On a beautiful, sunny Thanksgiving morning I am thankful that I have time to train my dogs a little. I have a lot to be thankful for, including my family that I will spend this afternoon with, but right now I am thankful that I have been blessed with dogs who love to work with me, no matter what venue I choose. Lately we have been focusing on obedience and getting Cory ready to show in utility (the highest of the three basic levels). Cory is the third dog I have trained in utility; my first dog Levi earned his Utility Dog Excellent (UDX) title and Cory's father Andy needed just one more qualifying score for his UD when he died. Utility is a tough class for green dogs, because it involves working independently away from the handler and making decisions between "right" and "wrong" (whereas, in novice and open, pretty much the choice is a more straightforward "do it or not"). There is heeling, a signal exercise where the dog must respond to hand signals from across the ring, a scent discrimination exercise where he must choose the dumbell touched by his handler, a directed retrieve where he must choose the correct glove indicated by his handler, and the directed jumping, where he must run away from the handler in a straight line across the ring, stop and sit when directed, and then take the correct jump indicated by the handler. While utility is the hardest class, it also is the most fun.
While those who know me might think I got into obedience because I am somewhat of a control freak, that actually is far from the truth. My "obedience" dogs have all had varying degrees of basic manners, with my current two probably being the worst on a day to day basis for listening and minding me. Training in obedience has become less about demonstrating control over my dogs, and more about developing teamwork and communication with them. The bond with a dog that you have trained to a high level is so much more intense than the one you share with a dog you just "hang with". It is hard to describe, especially without denigrating other types of relationships, until you have experienced it, but it is like the bond you feel with a teammate on that gold medal winning team, the bond with a child that you love desperately and have known from birth, and the bond with a life partner that is your 24/7 companion all rolled into one. For me at this point in my life, obedience training is not about ribbons or placements; it's not about scores although I hope before we are through we will reach the level we aspire to; it is about acheiving the mental picture in my head and the synchronicity you feel on the days when you and your dog are perfectly in tune. The obedience regulations state that the dog should demonstrate "the utmost in willingness, enjoyment, and precision". We have a ways to go in the precision department, but I would like to think that my dogs fit the bill on the first part.
I am including a video below of one of Cory's recent runs in Utility A. (If anybody has any good tips for how to improve the quality either here or on youtube, let me know- the original video is quite sharp). This was his second show, entering for the first time away from our home club. I chose this trial because it was a small, one ring trial; I knew it would be fairly relaxed and I had shown under this judge before. Although it was a one ring trial, space was very tight at ringside with no room to have the dogs inside before their turn, not much room to warm up, and varying from quiet as a church (not good for us) to sounds that really stand out because there is not much else going on. On our first outing at the previous show, Cory did not qualify but overall I thought did not do too badly EXCEPT that he barked (a lot) on EVERY exercise. That is not looked on kindly in obedience and I knew it was going to be a big struggle for us. I hoped the smaller trial would not rev Cory up quite so much (he barks both when he stresses "down" and when he stresses "up", and we had one of each types of run at the last trial). Obedience people who look at this run will no doubt be unimpressed; we blew a signal and the first scent article, we had lots of places to lose points in chunks- he forged quite a bit on his heeling, we had a couple of no-sits (really, not-quite-sits), a sloppy moving stand, an anticipated finish, a bark or two on the scent articles and the go outs and a couple of times between exercises (a HUGE improvement over the last trial), and we didn't move particularly smoothly from exercise to exercise. All duly noted and being worked on before the next trial. But on this day I was SO proud of my boy I could just feel my heart clench each time I looked at him. He was amped up to the max this day; sometimes this can be an indicator of stress but on this day Cory was giving me every one of his signs that he was having FUN and was trying his hardest to play by the rules. Unfortunately, he usually feels compelled to remind me of this on each exercise, especially the finishes, by commenting under his breath and in this little building it was pretty easily heard by all :-). I know just how hard it was for him to keep his focus and not explode, and I am so proud of him for trying. The next day he was not quite as hyped up, and he made it all the way to the last jump before he chose the wrong one and NQ'd.
We get to try again next weekend...at our home club, where theoretically we might have a small advantage of a familiar ring. Wish us luck- we'll need it!