Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obedience explained...Novice

Competition obedience is broken down into three levels: Novice, Open, and Utility. Today we'll talk about Novice...

Novice I must confess is not my favorite. No jumping, no retrieves, no "fun stuff"; a LOT of heeling which is not my favorite. Many handlers especially training their first dogs teach the exercises in order, i.e. all of the novice exercises, then all of the open, etc. With my first dog I didn't start training for the next level until I had finished a title. BORING!

Heeling is one of the exercises that takes the longest to teach; it also accounts for A LOT of points over your dog's career. You can only spend SO much time heeling before your dog starts to get bored...(and my knees start to complain). So I mix up training and teach most of the other exercises while the dog is maturing physically and mentally and THEN we worry about the nit-picky polishing things for heeling. Of course, we are also generally learning agility skills and probably tracking at the same time; we usually don't train "obedience" one day and "agility" the next. Most of our training sessions are a mix of the skills used in various sports; unless we are doing full run-throughs in preparation for a trial.

Personally I hate to heel, it hurts my knees, it's boring. You can tell this because my older dog Andy's heeling has deteriorated quite a bit. He used to be a fairly decent heeling dog, now he is often wide and forged. At his age, I really don't care :-). We are not going for high scores, we need just ONE more utility leg before he gets too old (he will be 12 in June).

Now Cory LIKES to heel. I think he views it as pushing me around the ring. So I have been working with him a little harder and I would like to polish up his performance a bit and get some decent scores. After watching video of our runs at our "show-n-go" (practice show) on Sunday I see LOTS of room for improvement. He tends to forge (be a little too far ahead of me), his finishes are going through a rough patch, and his pace changes and figure 8 leave a lot to be desired. MY footwork needs a lot of work and working on my handling should improve the changes of pace quite a bit. I also tend to drop my left shoulder so I can keep eye contact with him, and need to work on making this more subtle- it could be scored as an extra command. (I bet only flat chested judges score this! They have no empathy!).

The Novice exercises are:

Heel On Lead (including figure 8 around two people who serve as "posts")
Stand for Exam
Heel Free (no lead)
Group Exercises- Long Sit and Down (the dogs all line up at one end of the ring and do a 1 minute sit stay followed by a 3 minute down stay with the handlers across the ring).

Other important components of the exercises are the "front"- the dog must sit in front of you when called on the recall; he must be close enough to reach out and touch, he should be sitting straight, and he should not bump you with his nose. The "finish" is when the dog is sent from the front position back to heel position. He can "finish" either to his left (the around finish) or his right (the swing finish). He should go to heel position promptly and sit straight and in line with the handler's leg.

Here is video of Cory from our show-n-go this weekend. He is my "young" dog; he just turned 4 and I am hoping to polish up his exercises and have him ready to show this spring. For Cory the hardest thing in obedience has been not being able to socialize with the judges and the "posts"; the stand for exam is especially hard for him- he wants to hurl himself at the judge and get hugs and wrestles. He is coming along but we still have a LOT of perfecting to do. I think he would have a good chance of qualifying at this point (the stand and the stays always have room for brain fade!) but I am holding out to try and improve our scores a little.

You will notice that Cory heels with his head up watching my face. Teaching "focused attention" is very helpful in getting your dog to stay in position and ignore distractions; however the heads up position is NOT required and does not earn you extra points (it does look flashy though). For some dogs it is counterproductive. In Cory's case, he naturally wants to heel this way; it DOES contribute to his forging a bit (he's trying to see around certain anatomical landmarks!) so we have to work on that a lot. My older dog Andy tends to focus a little lower; he alternates between watching my face and keeping his eye on my knees. My first dog, Levi, focused on my knees and never looked at my face; he was not as flashy but was my most accurate heeling dog with many perfect heeling scores (but sadly, we always struggled with crooked fronts and finishes! Oh well). If you watch closely you will also see that Cory paces rather than trots; that is, both legs on the same side of the body move forward at the same time resulting in a kind of rolling gait, rather than a trot in which the diagonal legs move forward together. This is often seen in obedience dogs, in our case it is a combination of me being slower than my dog would like (and shorter strided, I think) and the heads up position which tends to encourage it. It is not scorable, but I would prefer if he trotted simply because it looks better.

In order to qualify in obedience at any level, you must have a minimum of 170 out of 200 possible points. In addition you must pass each individual exercise with at least 50% of the points assigned to that particular exercise. A perfect score of 200 is a rare thing indeed and something that most of us never achieve. After your dog earns three qualifying scores, he may add the title "CD" after his registered name. This stands for "Companion Dog".

Novice is divided into "A" and "B" which are judged separately. "A" is for handlers who have never put an obedience title on a dog before. Once you earn your first CD, you will show all subsequent dogs in "B". Once your dog earns his CD, you may either move up to Open immediately, or show in Novice until he earns a High In Trial award (the top score out of all the winners of all the classes on that day); should he achieve this (we all should be so lucky!) he must move up to open. In our area, to consistently place in Novice B, your dog generally needs to be scoring 195 and higher. High in Trial often comes from this class (usually with a very experienced handler) and so the first place dog often has a 198 or higher. That's not a lot of leeway for tiny mistakes! In Novice A, the scores are typically much lower and the classes are usually smaller. If your dog qualifies you have a good chance of placing.

Points are lost for being out of heel position (forging, lagging, wide, crowding the handler). It can be as minor as an inch or two out of position or as major as being several feet away. Typically a minor hit is 1/2 point; a major can be up to 3 points. Extra commands are a major hit, and more than 1 or maybe 2 will likely result in an NQ (nonqualifying score). Sniffing also will earn you a deduction. On the stand for exam, the dog should not move his feet at all; he will lose points for shifting his feet or moving from position;' he can wag his tail and sniff the judge, but if he gets much more "friendly" than that you risk losing points. If he shows any evidence of aggresssion he will likely be excused. On the recall, the dog must hold his stay until called, then come in "briskly" (does not have to run, but should be at least at a trot), sit straight in front, and go directly to heel position and sit straight on the finish.

In theory, once your dog successfully completes a basic obedience class he should have the skills to earn his novice title. In reality, for most of us it takes a little longer than this to train the exercises adequately (especially heeling) and if we are wise we spend some time "proofing" the dog- that is, gradually increasing the number of distractions as they work so the first time we ask them to perform at a show, the noise, dogs in the other ring, spectators, etc, are not a new experience for them. Having a judge in the ring with them can be a HUGE distraction; some dogs are very worried by this stranger following them. It was very hard for Cory to learn to focus when all he really wanted to do was go play with the judge; it has taken us a while to be able to have him maintain attention through the whole heeling pattern.

Once your dog earns his CD, you generally can feel that you have a dog who can behave himself reasonably well in public and has mastered the basic skills necessary for a well behaved pet- truly a good "Companion Dog". Next post...on to Open! Now the fun stuff starts!

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