Busy Paws are Happy Paws (Obedience)
I hate to admit it, but I am an agility drop out. Our puppies dearly loved the running, jumping, barking and hoop la of agility training and competition. It wasn't that I didn't share that enthusiasm; it was because I discovered that the "down on the table" was for the dog rather than the handler. Worst of all, I was spending more money on adult diapers than on show entries. So, some of the dogs and I transferred to obedience training where, we were told, the major energy output is psychic rather than physical.
The first night of obedience training with one of our Havanese proved to be enlightening. Not only did our dog look like a bumble bee on the end of a string, but we were the only small dog partnership in attendance and there were few if any small dogs in the building. I couldn't help but wonder if this meant that small dogs do not need to be obedient or whether small dogs cannot be trained to do obedience? A review of the history of the dog indicates that most dog breeds evolved as a result of certain characteristics that made them valuable to man. A review of the dog groups shows that the majority of groups are bred to WORK in some capacity. Whether it was to guard the castle, herd cattle, retrieve ducks from a blind, go into holes after rats, or pull carts, one of the common denominators is their ability to work independently and to completely focus on a task until the task is completed. In other words, they have a strong work ethic this gives them a distinct advantage in the obedience arena.
Of all the groups, the Toy group "job" was not to do much of anything other than warm his/her owners feet, sit in laps and look beautiful. That's not to say they are not capable of working. Work simply was not the major reason for breeding a toy dog. Thus the very characteristics that make them such wonderful pets can sometimes get in the way of being able to arrive in the winner’s circle as often as one might wish. For example, many Havanese love to play to the crowd. When the dog has the choice of paying attention to the, handler versus batting the baby blues at the laughing crowd, odds are, the handler won't stand a chance. Obviously each dog is different and what works for one dog may not work for another.
While the Havanese may exhibit steaks of stubbornness and independence, a good trainer will work to mute these characteristics and capitalize on their desire to please. The more the dog is motivated to please you, (not a crowd of on-lookers), the more the dog may want to do the exercises required in obedience.
Until the puppy reaches the age of about 10 months, competitive obedience is not an issue. Rather, the major concern at this age is to provide adequate socialization for the pup to become a good citizen both in the home and the community. This usually involves exposure to a lot of other people and other dogs. Actual obedience exercises should not be much more than learning to walk the puppy on leash, having a successful recall and a reliable stay included with the sit and down exercises. The puppy is a puppy for a very brief time and this is the time for you to have fun and to enjoy all the experiences of a puppy owner.
At the appropriate age for the puppy, you will likely be encouraged to think about additional obedience classes and perhaps even some competition. One thing many of us discover is that competitive obedience is an opportunity to learn not only about your dog but about yourself. In fact, you may learn more than you want to learn about you. For example, you may find that your temper simply is too short to deal with the learning process of your dog. This also is a time when you may discover that winning is more important than you realized and that it is impossible to laugh at yourself. If you find these things about yourself, you probably should not be doing competitive obedience. This is a sport that can be fun for you and the dog. When and if it ceases to be fun, it's time to quit.
Competitive obedience can provide an avenue to bond with your dog, meet interesting new people and friends and is a chance to be with people who share the same interest as you. That's the nice thing about the sport. There are people of all ages, and walks of life who may be found in the obedience ring. I have had the privileged of competing with people from all walks of life, including teenagers, a young lad with Down’s syndrome, a great grandmother who will be 91 this year and is still competing, retired police officers and CEO's, a paraplegic in a wheel chair, women whose families are grown and gone, etc.
If you are at all interested, I urge you to contact your local dog club or go to the AKC web site for information on specific dog clubs in your area. Also, the AKC site has listings of obedience trials in your area. By all means go and watch.
What follows is some more specific information on obedience competition: Very early in the training experience, the handler is introduced to the concept of the "team". The obedience team is made up of just two beings, you and the dog. In most levels of obedience, the team competes against itself. Few political agendas enter into the judging process in obedience. The team is either able to do the proscribed exercises for the class or they are not. If done correctly, the team wins a green qualifying ribbon. After the team earns 3 green ribbons, from 3 different judges, a certificate of accomplishment in obedience is issued to the dog and his/her handler.
There are 5 competition levels that, when completed, allow a specific obedience title to be used behind the dog's registered name.
