in the obedience ring is hard.  It requires dedication and commitment.  And it takes a long time, at least two years.  They had said, "Oh my God, this is is hard!"  And had fled to rally.  A lick and a promoise and they were in the ring, patting thighs, flailing arms.

Those who had been in competition obedience for a long time -- struggling along with poorly trained dogs -- discovered rally, cried, "Hosanna!" and they were outa there.

Sociologists would tell you that this migration is simply a reflection of a decades-long tred in our society -- instant gratification.  And given a choice, many take the low road, the less-effort road.

What I've just said is in no way a suggestion that obedience should be dumbed down.  It's merely an observation of one of the factors that clearly is siphoning off competition obedience entries.

* * *

A Personal Note  Many who have been reading this blog for the past 10 months have also read my first two books:  Remembering to Breathe and OTCH Dreams.  A third book is on the way.  I've just finished the first draft.  Right now I have 518 pages of an intended 300-page book.  At this point I always do a complete rewrite -- and cut.  That exercise and training a yet-to-be-born puppy will consume the lion's share of the rest of 2012.

The point is that postings to this blog will be fewer and farther between.  The blog isn't dying, it's just slowing down to accommodate the priorities mentioned above.


Friday, February 17, 2012


Apparently the majority of those who read this blog have no idea how to navigate the steps necessary to leave a message in the comments area.  I understand; the process confounds me, too.  The responses I get directly to my email outnumber by at least 10 to 1 the comments left on the blog.  From time to time one of those emailed comments strikes me as must-read for all those who are tuned in to this blog. 

Such was the case when I heard from Judie Niece on February 15.  Judie was responding to the well-documented case Andrea in Las Vegas had made about the cost of competition obedience participation.  Judie started out to explain how the benefits of having  your kids participate in AKC dog sports events can far outweigh the onerous costs of that participation.  But before she was finished she also delivered a little piece of wisdom that way, way transcended dollars and cents.  Here's Judie's message in its entirety.

There is an incentive to have your children participate in AKC events, and it far outweighs the cost of shows.  My daughter Holly participated in AKC Junior Showmanship and conformation.  She started at age 11 -- no classes.  She observed professional handlers and put into practice what she saw in the ring.  She placed several conformation titles on dogs that she handled for others.  She also trained her Lab in obedience, earning a CD title, participated in hunt tests, had a registered therapy dog, and qualified for Westminster 2 times as a Junior Handler.

Her first introduction to a dog show was watching "mom" participate in one of her first obedience shows -- she was hooked!  Not only do these juniors mature quickly, having to participate with adults, but those who participate in AKC events are also eligible to apply for AKC scholarships.  Between her undergrad studies at(Arizona State University) and then her transfer to (Colorado State University) for vet school, she was awarded about $30,000 in scholarships.  And your choice of majors has nothing to do with the award.  Many recipients choose majors not having anything to do with the "dog world."  Not too many weekend soccer warriors can say the same.  And did I  mention she was SO BUSY with the "dog world" that she never had time to get into any trouble. . . . just sayin' . . .

It happens that I was priviledged to have, literally, a ringside seat for the interaction Judie describes. Many were the times Judie and I competed in the obedience ring with our goldens -- Judie with Sandy, I with Honeybear.  And we watched together as Holly heeled her Lab in the Novice ring.

A few weeks ago, at an obedience trial, I looked to my left and saw a young couple changing a diaper atop a crate.  They were Holly (Niece) Tuttle DVM, her husband Bill and tiny daughter Brooke. 

Another dog sports newbie on the way?


Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Following my two recent posts about possibilities for recruiting more newcomers to competition obedience, I received a couple of interesting responses which I'm sharing here.

It's been suggested ad infinitum that an AKC partnership with organizations such as Petco, PetSmart and 4-H could expose legions of pet obedience students to our sport.  To date the only response that's discernable is zzzz.  

Sue in Scottsdale emailed me about an exchange she had with a "trainer" at PetSmart recently.  She said:  "I had one of my dogs with me (Why not take advantage of the training possibility?) and the trainer was watching me.  He asked questions and I told him I competed in competition obedience.  He asked , 'What's that?'"

Andrea in Las Vegas sent this well-thought-out response derived from her family's experience.  Edited a bit for clarity, here's what she told me:

Showing dogs in obedience is very costly for a family.  Except for conformation junior handling, entries cost the same for kids as for adults.  And those fees are a minimum of $28 per day, $84 for three days . . . per kid. And if the child shows in both obedience and rally, both have the same entry fee, as each has its own separate event number. She also pointed out that we should not forget to include the cost of gasoline, a motel, parking, etc.  "That's really pricey for a couple of green ribbons and a certificate that comes in the mail a few weeks later," she said.

