Before the mid 1930s, dog shows didn’t include Obedience events because they didn’t exist. Thanks to a Poodle breeder, Mrs. Helen Whitehouse Walker, and her personal mission to shatter stereotypes about her breed, displays of exercises in obedience became a vivid way showcase their intelligence. Under the existing AKC rules of her day, however, Poodles couldn’t compete in licensed field trials despite the fact that retrieving was what they were bred to do.
The well heeled and socially prominent Helen had gotten the idea from England’s sponsorship of the Associated Sheep, Police, Army Dog Society. Her maternal grandfather, Sir George Duntz, was a baronet in England, and through her British connections, Helen heard about obedience “trialing.” She spent six weeks in England studying trials and training methods that mostly used techniques put down by Colonel Konrad Most (whom some consider to be the father of modern “traditional” dog training).
When Helen came back home, she contacted trainer, Josef Weber, to work with her Poodles reasoning that if she was going to “sell” the idea of obedience exercises, her Poodles needed to be superb representatives. As it happened, Weber had trained other dog instructors, and one of them was Blanche Saunders (did a lightbulb just go off for some of you?).
It was Saunders whom Weber recommended that Helen get to work with her Poodles. Later, Saunders would say that she was sitting on a tractor when Helen came by with her apricot Standard Poodle, “Tango of Piperscroft” to interview her for the position of a kennel maid. Helen approached her and said, “I’m told that you are good with dogs. How would you like a real job training them?” Saunders jumped off of the tractor and asked, “When do I start?”
A year later, a second test was held in conjunction with the North Westchester Kennel Club show, and in 1936, the AKC approved the first set of regulations titled Regulations and Standards for Obedience Test Field Trials based on material that Helen had submitted for consideration in 1935.
In 1937, Helen and Blanche set out on a 10,000-mile tour going from one dog show to another around the country to promote and demonstrate the discipline. Obedience clubs started springing up, and the sport was on its way.
It would have been a delicious “full circle” story had the first dog, or even the first three, to achieve AKC Obedience Champion titles been a Poodle, but the first three dogs to do it were Golden Retrievers.
As for the image of Helen Whitehouse Walker at the top, it comes from the AKC Gazette’s Facebook page. The accompanying post read: “This picture is part of a substantial donation of Poodle-obedience photos donated to the AKC Archives by Anne Rogers Clark. It was among several photos taken by Louise Branch for Saunders’s 1952 training manual “Training You to Train Your Dog.” The book was the bible for two generations of dog trainers. It has the added distinction of containing a preface written by a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.
“For more than 50 years, syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann was America’s most respected political pundit. He was read avidly around the world, and his opinions influenced the policies of presidents and prime ministers. He was also a dog lover. After Lippmann acquired his standard Poodles, Courage and Brioche, from the Carillon kennels, he hired Saunders, Mrs. Walker’s protégé, to supervise their training.
“Here’s an excerpt from Lippmann’s typically urbane preface: ‘What I have discovered from our dogs is that well-trained dogs are much more amusing companions. That is not because I have any interest in exhibiting them in a dog show, or even in having them do tricks. It is because training works on the dog’s character, and carries him beyond the stage where he is merely housebroken to one where he is in fact civilized. I am not suggesting that he appreciates art and culture, but only that he has learned how to live, without being frustrated or annoying, with people who have work to do, and a circle of friends, and interests and pleasures.”