AKC Obedience Trials owe their existence to a pioneer in the sport of purebred dogs, Mrs. Helen Whitehouse Walker. Helen was a breeder of Standard Poodles and the dogs of her Carillon Kennels were quickly gaining recognition as dogs with outstanding quality and character. Like many Poodle breeders, Helen had to fight the stereotype that Poodles were nothing more than just a fancy haircut. To combat this image and to convince others that Poodles were as smart as any other breed, she devised a series of exercises to showcase their intelligence.
She borrowed the idea from England’s sponsorship of the Associated Sheep, Police, Army Dog Society. This English Society had developed competitive tests, which were open to all breeds of dogs. Mrs. Walker approached dog clubs and private kennel owners with her idea of holding competitive tests in conjunction with dog shows in the area. With months of hard work and perseverance in October of 1933, the first Obedience Trial (then called “test”) was held on her father’s estate in Mt. Kisco, NY. 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 owned by William F. Hutchison of Far Hills, NJ.
The enthusiasm for this new event spread quickly and Mrs. Walker scrambled to organize a second test to be held in conjunction with the North Westchester Kennel Club show in June of 1934. She sent a letter to the American Kennel Gazette (AKC’s official publication)
Test classes could become popular-not only to prove the value of developing a dog’s brain, but also in interesting the average visiting public at a show. The judging of dogs in the breed classes is a mystery to many, but a series of tests displaying the dog’s brain is something they can actually see.
At that time 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 2 lb. dumbbell (regardless of breed size) and retrieving another slightly lighter dumbbell over a 42″ jump (regardless of breed size).
Mrs. Walker emphasized the importance of dog owners to develop a deeper relationship with their dogs. She encouraged amateurs to participate in obedience tests and stressed accuracy and precision in performance while the dog demonstrated enjoyment and willingness to work. She submitted the first 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.
Obedience tests were then divided into the three classes we know today, Novice, Open and Utility. The exercises have not been altered that much over time; however any dog that earned a Utility title had to also pass a tracking test to achieve the UD title.
~ Taken as an excerpt from The Story of Dog Obedience by Blanche Saunders, Howell Books (1974).
The regulations have expanded to facilitate the sport of obedience to grow and flourish, but the core values that Helen Whitehouse Walker strove to instill in obedience competitors are still with us today. Almost all dogs entered in an obedience trial have been trained and are handled by their owner. Obedience dogs are true family companions that share their lives with the people who showcase their skills in a competitive arena. AKC obedience is open to anyone who is interested in developing a meaningful relationship with their dog based on communication and fun!