Charles River Dog Training Club, Inc.

Weston, Massachusetts

What Is an Obedience Trial?

An obedience trial is a competition to test how well dogs are trained as useful companions. The dogs and handlers perform a series of exercises, scored by a judge, according to a standard of performance. A perfect score is 200 points. A qualifying score is 170 points or higher with more than half of the possible points in each exercise — pretty tough!

There are three levels (or classes) of AKC obedience competition — Novice, Open, and Utility. To earn an obedience title, a dog must get three qualifying scores (called "legs"), under three different judges. The titles are indicated by letters added to the end of the dog’s name:

Novice — Companion Dog (CD)
Open — Companion Dog Excellent (CDX)
Utility — Utility Dog (UD)

The AKC obedience regulations are available by mail or from the AKC website.

Each dog earning a "leg" gets a green ribbon. The top four dogs in each class get an additional ribbon. In case of a tie for any of the top four spots, there’s a run-off which is always exciting to watch.

In addition to qualifying for an obedience title, the dogs also compete for prizes and trophies such as High-in-Trial (for the highest score of all the dogs competing) and High Combined (for the highest combined score in Open and Utility). There’s a list of the awards in the show catalog, and the awards are on display at the trophy table.

The awards ceremonies are held at the end of each class and at the end of the trial.

The Novice Class

The Novice class comprises basic obedience exercises which are useful in everyday life — for example, walking on leash and off leash, coming when called, and staying in place until released. The class is divided into two groups: Novice A is for first-timers who’ve never put an obedience title on a dog, and Novice B is for handlers who’ve already put an obedience title on another dog. The exercises are the same in both Novice A and Novice B.

The Heel on Leash exercise (40 points, including the Figure–8) tests how well the dog accompanies the handler in a controlled manner, walking on the handler’s left. The judge chooses the heeling pattern and tells the handler when to turn (left, right, and about), to halt, and to change pace (fast, slow, and normal).

Watch how the dog adjusts to the changes of direction and pace. The dog should remain in heel position (the dog’s ear or shoulder aligned with the handler’s hip) and should sit automatically — no command! — whenever the handler comes to a halt. Notice that the handler gives only one "Heel" command at a time and makes no leash corrections.

What does the judge look for in scoring?

The Stand for Examination (30 points) is the exercise your dog’s vet or groomer would appreciate the most. The handler can pose or "stack" her dog, and commands the dog to stay in a standing position, off-leash and facing the judge who then physically examines the dog — without the dog moving! Well, tail wagging is perfectly OK.

Off-leash heeling is a mark of a truly well-trained dog. During the Heel Free exercise (40 points), watch how well the dog pays attention to the handler. A good working dog keeps his head up and one eye on the handler (or the handler’s left knee or hip). Also, you’ll notice that really skillful handlers seem to have an "invisible leash." Heeling should be more like a dance than a military drill.

In case of a run-off — because of a tie for any of the top four placements in a class or for any prizes, such as High-in-Trial — another Heel Free exercise will be used as the tie-breaker.

Nothing is more frustrating, embarrassing, and worrisome than having your dog run away when you call him, or watching helplessly as your dog tears off across the countryside as soon as you dare to let him off leash. The Recall exercise (30 points) tests how well the dog comes when called by the handler from across the ring. The dog should come in briskly and on a straight line, sit directly in front of the handler, and on command (or signal) go to heel position and sit — hence, the Recall is sometimes called a "front-&-finish."

Many dogs can hold a sit-stay or down-stay at home, but in the group exercises (involving 6–12 dogs), the dogs must stay in position while surrounded by other dogs and all the distractions of the show — a real test of the dogs’ patience, training, and trust in their handlers. The Long Sit (30 points) is only 1 minute, but it feels a lot longer to the handlers! The Long Down (30 points) is 3 minutes.

By the way, the group exercises are scored pretty much all-or-nothing. If a dog breaks the stay in the final seconds, it’s a zero for the exercise — and therefore, a non-qualifying score (NQ) for the class.

The Open Class

Building upon the skills shown in Novice, the Open class adds some new difficulties — retrieving and jumping. All of the Open exercises are off leash, including the Figure–8 portion of the Heel Free exercise (40 points total). Also, the heeling pattern in Open is usually more difficult than in Novice.

Another more difficult exercise is the Drop on Recall (30 points). In addition to calling the dog from across the ring, the handler, on a signal from the judge, commands or signals the dog to lie down in the middle of the Recall and then, with another command or signal, to complete the front-and-finish.

The Retrieve on the Flat (20 points) and Retrieve Over the High Jump (30 points) are more than just playful games of fetch — although don’t tell this to the dogs: They think retrieving is fun! In each of the retrieves, the dog must bring the dumbbell back to the handler, sit directly in front, holding onto the dumbbell until commanded to release it, and then "finish" (go to heel position).

Wouldn’t you love your dog to jump over a mud puddle instead of splashing through it? The Broad Jump (20 points) tests how well dogs can clear an obstacle without coaxing.

How are the jump heights determined?

The AKC Obedience Regulations specify exceptions for a few short-legged breeds and for some very large, heavy breeds.

The group exercises in the Open class are also longer and tougher than in Novice. The Long Sit (30 points) is 3 minutes, and the Long Down (30 points) is 5 minutes — and each with the added difficulty of the handlers being out of sight of the dogs! The handlers are usually more anxious than their dogs.

To compete in the Open class, the dogs must have a CD title. As with Novice, the Open class is divided into two groups, each doing the same exercises: Open A is for dogs trying for a CDX, and Open B is for dogs competing for points for an advanced title — UDX (Utility Dog Excellent) or OTCh. (Obedience Trial Champion, the only obedience title that goes in front of a dog’s name.

The Utility Class

The Utility class is the "PhD" in obedience training, demonstrating the ultimate in teamwork and communication between dog and handler. To compete in Utility, the dogs must have a CDX title.

Again, there are two groups as in Open: Utility A is for dogs trying for a UD title, and Utility B is for dogs with a UD title who are competing for points toward a UD or OTCh. The exercises are the same in both Utility A and Utility B.

The Signal Exercise (40 points) involves off-leash heeling and other exercises, all done entirely with hand signals — no voice commands!

The Moving Stand and Exam (30 points) is a more challenging variation on the Stand for Examination in the Novice class.

In the Utility class, the retrieves are also more difficult. In the Scent Discrimination exercises (30 points each), the dog must find a particular article with has the handler’s scent from a batch of identical articles scattered on the floor. The dog has to retrieve one metal article (which dogs usually dislike having to mouth) and one leather article (without mistaking it for a chew toy). Imagine having your dog fetch your wallet or car keys!

Did you ever drop something while your arms were full and wished your dog would pick it up for you? In the Directed Retrieve (30 points), the hander sends her dog to fetch one of three plain, white cotton gloves. By the way, the handler doesn’t know which glove the judge will select for the exercise.

The final Utility exercise, Directed Jumping (40 points), is everyone’s favorite. The handler sends the dog away (called a "go-out") and, upon the judge’s order, commands or signals the dog which jump to take coming back — the high jump or the bar jump.

As soon as all of the exercises are over, the dogs and handlers will really appreciate a round of applause for a job well done.

© 1996, 1997, 1998 Geoff Stern [email protected]

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last updated 15-Dec-1998

Dumbbell graphic courtesy of Graphics From Fuzzy Faces

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