Obedience Dog Sport

Dog participating in Obedience sport.
Submitted by: Sharon McDonald – Photo Credits: Hounds in Motion by Tori Lee

About Obedience

Obedience is a competitive sport that tests the ability of dogs to perform tasks on command by their handlers. It’s a discipline that showcases the bond and effective communication between a dog and its handler, emphasizing training, behavior control, and adherence to specific exercises.

In Obedience Trials, dogs accompany their handlers in a series of standardized exercises, each judged against a set criteria rather than against other dogs. This emphasizes the individual skill and training level of each dog-handler team and their ability to reliably work together.

This sport is inclusive, welcoming various breeds and mixed-breeds, and focuses not just on the physical execution of tasks but also on mental discipline and the connection that exists between each dog and its handler. Obedience transcends basic training, helping dogs to develop important life skills such as adaptability, problem-solving, and how to perform well under stress.

Obedience, as both a sport and a training methodology, has evolved significantly over time. From its origins as a basic training regimen, it has become a sophisticated sport with varying levels of difficulty, reflecting a blend of discipline, art, and mutual respect between dogs and their human companions.

History of Obedience

The sport of Obedience, as we know it today, has its roots in the early 20th century. Initially, it was developed as a method of training for working dogs, focusing on commands and behaviors essential for service roles such as police and military work. The evolution of Obedience into a competitive sport is largely attributed to the increased interest in formal dog training methods and the recognition of the benefits of having a dog that’s been trained.

In the United States, the first formal Obedience test took place in the 1930s. The American Kennel Club (AKC) played a pivotal role in popularizing Obedience as a sport. The registry established standardized rules and organized the first licensed Obedience Trial in 1936. That event marked a significant milestone, as it officially introduced Obedience as a competitive endeavor, establishing a structured framework for evaluating and rewarding well-trained dogs and their handlers.

Post-World War II, the popularity of Obedience Trials grew significantly in the United States. This growth was fueled by the increasing number of dog owners and a growing appreciation for the benefits of having a well-trained dog. Clubs and organizations dedicated to dog training began to emerge across the country, further promoting the sport and contributing to its development.

As the sport evolved, so did the complexity and variety of exercises included in competitions. The initial exercises were relatively simple, focusing on basic commands such as sit, stay, and heel. Over time, these exercises became more sophisticated, incorporating elements such as retrieving, jumping, scent discrimination, and performing tasks at a distance, or with minimal cues, from the handler.

Today, Obedience as a sport is recognized and practiced worldwide, with numerous national and international competitions. It remains a dynamic field, continually adapting and evolving with advancements in dog training techniques and a deeper understanding of canine behavior.

Obedience Organizations

Over the years, Obedience has attracted a diverse community of amateurs and professionals alike. The community has been supported by various organizations that play a crucial role in regulating, promoting, and enhancing the sport. These associations range from national kennel clubs to specific Obedience-focused bodies.

American Kennel Club (AKC):

  • About: The AKC, established in 1884, is the oldest dog registry in the United States, offering resources and events for a wide range of Companion Events, including Obedience.
  • Flagship Event: AKC hosts a variety of events, including the AKC Obedience Classic.
  • Breed Acceptance: Participation welcomes both purebred and mixed-breed dogs.
  • Eligibility: Refer to AKC Obedience Regulations for eligibility requirements.

United Kennel Club (UKC):

  • About: A US-based organization, the UKC is known for its all-inclusive approach, recognizing breeds and including mixed breeds in some events.
  • Breed Acceptance: Open to both purebred and mixed breeds.
  • Eligibility: Refer to Official UKC Obedience Rulebook for eligibility requirements.

Canadian Kennel Club (CKC):

  • About: The CKC serves as Canada’s primary registry for purebred dogs, also overseeing Obedience and other dog sports.
  • Breed Acceptance: Focuses on purebred dogs but also offers events open to mixed breeds.
  • Eligibility: Refer to CKC Obedience Trial & Rally Obedience Trial Rules & Regulations for eligibility requirements.

