California contest lets dogs show off obedience training


There is something uniquely American in the way we take some everyday pursuit and turn it into a competition.

We take cooking -- be it pies, ribs or chili -- and turn it into a cook-off in search of the best recipe.

We take shopping -- be it for pizza, plants or coffee -- and turn it into a buyer's choice poll in search of the best place to buy.

And we take dog obedience -- be it sit, stay or come when called -- and turn it into the Gaines Cycle United States Dog Obedience Classic, which will bring the nation's best-trained dogs to the Sacramento Convention Center today and tomorrow.

"It's a very technical event," said AnneMarie Silverton of Stockton, Calif., one of the nation's top trainers and organizer of this year's classic. "You have to enjoy it, because there's not a lot of money and there's not a lot of glory. It's a hobby sport."

Twenty years ago, it wasn't really much of a sport at all.

For years, the American Kennel Club has held obedience competitions at three levels, called novice, open and utility. After getting a qualifying score (170 out of 200 possible) at three different trials, a dog was awarded a degree and moved onto the next level of competition. At the lowest level, the tasks are simple -- sit, down, stay, walk on a leash and come when called. At the higher levels, the dog retrieves, jumps over hurdles and works from hand signals.

After taking a dog through the three levels, all a trainer had to show for the achievement was a well-behaved pet, a handful of certificates and ribbons and maybe a couple of trophies for especially high scores.

For the most talented trainers, it wasn't enough.

In 1977 the AKC introduced the Obedience Trial Championship. The pursuit of the OTCh (pronounced to rhyme with "coach") kept the top dogs in competition, allowing trainers to work them toward a title based on winning, not just qualifying.

"The OTCh got the ball rolling," said Ms. Silverton, "but it was the Gaines that really moved the sport along."

The Gaines series -- three regional competitions and the championship classic -- is open to any dog that has posted high enough scores in events sanctioned by the AKC, United Kennel Club or American Mixed Breed Obedience Registration. By creating a national championship, the Gaines series revolutionized obedience competition and turned it into a rigorous and exacting sport.

Ms. Silverton has been one of the sport's stars for more than a decade. The walls of the cavernous training room at her Silverton School for Dogs are covered with awards -- both hers and her students'.

"We train dogs seriously here," she said.

Ms. Silverton has produced four videotapes focused on competitive obedience work and a tape for the average pet-lover, "AnneMarie Silverton's Basic Puppy Training for the Household Pet" ($10). A book and three new competitive tapes are in the works. She's also active on the lecture circuit.

"I really believe there are no bad dogs, just bad handlers," said Ms. Silverton. "The pounds get so many dogs because they have no training. If you train your dog, you can enjoy him. He's a pleasure to live with."

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278

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