Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

Original text

Fun in the Obedience Ring with a Greyhound

by Cindy Sisson

How on Earth did I get Here? My dog is off-leash, and we’re about to walk into a situation that on a previous occasion sent him playbowing and bouncing out of control. This is fun?

Well, yes, it is for Marshall, whose ear-to-ear grin makes him look — to the casual observer —like he’s about to take my arm off at the elbow. We’re about to do his least favorite thing, though — heel right up to a wall and do an about turn. Even after two years as my dog, and one year of working with me in obedience, Marshall still doesn’t always trust me not to walk him into walls. After all, he’s had eight-and-a-half years of taking care of himself, and long ago learned that walking into walls is not a smart thing. He’s not quite sure if I’m smart enough to know that. I am a blonde, after all.

The previous time we had a heeling pattern like this at an obedience trial, Marshall hung back on the off-lead heeling as I approached the wall and then was surprised to see me turn around and heel back towards him. Oops! He knew that he was on the wrong side, heading in the wrong direction. What does a Greyhound do in that situation? Easy! Ask for forgiveness with an invitation to play. He added some novel new moves to the traditional heeling moves (fast – right turn – halt–forward – about turn and the like). Improvisational heeling with a Greyhound includes playbowing, pogoing a couple of times for impact, bouncing around while grinning and wagging. Oh, and then return to heel and finish up the heeling pattern if you really have to. Even when you don’t qualify, obedience can be fun and entertaining when you’re doing it with a Greyhound.

This time, though, he actually stayed with me as we approached the wall, and all the way around. When all was said and done that day, he received 195 out of a possible 200 points. Since this was the third time he qualified, he also earned his Companion Dog title that day, so now he’s officially Jim Cruz CD. Even nicer, he placed first in his class, over thirteen other dogs. But best of all, he did it with happiness and bouncing — though, thank goodness, he kept the bounces to between exercises this time. If we never qualified I’d probably still take Marshall to obedience trials because he has  a good time in the ring.

So how did we get to this point?

I certainly didn’t plan on going into obedience when I got a Greyhound. Lure coursing sounded interesting, and seeing how much Marshall loved to run, I was sure he’d have fun in that sport. The only problem was finding a local group. When I finally got word of a club forming within a couple hours driving distance, it was late spring. In Louisiana, summer means no lure-coursing; it’s just too hot and humid. So we needed something to keep us busy for the season. Enter obedience lessons.

Marshall and I had to put up with some good-natured ribbing during that summer from our classmates. Most of the people there had adolescent dogs, many of which were pound puppies. There was a rather striking difference between my quiet gentleman of a dog and these rowdy cut-ups. My classmates thought I was cheating by bringing in a calm seven-year-old dog.

Why Competitive Obedience?

Two things prompted me to start thinking seriously about competitive obedience. The first was seeing how much Marshall loved having something to do.  On class nights he would follow me around after dinner, never letting me out of his sight. Any motion towards his leash at the front door was met with wild pogoing and grinning. He came out of his shell more in the two months of obedience lessons than he had in his previous twelve months in our house. He loved having a job and seemed to enjoy life so much more with something to look forward to each week. At the same time lure coursing was looking less and less possible, as months of searching still hadn’t turned up a fenced area for free running for conditioning. Most of the trials were at least three hours away, and Marshall was getting a bit old to be starting a sport as physically demanding as coursing.

The second reason that I got serious about competitive obedience was my own interest in training. I teach at a university, but like most college professors, I have not taken a single course in education, pedagogy, or the psychology of learning. The more I got involved in obedience the more I learned about the process of learning and the process of teaching. I love the honesty of dog training. Why should you do this? Because I’ll give you a hot dog. And, of course, there have been a few times when I’ve wanted to put a choke chain on some of my college students, though I’ve restrained myself.

Graduation Time

About the time we graduated from our beginner’s obedience class I sent off an application to the American Kennel Club for Marshall’s Indefinite Listing Privilege (ILP). This form allows purebred dogs who are not registered with the AKC to enter AKC-sponsored performance activities such as obedience trials, lure coursing, agility, and tracking tests.  His ILP number came about a month later, in September, right around his eighth birthday. My goal for us in the coming year was to be celebrating a CD by his next birthday. Since all of the dog shows in this area are summer shows, I knew we had almost an entire year to prepare.

