It takes more than a pretty face to compete in a contest where heels aren't accessories and titles are more precious than fur.
In the 58th annual Dog Obedience Trial, 254 purebreds from across the state will walk, heel and fetch on command from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship.
The show, an American Kennel Club trial, is sponsored by the Dog Owners Training Club of Maryland, the state's oldest dog club, which incorporated in 1938.
For owners of these disciplined dogs, going for the gold doesn't mean ribbons, trophies or the whopping $20 prize money.
"They're working toward getting those titles," said Tom Stromer, a Catonsville resident who has chaired the show for the past five years. "The title makes [the dogs] more valuable, to some extent, in the breeding."
The event primarily showcases sporting breeds such as golden retrievers, Labradors, poodles and German shepherds but winners can be any breed. "Some of the top performers generally are the goldens, miniature Shetland sheep dogs and Border collies," Mr. Stromer said.
Dogs compete in three AKC levels for obedience degrees: Companion Dog, Excellent and Utility.
To qualify, they must pass three different trials within the specific class, scoring at least 170 points in each. The top point-getter wins High in Trial.
Depending on the class, each dog is expected to: heel at the handler's side; walk a route at a judge's directions; jump a hurdle and retrieve a dumbbell; jump across four boards; walk with the handler until the judge stops the dog with hand signals; retrieve a dumbbell by scent; and lie down for five minutes while the handler leaves the rink.
The trial also features fun classes that don't bear the imposing AKC titles. In Brace, one person handles two dogs at the same time, while Team Competition requires four handlers and four dogs to compete.
"The Team Competition is one of the funniest classes," Mr. Stromer said. "Some dogs are just out of tune."
Pets who have been trained with meat or biscuit rewards will find empty hands at Sunday's show -- food rewards are banned.
"We are one of the few clubs that work without food," said Joy White, an assistant instructor at the Owners Training Club. "You can reward them with love and petting."
Obedience training takes about a year, but trainers say lessons benefit both owner and pup.
"The training makes the dog a better canine citizen," Mr. Stromer said. "Any responsible dog owner wants their dog under control and obeying the rules of the house. The dog learns its pecking order. At the same time, the dog enjoys the opportunity to do something with his owner."
Training also is used as therapy for shy or abused animals.
Hankepank's Masterpiece, a 4-year-old standard black poodle, is coming out of his shell after attending the Owners Training Club for 18 months. The dog -- formerly nicknamed Ralph but now called Kelsey -- was rescued from an abusive home and given to Ann Mrozek of Glen Burnie three years ago.
"Kelsey was so shy," Ms. Mrozek said.
"The veterinarian felt he could really get some confidence if he got some training. Kelsey didn't even know how to go up and down the steps when we first got him. He was in a cage a lot, even after he was rescued.
"The training is a godsend. He used to run from everyone and hide in the bedroom. Now he'll stay and socialize."
Kelsey, who is scheduled for a wash and set before the event, will be encouraged by Ms. Mrozek's parents, in-laws, two daughters and son-in-law, all of whom plan to attend.
One contestant who has tasted victory is a 5-year-old German shepherd from Baltimore.
Reid's Maxim trained for two years at the Owners Training Club in Catonsville, was awarded Companion ranking and is now shooting for Excellent.
"This is Max's fourth show," said owner Betsy Scott, who also owns Annie Von Steintahl, a 12-year-old German shepherd.
But not everyone has been successful in climbing the ranks.
Marigold Whitewoods Mr. Trey, a 5-year-old golden retriever owned by Ms. White, received the Companion title after two years. But Ms. White decided not to enter Trey in the next level because he wouldn't jump the hurdle.
"He likes to tiptoe through," said Ms. White of Sykesville. "Everyone laughs."
Despite the training and make-overs, Ms. White said she has seen plenty of dog-tired and nerve-wracked contestants -- on both ends of the leash -- after the show.
"The owners are so uptight . . . and it doesn't help either one," she said.
The 58th annual Dog Obedience Trial will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday in the main exhibition hall at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship. General admission is $2 and $1 for seniors. Information: 747-0486.