Sports Nut

That’s a Good Boy

The secrets of the world’s greatest canine obedience champions.

See our Magnum Photos gallery on dog shows.

On a wet weekend last December, a pack of 25,000 humans and 4,000 dogs made its way to Long Beach, Calif., for the annual AKC/Eukanuba National Championship. There were plush blue carpets, fully stocked bars, and 100 vendors pushing crystal-fringed dog sculptures and custom canine earrings. While most of the spectators didn’t venture upstairs, away from the classic breed competition, that’s where history was being made.

On the second floor, in rings surrounded by white plastic fences and folding chairs, the country’s top-rated canine obedience teams competed in the American Kennel Club’s 14th Annual National Obedience Invitational. Over an exhausting two days, the dog-handler pairs performed a strictly defined set of exercises: heeling patterns, figure eights, the retrieval of specific dumbbells from a pile, high and broad jumps. In one of the more stunning displays, the dogs would hurtle toward the handler and—on a hand signal delivered from a world away—come to an immediate stop and drop to the ground.

And then they did it all again. And again.

“At this level, you make a significant mistake and basically you’re out,” said the winner, Petra Ford of New Jersey, who didn’t. For the second year in a row, Ford took the rosette with her black Labrador retriever, NOC2 OTCH Count Tyler Show Me the Money UDX4 OM1, called Tyler. Indeed, those who had the privilege of standing around the hushed finals arena enjoyed one of the most consistent performances the sport has ever seen.

In the final round, neither of them showed any signs of fatigue. If anything, they were in danger of committing errors of exuberance. Ford accidentally overthrew the dumbbell in the retrieval exercise, and Tyler denied his predictable canine urges in not bounding after it. Joyously wagging his tail during the heeling patterns, he was close to overtaking his handler—a serious mistake. As Ford herself admits, “[Competitions] are hard because they require the dog to overcome every instinct they have.”

Competitive canine obedience may be tied with neoclassical ballet as the most neglected impossible athletic activity in America. It’s a demanding sport populated by monomaniacs who spend good years of their lives looking for the right dog and thousands of hours training them for trials, where even a spectacular triumph like Tyler’s gets the winning team little more than a $2,500 check, a couple of gift certificates, and an invitation to lose money again next year. Meanwhile, downstairs at the main event—think Best in Show—a cute Scottish terrier named Sadie earned 20 times more prize money for winning what is basically a beauty pageant.

Yet devotees will tell you that obedience is one of the most exciting spectator sports anywhere and that the absence of big paydays only adds to its spiritual purity. The best teams appear to perform a kind of interspecies voodoo as they glide through intricately choreographed rituals, attached by nothing more than mental moonbeams. The beams connecting Ford and Tyler are among the strongest in the obedience solar system. As a consequence, the dog-trainer duo is staging a quiet revolution on the circuit.

The most obvious quality they bring into the ring is glamour. Ford and Tyler are both, well, fetching in their own species-specific way—this in a subculture where it’s not uncommon for handlers to spend hours grooming their dogs while forgetting to wash their own hair. The AKC is not superficial enough to mention looks in its regulations, but it’s hard to believe Ford’s flame-red toreador shirts have no impact on the judges, who tend to be distinguished gentlemen of a certain age.

More important is the team’s athleticism. Ford and her coach, Linda Brennan, have built a systematic approach to dog training based in part on techniques imported from the world of elite human athletes. Most dog trainers focus on repetitive skill drills, called proofing, that can become a death march. Literally. “A lot of these top obedience dogs don’t seem to live very long,” one trainer told me.

Ford is much more attuned to optimizing Tyler’s physical instrument, flexibility, and mental game, as well as her own. Rather than assuming Tyler’s in the cast of I, Robot, she’s taking the rebellious stand of treating him (and herself) as what they are: professional athletes.

Born six years ago, Tyler’s a Jersey boy who started training at two months old. He earned the AKC’s highest obedience title, obedience trial champion, only a year after entering serious competition, and he’s racked up a number of perfect 200-point rounds, a rare feat. Ford’s own athleticism comes from a previous career as a professional cyclist, where success was sporadic. Her greatest enemy, she says, was her own sharply negative thinking. When Ford entered dog sports after retiring from cycling, she found her old enemy had made the trip alongside her. “I was mentally in a very bad place,” she says. “I was always nervous, always negative, not confident at all. And I began to realize that if I was asking my dogs to perform at the highest level, I had to ask the same thing of myself.”

To that end, Ford practices positive self-talk and visualization techniques. Her main tools are the so-called ”psychocybernetic” exercises of Jane Savoie, whose methods for horse riders have been embraced outside the equine world. Tyler’s preparations for the obedience invitational were no less demanding. Ford runs a canine physical rehab center called Aqua Dog, where she and a partner work four-legged patients on underwater treadmills. Starting six months before their win at the 2008 NOI, Ford trained Tyler on a treadmill, cranking up the time and inclination gradually, and she did the same both under- and above-water this year.

While such rigor is rare in the sport, it’s proved to be the key to Tyler’s success. Endurance is critical at the National Obedience Invitational, the most punishing of all AKC-sanctioned events. “It’s like the NCAA Final Four of the dog world,” says AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. “A field of competitors facing off … every round whittling down the teams until there’s just two left.”

Petra Ford and Tyler at the American Kennel Club’s National Obedience Invitational

On the first day, each of the more than 100 starting teams do six rounds of exercises. Thirty-two make it to the second day, which consists of head-to-head elimination rounds, with the final pairs performing two additional full rounds. By the time they posed for the record books Sunday night, Ford and her dog had powered through 13 rounds, spending almost an hour alone in the ring under the eye of judges whose only job is to notice mistakes on the part of the dog (say, a crooked sit) or the handler (repeating a hand signal).

Contrast this with other AKC-sanctioned events, where a winning team goes at most two rounds on a single day. The NOI is so grueling thatone trainer told me she stopped going because “it’s just too hard on the dog.” But not, apparently, too hard on Tyler. “I had a lot of dog this year,” Ford told me afterward. “Maybe too much dog.”

Tyler got more ebullient as the marathon progressed, and his only error in the final rounds was to unleash a bark of joy as he sailed over a broad jump, gliding through the air as though wearing a cape. Competing dogs, on the other hand, made substantial fatigue-driven mistakes: retrieving an incorrect item, missing a jump, misreading one of the handler’s signals. Tyler’s coiled energy was obvious as he finished each exercise by whirling to a sit at Ford’s side. To calm him down, Ford kept her upper body still and used imperceptible gestures. The effect was uncanny. As the AKC’s Peterson says, “It looked like they were using telepathy.”