Sit. This is a well-behaved dog story. Actually, the story's about 189 well-behaved dogs and their people who journeyed to the O'Hare Exposition Center in Chicago late last fall for the 1982 United States Dog Obedience Classic. This event is commonly called the Super Bowl of Dog Obedience. If that conjures up an image of wags tailing dogs for photographs and interviews, drop it. Stay.
The Big Dog Dish, unfortunately, wasn't widely publicized by the press—newspapers dumping on dogs instead of the other way around—so you probably missed the results, which we won't reveal just yet. Beg.
Dog-obedience people are warm, friendly and down-to-earth. They are doctors, psychologists, engineers, lawyers, home-makers and teachers as well as professional trainers. Not one of them looked like Barbara Wood-house, the Englishwoman who's the Julia Child of dogs ("Walkie!"). They put bumper stickers on their station wagons that read: DID YOU SMOOCH YOUR POOCH TODAY? and DOGS ARE KIND TO DUMB PEOPLE and, this is an inside joke, DOG TRAINERS DON'T DIE, THEY JUST DROP ON RECALL.
But they do take their sport very seriously. They came from 32 states and Canada for the eighth annual Dog Obedience Classic, and the most any of them could hope to bring back was the 1982 Super Dog Silver Dumbbell and—give a dog a bone—a cash prize of $750.
Dog-obedience dogs are warm, friendly and down-to-earth. They are Papillons, Rottweilers, Belgian Tervurens and Poodles that look like topiary. Twenty-seven different breeds were represented in Chicago; 69 of the dogs were golden retrievers. Not one dog, however, looked like Lassie ("What is it, girl? A fire? Over by the old Thompson place?").
Dogs take the Classic seriously, too. After the first day of competition, Russet, a border collie trained by AnneMarie Silverton of Stockton, Calif., jumped out of his second-story window at the Ramada Inn. Russet played dead for a few minutes, and then was revived from shock. The next day, undoubtedly a little stiff, he fell from fourth to 11th place in the novice competition.
The Exposition Center, or O'Hare of the Dogs, was cold, forbidding and otherworldly, but 189 canines have a way of brightening up a place. The event was hosted by the Mini Obedience Association, which did a splendid job of making everyone and everydog feel at home. Chicago, it seems, is a hotbed of dog obedience. Each contestant received a handsome shellacked welcoming wreath of Gaines Dog Biscuits, pasted together, and if you have any idea how many hours went into that, speak.
The Classic is sponsored by Gaines, and dog-obedience people are very grateful for its support. The American Kennel Club has treated this dog-obedience competition as if it were a wet mongrel, so Gaines has been feeding it.
No wonder. Dog obedience, or canine citizenship, as some folks call it, is a growing sport. Mrs. Woodhouse is partly responsible, although she has reservations about obedience trials. Nevertheless, an estimated 100,000 pooches and their people participate in obedience trials in the U.S. each year. Those in Chicago were the cr√®me de la cr√®me, having placed high in the Central, Western and Eastern regionals earlier in the year. This year the three regionals will be held in Dayton (June 18-19), Las Vegas (July 9-10) and Greenville, S.C. (Sept. 24-25), with the super bowl scheduled for San Jose, Calif. in November.
There are three categories in dog obedience: novice, open and utility. In the novice class the dog and handler are judged on their ability to do six basic exercises. The dog has to heel on a leash while making a figure eight around two stationary humans; stand perfectly still, without shyness or resentment, while being examined by the judge; heel free without a leash; stay where left until recalled; remain in a sitting position for a minute, until the handler, who has walked away, returns; and lie down for three minutes, while the handler again leaves and comes back. There are, unfortunately, no events like gimme your paw.
The perfect score is 200, and the dogs are judged on precision, willingness and enjoyment. Fighting and biting are not allowed. The handlers are watched for gentleness, smoothness and naturalness. They are not permitted to fight, either.
In the open class the dog must heel free; drop on recall, which means that when the dog is being recalled, it must lie down on command, rise and continue to come on command; retrieve a dumbbell when commanded; retrieve the dumbbell over a high jump; do a broad jump; sit for three minutes with the handler out of sight; and lie for five minutes. No, there's no slipper fetching.
