A leaking roof, condensation that ran down the walls, fluorescent lighting that was always on the blink, primitive kitchen and toilets – these were the dubious delights we had to contend with when we kicked off at Durrant Hall, Hertford in March 1960. Eventually demolished to make way for the present Old Cross development, the Hall (a Nissen hut) stood behind a chemist’s shop of the same name, and was used for various public activities (right of photo below). It wasn’t much, but it was ‘home’ and from the start we thrived, despite having to spread classes over three separate evenings – one each for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. In those days there was no waiting list, you just turned up on Beginners night and after a quick status check joined the class. Promotion to Intermediate and Advanced was dependent upon individual progress, so in time congestion became an increasing problem for them.
By 1963 we had played a leading part in promoting a multi-club obedience rally that quickly came to be identified as the ‘Stopsley Rally’. During its ten year life the multi-club committee always included two representatives from Hertford. At the same time the County League was formed from the same participating clubs who competed on a home and away basis each winter to KC standards. As a matter of interest, the first rally took place at what was then the Hawker Siddeley Dog Training Club, Hatfield and we won two classes, no mean achievement against stiff opposition. The League outlived the Rally by many years, which was just as well because we had to wait until the winter of 1986 for success, winning the League Trophy then by one point. 1963 was also a pivotal year because of the decision to allocate funds for a trainee trainer to attend a week’s residential course to complete the “in-house” tuition with a recognised qualification from a professional organisation. That trainee was successful and is still active in the Society. So started a practice that has continued to the present day, ensuring that qualified trainers always match needs and compensate for trainer turnover. Since that pioneering year the training system has been refined and thorough. Through the years the residential courses have changed in organisation and location but the end result remains the same: the finishing touch to the set probationary period. Subsequent to 1963, qualified trainers have received funding to attain higher qualification. We began with sound training methods and throughout have worked to schedules and programmes that ensure there is no diminution.
Effective training and never-say-die support from members helped us to stick Durrant Hall for eight years, and doubtless we would have carried on if the chance to move to Bengeo Church Hall hadn’t occurred. Paradise discovered perhaps, but not for long because we soon found we were at full stretch trying to cope with what seemed a large proportion of Bengeo’s dog owners. The surge wiped out the benefit of bringing all classes together on one night and led to landmark decision number two – the introduction of revised class standards and the first form of periodic controlled entry to Beginners, preceded by a two week reception class. We did not know it at the time but this system proved to be the forerunner of the current intake procedure. To alleviate pressure on Intermediate and Advanced levels a new class came into being “Beginners 2” to take all promotions from Beginners, on individual merit as at Durrant Hall. At Bengeo we had everything that Durrant Hall lacked plus a wooden floor instead of a treacherous stone composition one, so we thrived, and as we did the waiting list lengthened – eventually to the point where after more than four happy years at Bengeo serious thought was given to looking for bigger premises.
Fortunately the search wasn’t a long one because in 1973 a Thursday evening vacancy turned up at Ware Drill Hall at an affordable rate, and the rest is history. Ending at this point, however, would not be equitable in the light of the fact that the largest portion of our existence has transpired at the Drill Hall (37 years) and coincides with all the major developments. As an opener the move to Ware turned us into one of the largest obedience centres in the county and stretching all the way to North London, but the providential steps taken ten years earlier gave us sufficient trainers to reorganise classes to the pattern that remains broadly unchanged to the present day. Unsurprisingly our time at Ware has been quite eventful.
Beginning with the 70’s a near revolution (of the palace kind) occurred in 1975 with the introduction of organised play and handling (massage and all-over stroking of dogs that is) in Beginners. All perfectly natural now, but at the time the two advocates met strong resistance before they became accepted as normal class practice. Also at about this time the first elements of agility were starting to appear at Advanced level, long before the craft became popular in an organised way and recognised by The Kennel Club (KC). For several years around the mid-70’s we ran a well-drilled demonstration team that featured as the main ring event at local summer fetes and charity events. The routines were changed every year and were always accompanied by an informative and humorous commentary. Ranging from basic training standard to advanced exercises, the demos always finished with something daring and topical, such as a scent discrimination requiring one dog to tell ‘Stork’ margarine from butter – capitalising on the product advertising on TV then.
