Willard and Honeybear: Remembering to Breathe

Dear Reader:

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was reading the first in a two book series by Willard Bailey (Remembering to Breathe: Inside Dog Obedience Competition).  Due to a bookstore’s mailing error, I ended up with his second book (OTCH Dreams) first.  I devoured OTCH Dreams (described in an earlier post) quickly and then had to wait weeks for the first book to arrive.

I finished Remembering to Breathe this week.  It is the story of Willard Bailey and his golden retriever, Honeybear, and their quest for an American Kennel Club (AKC) “OTCH” (obedience champion) title.  The fact that they ended up on this path was remarkable given that Honeybear was the first dog that Willard, at an advanced age, took to formal obedience classes – really, a puppy class bought for him by his wife along with the puppy.

Somehow as he worked his way through puppy class and was exposed to obedience competition, Willard got bit by the bug and started pursuing competition with great zeal.  AKC obedience competition starts with the novice level.  This relatively easy level focuses on basic skills: sit, down, heel, and recall.  “Open” is the next level up – at this level, things get a lot harder with jumps and group stays and “free” heeling (heeling off-leash).  Finally, at the “utility” level, dogs are doing complicated work that includes retrieving, picking out scent objects (for example, the one glove among many that has the owner’s scent), retrieving over a jump, etc.

Most dogs go as high as they are going to go in these competitions and retire at six or seven.  The jumps are hard on their joints and it is hard to maintain their attention and enthusiasm past this age.  Willard, however, kept Honeybear competing nearly all her life (she died at almost 15) and she got her rare and impressive “OTCH” title at almost ten years old.  After her OTCH, she continued to compete in “Veterans” which is a fairly new competition for older dogs that does not include jumps.

Because Willard worked hard to get to the prestigious Gaines obedience competitions, he kept working Honeybear in “open.”  She was six or seven before she began competing in utility.  Most dogs move to that very difficult stage much earlier.  Few dogs get the utility (UD and UDX) titles because the competition is so difficult.  However, Honeybear got her UDX with great panache, placing in the competition and earning “OTCH points” (depending upon how many dogs are competing in open and utility, if you place first or second, you begin to accumulate points toward the 100 needed to get an OTCH).

Even though I knew from reading the second book that Honeybear got her OTCH, this book kept me on the edge of my seat as Willard went through tough periods where Honeybear lost interest in parts of the competition and he had to figure out new ways to motivate her.  One of his major themes is his conversion to treat training.  The book was written in 2004, but they were competing in the early 1990s.  Even at that time, few serious obedience competitors used treats.  They used (and many still use) techniques like ear pinches which inflict pain on the dog until they do what the trainer wants.

Like many dog trainers (including myself) Willard came to realize that treat training was more effective, more fun, and more humane that “historical” techniques.  Something to keep in mind is that treats are strictly forbidden from the obedience ring.  This is one of the reasons that some trainers consider them ineffective: if a dog is responding to the treats as they train, how will you get them to respond to cues when the treats aren’t around?

Those of us who train dogs know that one of the ways that you deal with this is by “fading” the treats – that is, going to more intermittent treating, so that you could have a dog working through an entire competition and not missing the treats (although they would likely get some very nice treats immediately after).  Because Willard was using treats at a time when few others were doing so at his level, he faced the challenge of learning how to use them effectively and the challenge of all the naysayers who couldn’t believe that he could compete so effectively using treat training without cheating in the ring (by hiding treats and giving them to the dog illegally).

The suspense of the book moves through Honeybear’s increasing struggles with hip dysplasia.  At one point, he retires her because she has lost her drive and comfort with jumping.  But he comes to realize that what he needs to do is adjust his training, making it more informal and fun, and that, under certain circumstances, Honeybear really loves the ring, the excitement, and the attention.

Suffice to say, they do get their OTCH (barely!) and continue to compete for several years in Veterans.  Meanwhile, Willard is beginning to train Bebop, the border collie, whose story continues in the next book.

I enjoyed Remembering to Breathe very much.  I learned a lot about training and competition.  I loved reading about his very close relationship with Honeybear.  It was interesting to learn how they worked through challenges over time.  As I move toward doing obedience competition with my golden, Gus, I’m sure that I’ll think back to many episodes in both books.  If you love dogs and are interested in training, you’ll enjoy both books.

Happy reading!  Ruby

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