June 11, 2011

Dog Obedience 2

As I explained in my last post (goodness, that was too long ago!), I've been asked by the Malaysian Kennel Association to write a series of these articles, and I'm making the most of the pencil-chewing they involve by posting them here too. They are aimed at people who are interested in understanding some of the principles of basic dog obedience training, and are absolutely not a substitute for practical assistance. Experienced handlers and competitors will find nothing new here, although each article will include some final comments from a Judge's perspective.

Why the "Automatic Sit" Matters

Many people wonder why Obedience Training seems to place so much importance on the dog and handler learning how to have the dog sit automatically (i.e. without any signal or command) when the handler stops.

It is one of the exercises which determines when a dog and handler are ready to progress to the next level of training, and it is a skill which is required in even the most basic Obedience Trial.

So what's the big deal?

Well, for a start, it is an excellent indication of how much the dog is paying attention to the handler. If a dog is more interested in nearby sights or smells, it is unlikely that he/she will notice when the handler slows down and stops. So the automatic sit is proof that the dog is primarily focussed on his owner.

Secondly, there are obvious safety implications, even for those owners who have no intention of entering Obedience Trials.
When walking along with your dog beside you, you might stop for a number of reasons:
  • coming to a busy road
  • meeting a friend
  • noticing a problem up ahead
  • pausing to decide which way to go
  • wanting to look at something
  • stopping on a narrow path to let someone else go past

In all these cases it is far more convenient if your dog quietly sits without your having to say anything, until you are ready to move on. It leaves you free to concentrate on whatever made you stop, and it reassures other people that your dog is under control and not a pest.

So there are many practical reasons for this exercise.

But it also indicates the strength or weakness of the bond between dog and handler, and this is the basis for all obedience work, whether for competition or not.

Many years ago, when I was just starting out in Obedience, I had a dog who always placed her paw on my foot whenever I stopped. I thought this was a charming display of affection until an Obedience instructor suggested that she might be doing this so she could look around, smell the breeze and generally ignore me until she noticed when I moved on!!

Those of you who do take part in Obedience Trials may be interested in what judges look for in terms of the Automatic Sit. It is a part of many exercises, but does not have any specific marks attached to it, so it is up to each judge how much importance they place on it. Obviously the dog must "sit when the handler stops, without any command or signal", as it says in the rule books, but there are many different ways this can be done, and judges differ in how much they care about the variations.
  1. Some dogs take longer to sit than others, and this can be due to all sorts of things. If the judge feels the dog is slow because he is not paying attention, or because he is waiting for a second command, then sometimes this means a deduction of points. However, most judges realise that bigger dogs, older dogs, dogs with tails, dogs with large testicles, pregnant bitches etc may all have a very good reason for being a bit slower, and it is unlikely that any points would be lost. Oh and by the way, remember that all judges used to be competitors, so don't think we won't notice that little movement or whispered command to make your dog sit. ;-)
  2. Handlers often worry about exactly where the dog sits, and they are not satisfied unless the dog is sitting precisely in line with their left leg, facing straight ahead, and often actually touching their leg. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, and some judges will deduct points for "untidy" sits, where the dog is sitting a little forwards or behind, or is facing slightly to one side, or is sitting a little apart from the handler. Other judges will not mind such minor imperfections, unless they are trying to differentiate between two almost faultless performances.
  3. And what if your dog doesn't sit automatically while you are in the ring? Well, you and the judge could stand there in anxious silence for minutes unless one of you says something, so it may as well be you! If your dog hasn't sat within about 10 seconds, it probably isn't going to, so you may as well give it a command (NEVER a correction). Sure, you might lose a few points, but if your dog doesn't do any automatic sits, you are very likely to fail the whole exercise, so at least you have reminded the dog what to do, and hopefully it will do it properly for the rest of the round.

So in general, I would recommend all dog owners to work on the automatic sit because it is so handy in everyday life.
And for those of you who participate in Obedience Trials, it would be a tough judge who took more than a couple of points off for poor sits, so don't fuss too much about getting a "perfect" sit unless you think that the rest of your performance will be perfect as well!


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