From the mid-70’s and right through the 80’s and 90’s we had a keen competitive element working in Open Shows. It can be a long haul to progress from Beginner to Test A (the first three of the five KC standards that govern competitive obedience in the UK). Winning against possibly sixty other contenders from all around the country is no mean feat, so imagine what is involved to achieve three wins at each level to qualify to work in the next higher one! Determination is not enough, it’s being better than the rest that counts. Our successes over a long period spoke volumes for the quality of our Advance training.
During the 80’s petfoods promoted a national obedience competition at club level and we managed to produce a winner at the very first regional heat that we staged in 1985, but could not repeat the success in subsequent years, our best being a 3rd the following year.
Jumping forward in time for a moment, the Family Fun Day format re-emerged in 2009 after being mothballed in the 80’s. When first introduced in the late 70’s they were put on twice a year and involved a lot of work and ingenuity. We were rewarded with excellent support from members and their families, and friends, because the Days were composed of a combination of obedience at class levels and light-hearted ‘challenges’ that anyone could undertake. Trainers were always impressed by the efforts of members to display teamwork with their dogs. Certainly, we have no record of any dog being embarrassed by the handler’s antics, but handlers were often caught napping by the number of dogs who, if given the chance, couldn’t resist a quick dip in the stagnant ditch conveniently near to the course at Hailey, Hoddesdon. The writing was on the wall when the frequency of the Fun Day reduced to one a year before dropping out of the calendar. Hopping back to 2009 again for a moment the inclusion of a demonstration in that Fun Day was another welcome revival that demonstrates that ‘blasts from the past’ have a place in the present scheme of things if enthusiasm and drive allow.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1984 that the new member intake system took on the format that has been in use ever since, incorporating the introduction of a set course for beginners a few years later. Although not the last radical step to be taken by the Society, the course was an important innovation, achieved without the excitement that had occurred about 20 years earlier. It is gratifying to know that our intake system is much admired by dog training clubs around the Country.
Any chronicle of events in the 80’s would not be complete without mentioning the Society’s Silver Jubilee in 1985. It was, in fact the event that is second in importance only to the landmark we are about to commemorate, and we celebrated appropriately with a twelve month programme of events – training-related, social and charity. As souvenirs of the landmark we had commemorative mugs specially made. They sold well because of what they were and because they didn’t cost much. 25 years on who can produce one now?
Nor must we overlook the achievement of putting on a sequence of fourteen Open Obedience Shows from 1987 to 2000. After a 22 year incubation from the original proposal in 1965 the man of the moment turned up prepared to realise the dream and fortunately there was no difficulty in forming a Show Sub-committee for the purpose. All fourteen shows were successful, not only attracting excellent entries for all classes but also raising goodly sums for charity, all told amounting to over £2K. We did not know it at the time but the Millennium Show 2000 was both a new departure and a swan song. Breaking new ground we were the first Show to provide working rings for the KC’s Junior Organisation, and were already planning for 2001. However, the foot and mouth outbreak ruined everything and led to the disbandment of the sub-committee.
We have always been charity orientated, but throughout our time at Ware the potential has been greater, so besides the Open Shows there have been many lucrative ‘sponsored stays’, obstacle courses, ‘sponsored downs’ (handlers out of sight), quizzes, car treasure hunts and sundry social events. Besides straight financial donations, we also collect dog food, bedding and equipment to hand over to a needy cause around Christmas.
Starting as part of the NDOA trainers’ course in the 1960’s, the then Companion Dog Certificate Test has evolved into the present Good Citizen Test, divided into three grades – bronze, silver and gold and promoted by the KC. The first two grades are run ‘in-house’, gold at a neutral venue, preferably with outdoor space. We comply with the requirements of our KC Listed Status to conduct two test a year and we always have a high pass rate, with certificates to hand out to the often surprised entrants.
Mention has already been made of the social element of our charity focus, but throughout our existence social activities have featured strongly, from barbeques (even in the early 60’s), record evenings, barn dances, discos, wine and cheese parties, outings and participation in other clubs’ social events. Perhaps outmoded now, the Annual Dinner Dance was once the high spot in the social calendar, attracting upwards of 100 members and guests and usually covering our costs. For a time (because we had connections) it was possible to provide little extras, such as wine and cigarettes on the tables and streamers for the end of the dance, at no extra cost. Appetites may have changed but there is still a need for a Social Sub-committee ready to spring into action at the hint of a possibility.