For all levels of obedience competition, there are several basic words or commands that are used throughout the exercises. Sometimes they are verbal and sometimes that are communicated by hand signal. Regardless of how the words are communicated, they mean the same thing. For example, the command "Heel" means that the dog is to find an imaginary spot on your left side and do whatever your left side is doing. Whether the handler walks fast, slow, or runs, the dog is to maintain this position at all times. The dog should be close but not touching so that the handler has freedom of movement at all times. This is much easier to learn and correct when your dog's head is level with your elbow rather than you ankle. Thus for most of us with Havanese, learning how to heel correctly can be hard on ones back as you are constantly bending over to be assure that the dog is where he/she belongs. The remaining words are " Sit" "Down", "Stay", "Come" and "Fetch". Once again, it does not matter how the "Down" command is given (either verbally or by hand signal) it still means that the dog is to get all four elbows on the ground and is not to get up until the handler gives a release command. "Stay" means don't move. In other words, do not visit with your neighbor, do not, clean your nails, and do not sniff for treats on the floor until the handler gives the release. "Come" means get up and move briskly toward the handler right now it does not mean to go and try the jump in the next ring, to sit in the lap of someone at ring side or to crawl. "Fetch" means move away from the handler to some designated spot and find a dumb bell, a scented article or glove. If your "I want to please you" Havanese can perform all of these commands first-time, every-time, and you can give the commands at the right-time, every time, then you ready to call you and your dog an obedience team.
There are five competition levels that when completed, allow a specific obedience title to be used. The rest of this article will be limited to three of the more common levels of competition.
As the team successfully completes one class and moves into the next level, the exercises become more demanding, longer and progressively more difficult. At the higher classes, the team will be able to demonstrate the ability to work for a longer period in the ring as well as be able to work at a distance of 30 to 40 feet apart and still be able to communicate with hand signals. After the team earns 3 green ribbons from 3 different judges, in a particular class, AKC issues a certificate of accomplishment in obedience to the dog and handler. This certificate represents the fact that you and your dog EARNED it through hard work and effort. The certificate comes with the privilege of adding a title to your dog's registered name. A few of the exercises found in each class are as follows.
The first level is called NOVICE. The team is required to perform heeling both with the dog on a leash and without a leash. The dog must be able to stay in a sit position while the handler walks to the other side of the ring, waits and then calls the dog. A group exercise is introduced at this level. This entails 10 -12 handlers and their dogs entering the ring as a group. The judge tells the handlers to "sit your dog or "down your dog" and then "leave your dog". The handlers then walk to the other side of the ring for a period of one minute for the sits and three minutes for the down. The dog is not to leave the position he had been told to remain in. After the dog and handler have successfully completed this level on three different occasions under 3 different judges, the title of Companion Dog or CD is issued.
The next level is called OPEN. The exercises are all done with the lead off. Retrieval of a dumbbell is required in this class, and the Recall exercise is done differently in that once the dog is running toward the handler, the judge signals the handler to tell the dog to stop and drop in place before continuing to the handler. A broad jump and a high jump are both integrated into these exercises. This level has group exercises in which 12 handlers and their dogs all enter the ring for the Sits and Downs. The length of the sits and downs are increased to three and five minutes; plus, the handlers are completely out of sight of the dogs. Successfully completing these exercises on three different occasions entitles the dog to be called a Companion Dog Excellent or CDX.
The next level is that of Utility (sometimes called "Futility"). One of the requirements in Utility is that no voice commands may be given during the signal exercises. This means that not only is heeling to be done by hand signal alone, but the dog must also respond to the hand signal to stand and stay in position while the handler walks approximately 30 feet away, turns and gives a hand signal to drop, another signal to sit, another to come, and another to finish to heel position. Scent Discrimination is an exercise where the dog is expected to be able to find a specific article belonging to the handler which has been placed a pile of eight other like articles. Another example of an exercise in Utility is the Directed Jumping. There are 2 jumps placed 20 feet apart in the ring and facing the obedience team. This exercise requires the dog to run away from the handler and go straight out between the jumps for at least 30 feet. The handler then says "sit" and the dog is to turn and face the handler and sit until directed to jump over one of the jumps. This complete exercise is repeated for the other jump. Completion of this level earns the Utility Dog or UD title.