How To Improve Your Rally-O Runs

It’s been since 2002 that my dog McCoy and I entered our first trial in competition Obedience. After that, I did both Rally and Obedience with all my dogs. When I started out, I really knew very little about what I was doing. Let me re-phrase that. I knew nothing. We did OK in the ring, but I always loved watching teams that were high on the precision aspect of both obedience and rally and wished I could do that too. Obviously, there was work to do that I wasn’t putting in to get to that level of performance. I just didn’t know what that was and especially HOW to do it.

Now that Rally-O is so popular in CKC (Canadian Kennel Club), there are many, many dogs going through the program. Unfortunately, many of those dogs are taken in the ring before they are really ready.

I am not writing this article to criticize those teams, but to assist in improving the precision aspect of trialling in Rally WITHOUT having to put a ridiculous amount of time in. Many rally teams are conformation teams first and won’t be going on to regular obedience. They like having another title on their dogs besides conformation and regular obedience is often seen as just too difficult (which it really is), time consuming and actually boring to pursue.

I’ve heard many people say they don’t care about winning (which is likely true) they just want to do something with their dogs, or they are not competing against others (which is also likely true). Even so, they can benefit from more accurate work in the ring by either preventing a D/Q or huge loss of points.

Why does more accurate work matter?

It matters because more precision (which has resulted from more training) helps decrease the dog’s stress level at trials (and actually yours), and improves the teamwork between the dog and human i.e. better connection with your dog. This ultimately results in more fun in the ring, better performance and scores, and therefore less anxiety overall for both the dog and handler.

Let me explain how.

I encountered issues with my dog Tommy in the Rally-O ring, back in 2013. In the photo below, he was heading out of the ring! He was super stressed and didn’t want to participate anymore. In this trial I was able to call him back and we finished the run. It wasn’t until the trial the next day that I stopped the run almost as soon as we started and took him out of the ring. He just wasn’t into it. The judge told me she thought I was wise to do that and it felt like the right thing to do. I wasn’t upset. I actually felt like I accomplished something.

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We had also never practiced a single jump and when I went to do one with him off leash he refused:

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I wasn’t expecting this. I had always worked with my other, much more trained and less stressed out dogs (McCoy, Eli and Finn) and had just assumed he would just do the jump.

We were not adequately prepared for off leash Rally.

Part of the problem

Dogs are creatures of habit. They prefer situations they know well. We all know this.

So, why do we put our dogs into situations in which they:

1. don’t know what to do very well in the first place and

2. have never been in that situation before and are required to do these specialized behaviours?

We do it because we want to get our titles done fast! We don’t want to fail. But going into the ring before we or our dogs are ready is the fastest way to do poorly and cause stress to our dogs and ourselves. This is definitely one activity that could benefit from slowing down the training to achieve a higher level of accuracy.

So What Do We Do?

The following information is what I have learned through my own experiences trialling my dogs and from classes I have taken. Some of the things overlap and some are different, but all point in the same direction. Be adequately prepared and slow down your dog’s training.

1. I don’t rush my dog into the ring before he is ready.

In general, I have found that the older the dog, the longer I have been working on the training (hopefully) and the better prepared my dog and I are. An older dog is also more mature, which sometimes can translate into better focus – at least in my own experience. This probably goes back to having a longer time in training actually, so the two go hand in hand.

I used to rush to get my dog’s titles. McCoy got his CD when he was just over a year old. I laugh now looking back at how unprepared we were. Our scores were very consistent in Obedience (there was no rally yet), 185 ,185, 190, 190.5. Not bad for completely novice and inexperienced team. I was happy with that.

McCoy and I competed in Rally in 2013 and had put in much more training time to prepare for it. He was 12 years old at the time. Our scores were Rally Adv. – 98, 99, 98, and Rally Ex. – 98, 99, 96.

Rally is not really comparable to regular obedience but I would like that to change a bit as I think Rally is currently scored too easy.  This can put extra pressure on the dogs who are in the ring before they are really ready due to the thinking that Rally is an easy title.

