I was chatting with a friend at an obedience trial and the topic turned to style. Not style as in any sort of fashion sense (good thing, because we know the fashion police would love to carry some of us away and I’d probably be the first one to go) but style as in how a dog works in the ring.
Some dogs are enthusiastic in their work. Some are brisk and efficient. Some are mechanical. Some plod through the exercises while others work like they are about to spontaneously combust.
And some dogs work like “bug-eyed lunatics.” My friend’s words, not mine.
“I do NOT,” she emphasized, “want my dog to work like a bug-eyed lunatic.”
This made me think. What qualities do I value in ring presentation? What is my ideal picture? Is it a realistic picture for the dog I have? Is it smarter to focus on training my dog to fit my ideal picture or to let my dog’s natural tendencies shine and play to those strengths instead?
My first sheltie, Jess, was crazy. Plain and simple. He bounced and spun with no encouragement from me, pounced in the article pile, barked on go-outs and never stopped wagging his tail. He was who he was and it never occurred to me to make him otherwise. (It's simple to have this easy-come, easy-go attitude when you are not concerned with scores.)
Second sheltie, Connor, was the consummate obedience trial dog. I am convinced he was put on this earth to do obedience. I could have taken off his leash at the ring gate and he would have put himself through the exercises. He loved the ring spotlight.
Terv Jamie was an efficiency expert. His work was smooth and graceful. He performed with joy. He was a gentleman.
Then came Phoenix. He was my first dog who did not naturally enjoy obedience, mostly due to reasons of my own creation. He was my first dog I felt I needed to “change.” I tried changing him to fit a current popular training style. It didn’t work. He taught me to “train the dog you have” and we’re enjoying each other much more now.
So what’s the picture I want in the ring?
• Calm. I want my dog to be calm because I do not want to spend our time in the ring constantly keeping him in check. Calm does not mean lethargic. Calm means clear-headed, not frantic.
• Thinking. I want my dog to be able to think through any problems presented by a distracting trial environment so he can perform correctly.
• Engaged. I want my dog to remain engaged with me throughout our run. We used to call this “focus.” I like “engaged” better. It makes it sound like the dog and handler are enjoying their time with one another vs. merely having one party focus exclusively on the other party.
That’s it. Pretty simple. A clear-headed, thinking, engaged dog. When I get that in the ring, I’m on top of the world. Doesn’t mean we’re going to win. Doesn’t mean we’re even going to qualify. But it does mean we’re working together, as a team. That’s why I do obedience.
I deliberately left off a fourth aspect of ring presentation: having fun. Yes, it's important but "fun" is such an ethereal quality to pin down it deserves its own post.