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.



  1. Willard I have to add that perhaps another factor that contributes to few people entering or staying in obedience is that there are so few good teachers of obedience. As in all dog sports the foundation work is critical and I sadly see many people not learning how to make the learning of obedience fun for the dog. Then without knowing how to train with toys or the proper use of positive reinforcement these same people try to "make" their dogs heel only to have ongoing problems with heeling and soon dogs that have no focus or interest in teaming up with their handler. Compare this to agility where there are classes and lessons on almost every street corner. AND the focus is usually on "fun" and using toys and treats to reward this "fun." Yes I put quotes around "fun" since clearly many dogs are not having fun even in agility and one only has to see how competitive this sport has become to see that agility too has changed and one wonders how many dog/handler teams are having "fun" and enjoying the special rewards that come from the journey of training and working with our dogs.

    1. She hit it on the head with that "Instant Gratification" comment. An agility run may be only 30 second long, but what a 30 seconds it is! Never the same course twice, never the same order of obstacles, always something to laugh and/or cry about in each run. Each run the outcome of the hours (years?) of training obstacles,patterns, scenarios, big picture, small picture. And it is all accomplished "on the run" It IS instantly gratifying and represents as much teamwork as an Obedience run does. However neither the training nor the actual trials even slightly resemble (Obedience) monotony. Lastly, the previous comment about lack of great trainers is spot on and is my biggest Obedience concern personally.

  2. I'm totally in agreement about rally! As an obedience junkie I cringe when I see most rally handlers in action. However, my worried sheltie is much happier in rally than the utility ring. That's because the pressure is on ME, not on him. So we enter rally every now and then. It's a confidence builder for him while we work through the kinks in his utility performance. But I don't consider it much of a victory when we qualify, unlike regular obedience.
    I'm looking forward to reading your third book, but will miss your regular posts to the blog. Please don't slow down so much that you stop! I've found precious few obedience blogs that are worth reading as much as yours.

  3. I also have used Rally as a confidence builder and for ring experience. When we go into the ring, I actually prefer to keep verbal encouragement and gesticulating to a minimum (since I have a border collie who is sent over the edge by too much excitement). The unpredictability of the Rally course also makes it more interesting than long heeling patterns. I think that one of the major appealing factors of Rally is it allows you to work at connecting with your dog and the changing courses keep it interesting.

    As far as agility versus obedience... agility is also just more exciting to watch for most people! When I tell people I compete with my dog in obedience, I generally just get a blank stare. If I add, "And we've dabbled in agility," there is instant recognition and excitement.

    Obedience runs tend to be somewhat dry, and I don't think there is enough emphasis on making the ring FUN for your dog. I get a lot of compliments about how much my dog appears to be enjoying himself in the ring... that should be the norm! As a rule, agility dogs generally look thrilled to be out there running a course; obedience dogs, not so much.

  4. Hi, Willard. Thanks for high-lighting my comments. (Yes, I am the vertebrate museum curator at Washington State University. No, I am not retired. Love my job, but also love my hobbies. Need many more hours in a day.)

    Here are some interesting numbers from the AKC stats for 2008. (I picked that year because the printout was handy. The numbers and percentages are similar for other years in the 2000s.)

    Of dogs that finished a CD, about 34% completed a CDX. Of dogs that finish a CDX, about 44% finish a UD. Of dogs that finish a CD, about 15% will eventually get a UD.

    Of dogs that finish a Novice Agility (NA) title, about 75% go on to get an Open Agility (OA title). Of OA dogs, about 75% go on to complete an Excellent Agility (AX) title. Of dogs that complete an NA, over half eventually get an AX.

    In agility, most entrants pay two entry fees per day to do both standard and jumpers. Many pay for 3 classes/day if FAST or T2B (time to beat) class is offered. After they get the Excellent titles, they continue to enter trial after trial, 2 or 3 events per day, to get those MXs, MXJs, MACHs, and multiple MACHs. When their dog is too old for his normal jump height, they start over in Preferred. That's a whole lot of entry fees and we haven't even considered the huge amount of equipment needed to practice or the cost of renting time in a facility with equipment.

    The point being, I don't think entry fees are what's keeping most people out of obedience, or causing them to drop out after a CD.

    I started out to write a long comment about what I would do to change the structure of obedience to try to make it more popular, but realized I'd be typing all night. I have to go to work tomorrow. I'll do the Willard thing and write my thoughts in parts on my blog over the next few weeks.

  5. I'm one of those new to obedience. I found your book very inspirational and motivating! My Novice A dog just earned his CD in a three trial weekend a few weeks ago. He has also earned some Rally titles in the APDT venue. I'll share my impressions. The first is, I love obedience because rally was WAY too easy. In our first trial weekend ever, we lost a total of two points across four trials... and we were NOT spectacular. Where do I go from there? I continue to pay $25 for someone to give us a smiley face sticker? Like the other 15 dogs who also got perfect scores? Who cares? Where's the challenge? In our obedience debut, we earned a 195.5, a 190, and a 178. I feel those scores were justly deserved. It gives me a lot of skills to improve as I prepare for open. I would much rather have that appropriately scored 178 over the APDT rally 210 any day. I want my attention to detail and precision recognized. That's one of the things that has me hooked on obedience. I think the difficulty finding instructors is a huge hurdle. I trained by myself out of books up until this point. It took me two years to get ready to compete!! If I hadn't been really interested, I could see that hobby easily fizzling out. At the trial, I met some folks in my area and now drive 90 minutes one way each week for class. I don't think most people looking into obedience for the first time are willing to make that type of commitment. What I am doing to promote the sport is talking to everyone I know who has a dog. My sister, friends, coworkers, facebook friends, anyone! I've invited people to trials, sent videos of us competing, recommended books, invited them to training sessions and to classes, and set up challenges with them. I've gotten one who's seriously interested and wants to trial with me so we've set up a training time table and goals. Maybe that's one thing we can do is mentor newbies. Take someone who is somewhat interested and get them to their first trial.