It is not news that in the past ten years, participation in the sport of AKC obedience has dwindled. In spite of the addition of Rally and numerous additional obedience classes (ie graduate open, beginner novice , pre- novice, pre- open, pre- utillity etc.) over all entries have declined. The real reason obedience is in trouble is that there are very few new people getting involved in the sport. No matter how many classes you add, without new participants, the sport can not continue. More and more clubs choose not to offer obedience trials at their shows, as it has become a money loosing proposition.
Is obedience a lost cause? Is there any way to breathe new life into the performance sport that once had full classes and a broad base of newcomers? I believe there is a way.
In the beginning of Performance Events at the AKC, a dog owner had limited choices. Obedience, Tracking, and Field events were all there was. Even though the obedience program might have been lacking, it flourished because there were few other options if you wanted to train your dog.
When the AKC expanded its menu to include agility, lure coursing, earthdog, herding, multiple field titles, advanced tracking titles and more, handlers were excited to try the new programs. People who love to train their dogs and achieve goals of titles along the way, found themselves choosing venues other than the obedience ring. The problem is that they never came back.
Why? Not because the other activities are more “fun” as some suggest, but because the new programs are progressive, better suited to a variety of breeds, and dogs can succeed at the entry level classes often with less than a year of formal training.
Many very competitive obedience enthusiasts (myself included) transferred to the agility rings and never looked back. Even now, ten years later, with aging joints, adorned in knee braces and struggling to run, these exhibitors still cannot be lured back to the obedience program; or can they?
Obedience, as we know it, has not changed very much since it's inception over 70 years ago. Even though the AKC continues to create class after class, and change the order of exercises, nothing really changes. In contrast, the world has transformed dramatically. Maybe it's time to revive obedience!
Obedience needs to be fixed from within to make it a program that exhibitors will feel is worthwhile, challenging and exciting to pursue.
The reality is that it would not take much change at all.
I find no fault with the open and utility level classes as they are now. The problem is that most average pet owners never get to Open and Utility because of the bottleneck created by the heeling requirements of the Novice class.
When people do continue training for two or more years to teach their dogs to heel, upon earning a CD degree, they are now totally unprepared to compete at the Open level. At this point, having labored for two years for a CD, they usually give up and change venues. What if the Novice level included some simple jumping and retrieving?
How successful would the agility program be if the Novice level required dogs to weave 18 poles and then as they progressed into Open and Excellent, only 12 poles were used? It takes time to teach a dog to perform weave poles and it takes even longer to train a dog to heel.
Ask the average person registering for an obedience training class what they want their dogs to learn and you might hear: come when called, sit, down, stay, walk well on a loose leash, play retrieve and go to a place and lie down. Some even want to teach their dogs to jump over something or do hand signals. No one at this basic training level has ever shown any interest in teaching their dogs to heel. In fact, at this beginning level people are often heard to say, “heeling is so boring.” Does it make any sense that 80 of the 200 points scored in the Novice ring are for heeling?
When obedience first began 79 years ago, the term “heeling” referred to a dog walking on a loose leash with his head and shoulders in line with the handlers left hip. The dog and handler were supposed to look like they were taking a walk together; hence the term “natural' was used in the obedience regulations. Over decades, expert trainers have raised the bar so much that heeling correctly is now closer to what we see horses do in dressage. Dog's heads are held high with total focus and attention on the handlers. The dog's position never deviates if the dog is to receive full credit for the heel exercise. High stepping, tail wagging, rhythmical, flashy dogs lead the way to blue ribbons. Unfortunately, this performance does not appear realistic or even desirable to the totally novice pet owner.
I have no problem with trainers who want to teach their dogs to heel to perfection or do dressage. I am certainly guilty of the same; but the heeling exercise, judged as it is (by Utility class standards) does not belong at the novice level of competition. It does not appeal to new dog owners and potential obedience enthusiasts. I believe that requiring a dog to perform two heeling patterns in novice is strangling the sport of obedience.
It's time to stop putting so much value on heel position and return obedience to what it was meant to be, a dog responding promptly to it’s hander doing everyday tasks that are important in the routine life of the dog and owner.
For specific information about my proposals for a progressive, exciting, challenging obedience program see my article: Can Obedience Learn from Agility? Read my related blog Can Obedience Learn from Agility?