What I did to prepare

When I was preparing McCoy and Finn for Rally-O (they were both senior dogs at 12 years of age), we did very short sessions of heeling mostly. We worked only about three days a week, for several months in advance, doing 2-5 minute sessions. That’s it. We didn’t overdo it, but worked on the thing that I felt would give me the best connection with my dogs – heeling and paying attention doing it.

I used lots of food rewards (not visible to the dog and no bait bag visible either) and did only a few steps of heeling at a time, slowly increasing the distance. My main goal was having my dogs look at me as much as possible while heeling. Below are photos of the result of our training.

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Finn heeling with attention
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Finn watching!
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McCoy paying attention!
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McCoy again

Each person will need to make their own judgment call on what to work on with the dog. What will make a connection with the dog best? What is the dog not quite up to a certain skill level in? What will make the rally-o trialling easier by practising.

I have found that it is difficult to get everything perfect when that is not your goal. It takes a lot of work to get precision. But if only one or two behaviours or concepts (like attention) are worked on it can make a big difference.

2. At a trial, I make sure my dog has had (a lot of ) time to sniff around and explore the area.

The other thing I did, that I think made the biggest difference, was to let the dogs be at the trial site, relaxing and sniffing (as long as they weren’t disturbing other dogs), so they became used to the area. This, I have since learned, is called “acclimation” and I have learned about this extensively by taking classes through Fenzi Dog Sport Academy. I find it interesting that I was doing something like acclimation long before I knew about it and it was working!

Basically, I just let my dogs sniff around every available place in the trial venue – without being obnoxious and pulling me all over the place. If my dog wanted to sniff something for more than a second I let him. The reason for this is essentially to get the dog “bored” of the trial area and look to you for something interesting.

Every dog will need a different amount of time to get used to the place, and some may not ever be ready if it is a bad day, or you are stressed and you dog feels it, or one of several other things. You have to be the judge for your dog and know when to stop or go, or maybe even to not go into the ring at all.

3. Pay attention to my dog – only.

Something I’ve often noticed at obedience trials is the desire of humans to talk to each other. To put it bluntly, this is not conducive to trialling your dog. Your dog should capture basically 100% of your attention at a trial and especially before you go in the ring for up to 30 minutes or more depending on the dog. I’m just as guilty of ignoring my dog as anyone at trials. When you disconnect from your dog, you can’t judge very well whether your dog is overly stressed, hungry or has to go to the bathroom. You want your dog to pay attention to you in the ring, so you will need to pay attention to your dog mostly by not chatting it up with anyone while you are preparing to go in the ring.

Have a pre-trial routine that you and your dog are used to and stick to it. Make it a habit. Don’t waver from it. It someone wants to talk, simply let them know you are working with your dog right now and will have to catch up with them later.

4. I avoid “practising” behaviours at the trial site and before going in the ring.

By the time you are ready to trial, your dog should know everything he needs to know. Time outside the ring before going in would likely be best spent in relaxing or letting your dog chill out and sniff a bit if he wants. By this time, your dog should already have had enough time to check everything out so he is likely paying attention to you, and you to him. This is part of the pre-trial routine that you have set up.

I have found that for myself, practising a bunch of behaviours just before going in the ring causes me to get extremely stressed, reminding me that we’re not prepared. That would be the only reason I would practice. If I was prepared, there there would be no reason to practice.

5.  Leave the ring if necessary before finishing if my dog is not comfortable.

Quitting is NOT Failure

I’m not afraid of stopping the run if something is not going right. I am there to work WITH my dog and if he isn’t focused or happy, there is no point in continuing. I don’t see it as a failure. It’s not. It’s a success.  Paying attention to my dog never results in failure because I am communicating with him.

If it is losing the entry fees that is the problem, I always put it down to supporting the club, which it does. Deciding to leave the ring before the run is finished gives me more time to get my dog prepared. at least no I know where we are at and what needs to change – usually what I’m doing!

Rally-O Is FUN!

Most of these things are not technical aspects of training a dog, but they are, I feel, the most important points in preparing for a trial, maybe even more so than getting accurate behaviours. Rally-O is supposed to be fun for both the human and the dog, so reducing stress by being prepared is the best thing I feel I can do to make it fun.

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We’re having FUN! Look at the smiles! Even the judge is smiling.