That same summer I went to an obedience trial in town. While most dogs in the novice rings were putting in performances that I could almost imagine getting with Marshall (though they could heel off leash as well as on), one pair awed me. This was a man and his golden retriever, and they were clearly having fun together. The two practically danced together on the heeling. I talked with the owner later in the day, mentioning that I had a greyhound that didn’t seem to enjoy obedience as much as the man’s golden did. The owner said something that has stuck with me ever since:  “It’s your job, as the trainer to make it fun for your dog. You have to find a way.” It’s the best dog training advice I’ve been given, and I’ve spent most of the past year acting on it.

The Search for Appealing Treats

Since Marshall isn’t much interested in food, I’ve had to search for the treat-of-the-week that he finds interesting. I’ve used commercial dog biscuits and dog treats of various kinds. I’ve made dried liver and liver treats. I’ve given him left-over hamburger, left-over roast beef, day-old baguettes, chicken trimmings, turkey and chicken lunch meat, cheddar and mozzarella cheese, and frozen roasted chicken. My friends at the dog-training club sometimes complain that Marshall eats better than they do.

We can’t take food or toys into the obedience ring, so there’s one more thing that we worked on to make obedience fun: bouncing and pogoing. Marshall has always pogoed in times of happiness, but it took months to get him to pogo during training. While he liked the idea of going to obedience lessons, he wasn’t as thrilled with the actual job of heeling/sitting/finishing. He didn’t see any point to bouncing for joy, but I insisted, making him jump up to get his treat when released from each exercise. He eventually realized that it was fun to bounce, and that being given permission to bounce from time to time was something to look forward to. Now pogoing is a reward to him, and it’s one that we can take into the obedience ring. This has turned into his most enjoyable and crowd-pleasing antic. As the judge says “Exercise finished” after each exercise, I clap my hands and tell Marshall “Ok.” Up he bounces, momentarily eye-to-eye with me, grinning and oh-so-pleased with himself.

Can Greyhounds really succeed in the Obedience Ring these Days?

The cynics would have you believe that obedience rings today look like conformation rings for Golden Retrievers and Border Collies. While I have to agree that a high proportion of the top obedience dogs are Goldens and BCs, there’s plenty of room left for those of us with non-traditional breeds, too. In earning his CD this summer, Marshall placed first over quite a few of the more traditional breeds. I’ve found that people — even judges — are especially impressed when they see a nice performance from a Greyhound. When a Golden performs well, the general consensus is “Well, of course!” But when a Greyhound does well, the response is “Wow! How’d you do that?” One of my fondest memories from this summer’s trials is having a judge ask me, after our performance, “Where did you get such a nice working Greyhound?”

I have been amazed at how friendly everyone has been to me at obedience trials — due in part to my being the owner of a Greyhound. Complete strangers come over to talk, either because they have a Greyhound at home themselves, or they know one, or because they’ve never met one and would like to meet their first. These days at obedience trials there are more people who know Marshall’s name than who know mine. Actually, that’s the way it is around my neighborhood, too, where I’m probably better known as “Marshall’s Mom” than by own name.

But, above and beyond the generally friendly atmosphere of spectators and competitors at obedience trials, there’s a special camaraderie of the hound, and especially sighthound people at obedience trials. Our first show was in a rodeo arena filled with 1,400 dogs (mostly showing in conformation). I felt so much more at home when someone I had never met stopped by Marshall’s crate and asked when we’d be in the ring, mentioning that she had a greyhound entered in Open. I’ve found that it’s really inspiring to meet people who are actively — and successfully —  showing their sighthounds in upper level obedience. Whenever possible I take Marshall to the ringside and tell him to think hard about retrieving and jumping.

So, can my Greyhound do Obedience?

My answer would have to be that all of them can take obedience classes, and that many can do well in competitive obedience. While I would not try to get a CD on a shy, spooky dog, I would definitely take that same dog to obedience classes to try to build its confidence.

