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Obedience Competition Prospect: What To Look For

Written and submitted by Irene Quesnoy © (4/30/02)

Marj Brooks asked me to write an article on my thoughts on puppy testing as it relates to the selection of a competition obedience prospect. Rather than regurgitate what has already been written, I would suggest you buy a great book on puppy testing by Suzanne Clothier, Understanding Puppy Testing. It describes each test, how it should be applied, the purpose of each test, what to watch for, and how to evaluate the results.

Testing the Individual Puppy

It is important for the puppies to be tested on an empty stomach, in a place they have never been before, and by a stranger who does not appear frightening to the puppies.

Suzanne Clothier in her book, emphasizes the importance of selling the right puppy to the right buyer. I feel prospective buyers should NOT be present at the evaluation. It can be very difficult to convince a buyer that a certain puppy is not for him even though you as the breeder know better. Suzanne explains it best:

“One of the agreements I have with all my prospective puppy buyers is that I will not sell them a puppy unless I have one whose behavior and puppy test results match their criteria. Occasionally, when a buyer has a very specific criteria, such as wanting a dog who can handle a highly competitive obedience career, this has meant waiting for another litter. While disappointing at times, my insistence on trying to match the correct puppy with the buyer has paid off. My puppies usually get homes who appreciate their qualities, and buyers get the dog they wanted.” (P. 9-Understanding Puppy Testing)

I totally agree with Suzanne that it is important for the prospective buyers to state IN WRITING what characteristics they want in their puppy – what they want to live with and the temperament they would be willing to put their time and effort into. I would also require the buyers to assess their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of their energy level, patience, and time to spend training. I want them to express a realistic set of goals for the puppy. If buyers are not willing to do this, you need to think again about how serious they are in making a long term commitment to this puppy.

In evaluating the individual puppies, you also need to take into consideration the raising of the litter. Puppies in a litter that has had the advantage of interaction with people on a regular basis by their seventh week will tend to be more attracted to the tester. Puppies who have been exposed to many interesting situations such as mini-agility equipment and challenging objects in their lives will tend to be more tolerant of a stressful situation presented to them by a stranger.

I feel the buyer should also be familiar with the breed standard, as he needs to know what characteristics are expected of the breed he is selecting. What you might expect in a litter of Golden Retrievers is not what you are necessarily looking for in a litter of Dobermans out of SchH parents.

I also agree with Suzanne that no one test is sufficient to evaluate a puppy. Unfortunately many buyers do make their choice on the basis of a single test. Just as humans can have a bad day, a puppy can be not feeling up to his normal self on the day of the test. He may not feel well, may have just been fed, may have had a recent inoculation, or be under medication, or have had an unsettling experience just prior to the test. If any of these things has occurred, the test results may not be valid. You may have to return on another day. I like to test three different times and in different locations if possible.

I know from experience that conformation is important. A puppy needs to be structurally correct to be able to heel well, sit correctly and maintain the sit, and jump in the more advanced work or in the agility venue.  Gerianne Darnell, the co-author of Competition Obedience Training for the Small Dog states that when she looks for a competitive obedience prospect, she looks for a group winner. Not an easy task in that group of dogs where litters are small!

I know that many people believe that if a dog does not work out in the breed ring, it can always do obedience. Yes, it can if it is physically and mentally fit, but in order to have a reliable competition dog, you need physical as well as mental stability. If your Doberman has more rear angulation than front, you will get crabbing and pacing in the heeling. This can get you an obedience degree, but it looks ugly! In addition, a dog with a weak rear will have more trouble jumping than one with a well muscled rear that can drive on the take off. And we’re not even down to poor hips yet! While Dobermans with a longer back can move well, I prefer a more compact dog. I also prefer a lighter boned one that is usually more agile and light on its feet. A weight of 55 pounds coming down over a jump is easier on a dog than coming down with 65 pounds. As for a gender preference, I tend to prefer the bitches, as they are usually more agile. However, I feel a great deal depends upon the individual dog. I have had dogs that were far more obedient and dependable than the bitches, but I have also had some “butt-heads.” I think here you have to have had enough experience with a variety of dogs to be able to “see” what you want in a puppy.

The puppy I look at twice has a pleasant expression and a strong looking head – not snipey or skully. I like a lighter boned but square puppy and one that moves well on the ground. I tend to gravitate toward the red bitches. I prefer a darker red coat to the lighter one. When I watch the puppy, I want to see one that is active and inquisitive. I love the puppy that looks at me a great deal of the time. This may not happen the first time the puppies are tested, but it should happened ultimately. I like a puppy that investigates its surroundings, not something that is rated high on the official puppy test.  Yet this is natural for a canine to investigate his surroundings. You as the tester are a stranger. The puppy will go to whatever has more value for him. Unless the puppy is deliberately avoiding me, I would not fault the one that said I was less interesting than that bush over there with all the great smells.

