It is not news that since the onset of agility as a titling performance event in AKC we have witnessed a decline in entries into Obedience Trials. In an attempt to counter this loss of entry income, the AKC created Rally and more recently numerous non- regular obedience classes which we may or may not ever see offered at Obedience Trials. Will Rally or new non-regular classes breathe new life into the sport of obedience? I doubt it. They are Band-Aids that do not address the real problem.
Having competed at top levels in obedience for the first 26 years of my canine career and now having competed for 14 years in agility at the National and World level, including the writing and publication of multiple books on both sports, I view this dilemma from a different perspective.
I have heard it said that agility is more popular because it’s more fun than obedience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Taught properly, both sports are fun for dogs and their handlers. I see just as many wagging tails and smiling faces on my obedience students and their dogs as I see in agility lessons. Both venues offer man and dog a place to learn, communicate, grow and spend time together. I do not think my own dogs could even tell you when we work together if we are doing agility training or obedience training. To them, it is quality time spent interacting, learning new things and earning rewards.
While I continue to train my dogs in obedience (ie heeling, retrieving, fronts, finishes, stays, signals etc.), I have not ventured into an obedience ring to compete in almost ten years. Why?
To answer this question, turn to the sport of agility and look at why it has grown so fast. What is it about the AKC agility program that brings so many new dogs and handlers into the action each year and then hooks them to the point where some would prefer to spend their money on agility entries, than their own personal needs? The AKC agility program is diverse, challenging, logical and progressive.
Agility welcomes people into the Novice level with minimal training (six months to a year), gives them a taste of success and then challenges the exhibitor at the Excellent level to the limits. This accomplishes two very important things. It makes it easy for a beginner to become involved and it holds the interest of the experienced participant by constantly increasing the difficulty of the advanced tests. In any sport, it is essential to hold on to the advanced level competitor. This is the person who goes on to teach and bring the new people into the lower levels of the sport, thus, keeping the program alive and growing.
At the Novice level in agility, the courses are fairly simple, short and basically require that the dog and handler demonstrate an understanding of every obstacle. There are only 6 weave poles in Novice. The scoring is such that even mistakes such as “refusals” or a “wrong course” in standard agility do not prevent the team from earning a qualifying score. In other words, the judging is more lenient for the inexperienced novice dog. At the Open level, the courses are a little longer and the handler must demonstrate more advanced handling techniques. There are usually more side changes and now dogs may be asked to complete 12 weave poles. The judging is also more difficult but not as strict as it will eventually become at the Excellent level. This gradual, progressive program works to bring dogs and handlers along in a logical way. People find themselves making progress and learning with every event they enter. Usually, once a dog enters the ring, he will continue to compete as his skills become perfected through training and trialing.
In contrast, the AKC Obedience program begins with a Novice level class that is perhaps the most difficult of all to master. It takes an average dog and handler a year to a year and a half to learn to heel with the expertise to be competitive. (I can teach any dog to retrieve in less than 3 months.) Unfortunately, heeling is the major part of the novice class in obedience. To make matters even worse, the heeling in novice is judged by the exact same standards as heeling at the Utility level is judged! This is totally irrational. Assuming a team does complete a CD degree, it is now usually many more months or even years of training before they are ready to enter the ring at the next level. Is it any wonder that people are discouraged from even thinking about entering into Obedience competition?
The novice level obedience class does not prepare a dog for the open level. In open obedience the dog is required to retrieve, jump, perform a moving drop and master out of sight stays. Wouldn’t it make more sense to start some basic level steps of these exercises in Novice? This would then provide a logical progression. There is actually less of a gap between the Open and Utility exercises but many of the Utility exercises should also be started at the Novice and Open levels. This would prepare and encourage the dog and handler to continue on to advanced training and not see it as some daunting task only within reach for professionals.
There is nothing wrong with obedience as a sport other than the way the program is designed. Instead of blaming agility for the decline of participation in obedience, I think obedience should learn from the agility world and restructure their program. What would it take to lure me and others back to the world of obedience? Answer: a logical, practical, challenging, progressive program.
I propose the following:
On leash heeling in a figure 8 pattern the size of the entire ring. Minimum of 3 halts. Fast and slow on the straight part of the figure 8. No turns. A “down in motion” at some point in the heeling. Points lost only for dogs out of heel position when moving or more then 45 degrees out of position in a sit. No additional handler aides (talking, gesturing etc.) permitted.
Stand for Exam
Recall on flat.
Recall over a high jump or broad jump (judges choice).
Retrieve on flat on leash ( 6 ft.) (Any object including but not requiring a dumbbell.) Including a front and finish not scored for accuracy but must be completed.
Signals on or off leash (handler’s choice) at 6 ft. using hand and/or voice.
Sits and downs off leash in a circle the size of the entire ring, with handlers crossing the circle so that it is dog-handler-dog –handler standing in a circle.
Heel on leash in a regular pattern.
Heel off leash in a regular figure 8 pattern.
Drop on Recall
Retrieve over high jump
Directed Retrieve with only 2 gloves.
Scent Discrimination with two articles and a third scented one. .
No changes; getting to this level was the plan all along!
It would not take much alteration to upgrade the current obedience program that is sound but significantly out of date. Instead of creating new (Rally and other classes), or making things easier, we should restructure what we have and preserve obedience as a fun, challenging sport. Agility works because it’s easy in the beginning and then increasingly demanding at the highest level. Obedience should learn from Agility.