Poodle breeder Helen Whitehouse Walker became taken with the Obedience trials she saw conducted in England in the 1930s. She soon committed to establishing the practice in America, hosting her own informal events on her estate Bedford Hills in Mount Kisco, New York. Walker fatefully met Blanche Saunders in 1934 on a farm, where she and her apricot standard Poodle Tango of Piperscroft came to visit the promising applicant of their Rural New Yorker job posting for a kennel maid. Saunders, who had graduated from Massachusetts Agricultural College with majors in animal husbandry and poultry raising, reasoned that she “must have been getting a little bored with heavy animals,” and had enjoyed teaching one employer’s Boston Terriers to balance tennis balls on their noses.
With her Poodles in Saunders’s very capable hands, Walker concentrated on convincing the American Kennel Club to acknowledge Obedience as a competitive field. Following this 1936 accomplishment, she and Saunders set their sights on the American public. Most famously, in 1937, they remodeled a Buick to fit three dogs in the backseat and hauled a 21-foot trailer across 10,000 miles in 10 weeks to perform demos.
This was at a time when two women traveling alone with a bunch of equipment, much less canine companions, was a most unconventional sight. Recalled Saunders, “The ringside was crowded as everyone was anxious to see the ‘two crazy women from New York with the trick Poodles,’… People were enthusiastic and their applause lavish. Part of this may have been due to the Poodles’ fancy hairdo, but in much greater part it was due to the thrill of seeing [dog] Carillon Epreuve work in Obedience.”
Saunders became the face of dog obedience as it swiftly grew in popularity. She conducted demonstrations in Rockefeller Plaza and at Yankee Stadium, before a crowd of 70,000. Her book Training You to Train Your Dog, first published in 1946, was a stalwart bestseller well through the 1970s; it was followed up by nine more books, in addition to six widely dispersed black-and-white educational film reels by the same name. For many years she ran The Carillon Poodle Shop in Manhattan’s East 50s, taking lunch with a sandwich in one hand while still clipping a dog with the other, teaching night courses in dog-training over a portable microphone throughout the region. She was known for her low and husky voice — seldom raised in anger, only in a subtly annoyed “My goodness sakes!” — and instinctive sense of how any dog would behave in any given situation. Quietly imposing, she was said to fear a dog bite like that of a mosquito.
She was the subject of an extensive profile in The New Yorker in 1951, and it is likely that any dog owner from the era would recognize the iconic instructional photos gracing Saunders’ books and magazine features. How poignant to try to imagine a world in which dog-training was an unfamiliar concept.
Originally published in AKC Family Dog.
(All images courtesy AKC Archives)