Monday, February 2, 2009

Obedience explained...Utility

Ah, we are back to obedience! Yesterday we went to another show n go and I was able to tape Andy's utility routine successfully this time.

Utility includes the most fun exercises of all of the obedience classes. Unfortunately, they also are the most difficult to get a dog to perform consistently and well under varying conditions. While many dogs learn to become extremely consistent in open and qualify the majority of the time, far fewer ever become quite as reliable in utility. Even in the "B" classes on any given day it often ends up being "survival of the fittest" and about a 50% qualifying rate is typical. In "A", with green dogs and handlers who have not finished an OTCh, the Q rate is closer to 5-10%. It's not unusual to have a class of 15-20 A dogs and not have a single qualifier.

It was about 10 years between retiring Levi, my first dog who finished his UDX, from obedience, and starting to seriously think about competing in utility with Andy. I forgot just how darn HARD it is! Teaching the exercises for the most part is not that difficult and Andy had known almost all of them to one degree or another for quite a long time. But the utility exercises require the dog to work away from the handler and to think through situations and make some decisions, and getting them to pull it all together in a strange place on any given day is tough.

The utility exercises are:

-Signal exercise (a heel off leash pattern at the end of which you stand/stay your dog and go to the other end of the ring, then ask him to down, sit, come, and finish. All commands in this exercise are hand signals and a verbal will result in an NQ, although you MIGHT be able to get by with a verbal command to heel if you lose the dog during the pattern- you'll take a big hit though).
-Scent articles- you provide a set of five metal and five leather dumbells; you will keep one of each and handle it to put your scent on it while the steward places the rest across the ring. The dog is sent to the pile twice, once for the leather article you have scented and once for the metal (only one scented article at a time is in the pile). He must correctly identify and retrieve the scented article.
-Directed Retrieve- three gloves are put out at the end of the ring as you and your dog stand with your back to them. There is one in the middle and one in each corner. The judge will instruct you which number glove to retrieve and you must pivot and send the dog to retrieve the correct glove.
-Moving stand- You begin heeling at one end of the ring and on the judge's command, without stopping, ask your dog to stay in a standing position and continue another 8 feet or so. The judge will then examine your dog (run his hands over him) and the dog is expected to stand without moving his feet. You then call the dog directly to heel position.
-Directed jumping- a bar jump and a high jump are placed about midway down the ring, one on either side. The dog is asked to go out between the jumps to a point at least 8 feet beyond them, stop on the handler's command, turn and sit. The handler, on the judge's instruction, then directs the dog to take the appropriate jump and come to front. This is then repeated for the second jump.

When I got Andy, I had intended for him to primarily be an obedience dog but when he was pretty young we got sidetracked into agility. He LOVED it and I was hooked. Up until he was about a year old, we worked on heeling and focused attention but I didn't think he was ready to show quite yet (now I see those old tapes and wish like heck I'd had him in the ring then!). Eventually I thought asking for that extreme focused attention might be causing us some issues in agility so we stopped working it for a while, although we still worked off and on on teaching the rest of the obedience exercises. Our Q rate in agility is awful since there is a big discrepancy between his speed and mine, but we were having fun regardless. Finally when he turned 7 it hit me that I had better get my act in gear and get his CD. He did that pretty quickly with reasonable scores although we didn't put the work in to do as well as my original goal had been (he did blow an all breed HIT on his second or third try, can't remember which, at a horrible muddy outdoor show when I had to call him twice on the recall.. AAAGH! He was easily 3 points ahead of the dog who ended up getting it...). A few months later he was back in the ring in open and earned his CDX (waiting for second commands became my nemesis with this dog...he wanted SO much to make sure he was right!). When it came to utility though we got hung up for a long time because I could not get him to do the signal stand. When I stopped, he insisted on sitting. I worked on that problem for almost two years and FINALLY got it fixed (I'm not really even sure how, it just seemed to "click" for him one day). I started showing him in utility only at my two home clubs' shows, knowing he wasn't really ready but hoping I would "luck" into a leg. Right. When he was almost ready to turn 10, it suddenly hit me that I had better get my act together or he was going to be too old. At that point, he was qualifying consistently on all the exercises except the directed retrieve (gloves), usually not that difficult an exercise but tough for Andy as he never REALLY learned to "mark" the glove you were sending him to. We got some help with that at a Laura Romanik seminar and did several shows where we had such near misses and missed qualifying by the skin of our teeth. We were almost there...and then suddenly he fell apart. In retrospect, I believe that around this time his hearing started to fail. At any rate, his barking became a big issue (previously he only barked once on each go out) and he got to be REALLY bad about barking when he got to the article pile before settling down to work.

At this point, Andy will be 12 in June and I would estimate only has about 10% of his hearing left (the AKC rules state that a dog cannot be "without useful hearing" and still be shown; I figure he still hears his clicker, his squeakies, and some of the things I say to him so he still falls under the legal category). His barking not only got worse in obedience when his hearing started to go, but also around the house, so I don't think we are likely to be able to fix it in the time frame we have left. He has two utility legs and only needs one more qualifying score so we are crossing our fingers he can do it when the spring shows start back up! He has started to have some heart and kidney issues as well, so our time left for him to be able to compete may be getting short.

You can see him below at a local show and go yesterday; this is what we call Andy's "freestyle" utility interpretation! He is going to loose BIG points for barking, and along with the aging and hearing loss he now has a tendency to anticipate (so you will not see him do an actual moving stand, in practice we always keep heeling instead. As you can see, he still knows where he is supposed to stop and getting him NOT to until I give the command is tough!). But he still has tons of attitude and enthusiasm and he is so much fun to train, even if he is an old man!


  1. Are there really only *5* exercises? When you watch it seems like there are more than that. I have often wondered what the success rate of this class is- so I was really happy to see you had that information. Do you have any idea what the "average age" of title completion is for dogs who have been training towards a UD as a goal since they were puppies? (Andy excluded from this please). Thanks for this great information and the video!

  2. Yes, only five but two (scent articles and directed retrieve) have two parts, so really seven. I would guess the average age of a dog going for its UD would be 4-8, but many of the dogs continue to compete in the B classes until they are 10+. Just in our area there are several people with very nice working dogs trying for their UD from utility A where the dog is 10, 11 or older. I think there are a bunch of us who got side tracked doing other things and forgot to notice time was passing!

    I am bummed because I was hoping to show at the Indy sheltie specialty this spring, its a nice small show. Unfortunately one day the judge is the sole member of my very short, do not show to under any circumstances list. WAH! It's a nice small show with good ring conditions.

  3. Ah- yes, it *feels* more like 7 exercises.
    Too bad about the Indy show. When "time is short" you can't just wait for next year!
    Best of Luck and I look forward to reading about your SUCCESS this spring!