The Royal Kennel Club (UK):

  • About: Based in the United Kingdom, this is one of the oldest recognized kennel clubs, playing a significant role in British dog sports.
  • Flagship Event: Hosts prestigious events like Crufts, which includes Obedience.
  • Breed Acceptance: Open to both purebred dogs as well as mixed breeds in many of its activities.
  • Eligibility: Refer to RKC Obedience Regulations for eligibility requirements.

Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI):

  • About: An international federation of national kennel clubs, the FCI is instrumental in standardizing breeds and dog sports practices globally.
  • Breed Acceptance: Primarily focuses on purebred dogs but includes mixed breeds in some activities.
  • Eligibility: Refer to FCI Rules & Guidelines for Obedience Trials for Classes 1 & 2 & 3 for eligibility requirements.

Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC):

  • About: Dogs Australia governs the Breed Standards and organizes dog sports Down Under.
  • Breed Acceptance: Mainly focused on purebred dogs.
  • Eligibility: Refer to ANKC Rules for the Conduct of Obedience Trials for eligibility requirements.

Levels of Obedience Competition

Novice Level

The Novice level is the entry point for dogs and handlers who are new to Obedience competition. It focuses on basic commands and skills that lay the foundation for more advanced work. Key elements at this level typically include:

  • Heel on Leash: The dog must demonstrate the ability to walk politely on a leash, staying close to the handler.
  • Figure Eight: This involves the dog and handler navigating around two people in a figure-eight pattern, showcasing the dog’s ability to maintain a steady pace and direction.
  • Sit Stay & Down Stay: Dogs are required to sit or lie down and stay in place while the handler moves a certain distance away, testing the dog’s patience and discipline.
  • Recall: This involves the dog coming to the handler on command, demonstrating the dog’s responsiveness.

Open Level

The Open level introduces more complexity and requires dogs to perform tasks with greater independence from their handlers. Key exercises include:

  • Heel Free: Similar to the Novice level’s heel on leash, this exercise is performed off-leash.
  • Drop on Recall: The dog must come towards the handler and then drop to a down position on command before reaching the handler.
  • Retrieve on Flat: The dog retrieves an object thrown by the handler and returns it directly.
  • Broad Jump: The dog must jump over a broad obstacle, showing agility as well as obedience to the command.

Utility Level

The Utility level is the most advanced level in Obedience. It involves complex tasks that require a high level of training and precision. Exercises include:

  • Scent Discrimination: The dog must find and retrieve an object with the handler’s scent from among a group of similar objects.
  • Directed Retrieve: Involves retrieving one of several objects as directed by the handler.
  • Directed Jumping: The dog is required to jump over specified hurdles on command.
  • Signal Exercise: The dog must follow a series of commands given by hand signals only, such as sit, down, and come.

Each level in Obedience competition progressively builds upon the skills and commands learned in the previous level. The challenges become more demanding, testing not only the dog’s ability to follow commands but also its ability to work under increasing levels of distraction and at greater distances from the handler. This progression highlights the depth of training and the strength of the bond between dog and handler.

Dog jumping over an obstacle while participating in Obedience dog sport.
Submitted by: Sharon McDonald – Photo Credits: Hounds in Motion by Tori Lee

Getting Started in Obedience

Choosing the Right Dog Breed

Initiating training in Obedience begins with understanding that nearly any dog can participate. However, certain breeds may have inherent characteristics that make them better suited to specific tasks within this sport. Sporting breeds, for instance, often excel due to their natural inclination towards following commands and their eagerness to please. When selecting a dog for Obedience, consider factors such as temperament, energy level, and willingness to learn.

Finding a Local Club or Training Group

To start training, it’s beneficial to connect with a local Obedience club or training group. These organizations provide structured training programs and experienced instructors. They also offer the opportunity to train in an environment similar to competition settings. The American Kennel Club (AKC) and other canine associations often have directories of affiliated clubs which can be a valuable resource for finding a local group.