In utility, which is the toughest category, a dog goes through five tests. In the signal exercise, it must heel, stand, stay, lie down, sit and come promptly on signals. In scent discrimination, the dog must, when commanded, retrieve the handler's leather article from among five others, and the exercise is repeated with a metal article. In directed retrieve, the dog must retrieve a glove on command. In the directed jumping, the dog must go away from the handler in the direction indicated, stop when commanded, jump as directed and return to heel. By the way, a dog is disqualified in any of the three categories for going to the bathroom in the ring. Bad.
In Chicago dogs competing in both the utility and open exercises were classified as Super Dogs. The Super Dogs had to perform in three utility and three open classes (as obedience sessions are known), six in all, working four times on Saturday and twice on Sunday. They got a break at halftime each day when other dogs showed off by catching fly balls, running obstacle courses, pulling people in carts, etc. There was also a demonstration of hearing dogs, canines that assist the deaf.
The superest dog of them all was Moreland's Golden Tonka, a golden retriever that won the Classic in 1975, 1977, 1978 and 1979. Unfortunately, Tonka died last year, but her legacy lives on in the number of goldens entered. The popularity of certain breeds has changed over the years. In the past, German shepherds, Poodles and Doberman pinschers have dominated the sport.
But dog obedience is somewhat democratic, if that's the right word. A dog without papers or pedigree can compete, as long as an AKC official certifies that the dog appears to have no mixed blood. This democracy embraces even the Basset hound, whose stubby legs make it tough for him to perform with élan.
But one was entered in the Super Dog category in the Big Dog Dish—name of Goober, trained by Buzz Taylor of Lake Park, Fla. Goober is the only OTCH (obedience trial champion) Basset in history, and it's truly a thing of beauty when he goes over a jump that stands as high as his shoulder. One problem Bassets have is that they sometimes step on their ears when heeling.
Goober, who celebrated his eighth birthday just a week before the Classic, is multitalented. He sings, he's appeared on a TV talk show with comedian Jackie Mason and Johnny Carson's Tonight show has expressed interest. "Goober, sing On the Road Again," commanded Taylor. Goober sang, but it could just as well have been Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.
Taylor is something of a character himself. He's known as Dog Trainer to Palm Beach Society, and he says, "You can teach an old dog new tricks." He's also a columnist for Front and Finish, the bible of dog obedience. In the November 1982 edition of F and F, Taylor had an article entitled The Truth about Fleas in Florida. Other stories in that issue included Border Collies in Canada: All Is Not What It Seems!, Where Have All the Shepherds Gone? and Classic Pooper. But we digress. Heel.
Goober wasn't at his best in Chicago. "The old guy's a little slow today," said Taylor. He really didn't have much of a chance, anyway. The two favorites in the Super Dog category were the defending champion, Charo, a golden retriever trained by Diane Bauman of Sparta, N.J., and Dana, a Doberman pinscher who won the Classic two years before and is trained by Heather Armbruster of Grand Blanc, Mich.
Charo trains like an athlete. She jogs and swims, and, said Bauman, "She's my best friend." Unfortunately, Bauman also said, Charo was upset and nervous. Sure enough, in the directed jump on the first day, Charo anticipated her command and was hit with a low score of 176.5, which meant she was pretty much out of the competition. "This is an unforgiving sport," said the judge, Samuel Gardner, an engineer from Lakeland, Fla. who's also interested in the training of dolphins. "It's a shame, too, because that's a very beautiful dog."
"Oh, well," said Bauman. "Every dog will have an off day." Charo's other scores that day were 199.5, 198.5 and 199.5, and on Sunday, she scored 199s in open and utility, but the best she could do was finish 10th.
Dana performed beautifully on Saturday, averaging 197.625, but right behind her at 197.375 was an underdog named Missy.
Missy, trained by Bonnie McCaleb of Edina, Minn., is a 5-year-old Shetland Sheepdog, and a tiny Sheltie at that. "She's 10 pounds of dynamite," said McCaleb. "I was taking a shower in the motel, and when I came out, Missy had turned down the covers of the bed, put all the pillows in the center of the bed and was lying in the middle of them."
On Sunday, Dana was nearly flawless, and her 198.5 in the open exercise meant that Missy would have to score an impossible 200.5 to beat her. McCaleb congratulated Armbruster, and Missy seemed to congratulate Dana. In the midst of all the happiness, a border collie walked by with a FOR SALE, CHEAP sign draped over him.
On Sunday evening, Dana and Armbruster were given the Silver Dumbbell, and balloons went up as the speaker blared the theme from Rocky. Afterward, Dana played with a chewed-up tennis ball, and Armbruster told her, "Good girl, good girl."