The dog show is at the Hacienda Resort Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The Haci, as it's usually called, is not exactly Caesars Palace. But it's not a Motel 6, either. You get free drinks if you play blackjack or poker, but not if you play the quarter slots.
Not that I mean to put down the dog show. This is no cocker spaniel specialty event. This is the 1988 Gaines United States Dog Obedience Classic—the annual national dog obedience championship, a dog world Final Fur. At the Haci you can find the Orel Hershiser of heeling, the Wayne Gretzky of dumbbell retrieving, the Steffi Graf of scent discrimination. Probably there is no canine Ben Johnson, although at one point I overheard the following exchange about a Doberman pinscher:
"That's a big bitch!"
"She's on steroids."
I didn't go to spend three days with 190 dogs because I'm a longtime dog obedience aficionado. I doubt I'll be at this years Obedience Classic, which begins on the Friday after Thanksgiving at the Odeum near Chicago. The reason I traveled to the Hacienda was that I fell under the influence of a dog obedience guru. It began innocently enough. Every few weeks I went out to watch her teach a bulldog named Bandit to sit, come, stay and not to threaten the neighbors. In the course of these visits, something happened to me. I began to believe, as does this trainer, that obedience training is not just a matter of teaching sit, come and heel but that it is also ennobling and fulfilling for both the dog and the trainer.
I should mention, I suppose, that the trainer's name is Vicki Hearne, that she is not only a dog trainer (she would object strongly to that only) but also a poet, essayist, novelist and has been a visiting professor of English literature at places like Yale University and UC Riverside. She is best known for the book Adam's Task, a philosophical inquiry into the nature of dogs, horses and cats, and of the morality and meaning of training the first two of these creatures.
It did occur to me after some of my visits with her that perhaps it was not dog training itself but her poetic analysis of it that entranced me. That's why I ended up at the Classic. I figured that I would see plenty of obedience, but also that Vegas is about as far as you can get from poetry, except maybe limericks.
Presumably, as long as people have kept dogs, deep into the recesses of prehistory, they have done some dog training. (Whap! "No! That's my bison gristle!") Formal obedience trials are a more recent invention. The first American Obedience Trial was held by Mrs. Helene Whitehouse Walker on her father's estate in Mount Kisco, N.Y., in 1933. Blanche Saunders, Mrs. Walker's kennel manager and dog trainer, later wrote a book called The Story of Dog Obedience. The old pictures in this book—particularly of Saunders in riding breeches—give the enterprise of dog training the feel of a P.G. Wodehouse novel—estates, horsiness, kennel managers. (If I had a kennel manager, my dogs would be obedient too.)
Today, the world of dogs and dog obedience is essentially middle class, and it is vastly more active than it was in the early years. More than 1,500 obedience trials are held each year by various dog clubs under the aegis of the American Kennel Club, and more than 115,000 dogs are entered in the trials. They try to qualify in three classes: Companion Dog (CD), Companion Dog Excellent (CDX), or Utility Dog (UD). Many of the obedience trials take place as part of larger shows and exist in the shadow of the breed competition, which is about looks, not performance. At most obedience trials the dogs are somewhat less polished than those who enter the Classic. They're more like the dog I heard about from Jim Dearinger, former AKC obedience director.
"There was this basset in Long Island whose name was George," Dearinger said. "His owner was Lou Blum. George was entered in Utility class 74 times and never earned his Utility title." In failing to get that title, George performed a number of legendary feats, such as pushing a dumbbell along the ground with his nose instead of picking it up to retrieve it. Once, when he had a good chance to qualify, he fell asleep and fell over during an exercise called the long stand. But his most memorable performance was in an exercise that requires a dog to retrieve, at the direction of the handler, one of three gloves dropped in different parts of the ring. "George went to the correct glove," Dearing said, "but his ear fell over it. George picked up his ear and returned it to Lou."
To get to the dog show at the Hacienda, you have to walk by the slot machines. Once past long files of clanking machines—sometimes richer, sometimes poorer—you reach the convention room, a hall which has four big rings set up in its center and three smaller ones set up at the back. Around the periphery of the room are dogs on leashes and dogs in crates, and the people who came with them.
There are lots of different breeds here, but one is predominant. Of the 190 dogs, 70 are golden retrievers—big, happy, bouncy blonds. Next in number are Shetland sheepdogs (28) and border collies (23). The shelties are self-possessed in the ring and careful, but they have a reputation for being shy, easily distracted and inventive (a bad thing). Myself, I like the border collies, medium-sized doggy-looking dogs, with big splotches of white and black or brown fur.
On the first day, I watch the dogs jump. The goldens sail over the barriers with their tails flying like pennants. Dobermans go up and over deliberately, with no attempt to pick up speed before they spring into the air—popping a jump, it's called. The border collies don't jump at all; they dive over the barriers. And they don't just pick up the dumbbells—they kill them. I never saw so many dead dumbbells in my life. Run to the jump. Dive over it. Race to the dumbbell. Snap. There. Broke its neck. Quick. Bring it back. Here it is. How about that? Send me after another one. Please! Quick! Now!
