“I would avoid any kind of terrier if you are seriously considering dog obedience competition.”
This bit of wisdom came to me from woman who trains silky terriers, and ran across it in a 1994 book by neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities. We repeat it now and then while we’re practicing, and run up against some crazy problem. I don’t really believe it, though, and neither does Coren, who didn’t say it himself, but overheard it at a seminar, from a trainer “whose videos show only border collies and German shepherds at work.” He uses the remark in his book as an example of how trainers have long recognized differences among breeds in learning capacity and work ethic: Poodles are easier to train than Italian greyhounds; golden retrievers learn faster than bulldogs.
Terriers, the conventional wisdom holds, are the hardest and least willing of the dog-breed groups. Stubborn is the word that comes up most often.
Certainly I know people think this — twice in as many weeks different judges have disclaimed “He’s a terrier!” about Thomas — once in the obedience ring when he appeared to be vigorously subjecting his scent articles to various scientific hypotheses, once in the agility ring when he launched off the A-frame (as if a dog has to be a terrier to do that). They say these things despite the existence of exceedingly biddable terriers — rat terriers, Parson Russells, Airedales — that in the right hands get high-in-trials and high-combineds and win national competitions with reassuring frequency. As I said to the agility judge who uttered those words last Sunday, being a terrier is not an excuse.
Coren, who notoriously ranked 79 dog breeds by their overall ability to work with humans, backs me up on that. The miniature schnauzer, which the American Kennel Club classifies among terriers, comes in 12th out of 79 on his list. You might argue that the miniature schnauzer is not a terrier in England; well, then, Coren has the Yorkshire terrier at 27th. The cairn terrier, a breed Coren himself has owned and known and loved, is tied with the Kerry blue at 35th, seven spots above the Australian shepherd. So there.
I’m not saying there aren’t challenges specific to training a terrier. I personally lack the experience to say what they are, though, because I didn’t know about this deficiency until I got into this competitive obedience racket five or six years ago. Like my friend and her silky, I didn’t pick the dog for the sport. I started “seriously considering” obedience competition well into the process of training the dog I already had. That dog happened to be a cairn terrier named Thomas, who was getting nice enough scores in Novice A to inspire me to pursue the matter through Utility. I thought he was great. I had no basis for comparison.
Five years after our last Novice A score — a 188.5 under judge Lynn Eggers — I absolutely understand that training this particular terrier is tricky in some strange and confounding ways. I suspect, though, that this has more to do with his checkered rescue-dog puppyhood than to his terrierness. He doesn’t want to make mistakes, which is why he sometimes takes a long time to pick out his article. He’s afraid of the unknown, which means I can’t just throw down a PVC box and expect him to start experimenting with it. He does not particularly like to be caressed by human hands, which means that I have to proof the hell out of his stand-for-exam or he will flunk that exercise reliably in the ring.
But the terrier part of him — or at least what I perceive to be the terrier part of him — is the best stuff he’s got. Thomas, like Seamus before him, has ape-shit-crazy-I’ll-go-over-a-cliff-for-it ball drive, and I have learned, finally, to work with it. There is no food treat that trumps the little crocheted ball I got at a Ward Falkner seminar; with that ball under my arm, or even in my back pocket, Thomas would heel through water, through a swamp, probably over a field of foxtails.
He also likes to play wild and rough. He doesn’t want to be petted, but he likes it when I shove him around and play nip at his back legs with my fingers. Honestly. It’s kind of weird. But I can work with that, too.
We’ve been back in the ring twice now since our long hiatus over the winter and spring. It’s mostly been a blast, involving a lot of shoving and nipping and jumping around between exercises, which keeps both of us engaged and only minimally stressed. The first time, at Pasadena Kennel Club’s show on June 2, he dropped his leather article about four feet away from me, but the judge waited patiently to let Thomas think the matter through. Thomas stared at me and let out an odd little whimper, but after a few seconds that felt like a year and a half, he picked it up and brought it in just fine. I figured that episode was worth about 5,273 proofing practices, and I was right: Three weeks later, at the Great Western Terrier show in Long Beach, Thomas did not drop one single thing he had been trained to hold.
He did, however, try to jump up and tug away his glove as I was handing it to the steward, which was fine by me. It took a year to get Thomas to put a glove in his mouth. If he wants it back that bad it means he’s forgotten how much he used to hate it.
We ultimately earned the dreaded NQ on our scorecards for directed jumping, when Thomas veered left and stopped short on his go-outs. Both times. It was just a little bit heartbreaking — signals, articles, gloves, stand for exam, all good, and then no go-out. I’m not sure what the deal was; this has not in the past been our weak spot. Maybe the sight picture was off in both rings — this is what supportive onlookers and kind fellow competitors told me. Maybe the morning sun glinting off the harbor had temporarily blinded him. Or maybe he just sensed I was getting too excited. He worried I’d burst into tears at the sound of the words, “Thank you ma’am, that’s a qualifying score.”
And he would be right about that. I know a few golden retriever and border collie handlers who would feel the same way.
John Oshiro took that excellent picture of Thomas holding his glove. I scanned the scorecards.