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DOGS STRUT THEIR STUFF AT SALT PALACE

Dozer is not a typical bulldog - he is too friendly, too obedient and too eager to please.

"He doesn't think he's a bulldog," says owner Steve Freeman, a fruit farmer from Stockton, Calif., explaining that Dozer grew up alongside other breeds. "He thinks he's a Labrador or a golden retriever."Which may explain Dozer's competitive edge at dog obedience trials. With less than two years of training, Dozer qualified to compete with some of the nation's best-trained dogs at the Cycle Western Regional Dog Obedience Championship Saturday at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

Sponsored locally by the Wasatch Front Obedience Association, the competition continues today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. At noon, demonstrations will feature the canine freestyle champions from Canada, the only country where the sport is nationally recognized.

The 150 competitors represent 24 states and 44 breeds, including a beagle, an old English sheepdog, a vizsla, a keeshond, and of course, Dozer the bulldog. Among them are the more popular breeds for obedience competitions, such as golden retrievers and collies. Forty-four percent come from California, a "hotbed of nationally recognized dog trainers," according to Freeman. With 13 entries, Utah had the third largest number.

This is the third time in 20 years that Salt Lake is hosting one of the three regional championships, said Nancy Matlock, national spokesperson for Cycle dog foods. At regionals, dogs and their owners compete for trophies and cash prizes in three possible levels: Novice, Open or Utility. "Super dogs" compete in both Open and Utility levels for the title of "Most Obedient Dog in the Region." Exercises vary - from leaping hurdles to responding to silent commands - according to the level of competition.

The top 10 dogs in each level will qualify to compete at the Cycle Dog Obedience Classic in Orlando, Fla., scheduled later this year. But even to compete in a Cycle regional, dogs must have scored at least 193 out of a possible 200 points during their past three competitions, said Cheryl Hlavaty, spokesperson for the Wasatch Front Obedience Association.

And the process of getting to compete can be challenging but fun, Matlock said.

"Most of these trainers are not professionals," she said. "They are people who get hooked on the sport."

"The time commitment is essential," said Judy Gale, a Salt Lake resident whose efforts have led her 6-year-old golden retriever, Willie, to compete at the Open level.

"I have found that training a dog is a little like a video game," Freeman said. "You keep looking for the right combination of buttons to push and are rewarded with the proper response."

Nancy Brunker agrees. After working with her two dobermans, Sue and Dawn, the Brigham City native said every dog has a different mentality.

"You can't force those dogs to do that much work that many times unless they are enjoying it," Matlock said.