Written by Marilyn Miller
Rally. It’s a sport that I love to watch when well done, and one I really enjoy competing in with my dogs. It is not treated with the respect it deserves by some folks in the obedience world who think it’s much too easy for correctly trained obedience dogs; but neither is it taught with respect by many instructors, and the students only know what they are shown.
Some have forgotten that the original intention behind Rally was to collect all of the cool tricks that top trainers have used for years to teach fronts, excellent heeling skills, body awareness that helps make turns and pivots acts of beauty, and accurate command discrimination, and offer them to new trainers on a silver platter. When Rally skills are taught TO THE DOGS thoroughly, a rally run is a thing of beauty to watch, and the more traditional obedience exercises are much easier to teach because so many of the building bricks are in place. In the name of making it more fun than traditional obedience, extra cues and commands and cheerleading is allowed. But somehow, the focus in most classes is on showing handlers all of the many things that THEY could do to steer their dogs through a course, and NOT as much on actually teaching the DOGS the skills to do the various exercises WITHOUT all of the extra coaching. Eventually this became problematic. Begging, pleading and repeated efforts on every sign led to L O N G days for judges, and frankly, I saw a lot of teams NOT having fun because the dogs were so confused by all of the varied commands and signals their owners were throwing at them non-stop, and they just gave up and sniffed the ground, unless they believed the air cookie maneuvers. The changes in the regulations that stopped allowing overt luring was a good one, but one that freaked people out because they knew their dogs could not succeed without the high level of herding.
So here is what I BEG Rally instructors to do: STOP teaching with so much focus on running courses. STOP focusing on handler tricks. TEACH HANDLERS HOW TO TEACH THEIR DOG HOW TO DO THE ACTUAL SKILLS! If the dogs are taught how to do their skills, all of the handler dances can be minimized. In my mind, folks would be better served with focus on two or three signs in a class, with individual help offered on how to teach the dogs to do the exercises well. Running a course is a lot easier if you don’t have to deal with recognizing the signs AND remembering the four things you need to do to herd or lure the dog through each sign.
Keep the training motivational, and let folks in on the secrets to consistency, such as how to use chutes to teach dogs to do straight fronts without the two-handed swoop to guide the dogs to front. Demonstrate how the side step can be used as an attention getter as well as a rear end awareness exercise and a heel position recognition exercise. Show people how looking in the direction of their turns rather than down at their dogs will help their dogs know whether to speed up or slow down to maintain heel position. Show them how cool it is to do pivots whilst standing on a paper plate and seeing how well the dog can move around the handler when he is made aware of what his body can do. It’s a perfect opportunity to explain how clear consistent cue sets are so much less confusing to dogs than all of the arm waving, changes in posture, and changes in voice tone or actual words when one word doesn’t appear to work. (Hint: It’s not the word that isn’t working; it’s the inaccurate or non-existent association!)
Now Rally specialist competitors, who say they have no intention of doing obedience because it’s so hard, kind of confound me, because many of them spend JUST as much time practicing and go to classes JUST as often as the most devoted regular obedience competitor. So it’s not the time investment that is the problem. But when I asked a few folks recently how they trained between classes, they told me about meeting friends and setting up courses and taking turns running the course. There was no mention of isolating the front exercises, or focusing on the turn exercises, or perfecting the pieces of the pivots. The handlers are practicing running courses, not actually training the dogs how to do the skills. So it’s up to instructors to show them how to train the dogs, and make sure the handlers understand the difference. Instructors need to make that information as much fun and as interesting and as do-able as possible so that folks will have success in short order with each skill. It’s time to remember the purpose of the sport, and respect it.
Sometimes in some organizations the Rally instructor is the one who inherits the first wave of dogs right out of rather vaguely-taught beginning classes, and it’s the Rally instructor’s lot to help people work through the process of achieving actual command discrimination skills. Well, just as you do with your own dog, you have to do what is best for the students in front of you. It’s not fair to dumb a class down for advanced students, but it’s also not fair to throw teams into the deep end without the skills to succeed either. Consider structuring your Rally program with a more primary layer called Rally Skills, in which you focus on achieving clean command-and-response skills for the basic sit, down, stand, front and finish skills. This would be a place to talk about fronts with information about dog body awareness and front target recognition, and use the one-step fronts to work on it without so much hand steering. There’s a good chance that you will need to define heeling just a bit more exactly and help people achieve better consistency with straight-line heeling. It’s the place to teach turns as individual skills. And don’t forget to tell people that the heeling between signs IS judged! They should know how to do it correctly, and teach attention to their dogs.
Mastery of those skills is the pre-requisite for students to move up to Rally Course Work. If there is not a time slot allowing such a division, then you can layer the classes, with the first few moments devoted to command discrimination and skill refinement work which never hurts anyone to review. Then you can set up 2 or 3 signs for the dogs who are not really ready for a whole course, but are ready to chain a few of their skills together, and spot the teams for consistent communication. Then the more experienced teams can run the longer course, with spotting for changing cues rather than requiring obedience to the original ones, or handler actions that are distracting their dogs from the actual cues and causing confusion. Less experienced trainers will learn a lot from observing the more advanced work, and that can inspire better homework so that they can move up to the longer course work faster.
Cheerleading doesn’t make Rally, or anything else, “fun” for the dog if the dog is confused. Clarity in communication and confidence from the handler lead to ease and frequent success for the dog, and that is fun for both members of the team. The randomization of the order of appearance of skills inspires interest in the work itself, rather than just on paycheck rewards, and that is an approach that many obedience fanciers do not use enough in their training. Rally is the place for people to embrace randomization as a concept that goes beyond cookie / no cookie, or cookie vs. toy.
Regardless of what we teach, we should all approach teaching with the intention to inspire, support and inform. We should think as though we are the only sources of information for the students in front of us, because for some of them, we are. Classes should motivate change and progress. Rally classes should constructively prepare teams to smoothly move on to regular obedience if they choose, and not create a situation where there is so much handler dependence on the herding skills that they discover that they have to retrain everything for the regular classes.
If you are an instructor, be aware of the impressions you create about obedience when you speak. Try not to teach people to dislike what you might consider the stringent rules of regular obedience before they have discovered what their dogs are truly capable of doing. Regular obedience is NOT harder than correctly taught Rally; it’s just quieter, and requires that the dogs know their jobs without quite so much handler input DURING an exercise. Try to avoid making disparaging comments about “those OTCh people”. Remember that a lot of dog trainers are introverts, and they gravitate to their familiar friends; but most of them will respond to a smile and a “good morning” from a new face, and that’s the first step to building familiarity. Remember that experienced obedience trainers know that an exhibitor who has a rough day MIGHT appreciate help, but just as likely might not welcome unsolicited criticism or advice from complete strangers, so experienced trainers mind their own business. It isn’t that they are unwilling to help IF ASKED. Teach your students some trial etiquette, such as not allowing their boisterous dogs to wander to the end of the leash and push their faces into crates or other dogs’ faces like they might do at a dog park. Teach people about where to find the rules and regulations, and discuss those sometimes. Teach them about the value of crates at trials. My hope is that new trainers will see Rally as the first stepping stone in an obedience career rather than a separate sport. But first impressions are lasting, so the responsibility for that attitude lies on the shoulders of the instructor.
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