Equipment & Space Requirements

Basic equipment for Obedience training includes a suitable leash and collar, training treats, and possibly, items like dumbbells for retrieval exercises. As a dog advances in training, it will become necessary to incorporate additional equipment that’s specific to individual exercises, such as hurdles for jumping.

Adequate training space is also essential. While basic training can begin at home or in a backyard, access to larger, distraction-free areas becomes necessary for practicing more advanced exercises and simulating competition environments.

Training for Obedience

Training for Obedience begins with basic command training, which is crucial for establishing a foundation for more advanced skills. Positive reinforcement is a key technique during this stage, involving rewarding the dog for correct behavior, which encourages repetition of these behaviors. This can include treats, praise, or play, depending on what motivates the individual dog.

Advanced Training Strategies

As the dog masters basic commands, training can gradually become more sophisticated. This includes introducing commands that are part of competition routines, such as complex recall exercises, directed retrieves, and scent discrimination. Handlers should introduce these exercises progressively, making sure the dog is confident with simpler tasks before moving on to more challenging ones.

In advanced training, focus and consistency become increasingly important. Handlers should practice exercises under varying conditions to make sure the dog can perform reliably regardless of the environment. This includes training in different locations, with different distractions and at varying distances.

Common Challenges & How to Overcome Them

  • Distractions: Dogs may struggle to focus in the presence of distractions. Gradually introducing distractions during training sessions can help dogs learn to maintain focus.
  • Consistency: Inconsistent command usage or reinforcement can confuse a dog. It’s important for handlers to be consistent in their cues and rewards.
  • Patience & Pace of Learning: Dogs learn at different paces. Handlers need to be patient and avoid rushing the training process. Celebrating small victories and progress is important for maintaining motivation for both the dog and the handler.
  • Boredom or Stress: Dogs can get bored with repetitive tasks, or stressed by too much pressure. Keeping training sessions short, fun, and varied can help to keep a dog engaged and happy.

Role of a Professional Trainer

While many handlers successfully train their own dogs, working with a professional trainer can offer significant advantages. Trainers can provide expert guidance, help troubleshoot problems, and offer insights into the specific demands of Obedience competitions. They can also provide a fresh perspective on a dog’s abilities and potential areas for improvement.

Utilizing Technology & Virtual Resources

With the rise of technology, there are more resources than ever for Obedience training. Online tutorials, virtual training courses, and training apps can complement traditional training methods, providing additional support and guidance.

Obedience Trials & Competitions

Obedience Trials are structured to evaluate a dog’s ability to perform a set of predetermined exercises. These exercises are designed to demonstrate the dog’s training and discipline. Trials are divided into levels – Novice, Open, and Utility – each with increasing difficulty.

In these trials, dogs are judged against a standard of performance rather than competing directly against other dogs. Each exercise is scored on a point system, and deductions are made for errors. The goal is to accumulate enough points to qualify, and ultimately, to earn Obedience titles.

Preparing for a Trial

Preparation for an Obedience Trial involves more than just practicing exercises. Handlers should familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations of the competition, which can vary depending on the organizing body. It’s also important to prepare the dog for the trial environment, which can be more distracting and stressful than a training environment.

Trial preparation often includes:

  • Mock Trials: Simulating the trial environment and procedures can help both the dog and handler get accustomed to the setting and structure of an actual competition.
  • Focus on Weak Areas: Identifying and improving upon exercises where the dog may be weaker or less consistent are crucial for success.
  • Conditioning and Stamina: Ensuring the dog is physically conditioned for the demands of a trial, especially for higher levels that include more physically demanding exercises, is key.

What to Expect on Competition Day

On the day of the competition, handlers should arrive with enough time to check in, prepare, and acclimate their dog to the environment. It’s important to maintain a calm and positive demeanor, as dogs can pick up on their handler’s emotions.

