Dog Obedience Trials Began Because of Poodles and a Farmer

A brief history of how two women popularized dog obedience as a sport.

Posted Jun 13, 2017

Photo from Poodle Club of America (AKC Archives)-CC 1.0
Blanche Saunders
Source: Photo from Poodle Club of America (AKC Archives)-CC 1.0

I was sitting at a dog obedience trial watching the competition when a white-haired woman with a matching white standard poodle sat down beside me. I had spoken with her a few times before at similar events and after we exchanged greetings she turned her attention back to the ring where a golden retriever was performing splendidly. Then her voice took on a bit of a philosophical tone and she said to me, "I've been competing in dog obedience trials ever since I was a teenager. Anyway, yesterday afternoon one of my grandsons asked me how this dog sport got started. I didn't know the answer but you know a bit about doggy history so perhaps you could tell me how dog obedience competitions came to be in the first place."

To tell the truth, I love history almost as much as I love psychology, so I was happy to seize the opportunity to tell a bit of a historical story.

"Actually, here in North America, dog obedience competitions came about because of a poodle lover, like you. It was a woman who bred standard poodles and back in the late 1920s she found that many people (like today) thought that poodles were wimpy, stupid and useless dogs that were fit only to be primped and coiffed and shown in beauty pageants. This annoyed her since she knew that poodles were bred to be water dogs and working retrievers. She was sufficiently miffed so that she decided to prove that people were wrong about the abilities of poodles. But before we get to her role in establishing obedience competitions, let me give you a little bit of background."

I then went on to explain that there are many accounts showing that throughout history there had always been informal competitions between dog handlers and their dogs. These competitions mostly had to do with the jobs the dogs were trained to do — herding, sled pulling, hunting, retrieving and so forth. These competitions mostly took place in order to determine the quality of the handler's training skills, and also the quality of the dog's abilities for purposes of breeding better canines. These competitions were also social get-togethers where like-minded people could gather to share information, training methods or just general gossip about dogs.

By the 1800s in England, some of these informal competitions had moved into taverns, and some of these specialized in smaller dogs performing tricks for audiences rather than demonstrating working ability. The combination of these two forms of dog behavior competitions (working skills and tricks) continued with more or less formality up until the rise in popularity of a German military officer. This was Colonel Konrad Most, who could easily be considered to be the father of modern "traditional" dog training.

Colonel Most specialized in training military dogs and police service dogs, and in 1910 his manual on training dogs became the most widely used book among dog trainers. The tests that were used to determine whether or not dogs would be adequate service dogs included things such as heeling, retrieving, jumping, and following basic commands. These same tests would later be adapted to form the core of obedience trial exercises. The basic format of such competitions spread from Germany to several countries in Europe.

Photo from Poodle Club of America (AKC Archives)-CC 1.0
Helene Whitehouse Walker
Source: Photo from Poodle Club of America (AKC Archives)-CC 1.0

It is at this point where we can return to our poodle lady. She was Helen Whitehouse Walker, from a well-to-do family with high social standing (her maternal grandfather was Sir George Duntz who was a baronet in England). She was quite annoyed that people didn't take her Poodles seriously. For example under the existing American Kennel Club (AKC) rules her poodles couldn't compete in licensed field trials despite the fact that fieldwork was what they were bred to do. Through her English connections she learned about the growing sport of obedience "trialing" in the UK. So she traveled there and spent a month and a half studying the trials and training techniques. Most of the trainers that she encountered had studied with Konrad Most, or had used his training manual. Specifically she studied with the Associated Sheep, Police, Army Dog Society (ASPADS). This group held targeted obedience trials, each focusing on a particular canine job specification. The dog's performance allowed it to earn degrees including Utility Dog (UD), Working Dog (WD), Tracking Dog (TD) and Patrol Dog (PD). During obedience tests the the handler and dog team had to demonstrate: control (heel, recall, stay, etc), agility (jumps and scaling a wall), and scent work (search an area and tracking).

When Helen Walker returned home she decided that her poodles had to be trained to a high level of mastery in order to demonstrate the competence of that breed to the AKC and also to serve as an example of the kind of obedience exercises that she hoped would form the basis of future competitions. For this reason she needed a trainer, so she turned to Josef Weber who was considered to be one of the best dog trainers in the country. Weber came to the U.S. after serving as an instructor in the Berlin Police Force dog training unit which used Konrad Most’s training manual. Ultimately he set up a “residential” dog training school in Princeton, New Jersey, for the dogs of people who were too busy (or uninterested) in training their own pets. In addition to training dogs Weber trained dog instructors and one of these was Blanche Saunders.

