The Pet PT Pit Stop Special: Westminster Dog Show 2016 Inaugural Masters Obedience Championship

by Susan E. Davis, PT

It’s all about guiding and empowering you to help your dog avoid injury, provide practical solutions and achieve rapid restoration of health and function! .

The Westminster Kennel Club celebrates its 140th Annual Dog Show with something for everyone who loves canines. They have evolved from a Conformation-only show for pure-bred dogs, to the addition of other entertaining dog sports as Masters Agility (Debut year 2014), and debuting February 15, 2016: Masters Obedience. It is an invitation-only competition and, like agility, mixed breed dogs are eligible to compete.

Obedience competitors are tested on approved Open and Utility exercises.

These exercises include heel, varying speeds of gaiting, straight-line and turns, all with the dog staying close to the trainer’s side without any physical contact; figure 8s, performance of sit/down/ recall/ retrieve/ fetch/ run/ hi jump/ broad jump and free form/dance.

The dog receives and processes non-tactile visual and auditory signals to determine when to stay and when to go.

”There will be no Dachshunds at this event”… first thought upon watching the initial part of the Inaugural Masters Obedience Competition at Westminster. Those little teckels are way too naughty for such a level of cooperation (this I know from 14 years and 8 months of personal experience but who’s counting….?).

There were 34 dogs entered from 17 states led by New Jersey and Ohio with 5 each.

Golden Retrievers represented the largest entry with 13. Speaking of breeds: the breakdown was Belgian Tervuren 2, Border Collies 4, Doberman Pinscher 1 (see photo below), German Shephard Dogs 2, German Shorthaired Pointers 1, Golden Retrievers 13, Labrador Retrievers 4, Papillon 1, Pomeranian 1, Toy Poodle 1, Rottweiler 1, Shetland Sheepdogs 2 and Standard Schnauzers 1. Yep, no doxies—told you! The event was opened to mixed breed dogs too, but none entered this year. Judge Sharon Ann Redmer of Whitmore Lake, MI had a smile on her face the entire event, obviously loving her job and finding joy in the focused interaction between canine and handler/trainer. I was intrigued and felt a big treat was in store (but it turned to be much more than that).

My next thought, as a physical therapist, was “Is Obedience considered a sport?”

I did some research and found that it is one of the oldest forms of canine sport dating back to the late 1800s. In contrast, when one observes Agility Competition, the human brain instantly registers it as a sport, due to its quick speed and dynamic intensity. Agility requires burst-like plyometric movements. Obedience is much different, but still a sport.

Obedience is slower paced, with brief intervals of quickness, and high levels of finesse. It displays intricacy, precision and a high level of focus between trainer and dog.

Obedience exercises require intricate controlled motions, using eccentric or lengthening muscular contractions.

Now, I have plenty of experience treating agility dogs having soft tissue strains, overuse syndromes, joint instability, and spine injury, from the inherent risks this thrilling sport brings.

It was a refreshing change to view a more subtle form of sport, both from its muscular-preserving and mental-stimulating aspects, with less worry for the dog from a medical point of view. I’m not anti-agility, though I’d like to say a few words about some of the owners of agility dogs when their precious ones need PT……but I digress.

Here’s the mental, creative part of Masters Obedience that blew all of our minds and brought most of the press and audience to tears.

The 10 finalists competed in a free form routine for the last section of the competition. This involved having 6 minutes for the trainer/handler to design the 4 required elements of freestyle into a creative spontaneous performance. This involved dance, placement of objects, retrievals, etc. The crowd loved this and seemed to radiate their energy directly into the dog.

I spoke briefly with Karolynne McAteer, Director of Streaming Video for Westminster, who said that these last 6 minutes of free design performance “show the spirit of the human-animal bond and the beauty of true teamwork”. That was shortly proven when, the ultimate winner of the event, a Black Lab named Heart, literally spelled out her name in letters by placing small items on the floor in alpha shapes, followed by formation of the figure of a heart. Sob……………………

Masters Obedience will be back again and again, with many more entries in the years to come and, hopefully, lots of mixed breeds too!