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Westminster obedience finals

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Why were the Obedience finals at Westminster so successful?  Why is everyone talking about that event?

If you’re not aware of how Westminster structured the final round, go ahead and see it for yourself here.

Westminster obedience – final round

I was impressed by the joy I saw in everyone from the judge to the exhibitors to the crowds!  And of course, I want to see more of that!  I saw a future of our sport – and it looked like a lot of fun!

What elements caused people to enjoy this event so much more than traditional obedience?

Was it the tricks?  The props?  The variety?  The creativity?

If I had to pick just one thing that stood out for me, I’d say this:

The judge did not direct the team, leaving only the interaction between the dog and the handler.  That is enormous.

That detail might seem like a small matter, but really – it’s huge.  It means that the audience focuses only on the team – the dog and handler – and their relationship.  The handler directs the dog.  The handlers do not need to be told what to do and when to do it – that part is obvious.  Even if they had been instructed to include every obedience exercise in Open and Utility, there is no need for a judge to say “throw it, send your dog, take it, and finish.”  We know that part just fine – and it’s a lot more fun to do it without splitting your attention between a judge and your dog.  That means you have more of “yourself” available to your dog. What a gift!

Yes, there was a whole lot more going on than that, and I found the event really exciting to watch.  I’d love to see AKC open up a program where all of the elements need to be performed (for example, in Open you’d have to show heeling off leash, a figure eight around something, a retrieve of something, a retrieve over a jump of some type, and a broad jump) but the order of those events could be left up to the exhibitor, along with what they chose to do between exercises.  You give each team a set period of time, say seven minutes for open.  If they don’t finish in seven minutes, then the exercises that were not completed don’t get scored.  If the team is fast, they can play all sorts of fun games and show training tricks in between exercises; if they are slower, then they might need to concentrate more on the scored variables.

Then leave the team alone to show what they can do.

What happens when the handler controls the ring instead of the judge?  They relax.  They stay connected with their dogs on a much deeper level. They interact as they do in training; a totally different experience than when we add a judge and start doing run throughs to prepare for competition.

There is no reason for a judge to direct each exercise in AKC; it’s not like they’re going to say something unexpected.

When I was competing in IPO I found the obedience much easier on both me and my dog for exactly this reason; the judge does not direct the handler.  I knew what I had to do – but I also felt like I could breathe without the judge constantly interacting with me.

I’m not suggesting that IPO be the model, but I am suggesting that the judge can stay quietly out of the picture and get the focus where it needs to be; a routine between a handler and their dog.

Anyway, that is where I’d start; a manageable piece that requires very little change from what is currently known and understood.  Heck, make it part of the “preferred” classes and leave the regular classes alone.  See what happens.




About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

12 responses »

  1. I love this idea. Especially if there were 10 or so extra points available for the non-required things that handlers and dogs might do in the ring. Encourage people to move between exercises in a way that is fun, showy and engaging for dog and handler–and people watching. You would still need to get all the principle parts of the required exercises, but beautiful and creative routine could potentially score higher than one with perfect fronts and finishes but no creativity.

    • Those who want to do obedience and score well may or may not enjoy adding creative elements, and since freestyle exists, I think that’s enough. However, I would love to see a separate award for “most creative” routine. That could become quite coveted, and if people tried to win it, then it also increases spectator interest in seeing what they will come up with.

  2. Great idea! A good step in a new direction!

  3. This is a wonderful thought of yours, Denise. I wish AKC WOULD open up and give the nervous handlers a chance. 🙂 Not only would that help but it would help the dogs too. My Marty, for instance, gets a bit nervous when the judge is on our heels (so to speak) – no matter how often and in different scenarios we train. A judge on a side line would be so much help to have an enjoyable run through.

  4. I really like your suggestion for several reasons. I visualize it somewhat along the model used in figure skating’s long program. Not only does it foster creativity, but it also discourages “teaching to the test” thus opening up more tendencies of true and useful learning.

  5. As someone from outside of the sport of traditional Obedience, I loved watching the Westminster finals! I agree that the part that appealed to me most was seeing the handlers relaxed and completely focused on their dogs. There were even a few times when “blips” happened and the handler smiled and the audience chuckled – you really got a sense of who the team was.

    I also enjoyed seeing the elements that the teams brought in from other disciplines. Some Freestyle moves – even a couple of well crafted sequences! A bit of Agility for one team, a bit of field for another, some tricks here and there.

    I hope this does spark something that will allow those in the sport of Obedience to take it to a whole new level!

  6. Excellent suggestions. Leave the traditional obedience classes intact, structure the others as you’ve discussed. Seems like a win win for all.

  7. I see so many exhibitors asking their dogs for a jump up to the hand. I think the assumption is this makes the dog appear joyful or that it’s a release for the dog.

    This maneuver, when required of the dog, does not look joyful to me. It’s just one more obedience maneuver. Now if the dog offers this unsolicited, that’s another matter. Ditto for spinning.

    Yes that was a happy working Lab. But I find all those required signs of joy annoying.

  8. I was once judged by judge in a wheelchair which he situated along the side of the ring. He still gave all the necessary cues but it was more relaxing to not have someone following you around.

    I loved watching the happy dogs and the extra elements would make training more interesting for the dog and the handler and most certainly for the public.

  9. If only Obedience Competitions were like this we would have Happy Dogs and Happy Handlers and all that stiffness would be gone!! Way to go!!

  10. Did you see Regina and The Bunny? She didn’t make the finals but the initial ring was SO hard! Very proud of them though.

  11. Julie Flanery

    Looks like you got your wish, Denise!


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