Obedience Trials

Sport mimics life for competitive dog owners


The sport of obedience has been around since the 1933 when the first obedience trail was held at Mt. Kisco, New York. The following year, North Westchester Kennel Club and Somerset Hills Kennel Club held obedience tests at their all-breed conformation shows.

Obedience trials grew from the efforts of early trainers to popularize their chosen profession and to prove that dog-human partnerships could shine in arenas other than the conformation ring and the field. The American Kennel Club version of the sport is now promoted and practiced by hundreds of obedience clubs, kennel clubs, and specialty clubs throughout the US.

Today’s obedience competitions begin with exercises that attest to the dog’s good manners – walking on a leash at the owner’s side, standing to be touched by a stranger, sitting and lying down with distractions, and coming when called. Advanced classes prove the owner’s ability to train the dog to do a variety of ‘tricks’: fetching a dumbbell, jumping different obstacles, obeying commands in an instant whether given by hand signal or voice, and finding items touched by the owner. The goal is to create a working team, a partnership with both human and canine working in sync.

Most dog shows these days include obedience classes. There’s no play-by-play announcer at ringside, so Dog Owner’s Guide offers this brief explanation of what you’ll see if you attend a show. Be sure to check out the calendar for shows in the area so you can put your newly gained understanding into practice.


This is the first level of competition where the dog is judged on his ability to walk at heel with the handler on and off leash, stand and stay for a cursory examination by the judge, and come to the handler when called.

The first exercise in the individual pattern is heel-on-lead. The handler starts on a spot indicated by the judge and steps out when the judge says “Forward.” At the command “Halt,” the handler stops and the dog sits. The heel-on-lead pattern includes several halts, three changes of direction, and two changes of pace. The second part of the heel-on-lead exercise is the figure eight. Here the judge gives forward and halt commands while the handler and dog weave around two posts (ring stewards) in a figure eight pattern. One steward takes the dog’s leash after the figure eight, and the handler stands the dog for the judge’s examination, walks six feet away, and turns to face the dog. The dog must stay in position, without moving its feet, for the judge to touch his head, back, and rump with the handler standing six feet away. The judge then tells the handler to return and declares the exercise finished.

The heel-off-lead follows the pattern used for the exercise on lead. The final individual exercise is the recall. Again on the judge’s command, the handler sits the dog, walks across the ring, and calls the dog. The dog must come the first time it is called, sit in front of the handler, and then, on command, return to heel position.

Individual exercises are followed by group exercises to demonstrate the dog’s ability to sit-stay for one minute and down-stay for three minutes.

Each dog in Novice walks into the ring with a perfect score of 200. Judges deduct points for dogs that walk out of heel position, dogs that sit too slowly or not at all, and dogs that break position on the stand, sit, or down exercises. Judges also deduct points for handler errors, such as tugging on the leash or giving two or more commands for a single exercise. A dog scores zero for an exercise if he refuses to do it or if he walks away after being told to stay in place. If the handler-dog team has 170 or more points left after the judging, they earn a “leg” towards a Companion Dog title. Three legs under three different judges earns the Companion Dog or CD title.


All exercises in the open class are done off-lead, including a heeling pattern and figure eight, drop on recall, retrieve on the flat and over a high jump, a broad jump, and group exercises (three-minute sit-stay, five minute down-stay) with the handler out of the ring.

The heeling exercises are done first with changes in speed and direction and halts as in the novice heel-off-lead. For the drop on recall, the judge gives the handler a signal to call the dog, then to drop the dog, then to call again. The dog must interrupt his recall to drop down when told, then come when called again, sit in front of the handler, and return to heel position on command. For the retrieve-on-the-flat, the dog must go after a dumbbell, bring it back to the handler, and give it up, then return to heel position on command. The second retrieve exercise is done over a high jump; the handler tosses the dumbbell over the jump, the dog jumps to get it, then jumps back and sits in front of the handler.

The final individual exercise is the broad jump. The height of the high jump and the length of the broad jump are dependent on the dog’s shoulder height. The broad jump is twice the height of the high jump, so a dog that jumps 20 inches high will jump 40 inches across.

The group sits and downs are done for three and five minutes respectively, with the handlers out of sight of the dogs. Again, the dog enters the ring with 200 points and the judge deducts for mistakes. Since there’s so many opportunities for errors in this difficult class, dogs frequently fail to qualify or get scores lower than they earned in novice competition. Three qualifying scores under three different judges earns a Companion Dog Excellent (CDX) title at this level.