The dog everybody has told me to keep an eye on is Stride, a golden. At the previous Classic, Stride and his trainer, Terri Arnold, from Swansea, Mass., were leading going into the final round. Everything was going perfectly until the drop on recall. In this exercise, done completely with hand signs, the handler signals the dog to come from the other end of the ring and as the dog runs to him, signals the dog to drop. Stride complied perfectly. But when Arnold told Stride to get up from the drop and come to her, finishing the exercise, she gave a voice command as well as a hand signal. It was the trainer's mistake, not the dog's, and it put them out of the running.
Now, in the heeling exercise, Arnold walks along, hand at her waist, eyes ahead, in measured formal steps. Each hand signal is clear and simple. Stride is solid, quick and, to a noninitiate, uncannily precise, sitting squarely in front of Arnold (a "front") and perfectly parallel at her side when an exercise is over, his paws always neatly together. His head is just at Arnold's knee in heeling, his pace not a beat off hers.
I can't see a thing wrong with Stride's performance, and neither can the judge. Out of a possible 200 points, Stride doesn't lose a single one. At the end of the day, Stride has a total of one point off, out of a possible 400. Still, Stride is tied with Ruby, another golden retriever, owned by Laurie Rubenfeld. Ruby didn't have a perfect exercise today, but she was docked only half a point in each of her two appearances. Ruby came in second in the 1987 Classic a year earlier.
As a sport, if in fact that's what it is, dog obedience is unique. There is no race, no physical clash. No movement in dog obedience is physically difficult for a healthy dog to perform or requires any unusual skill. What requires practice is getting the dog to do it the way you want it, when you want it. And what the obedience trial tests is intangible: a relationship, a partnership of some sort between the human being and the dog.
The trial is not an intellectual competition like chess, either. Some competitors even say that a smart dog is a handicap. Bob Adams, a columnist for Front and Finish, the magazine that bills itself as "The Dog Trainer's News," says that intelligence is not necessarily what you want in the obedience ring, where the same actions must be repeated over and over. "A dog that's real smart would rather lie on the couch," he says. "You don't want an independent thinker." Of course, golden retriever partisans like Arnold disagree vehemently. Arnold tells me that Stride is "one of the most intelligent dogs ever."
The one undisputed quality of goldens is that they are "willing." As another highly successful trainer puts it, "They don't care to do anything other than please you." The more intensely competitive the sport has grown, the more important such willingness has become. To get an edge, any edge, trainers flock to the most trainable breeds—and, within those breeds, to the best dogs. In the '60s, four or five points off would have been a top-notch score. These days, the most ambitious trainers aim for a perfect score, certainly no more than a point or a point and a half off.
This kind of competitiveness, according to some trainers, has taken the sport away from its roots. Bernie Brown of Lake Villa, Ill., has been in obedience for three decades. One of his best dogs, Duster, a golden, was Ken-L Ration Dog of the Year—that's sort of like winning an obedience trials Oscar—three years in a row (1979-81). In the early '60s, Brown says, "The sport was pleasing to the eye, a working partnership, a dog giving forth; you saw eagerness, happiness, willingness." The prevalent breeds then were Dobermans, German shepherds, poodles and miniature schnauzers, and many of the trainers were men. Today, says Brown, the sport is 90% women, and "the performances are more mechanical, workmanlike, toned down to get the accuracy. It takes a different kind of dog, a different kind of dog trainer. You handle a dog in order not to make a mistake, rather than working a dog to show the naturalness of the dog. You're looking at 16ths of an inch now. That's not what a dog was bred to do."
It is, however, exactly what dogs are bred to do these days. "Dog training is 95 percent picking the right puppy and five percent not screwing up," says Brown. His colleagues obviously agree. Ruby's sire, a dog named Reggie, a spectacular obedience dog, won the Classic in the Superdog class in 1986 and 1987. In 1988, 12 of his offspring were competing in the Classic. The trainers call them Reggie-dogs.
On the second day of the show, Stride's performance is less than perfect; so says the judge, who marks off 3.5 points. To me, this trial is indistinguishable from his perfect performance of the day before, but what do I know? Behind me, two trainers were talking during the trial as if Stride was screwing up one thing after another. The next dog is Ruby, so I ask one of the kibitzers to talk me through it. Here's the play-by-play:
"There's a crooked sit"—I peer at the dog and see that perhaps she is not in perfect alignment—"and there's a crooked front, and there you can see the judge marking his card for something."