I also like the adventuresome puppy -the one that goes into the tunnel all by itself, and checks out the things set out for it to encounter as Marj Brooks does for her puppies. The more the puppy experiences during its formative weeks, the more easily it will adjust to the many different things it will meet later in its life.

I haven’t made up my mind on the sound sensitive test. I think that’s a bit rough on the young puppy as it is explained in the official test. I feel the puppy adjusts to many strange sounds and I do not like to frighten it so early. I would pick a strange sound (a rattling can) rather than a loud one (hitting the pan with a spoon).

Rather than the rolling the puppy over or the suspended tests, I prefer to see how well the puppy takes to my handling of its ears, feet, back, mouth, etc. More than the puppy’s first reaction, I am more interested in how he bounces back after I have done it once.

I like a playful puppy, one that will pounce on the ball or crumpled up paper, one that will play with my hand, attack my shoe laces, and in general have fun with me. Sometimes I see this spark in a puppy who at that time is too intimidated by the strange surroundings or perhaps its litter mates. That is the puppy I like to take aside, and play with a bit m
ore to see if I can draw it out.

I can see some merit in the pain tolerance test. While we do not use pain to train in obedience, there is collar pressure at times. The dog that is very sensitive to toe pressure could well have a problem in training. That combined with one that is very sound sensitive even to the mild sounds and perhaps also avoids a stranger markedly, is definitely not a good obedience prospect.

I would also avoid the litter “bully.” Although this does not show up at first contact with the litter, subsequent observations can detect the “boss.”  Having to prove your leadership constantly to this one can dissolve a good relationship and drain obedience of all the fun it can be.

So what am I looking for in a competition obedience prospect? In short, one that has physical and mental soundness. One that wants to give me eye contact and be with me until something really exciting comes along. One that is willing to play the many games we teach in obedience. One that loves food and toys and has a good prey drive. But one that is reasonable and not wanting to control me. For the first time Doberman owner, I would suggest a bitch, as they are smaller and tend to be easier to handle.

The Buyer´s Temperament Test

As a prospective buyer you will not have the opportunity to do a full fledged test or you may not even be present when the litter is tested. However, you can look for certain characteristic and obtain sufficient information to at least narrow down your choice. Let me put myself in your shoes and pretend I am looking for a decent competition obedience prospect in a given litter. I will outline what I would do in preparation for looking at litters and selecting a puppy. You can adjust the list to fit your criteria.

1. Prior to looking at the litter, I inquire about the pedigree and the working titles on the sire and dam of the litter as well as the health testing done on them. While no titles would not rule out a prospect, it would certainly indicate that an effort had been made to perpetuate the temperament and health I wanted in the puppy.

2. I WRITE a list of the characteristics I want in the puppy for a competition obedience Doberman. Here is my list:


Balanced structurally
Moves well
Head and expression is pleasing and intelligent
Coat is healthy looking
Feet are tight
Pasterns are strong
Body is compact, back is short


Active but not hectic
Curious to investigate its surroundings and objects in it
Friendly-comes to me readily
Makes eye contact with me
Willing to play with me
Has strong prey/chase drive
Willing to let me touch paws and run hand down back
Recovers from sound test (coke can with pebbles in it or a coke can in a 2 LB coffee can.
Handles a strange situation-umbrella opened slowly and pointed away from puppy and locked in open position
Persistent-keeps trying to get treat under plastic tub
Problem solving ability- continues playing with small version of the Buster Cube

3. I ask to see the sire and dam at very least look carefully at the dam in her own surroundings.

4. I want to see the pups as they interact with each other and with other people.

5. I have already decided on the sex and perhaps the color of the puppy I am seeking, so I separate these and look only at the prospects that are in that category. I am now down to my short list and now compare these puppies with my list of characteristics above. If there are a few puppies that I think are prospects, I work with them individually with a series of some of the short tests. Keep in mind that I am looking for a dog with a personality that I am willing to work with. You may have totally different characteristics and temperament in mind. What is important is that you choose the puppy that best fits what you have included in your list. I would also suggest that you prioritize the items on your list. No puppy is perfect, and you want to decide what is most important to you on your list and what you will settle for if the puppy does not meet all your criteria.

Before I leave this subject, I want to get up on my soap box regarding the attitude I often run into with respect to the term “competition” as it pertains to obedience. Somehow the term has come to have a negative meaning as if one had to beat a dog or harass it to death to get him to be competitive. I see this opinion not only in people who do not do obedience as well as in those who belong to an obedience club. They really think we spend our time abusing our dogs to get them to perform in the ring. How clueless can you be! No dog is going to perform if he has been abused in his training. A dog must be trusting of you in order to be willing to perform consistently in the ring. In order to be “competitive” a dog must be willing to work and do it time after time. No dog who is mistreated will be willing to do that.

I hope I have been clear in indicating that a competition dog as I define him means a dog that is willing to play the many obedience “games” and challenges presented to him. It is a dog who is physically and mentally capable of learning, performing under different situations, and whose trainer has taken the time to teach him carefully and thoughtfully.