This class bears little resemblance to the others. Here the dog must do a complex heeling pattern off lead that includes a hand-signal exercise and a more rigorous stand for examination. He must respond to hand signals that direct him to go down, sit, come, and return to heel; find two articles handled by his owner out of a pile of several placed on the floor of the ring, retrieve one of three gloves as directed by the handler, and jump a high jump and a bar jump at the handler’s direction.

This class is of the utmost difficulty. Training dogs to compete at this level is time-consuming and requires an enormous amount of patience and training savvy. Scoring is done as in the novice and open classes, with points deducted for every mistake. Relatively few dogs compete in utility, and most of those that do are breeds that are well-known for their intelligence and ability to work closely in a team with their owners.

At each level of competition, classes are divided into A and B levels. In Novice A, handlers have never earned a title on a dog before. Novice B has experienced handlers.

Open A is for dogs that have not earned a CDX. Open B includes dogs with a CDX and dogs that have a UD (utility) title and are competing for an Obedience Trial Championship (OTCh). Utility A is for dogs without a UD; Utility B for dogs with a UD and are competing for an OTCh.

If you go to watch an obedience trial, don’t hesitate to ask questions of other spectators so you can learn what is going on. Or send to The American Kennel Club, 51 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010, for a free copy of the obedience regulations.

Rally obedience

Rally obedience, or “rally-o” as it has been termed by enthusiasts, is the latest American Kennel Club event to hit the show circuit. Rally has some characteristics of rally sports car racing, dog agility, and traditional obedience combined into a new fun sport. Much to the delight of many exhibitors, rally is now a regular class that can be included at obedience trials. As with other regular classes, dog and handler teams can earn titles beginning with RN for novice level, RA for advanced, and RX for excellent level. For more information about Rally, see the AKC website www.akc.org/dic/events/rally/latestrevision.pdf

Non-regular classes

Some clubs include non-regular classes at their trials for fun and practice. The classes include pre-novice with all exercises on leash; graduate novice that blends novice, open, and utility exercises; brace for two dogs of the same breed working a novice routine together, veterans for dogs seven years old or older, and versatility for dogs trained through utility level.

Pre-novice has the same exercises as novice except the heel-off-leash. Graduate novice includes elements of novice, open, and utility exercises with two recalls, one over the broad jump and the other while carrying a dumbbell; a moving drop while heeling (the dog goes down, the handler keeps walking, then turns and calls the dog); a ‘moving stand’ in which the dog is commanded to stand-stay for an exam while the handler continues walking (the handler walks about six feet, turns and faces the dog; the judge examines the dog as in the novice exercise, and the handler returns to heel position beside the dog). The group exercise in graduate novice is a long down.

UKC obedience

The United Kennel Club also offers obedience competitions with slight differences in the skills and exercises involved. For example, in the novice and open classes, the ‘working’ dog performs some individual exercises with an ‘honoring’ dog in the ring and with a steward walking nearby to simulate a walk in the park or neighborhood..

In UKC novice and open classes, each dog does his heeling pattern with the honoring dog placed on a down-stay exercise in the ring and with a steward walking the pattern in reverse order from the dog. Dog and handler start at one end of the “L” pattern and the steward starts at the other and passes the dog and handler at two points during the exercise. On the drop on recall in open, the steward walks past the dog in the ‘down’ position

The recall in the UKC novice class is performed over a jump. The handler leaves the dog on one side of the jump, walks around it to a spot indicated by the judge, and calls the dog. Group exercises in novice and open involve only the long sit.

The utility classes include the signal exercise and directed jumping as in the AKC utility class, one scent discrimination test, two glove retrieves, and two recalls (one with a drop and one without).

Find out more about UKC obedience at www.ukcdogs.com.

Obedience is not just a sport for Purebreds!

With an ILP number The American Kennel Club offers opportunities for unregistered purebred dogs to compete in many AKC events, a boon to those who adopt dogs from shelters or rescues or who purchase purebred dogs without registration papers and would like to participate in tests and trials for fun and excitement.

American Mixed Breed Obedience Registration was established in 1983 to acknowledge the efforts and achievements of mixed breed dogs and their handlers in obedience competition, provide encouragement and support to those handlers, and affirm accomplishments of mixed breeds. AMBOR is recognized by the United Kennel Club, Inc (UKC) and is the leading mixed breed registry in the United States. AMBOR provides more recognition and opportunities for mixed breeds than any other organization in the US.

Visit Ambor's home page for more information.

(Frequently held at the same time and location is a conformation show.)

Norma Bennett Woolf

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