What is going on here becomes clearer. This is not merely an attempt to get the dog to do what you tell it to do; that's plain old obedience. Any dog owner can do that. What the people and dogs here are going for is geometry. There is a Platonic, or perhaps Euclidean, ideal to which the dog's movements, and those of the trainer, must conform.
For example, an obedience dog is supposed to be extremely attentive to its trainer all the time, even when it is heeling. The dogs in the Classic, particularly the goldens, never take their eyes off their handlers. By contrast, a pet at heel or a Seeing Eye dog—or a guard dog, for that matter—looks around, keeping an eye on the world while staying near its master's knee.
Take, for instance, Cam, a German shepherd. Just before the Classic, Cam got top marks in an obedience trial and the Schutzhund trials—obedience plus guard-dog-style tracking, agility and man-work—at the German Shepherd National Show in Houston, the first time a dog had done this. At one point during the Classic, I run after Cam and his owner, Leonie Pulis, through the Haci's parking lot, waving my notepad. The dog stops in its tracks and checks me out. Cam is not spooky or aggressive, nor is he about to let me get away with anything. He's very steady, very serious, very aware. I think to myself, "Now that's quite a dog." If I were a cop, this is the dog I would want with me. However, Pulis says that Cam's alertness can work against him in obedience trails because, rather than staring robotically at her, he wants to keep an eye on who's doing what outside the ring.
So small are the mistakes on which points or half points are lost that many obedience trial handlers make sure their pants are the same color as their dogs' fur. The idea is that minuscule errors in heeling are less visible against a similarly colored background, sort of like camouflage. During practice with their dogs some trainers seem to be dropping something out of their mouths. They are "spitting for fronts," filling their cheeks with little bits of hot dog and spitting them out so that the dog will sit straight in front of them, starring at them, keeping an eye on that all important mouth for the next time a snack pops out.
Still, for all the efforts at precision and accuracy, for all the concern about a half point here or there, these are dogs. That means that sometimes they are going to blow it. This happens to several very good dogs in the first day. In his second round, it happens to Stride. He blows a glove. That is to say, he flunks the same exercise that caused George the basset to retrieve his own ear. What Stride does is start to go toward the glove and then turn around, drop to the ground and look at Arnold. That's it. He loses 31 points for this trial and is out of the running.
Ruby continues to hold steady. In the ring, she is neat and careful. Rubenfeld is equally careful, even outside the ring. Later, I find out that Ruby doesn't sleep well in strange places. To help the dog get a good night's sleep, Rubenfeld climbs into bed early in her room at the Hacienda, turns out the lights and pretends to fall asleep.
In Adam's Task, Hearne writes about the actual business of getting a dog to sit and heel precisely, just as the trainers at the Classic do. Her interest is in the nature of the contract a trainer and a dog enter into, a contract with mutual rights and responsibilities. According to Hearne, what gives us the right to say, "Joe, sit!" and, by extension, to enter Joe in the Classic is this: Given the nature of dogs, requiring absolute (her word, my italics) obedience of Joe enables him to reach and savor his highest instinct.
It's an idea that's hard to swallow, particularly in Las Vegas. Spitting for fronts and matching pants to a dog's color doesn't seem to be an aspect of anybody's highest nature (in fairness to Hearne, I should say that in her view, food training is an insult to the dog). But then, when I am most tempted to think of these dogs as just somebody's hobby, the dogs themselves suggest otherwise. A golden retriever presents a retrieved dumbbell with unmistakable pride. A border collie attacks a dumbbell with its brand of bravado. A trainer stares into her dog's eyes before the final round and says, "Can you do it, Ryan? Can you do it?" He could, and he did.
At the very least, it's clear that these dogs are not just going through the motions because they have to. They are in the game, whatever the game seems to them to be. And most of them are having one hell of a good time. I don't believe you can force an uninterested dog to heel and sit with angles so clean it appears as if he knew Euclid personally—and not wag his tail at the same time.
There is no single moment of triumph in this competition, no final perfect score that knocks out a close competitor. In the end, the challenge is really about consistency. Ruby, who Rubenfeld later tells me was the "wimp of the litter." meets the challenge. She wins with steadiness, steadfastness and precision. She may be a wimp, but she doesn't crumble. Over the three days, she and Rubenfeld lose a total of eight points out of a possible 1,200.
A few weeks later I visit Ruby in Monsey, N.Y., where she is taking a vacation at home. She and Rubenfeld and I go to a park, where Ruby...disobeys. She finds some awful piece of garbage on the ground and snatches it up, refusing to answer a recall until she swallows it. She is admonished by Rubenfeld, who is not at all pleased. Ruby, on the other hand, is clearly content with her crime. Garbage is, after all, irresistible to any dog. And as Rubenfeld had said earlier, while watching her superbly trained competitor growl at a rubber ball and flop around on the couch, obedience champion or not, "A dog is a dog."
James Gorman is a free-lance writer who has enrolled his cairn terrier in obedience school.