Obedience: Give Your Cardigan A Chance

by Ruth Barish

One of the many wonderful things about the sport of dog obedience is that it offers so many different goals and levels of accomplishment.  It is possible for every dog-handler team to find a personal level of achievement and satisfaction.  Unlike the conformation ring, there are many ways to feel like a winner, even though no blue ribbon or class placement has been earned. Since every dog-trainer combination will have its limitations in terms of natural ability, access to good help, competitive desire, and time available to devote to the sport, goals can be set accordingly.

Some people, probably the majority, desire nothing more than three qualifying scores leading to a CD.  Others may wish to attain the more difficult advanced titles of CDX and UD, and a very tiny percentage aspire to produce that very special creature, "a combined dog."  A combined dog is one who has attained the UD title and is outstanding enough to be competitive; in the Open B and Utility B classes with the goal of achieving the coveted Obedience Trial Championship, the "OTCH." This dog must be sound enough in mind and body to withstand the stress of competing in two difficult classes at each trial, weekend after weekend, under all sorts of conditions.   This dog must also be talented enough to place first or second many times in large classes against dogs who have already won their championships. (At this time there are three Cardigans in the breed's history who have achieved this title.)

It is common knowledge that the upper echelons of obedience are dominated by Golden Retrievers and Border Collies, while Shelties and Poodles are also well represented.  A greater percentage of dogs in these breeds seem to have the characteristics which make a dog a "natural" for the obedience ring.  What about our beloved Cardigans - where do they fit into the obedience picture? Cardigans are wonderful dogs, well above average in the ease with which they can earn obedience titles.  The average Cardigan is extremely intelligent and quick to catch on to the advanced exercises.  Even more important, most of our little friends possess an above average desire to please.

I teach a large Novice class at my local all-breed obedience club, and I can say with great confidence that brains alone are not enough - desire to please its "person" had better be high on the obedience dog's agenda.  I strongly believe that the person who owns a normal, sound, and healthy Cardigan with the typical outgoing happy Cardigan nature can look forward to years of pleasure and enjoyment training and showing his Cardigan through the obedience titles.

While our breed may possess certain qualities which make Cardigans excellent obedience candidates, it is our responsibility as trainer-handlers to give our dogs a fair chance to demonstrate what they can do.  All too often Cardigans are presented in the obedience ring with training insufficient to enable even a respectable (let alone outstanding) performance. The very knowledgeable observer can distinguish between poor training and lack of potential in the dog, but the average observer cannot.  This means that in addition to doing our own dog a disservice we are damaging the reputation of our breed when we exhibit a poorly or insufficiently trained dog.  Since our numbers are so few, each of us may live in an area where it is the performance of our particular dog that will give people an idea of what potential Cardigans as a breed have in obedience.

As we know all too well, even with the best of training, we can never have total control over what will happen in the ring.  Our partner is, after all, a living creature whose agenda may not, at that particular moment, coincide perfectly with our own - no matter how outstanding the training.  What we must do is have a clear picture in our minds of what an excellent execution of the exercises we are performing should look like and try and come as close as possible, within the limits of our own capabilities, to this picture.

Before we even consider entering an obedience trial we should go to as many fun matches as possible.  These matches allow us both to find out exactly how ready our dog is, and even more importantly, to train our dogs in the ring.  I know from my own experience that it takes awhile for the new handler to use a match in the proper way, but it is really critical.

It may not be counterproductive to take a young or green dog into the conformation ring before he is quite ready to win, as it is possible to train him, feed him, etc. while in the ring, thereby shaping and rewarding the appropriate behavior.   If, however, one shows the novice obedience dog prematurely, this can be a serious error.  The dog finds out that, for example, in the ring you do nothing if he heels a foot behind you when off lead, with his attention on everything but you.   Enough performances of this nature and the clever little Cardigan quickly learns that the rules of the game change quite drastically when he enters the ring at a real trial.

Obedience people speak of a trainer's ability to "read" his or her dog.  This comes under the heading of "feel", something that comes naturally to some trainers and is very difficult to teach. Feel involves knowing instinctively why your dog did or did not do something, knowing instantly whether or not a correction is called for, and if so immediately determining the appropriate level.  While this comes naturally to those born with this gift, everyone can learn to improve his feel somewhat with proper instruction.  It is important also to empathize with the dog to learn to see things from his viewpoint rather than merely from our own.

The timing of the trainer is also critical.  This means that praise and/or correction must follow instantly on the heels of the particular behavior you want encouraged or discouraged. When I say "correction", if the right training relationship has been established, a sufficient correction may often be merely absence of praise or a slightly lowered voice tone; it is not necessarily physical.  While such things as footwork and handling techniques are certainly important, what stands between most people and the result they want is lack of development of feel and timing.  So the next time we think that our little Cardigan friend has let us down in the ring we must ask ourselves honestly whether the roots of the problem lie instead in preparation and training.

So far I have been focusing on our responsibilities as trainers to give our Cardigans the chance they deserve to excel in the obedience ring.  I must now take this opportunity to plead with all Cardigan breeders to place temperament absolutely at the top of the list of characteristics for which they breed.  Cardigans have been bred for centuries to perform tasks which require a strong, healthy mind as well as a sound body.  Cardigans who shrink back from the judge and slink around the breed ring with tails tucked down and ears flattened can hardly make excellent companions, let alone outstanding performance dogs.  Cardigans are supposed to have happy, fun-loving and outgoing dispositions. No matter how beautiful we think our breed is, we must realistically accept that to the rest of the world their appearance is somewhat bizarre.  A funny looking dog with a poor temperament is a sad creature indeed.  A beautiful Cardigan with a wonderful temperament is a credit to his breed and can be a very versatile performance animal pursuing obedience, herding, and tracking titles.

We can be proud of the fact that we now have a few talented and well-trained Cardigans being exhibited in the obedience ring. If the breeders continue to provide sound, well-tempered dogs from which to choose an obedience prospect, and if as trainers we give our dogs the training they deserve, then more and more Cardigans will excel.

I heard a wonderful comment from Kerry Tesch at the Ohio Jubilee Specialty of 1992.  He told me that after one of Vanna's fine performances at an all-breed trial a very prominent and respected obedience judge told him that Cardigans certainly seemed to be a great "untapped resource" for obedience.  Let us all try, with the right dogs and correct training, to show just how true that statement really is!

Published in the CWCCA 1992 Handbook

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