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Obedience with an Irish Setter


Continuing with the theme of Merlin:

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve also been doing some obedience trials. After failing a LOT of them, we took a break to reassess our training methods and give him a chance to grow up (and give me a break from the disappointment of failing trials).

We started again in November this year, entering two trials only a week apart. We started training again a couple of weeks beforehand, working very hard on focus (ie keeping him listening to me for more than 2 seconds) and then on delayed rewards (ie keeping him listening to me for more than 2 minutes without any treats or a ball in my hand).

When we arrived at the first trial he was being an absolute lunatic. We walked about 5 laps of the trial ground just to calm him down! Then we had to wait 3 hours until our turn. By this point it was after our normal bedtime so I was more worried about him falling asleep in the ring than doing anything stupid. I shouldn’t have worried. He was as lively as ever, but also reasonably switched on. We passed, and not only that, got a third place! OK, only 3 dogs passed, and our score was not great, but it’s still a pass, and still a third place!

The following week, we had a huge panic – I thought the trial started at 6:45pm, and just as I was about to start getting ready, I re-read the information and saw that I had to be there at 5:45pm! Panic!! I grabbed anything I thought we might need, threw Merlin in the car and rushed out . . . into peak hour traffic. There was no way I was going to get there on time!! At the first traffic lights I stopped and checked the info again . . . I’d read the wrong event info. It was 6:45pm! We got there very early so stopped and bought some dinner nearby, then went over to the trial. This time we were the first dog in the ring, so it was lucky we got there nice and early. He was not quite as well behaved as last time, but still passed every exercise and just scraped through with enough points overall. We also made some new friends – a Rottweiler, who’d been the dog after us at both trials, and his owners. Very lovely people.

There was one trial left this year. I hadn’t entered it because it was hosted by the Dobermann Club and Merlin loves Dobermanns. As in . . . really loves them. There is no way he could pass a trial if he was mooning over a bunch of Dobermanns. Still, my new friends convinced me to enter it, and I did really want to get our last pass before the long summer break (trials don’t start again until February). We didn’t do a lot of training in the lead up. A lot of work on one exercise he had struggled with in the last two trials and just a bit of freshening up on the other exercises. There were a few Dobermanns around, including the bitch that he originally fell in love with. There was also a lot going on – heaps of dogs, people, wind, food . . . . I was pretty worried.

He started off brilliantly . . . then got distracted!! I got him back with an extra command and we managed to get through it. We were the first dog in again, and luckily there were only 7 dogs in total so we didn’t have to wait long for the group stay exercise. There was only one dog between him and the Dobermann bitch he loves. Oh dear. He fidgeted and whined the whole way through his down stay but somehow didn’t move. Longest 3 minutes of my life!!

So, another pass, and another third place, this one with a decent score and we actually beat some other dogs. And, most importantly, his novice obedience title (“CD”).

I said I’d be very excited with our first obedience title, and I was (and still am). I always said I would get his obedience title but for a while there I didn’t really believe it. In the end, it was almost anticlimactic – three consecutive trials. I’m very proud of him!


You may wonder why this is such a big deal. Hundreds of dogs achieve their obedience titles every year. I achieved several obedience titles with my last dog. However, Merlin is an Irish Setter. Irish Setters have a reputation (usually incorrect) for being stupid. More accurately, they are independent and not bred for the kind of precision, attentiveness and lack of mad running around that formal obedience trials have. Merlin is quite good – my dog friends have decided that he’s not actually an Irish Setter because he comes back most of the time when he’s called. However he does still have all the other Irish Setter traits. He simply doesn’t have that “what do you want me to do now?” drive that the popular obedience dog breeds have. His is more “I know what would be fun, let’s go do that. We can do your thing later”. He learns everything easily enough, and will do them when asked, but spends most of his time looking (and smelling) around him for all the other exciting things that are happening. It’s hard to convince him that he needs to watch me the entire time for that one tiny instant when I wave my hand (or turn a corner) and he needs to respond without a second request. We’ve settled on a compromise: he has very frequent glances back at me and I do my best to make very clear, loud commands . . . . or stall for time until he’s looking, for anything that needs to be done without a verbal command!!

Very few Irish Setters obtain obedience titles and there are none others trialling in WA at the moment. Most people have been very encouraging (even when he’d put in an incredibly demoralising but hilarious performance) and the judges have generally loved his happy nature. The rules do request that the dog is happy and willing, but a lot of the working breeds (most obedience dogs are border collies, retrievers and shepherds) are so focussed on their work that “happy” is not a relevant concept. Sometimes I think the judges give us a bit of extra leeway because he is so happy, . . . but he did pass some trials through some pretty big distractions that a lot of other dogs failed, so we definitely earnt it.

So basically, yes, it is a really big deal! I’m looking forward to having a go at the next level up now, as that will really turn some heads!

For those who’re interested, the novice obedience test consists of:

  1. Heelwork: off lead, heel, sit, stand, down, left and right turns(90o), left and right about turns (180o) and walking around a figure eight, with no talking except to say heel, stand and down when the judge tells you to do those things. This is our biggest challenge as he just doesn’t stay focussed long enough.
  2. Stand for Exam: Stand still off lead (away from me) while the judge walks up and strokes his back, sides and legs. He kept moving his feet or turning towards the judge so we did heaps of practice on this one and eventually got it right.
  3. Recall: Sit, stay, I walk away then turn and face him. When the judge signals I can call him and he has to come and sit in front. Then when told, he walks around behind and sits next to me. He was always great at this, except once when he was too excited, came barrelling in, couldn’t stop and did a lap around me and then sat in front. Still a pass, . . just lots of points lost!
  4. Change of Position: Stand, stay and I leave him (not too far away). When instructed I tell him to lay down. Then I return to him.

All of these are done individually, then when everyone has finished, you all come back in together and do the stays as a group.

  1. Sit Stay: 1 minute, off lead.
  2. Down Stay: 3 minute, off lead.

There are 5 different levels of class:

  1. CCD (Community Companion Dog). This is an optional class and since it wasn’t around when I first started trialling years ago, I didn’t bother doing it.
  2. CD (Companion Dog) or Novice
  3. CDX (Companion Dog Excellent): You need to have your CD title to attempt this class.
  4. UD (Utility Dog): You need to have your CDX title to attempt this.
  5. UDX (Utility Dog Excellent): I assume you need to have your UD title to attempt this but as it is also a new class (like CCD) and it is so far from where we are, I know nothing about it!!

1 Comment

  1. Bridget says:

    Congrats Merlin!

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