During the trial:

  • Running Order: Dogs are typically called to compete in a predetermined order. Handlers need to be ready when it’s their turn.
  • Ring Etiquette: Understanding and following ring protocols and etiquette are crucial.
  • Focus on the Dog: Keeping the dog focused amidst the distractions of the competition environment is essential for a successful performance.

Virtual Obedience

With advancements in technology and the need for adaptability due to events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of Virtual Obedience has gained prominence. Virtual Obedience allows participants to compete from their own environment, offering a unique format that breaks the geographical and physical constraints of traditional events.

How Virtual Obedience Works

In Virtual Obedience, handlers record videos of their dogs performing Obedience routines based on specific guidelines set by the organizing bodies. These guidelines typically include the angle and clarity of the video, making sure that the dog and handler are visible throughout the routine, and adherence to the standard Obedience commands and exercises.

Once recorded, these videos are submitted to the competition organizers for judging. The judges then review these videos, scoring the performances against the same criteria used in physical events.

Challenges & Benefits

Challenges: Ensuring fairness and consistency in judging across different environments and video submissions is a key challenge. Handlers must also be adept at recording and submitting quality videos that accurately depict their dog’s performance.

Benefits: Virtual Obedience offers numerous advantages:

  • Accessibility: It allows a broader range of participants, including those who may not be able to travel to physical event locations.
  • Comfort: Dogs may perform better in familiar environments.
  • Flexibility: Handlers can record their performances at a time that’s convenient for them.

Getting Started with Virtual Obedience

To participate in Virtual Obedience:

  • Find a Virtual Event: Many organizations now host virtual Obedience Trials. Searching online for upcoming events is a good starting point.
  • Understand the Rules: Each virtual competition may have specific rules regarding video recording and submission. Understanding these is crucial for successful participation.
  • Practice & Record: Practice the routine as specified by the event, then record the performance, adhering to the video guidelines.
  • Submit for Judging: Follow the submission process outlined by the event organizers.

Rally Obedience

Rally Obedience, often simply referred to as Rally, is a variant of traditional Obedience that combines elements of both Obedience and Agility. It is designed to be a bit more informal and engaging, offering a more interactive and flowing sequence of exercises for the dog and handler. In Rally, teams navigate a course with numbered signs that indicate different exercises to perform, such as sit-down-sit, turns, and weaves.

Differences from Traditional Obedience

Rally Obedience differs from traditional Obedience in several key ways:

  • Continual Movement: Unlike traditional Obedience, where exercises are performed one at a time and scored individually, Rally is more fluid, with the team moving continuously through the course.
  • Course Navigation: In Rally, a judge sets up a course of 10-20 signs, and the team must follow the course in order, performing the exercises indicated at each sign.
  • Handler-Dog Interaction: More interaction between the handler and the dog is allowed, and even encouraged, in Rally. Handlers can talk to, support, and praise their dogs throughout the course, making it a more engaging experience.

Levels & Challenges in Rally Obedience

Rally is divided into different levels, each with increasing complexity:

  • Novice: This is the introductory level, performed on-leash, involving basic exercises and simple course navigation.
  • Intermediate/Advanced: An off-leash performance, this level has more challenging exercises and higher expectations for precision and teamwork.
  • Excellent/Master: These are the highest levels, where courses are more complex, requiring a high degree of training, precision, and teamwork.

Competing in Rally Obedience

To compete in Rally:

  • Find a Club or Training Group: Like traditional Obedience, it’s beneficial to train with a club or group that specializes in Rally.
  • Understand the Rules & Exercises: Familiarizing oneself with the specific rules, signs, and exercises of Rally is crucial and will make the experience more enjoyable – and successful.
  • Practice Courses: Setting up or practicing on mock courses can help handlers and their dogs prepare for the flow and challenges that may be encountered on a Rally course.


Obedience Dog Sport


June 2024 No. 7

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