If you’re the owner of a senior dog or have a dog that is losing vision or hearing, you might not think it’s possible to continue doing dog sports. But participating in dog sports can help with both mental stimulation and physical exercise and can help strengthen that human-canine bond.
There are plenty of senior dogs who are competing in the 2022 AKC National Obedience Championship (NOC) on July 9-11 in Wilmington, Ohio. In fact, the oldest dog competing, Molly, a 13-year-old Papillon, is doing so without her hearing—and has been doing so for the past three years.
Keeping Her Eye on the Game
Owner Nancy Muller started Obedience with Molly as soon as she got her strengthening both her discipline and their relationship. After meeting Jeannine Kerr in a Novice trial, the pair began to train under her.
“I wanted to learn from her because she was one of those people that you can’t really see what they’re doing with their dog,” Muller says. “To me, that’s the highest form of a relationship with the dog—when you don’t have to give him obvious cues.”
From there, Molly got her Novice when she was 1 year old, and she got her Open when she was 2. Then, she got her Utility Dog (UD) when she was 3, and she got her Utility Dog Excellent (UDX) and Obedience Trial Champion (OTCH) title when she was 4. Quite impressive for a young dog.
The most memorable experience, though, was the first time the pair competed in Obedience at Westminster. “It was so exciting, and everybody was just so amazed at how good she did,” Muller says. “And I love the way Molly can beat the big dogs.”
She’s been the highest-scoring Toy breed in Obedience up until last year when Muller’s husband was diagnosed with cancer, and she couldn’t compete with Molly as much. But she was still the number four ranked Papillon.
Muller has four other dogs—two Chihuahuas and two Papillons—and continues to train them all in Obedience. Her other Papillon, Mickey, is also competing at NOC this year.
“I wish people could understand how much Obedience helps your relationship with the dog,” Muller says. “I mean, if you can just make it through Open, it’s such a difference with the dogs. It helps me so much now because Molly can’t hear me, but I can still talk to her.”
Adjusting to Competing Without Sound
About four years ago, Muller began to notice that Molly was quite listening correctly. When she would say “sit,” Muller would get no response. But with the correct hand signal, Molly would go there.
After determining with veterinarians that she had lost her hearing, Muller needed to change her training, so they could still compete in Obedience.
“We had to re-adjust everything. And you can show deaf dogs now, but they don’t really make accommodations for go-outs,” Muller says. “It’s like, she’s not anticipating anything, because she can’t hear me give the cues.”
While Molly could “read” Muller’s lips and feel the vibrations, Muller would yell out cues loudly in order to get her attention, such as “take it” when instructing her to get a glove. But when mask policies were enforced that plan went out the window.
Before, Muller would use a stationary signal with a verbal cue. Now, she has to do a moving signal in order to get her to do the correct cue—and sometimes she has to be quite elaborate with her body language
“What I learned from working with a deaf dog is how much all dogs rely on body language and learning that has helped me with all my dogs.”
Her hearing still hasn’t stopped her from performing well. The only year the pair hasn’t competed in the National Obedience Championship since their first-time attending was when Molly tore her cruciate ligament in 2017. But she was able to bounce back for the next year.
Muller recommends that anyone who has a dog with some sort of debilitation try to find what works for their dog. She also says to try Obedience at least once.
“I love the way it enhances your relationship with the dog,” she says. “Some people say they don’t want to do it because it’s too structured and there are too many rules. But I think that makes it fun.”