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Are the best obedience dogs the ones, that heel the prettiest?

May 28, 2020 - Mia Skogster

For many dog handlers the dog’s heeling style defines the whole obedience. Some may even think that the best obedience dogs are the ones who heel the prettiest. But is it really so?

Heeling tells more about the handler

It’s true that heeling is important. It is the exercise where we control our dog’s emotional state in obedience. But heeling is also an exercise which can tell actually more about the handler, than the dog itself.

In FCI obedience you can compete with any dog breed, from Shih Tzus to Shetland Sheepdogs. This sport includes the same exercises as the first part of the IGP obedience: Long down, Heeling, Motion exercises and Recalls. A good dog handler can teach these exercises perfectly to any dog who has enough good food motivation, cooperation skills and energy. 

The working dog qualities show more in retrieves

Then what is it in our IGP obedience, which makes the difference between working dogs and pet dogs? The gun shots of course will rule out some individuals. What about the other exercises? Exactly. Now we come to Retrieves and Send out where the rest 50 points are available. These exercises are difficult for dogs, who don’t have enough fighting spirit, courage or self-control.

Energetic dogs can run fast to the dumbbell but hesitate a bit before picking it up. They may take it softly or miss it with the first attempt. Their grip in the presentation can be weak. The wooden material can feel uncomfortable and the 2 kg dumbbell may feel too heavy if the dog is lacking real drive and focus.

Jumping over the 1m hurdle can be scary for a dog who lacks courage and drive. It’s inevitable that there comes once a moment where the dog touches the hurdle because it jumps from the wrong distance or carelessly. Sensitive and low motivated dog starts to waver jumping: ‘The hurdle can hurt me. This isn’t funny anymore’. Highly motivated and self-confident dog doesn’t even notice the problem: ’Oh, next time I must focus better and jump higher’.

Self-control is an important skill

Besides the high fighting spirit and courage, the dog must be able to control its impulses. Especially in retrieves the emotions must be shifted several times: A calm development, an energetic fetching, focused and enthusiastic presentation phase and an active finish. It’s difficult, if not impossible for highly impulsive dogs.

That’s why there are usually more dogs in the competitions, who can do beautiful heeling but not many, who can do powerful, yet controlled retrieves. Excellent retrieves require good fighting spirit, courage and inhibitory control. We can not put the determination and power into a dog who doesn’t have it by nature. These are the qualities that distinguish the working dogs from pet dogs.

What do the last exercises tell us?

There’s another good reason to give attention to the retrieves and the send out. These exercises come always in the END of the obedience pattern. Every dog is then slightly more frustrated because they haven’t been rewarded. How does the frustration show? Does the dog get disappointed, insecure or perhaps nervous?

Dogs who have the working dog qualities can learn these exercises as a reward: Finally they can fetch the dumbbell, show themselves by jumping impressively and sprint on the end of the field in the send out. High fighting spirit is equally the source of a dynamic send out. There’s never reward in the competitions and the send out is always the last exercise. Dogs with lower motivation have more time to think: ‘Is it worth running there? Last time I didn’t get rewarded.’ Highly motivated dogs in a high arousal level don’t think. If they love this exercise, they keep doing so, until the end of their career.

Courage, fighting spirit and inhibitory control

The most resilient dogs are the brave ones with high drives and endless fighting spirit. But the dog also needs to be able to control his impulses, concentrate and wait for his reward. That’s why I emphasise a dog who has much courage and a high fighting spirit but also a balanced and solid character without nervous energy. Those are the traits that are needed for excellent IGP obedience. Even the best handlers can’t strengthen or cover them over the dog’s genetic limits.