Yesterday I had a really interesting obedience class. We left the dogs in their crates and walked the routine entirely on our own, leashes clipped to our pant legs. It felt a little silly at first (but let’s be real, everything feels strange to me at this point because it’s all so new), but it drove home the message: the handler is 50% or more of the equation.
It’s easy to forget that obedience can only happen if the handler really understands what should happen and can effectively guide the dog to do the thing. We spend so much time making sure that the dog is prepared and understand the commands that will be asked of them, but the dog can be successful is the handler asks for the right things at the right time in the right way. I suppose some dogs can help their owners the way a schoolmaster horse would cart around his rider, but there’s a limit. A horse can literally physically carry you around the course. A dog can only politely say “er, I think you’re wrong” – they can’t physically drag us (usually kicking and pulling in protest) around a course the way horses can.
In the wide world of horse showing, there are plenty of ways to disqualify yourself. The same is true in the world of competition obedience. Since the people reading this are most likely my friends and family, mos of whom have no dog handling experience, let me explain (probably using the wrong terms but just go with it). You can’t use a hand signal AND a verbal signal, it has to be one or the other. That being said, if you make a mistake is may be at the judge’s discretion whether or not you get points off or a non-qualifying score (also called and NQ). It reminds me a lot of the equitation ring. If you muss up the “principle aim” of the exercise, you get an NQ (i.e. “thank-you’ed” out of the equitation ring). But if you get the essence of it right and stumble on other things (for example the finish or a late change behind in the equitation world), the judge might just take points off.
I realize at this point I’m really bumbling around the ring – I’m not even close to being polished enough to compete and my dogs aren’t either (although they probably look a lot better at it than I do!). It’s like power posting on the wrong diagonal in the hack with a big smile on your face. I’m loving every minute of it even though I’m making big error after big error. But hey, everyone has to start somewhere, right? And half the fun is in the learning. I spent many years being told I was wrong and the horses were right… Now I’m going to spend many years being told I’m wrong and the dogs are right.
And that feeling of “yesss I finally get it! Look how good we look!” will probably be just as satisfying as it was on horseback.