What's more, she pointed out, "Obedience/rally classes start at $65 for 6 weeks (mediocre choke and jerk method)."  Then she contrasted that with one season of soccer or little league which includes two practices and one or two games a week and lasts 10 to 14 weeks.  In her area that costs $90, and if you sign up a second child that child participates at half price.

Andrea concluded with this revealing time line:  When she started in dog sports at age 14, she had 12 friends her age participating with her.  By the time she was 20 she had 6 friends training and showing.  When she was 30 all her same-age friends had dropped out, but her kids and their friends were there training and showing.  Now she's 40.  Her kids and their friends have moved on.  And there are no newcomers.

And she said when she read my blog she realized -- sadly, she told me -- that not one of the four dogs in their home has an obedience title.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Comes now an app designed to motivate runners.  It pumps into the runner's ear the hair-raising bloodcurdling, ghoulish screams and moans of zombies chasing the runner.  These horrific sounds of the undead closing in are supposed to scare the bejesus out of the person and make her run faster.

Surely this app could be adapted for use in the competition obedience ring -- to motivate Fluffy to burn rubber on the go-outs and come hustling back from the scent articles pile.  (And to proof the group exercises?)


Wednesday, February 1, 2012


In Part 1 we established the fact that recruitment of new compeitors is key to beefing up participation in competition obedience.  I cited Catherine Zinsky's Front & Finish column in the July/August 2010 issue.  Several well-regarded veteran obedience people suggested that the AKC develop programs to reach out to students in pet obedience programs nationwide to acquaint them with the fun available in AKC obedience competition.  Prominently mentioned were PetSmart, Petco and 4-H.  Whose students, by and large, are unaware that competition obedience even exists.

No doubt about it, partnerships with those basic-level obedience programs would get the attention of legions of prospective recruits.

Did anything happen?  Did the AKC embrace those suggestions?  In view of all the teeth-gnashing and handwringing that has been prompted by the problem in recent years, one would think so.  Right?

Wrong.  I can find no sign of a pulse.  I left a phone message for Curt Curtis, assistant vice president for companion events at the AKC.  I told him I'd like his take on those suggestions.  The call was not returned.  What a surprise! (See my blog post of December 21:  "AKC:  Arrogant Kennel Club."  Particularly paragraph 8)

A spokesperson at PetSmart -- which happens to be headquartered here in Phoenix -- did some asking among appropriate people at the company.  She reported back that no one was aware of such a contact.

I contacted the Maricopa County 4-H organization (serving Phoenix and a broad surrounding area).  Zilch.

Of course, I realize the AKC has bigger fish to fry.  Since the day I wobbled into the world of competition obedience more than two decades ago, the consensus I've heard has been that obedience is a stepchild at the AKC. We may not like that, but it's understandable.  The AKC is a not-for-profit business, but a business nevertheless.  Horrible corporate things like budgets come into play.  And obedience certainly isn't the cash cow that conformation is.

But let's flip this over.  If I were the AKC's Head Honch for a Day, first of all, I'd do something.  But that something wouldn't be grandiose and global.  I'd enlist the aid of local doers in a few test markets. "Deputize" them.  Offer modest compensation.  Create pilot projects.  Work with a 4-H group here, a cluster of Petco stores there, a similar group of PetSmart training sites somewhere else.  Incorporate into each of those programs upbeat, attractive information.  Create the type of exhibition class that Louise Meredith suggested. 

Tinker with the program.  Fine tune it.  Measure its success.  If it shows merit, roll it out nationally.

On the other hand, where is it written that such an effort must be initiated from on high? There is precedent that just the opposite can yield great success. 

Around the turn of the millennium, Bud Kramer, a retired biology professor in Lawrence, Kansas, devised courses, signs and rules for a new dog sport called Rally Obedience.  The rest is history.  And who among oldtimers can forget the exciting Gaines Tournaments.  Those were locally initiated, entirely independent of the AKC

All that has been suggested here could be pioneered locally by an enterprising group. Such a pilot project might be initiated by an obedience club in cooperation with, say, the local 4-H club.  (I suggest a 4-H group beause that would avoid having to navigate the inevitable labyrinth of approvals presented by the corporate hiearchy in a large company).

Think about it.  You, too, could be a hero.