Encouraging People from Obedience to Try Working Trials

We have heard a lot of talk about declining numbers in trials, so I thought I would write a short article that might get people’s interest and maybe encourage some of our obedience friends to have a dabble at trials in the hope they get hooked! See what you think – you could even pop a copy on the table at your local dog training club.

What is the difference between Obedience and Working Trials?
Many people see, or hear about working trials but discover it is difficult to find any information about training. With the internet, these days it is easy to find facts to read, but this does not help you (the potential newcomer) to get a feel for trials and to understand the exercises and standard required.
You may hear contradictions about trials; some people will tell you it is very difficult, whist others will say it is easy! If you compete in obedience and you just watch some trials heelwork, you could be forgiven for thinking trials is easier – but whilst heelwork is the mainstay of obedience, it is possibly the least trained exercise in working trials! A quick look at the points allocated through the classes/stakes will explain the reasoning behind this.

Heelwork marks: comparison between two disciplines
Pre-Beginners35/75Intro and CD15/100
Class A30/150 (plus A recall)WD5/200
Class B40/150 (plus recall)TD5/220
Class C60/300 (plus recall)PD5/320

However, before you think trials heelwork is much easier than obedience heelwork do be warned that in working trials no extra commands are allowed, excepting for Intro Stake, and heelwork is tested at slow, fast and normal paces at all levels and may be around persons and obstacles and include figure of eight at all levels. So whilst the accuracy required for obedience competition is not needed, the dog should keep its shoulder reasonably close to the handler’s left knee, and dog and handler should operate in a ‘free and natural manner.’ That means that you will need to swing both arms during heelwork, as most judges will severely penalise a handler who walks with the left arm on the hip as we do in obedience.
So does that make it easier, or more difficult? In my opinion it makes it different! If you are thinking about changing from obedience to trials because it is easier, you may have to reconsider. If however you are thinking about training for trials because you want to train something different and you want some new challenges, then read on... trials is about so much more than heelwork. Training for trials brings out and encourages your dog’s natural talents to follow tracks, sniff out articles, to run and to jump. Dogs love trials!
Before I say anymore I would like to point it out that I have a boot in each camp. I have competed with several dogs in both disciplines and I enjoy different aspects of both sports. Working trials is physically more demanding on both dog and handler, so for some dogs or handlers obedience may be the only option at some stages of their life. Given good health there is nothing in my opinion more exhilarating than following a good tracking dog around a track. Their ability to follow tracks and find articles never ceases to amaze me.
In Obedience the ‘G(c)’ regulations call for prime consideration to be given to dog and handler working ‘as a team’ and in obedience I think this is demonstrated beautifully when handler and dog move as one, effortlessly, around the ring. However, in trials it is more ‘team work’ with the dog taking the lead using his superior olfactory senses to track and locate articles, and the handler taking back the control for other exercises. It is this taking and giving of control between dog and handler that makes trials so thrilling. Much of trials training is about allowing and encouraging the dog to use his natural abilities and follow his nose. We have only to teach him to follow the track we want him to follow (not every passing bunny!) and to locate the articles that have been placed by the track layer/steward.
Some people are put off trials because they do not have access to land for tracking. Whilst that is not really a problem (my own champion TD dog was trained to track when Foot and Mouth closed the countryside – he learnt to track on public parks and recreation fields) it does not affect training for CD at all. There is no track in CD.

Companion Dog Excellent (C.D.Ex)
Imagine how great it would be to have the letters C.D.Ex. as part of your dog’s name! What does it mean and how do you set about achieving it? Well the good news, for anyone stuck in a class in obedience, frequently getting second place and not winning out of the class, is that in trials you do not have to win to gain the qualification. Instead you will be working with your dog to gain 80% of the marks available to get your CDEx. The lovely thing about this is that competitors in a stake root for each other as you all work for the same goal. I think it is this aspect of trials that encourages the camaraderie that makes trials such a friendly sport.
To have a good trials dog you really need a good retrieve. Your dog should want to bring things back to you: and he has to give them to you! Apart from retrieving his dumbbell, he will have to bring other, smaller articles out of the search square and give them to hand, preferably without mouthing or dropping them. To encourage this I always teach my dogs two different types of retrieve; a play retrieve where he can play and tug (I want to encourage him, so he can play as he likes) and a more formal retrieve (like I train for obedience) where he must not mouth or play around with the article. I used food to reward the latter.
Trials dogs need to pick up all types of objects. It is good to get them used to picking up wood, plastic, metal, rubber and fabrics from a young age (glass is not allowed for safety reasons). I encourage a hand delivery (rather than the raised head present of the dumbbell) for smaller articles so they cannot slip down his throat if he is panting. When out for a walk, or pottering around the garden, I drop an article without my dog seeing and walk on a few paces before encouraging to find it. He will naturally begin to use the wind to help him locate small articles as he gains experience. It is fantastic to quietly watch as they learn. This way he will be prepared to find anything with human scent on even before you begin training the search square as an exercise. A Companion Dog is very useful to have around. He will help pick up pegs, pens and any small items you might drop and his searching skills are invaluable if ever you lose your keys when out on a walk!
Trials sendaways are nothing like obedience sendaways so I teach them quite differently. If your dog did a trials sendaway at an obedience show he would not only end up out of the ring, but probably at the edge of the venue! So my ‘set-up’ needs to be quite different so that my dog knows what is required. For obedience I want a ‘send to’ where the dog can clearly see the markers in the ring and for trials I simply want my dog to run in the direction I set him up and to keep going across the open field until I tell him to stop. I do however use a pole with a reward for the dog to run to when I begin to train my trials sendaway. It is just that the pole is ‘faded’ for trials and the distances are very much increased.
Working trial jumps need to be trained! This might seem an obvious statement, but because the jumps are high I believe we need to teach the dog a good technique before encouraging him to jump the heights required. In the past dogs were expected to jump great heights with no thought to technique. This may have worked for dogs that were naturally agile, but many dogs landed ungainly, causing discomfort and these dogs, not surprisingly, developed a dislike for the jumps. With more knowledge these days most people train the jumps with patience and consideration allowing the dog to progress only when he has developed the necessary muscles, skill, and confidence.
The recall in CD is very similar to that in novice obedience, except there are no extra commands and the distance is usually greater –but less precision is required.
That just leaves the stays. For CD you must train the dog to be comfortable when left with strange dogs for a two minute sit and a ten minute down- both out of sight. Dogs cannot compete in trials until they are 18 months old, so there is plenty of time to build the confidence needed for the long stays. I train stays using a reward based method to ensure my dog is relaxed whilst left in a strange field with strange dogs and people around him.
So to recap:
If you are thinking of changing from obedience to trials because it is easier, you might need to reconsider. If you want to increase your dog training skills and have fun encouraging your dog to use his natural instincts; to use his nose, and to run and jump, whilst increasing your control even at great distances, then go on, have a look at trials.
If you are tempted to find out more about working trials why not go to the Whats on pages on this website and look to see what is going on near you?

Anne Bussey MSc CABC