Blanche Saunders had not started out with the idea of a career in dog training. She believed that she would find a job managing a farm and for that reason she attended the Massa­chusetts Agricultural College, majoring in animal husbandry and poultry raising while also taking courses in engineering, carpentry and car repairing. However, after working at farming for several years her interest began to turn toward dogs and for that reason she had gone to Weber for training as a dog handler. When Mrs. Walker came to Weber he recommended Saunders to her, noting, “She is very good with dogs, although she inclines toward being somewhat too gentle with them. However for a breed like a poodle that might be a virtue.”

Blanche Saunders would later say that she was sitting on a tractor when Mrs. Walker approached her and said, “I’m told that you are good with dogs. How would you like a real job training them?” Saunders claimed that she did not ask for any details but simply jumped off of the tractor and asked “When do I start?”

Saunders job was to train Walker's poodles. While Saunders trained the dogs, Walker was using her persuasive skills and approaching dog clubs and breeders with the idea of holding competitive obedience tests at dog shows. It was in 1933 that her idea first bore fruit. The first Obedience Trial (still then called a "test") was held on her father's estate in Mount Kisco, New York. There were eight dogs entered in this first obedience test, two Labrador retrievers, three poodles, two English springer spaniels, and one German shepherd dog. The winner of this event was a Labrador retriever.

When the earliest trials were held there was only one obedience class. The exercises included heeling on-leash and off-leash, sitting for two minutes and lying down for five minutes while the owner went out of sight, a drop on recall (the dog is called to the handler and is commanded to lie down when it is half way to the handler and then is signaled to come and sit in front of the handler) retrieving a two-pound dumbbell (regardless of breed size) and retrieving another slightly lighter dumbbell over a 42 inch jump (regardless of breed size).

The first obedience trials attracted a lot of press coverage and there was a obviously enthusiasm from the public and from a number of dog clubs. Taking advantage of that momentum Walker submitted a recommended set of guidelines and procedures for obedience tests to the American Kennel Club for consideration on December 7th, 1935. On March 10th, 1936 the American Kennel Club approved the first set of regulations titled Regulations and Standards for Obedience Test Field Trials. Under those new rules obedience tests were then divided into the three classes we know today: Novice, Open and Utility. Although there has been some tweaking of the rules over time, the actual exercises have not been altered very much since Walker's original submission. The one major change had to do with the fact that under the original rules, to earn the utility title (UD) a dog not only had to perform the obedience exercises but also had to pass a tracking test.

Once the rules were in place Walker and Saunders engaged in a nationwide trek to popularize dog obedience as a sport. Together they took three poodles and all of their jumps and other gear and loaded them into a 21-foot long trailer. In the fall of 1937 they started a 10,000 mile tour around the country going from one dog show to another and stopping along the way to give many public performances under a “Train Your Dog” banner. In fact my uncle Milton encountered one of these. He had taken the opportunity provided by a visit to New York City to see a New York Yankees baseball game (with the hope that he could see a home run by his favorite slugger Lou Gehrig). He remembered that during the seventh inning stretch, all 50,000 spectators got to see a dog obedience demonstration conducted by Blanche Saunders.

By the time Walker and Saunders had finished their tour, dog obedience clubs were being formed all around the nation, and the sport of dog obedience was well on its way to becoming firmly established.

As a result of all of this activity dog obedience competitions became popular in the United States and not long after the Canadian Kennel Club began to sanction such trials as well. A secondary effect of all of this activity by Walker and Saunders was that Saunders was becoming known as one of the most respected dog trainers of the time. Thus when her book (Training You to Train Your Dog) first appeared in 1946, it was virtually guaranteed to be a success. I explained to the woman that I was sitting with that Saunders' book was the first dog training book that I ever read. I was around eight or nine years of age at that time and was in desperate need of guidance about how to train my smooth fox terrier, Tippy.

The woman that I was talking to smiled and said "I read that book as well when I set out to train my first dog, Angela. I certainly didn't know that Blanche Saunders had any role in starting dog obedience competitions. I thought that she was just the pretty, slim, lady on the book cover with her handsome black poodle who knew how to do everything a dog should know. I did know that I wanted to be just like her."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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