Since it was first published in the mid-60’s, the Society’s Newsletter has been a useful and much appreciated way of conveying happenings, canine developments etc. Frequency has always been variable (as you can tell from the number of the last issue) but eventually enough matter comes along to fill the required space. A thankless task it may be but our present Editor is doing a grand job, not only in the up-to-the-minute presentation in clarity and use of photographs, but also in the content that regularly includes a personal profile, surely helping members to connect.
Barely remembered now is the annual month long pilgrimage to the Hartham, Hertford (the common lands of the people of Hertford since Saxon times) which took place every August between 1973-1984 while the Drill Hall floor was cleaned and repolished. It was an eye-opener for dogs and handlers and a challenge for trainers, but all benefited from the experience. We worked to the same system as indoors and at each level two equivalent areas were defined by posts and ropes. As with the Fun Days, the proximity of water (River Lee) was a temptation some dogs couldn’t resist if given the chance. What better than a little water sport after the formalities of class work? In 1985 a completely new floor was laid, closing the Drill Hall for three months. It was exceedingly bad timing for us, and could easily have flattened our Silver Jubilee celebrations – but it didn’t.
It proved to be the first of two disruptions, the second occurring in 2001, and on each we were fortunate to find temporary lodgings at Geddings Day Centre, Hoddesdon. Space limitations caused headaches but fair summer weather throughout made outdoor work possible. The second spell there lasted from June 2000 to May 2001 while the future of the Drill Hall was decided. With the threat of permanent rehoming increasing almost daily, it needed all the grit and determination we could master to survive the eleven months at Geddings. We stuck it out though and returned to the Drill Hall with its and our future secure.
On the sole occasion we deliberately sought publicity in the local press before the Drill Hall’s closure in 1985, the coverage, while mainly focussing on our celebrations, also drew attention to our impending plight. It was this that led us to Geddings, and because of the good relationship established then, we were able to go back there when the second difficulty arose. Our successful petfoods heat was also recorded with a picture of our winning handler and dog. Otherwise, from our earliest days we’ve never had to seek members. Imagine what our waiting list would be like if we decided on formal advertising!
In terms of technology we are also bang up-to-date in having a website (www.hddts.org) that tells browsers all about us and is updated as necessary to include events and training, including interruptions because of weather or elections, or other reasons. The text also includes photographs. Now most of our applications to join come via the website, which is so much easier for our Intake Secretary and team who have the task of preparing for each intake – another machine working away quietly and efficiently. We continue to draw new members from all around the county and into south Beds, so despite the reach of our website locality is the determining factor in uptake.
Keeping pace with change goes beyond embracing technology to streamline administration, smarten the Newsletter and create a website. Our training techniques have evolved to keep pace with the need for a less-stylistic approach to class work, and while this has been going on, agility has overtaken competitive obedience in popularity. In 2002 it was reason enough for us to change our status with the KC from a registered club to a listed club. The loss of competitive rights has been no hardship, and we are certainly relieved that we no longer have to submit annual accounts to the governing body. As stated earlier, we have to run two Kennel Club Good Citizen Tests a year, but that’s to our benefit. If there was revival of interest in competitive obedience it would be just as easy to revert to registered status.
Unlike textbook history, this record goes much further than setting out a chronological passage of events. The human element is strong and quite rightly so. It isn’t the bumpy rides and shaky moments that typify our progress. Throughout we have been fortunate to have a continuous flow of officers, committee, officials, trainers and willing hands who have worked well together. In case anyone doesn’t realise it, everyone connected with the running of the Society is a volunteer, giving up time each week for classes, and weekend time for social activities. It is not unusual for trainers to sacrifice holidays to gain proficiency or improve skill on courses. From the past to the present, all have contributed to our strength and endurance, and the thousands of well-trained and socially reliable dogs that have resulted are testimony to the public service we perform. What lies ahead? Much more of the same, if pet ownership continues to increase.
Here’s to the next 50 years …