On the face of it, Marshall was not an obvious candidate as an obedience dog. He was an older dog (six-years old) when he found his way into the adoption network, and a true rescue dog as well. In fact, his name comes from Marshall, Texas where Greyhound Pets of America bailed him out of the humane society after he was found running by the side of the road. He was fostered first at a vet clinic for several weeks, and then in a foster home for another four months. When my husband and I adopted him, he was a confident but introverted gentleman of a dog, willing to accept attention but very self-contained. And as a third strike against his obedience career, he has a minor form of epilepsy that manifests itself in seizures similar to panic attacks every few months or so.

While some people claim that old dogs can’t learn new tricks, Marshall is living proof that you can. (He has placed in the top three in all his show classes.)

Since he started in obedience at seven-and-a-half, he’s learned plenty and was a joy to train. Older dogs have attention spans that last much longer than puppy attention spans and they are past the hormonal surges of adolescence. But also, they have been around people enough to understand how we work. Training a dog can come down to getting him or her to understand what you want, and older dogs have more insight into the kinds of things that people like and don’t like. The only disadvantage to Marshall’s age is that we may never make it through Utility, but we’re definitely both game to try the Open ring and see if we can earn a CDX in the next year or two. We’ll keep training for as long as we both have fun.

Marshall’s epilepsy has never had any impact on his obedience training or trialing. His seizures have always occurred in quiet, familiar places, so I had little reason to think that he’d ever go into a seizure at an obedience trial.  Marshall hasn’t had a single seizure during the entire spring and summer of our showing in obedience.

Obedience brought out the Extrovert in Marshall

The very best aspect of obedience,     though, is that it has really brought out the extrovert in Marshall. He loves going to trials and showing off in the obedience ring (sometimes to my dismay, when he decides to add in a playbow or bounce to the boring old heeling pattern). While I know that some owners of retired track dogs think that their dogs deserve to be retired, having worked in their previous life, Marshall has convinced me of just the opposite. I found most enlightening about delving into his past that Marshall raced until he was four-and-a-half years old. He spent most of his adult life at a track, racing every four or five days. In spite of the year-and-a-half lay-off from the track when I got him, he still wanted to have a job and be good at it.

Retirement was Boring

Having a job to do has been a true joy to him, one that I see in his face every week as we go to training class, and one that really comes out at trials. It turns out that my quiet, introverted, self-contained boy is a happy, silly, show-off. He loves to be the center of attention. In the ring he has enough fun for an entire class worth of dogs, and I had never seen any of that side of his personality until we started doing obedience. I’m thrilled to have found out about that.

AKC Obedience in a Nutshell

The three main levels of AKC obedience are:

Novice, where dogs pursue their Companion Dog title, or CD; Open, where dogs pursue a Companion Dog Excellent title, or CDX; and Utility, where dogs pursue a Utility Dog title, or UD.

To earn an obedience title, the dog must receive a qualifying score in three separate trials under three different judges. Qualifying requires a score of at least 170 points out of 200, and at least 50% of the points on all the exercises.

Novice (CD): Heel on leash and off, stand for exam, recall, and  a 1 minute sit stay and a three minute down-stay.

Open (CDX):  Heel off leash, drop on recall, retrieve on flat  and over high jump, broad jump, and out of sight sit-stay for three minutes and down- stay for five minutes.

Utility (UD):  Signal exercise (heel, stand, stay, down, sit, and recall all on hand signals), scent discrimination (choosing articles scented by the owner out of a pile of identical articles),  directed retrieve, moving stand for exam, and directed jumping.

There are additional advanced titles, such as the UDX and OTCh for dogs who have earned their UD. These titles require dogs to continue working in both Open and Utility competing with similarly advanced dogs.

Want to do Obedience with your Greyhound?

1) Join a dog-training club for camaraderie and support.

2) Get an ILP application from the AKC (you can download one from their web site at http://www.akc.org).

3) Find out who the AKC superintendents in your area are from people who are actively showing and ask to be included on their mailing list. They’ll send you information about upcoming obedience trials and sanctioned matches.

4) Study the rules and regulations of obedience; you can get a free copy from the AKC.

5) Read lots of training books.

6) Go to as many matches as you can. If, as in my area, there aren’t many matches, make sure you get your dog out to new places to train.

7) Work on being as good a handler as you can so that you don’t sabotage your dog’s performance.

8)    Above all, make sure that both you and your dog are enjoying yourselves.

CG W 98

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