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Everything You Need to Know About Rally-Obedience (And Everything Your Dog Needs to Know, Too!)


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About Rally


Rally-Obedience, Rally-O, or just plain “Rally,” is a competition obedience sport. Rally includes a range of maneuvers to perform with your dog, with the list of skills varying for each course. This differs from traditional obedience competitions, which are more or less the same routine every time. The legend goes that Rally was born from the practice of freestyling or “doodling” traditional obedience skills, the details of which we will get into in a moment.


Rally was originally designed as an in-person competition. Depending on where you live, you may have a few options for organizations to compete in. You can now also earn Rally titles at home, online, through the AKC’s Rally Virtual Program.


Rally is a great sport for dog training newbies, and you can read more about why here. Training for Rally is also a great foundation for other competition obedience sports such as AKC/UKC/CKC Obedience, FCI Obedience, Schutzhund/IGP, and Mondioring.


A Rally course is a layout of numbered signs. You travel with your dog from one sign to the next, in order, and perform the instructions on each sign. You are judged by how well your dog stays under control and performs each skill. If you are competing against other people (in person), you are timed for the purpose of ranking places.




General Rally Terms & Vocabulary


Some of these definitions are specific to the American Kennel Club.


Rally Course - A map or physical set-up of Rally signs.


Run - Your performance of the Rally course may be referred to as a “run” - regardless of whether or not you qualified.


Leg - A run that earned you a qualifying score towards a title.


Title - (As a noun) The goal of competitive Rally! The titles for Rally are novice (RN), intermediate (RI), advanced (RA), excellent (RE), advanced excellent (RAE), masters (RM), and champion (RATCH). Novice, intermediate, advanced, and excellent are all also classes, and you earn the corresponding title for completing 3 qualifying runs of that class. For example, to earn a RN title, you must earn 3 qualifying scores for Rally Novice. Masters is also a class, but you need a whopping 10 qualifying scores to earn your RM title. RAE and RATCH titles follow more complicated rules.


Title - (As a verb) You can say, “I titled my dog in novice today.”


Class - The level of Rally you are competing at. For the AKC, that’s novice, intermediate (optional), advanced, excellent, and masters.

There’s also A and B classes for each level. A class is for people who have never had any dog that they’ve owned title at that level or at any level in AKC Obedience. B class is for people who do not meet that criteria. Both classes are judged the same; you just only place against your own class.


Qualifying Score - In AKC Rally, you need at least 70 points to earn a qualifying score for your run. The highest possible score is 100. You are scored by starting with 100 points, and you get points deducted for every mistake made during your run.


Time - Your run is also timed, if you compete in person. If your points are tied with someone else, the fastest team will earn the higher placement.


Ring - The gated space that a competition Rally course is set up in.


Trial - (As a noun) A dog sport competition event.


Trial - (As a verb) You can say, “I’m going to trial my dog this weekend.”


Club - An obedience club hosts a Rally trial. You do not have to be a member of any club in order to sign up and compete in the trial.


Fun Match or Correction Match - Yes, it’s kind of funny that these terms are synonymous. This is an event that looks nearly identical to a real trial, but it’s not a real trial, and your points don’t count towards anything. It’s just for practice. These are increasingly hard to find.


Open Ring or Ring Rental - An opportunity to rent out space, usually hosted by an obedience club, to practice your dog training. Typically, ring rental spaces will have gates and other props in order to make your training feel more like a trial. Sometimes you will share space with people and can use them for help, and other times you are alone.


Walkthrough - At a real Rally trial, you get to walk through the Rally course without your dog and ask the judge any questions about signs and how the course is set up. This happens immediately before your class starts.




The Skills!


Each Rally organization has a different set of signs and accompanying rulebook, but they share the same core skills. Whichever organization you choose, you will need to take a look at all the signs, learn how to read them, and go over the rulebook - all of which are available online.


Here are the skills your dog needs to know for Rally, divided by the class they are needed for in AKC Rally.




Novice (and Above)


Sit-Stay:

Your dog needs to know how to hold a sit-stay while you walk a counter-clockwise circle around them. In upper levels, they stay while you walk a few steps or feet away from them. Most dogs are introduced to that in Puppy Kindergarten, so I actually think that the skill of being able to walk behind them is harder!



Down-Stay, Handler Walks Around Dog:

Your dog needs to know how to hold a down-stay while you walk a counter-clockwise circle around them.



Down from Stand:

Your dog needs to know how to lie down without sitting first. They need to be able to lie down from a sit, too.



Front:

From the AKC rulebook, front means, “A dog sits in front of the handler, close enough that the handler can touch the dog’s head.” You want their body straight; you don’t want their butt sticking off to the side in either direction.

At the Novice level, you can take a couple of steps backward to help your dog come to front position. After Novice, you cannot move your feet.



Heel, and All Its Wonderful Components :

Your dog will spend more time heeling than anything else during your Rally run. You (mostly) heel between each sign in a Rally course.

The judging criteria for heeling in AKC Rally is not as strict as other sports. You are allowed to hold your hands however you want, as long as it does not look like you are luring them. From the AKC Rally rulebook, “luring” means, “the appearance of having a reward to tempt the dog along or into position. No reward needs to be present.”

The AKC Rally rulebook defines heel as, “The dog is at the handler’s left side, facing the same direction the handler is facing; the dog’s body is within the area of the handler’s left hip; and the dog should be close to, but not crowding its handler so that the handler has freedom of motion at all times.”

Your dog will need to know how to sit in heel position, heel forward, heel forward at a fast and slow pace, side step in heel, turn left (all degrees of turning), and turn right (all degrees of turning). They’ll also need to learn how to move from front position to heel position via the left and right sides of your body (aka “left and right finishes”).

Rear end awareness is the most challenging part of heelwork. Heelwork involves the dog isolating the front and back half of their body’s movement - especially for maintaining correct position throughout turns - and that is an advanced skill.

A note that I cannot help but include here: If you teach good, correct heeling from the beginning, everything else in Rally is going to be easy! Do not rush your heelwork training!


Left About Turn:

I call this the “Schutzhund turn” or “German turn,” but the AKC just calls this move the “left about turn.” In this skill, the dog circles around your body counterclockwise, from heel and back to heel again, as you turn (left) 180 degrees. It is much simpler than it looks and sounds; I promise. Your dog circling around your body counterclockwise is essentially the same skill as a right or “wrap” finish.



Motivation and Engagement:

You need to know how to tap into your dog’s focus and enthusiasm. This is the root of all good training! It involves having an idea of what makes your dog tick, how to harness their drives, and how to make working with you something that facilitates their joy. For many dogs, their reward for a job well done involves food or toys, as well as moving/chasing/catching/playing. Every dog is different!

If you’re trialing in person (or even taking your virtual submission videos outside), you will need to know how to train focus under all kinds of distractions.



Duration and Sequencing:

Your dog must be acclimated to performing multiple skills consecutively without receiving reward until the end of the sequence. A Novice course is 10-15 signs long. 3-5 signs include stationary exercises, which for some teams are opportunities to collect themselves and refocus.



No Reward in Sight:

Your dog must be used to not perceiving the reward on your person as they work - as that is how it will be during your Rally runs. You can read more about these trial-readiness concepts here.




Intermediate (and Above)


Front and Left Finish without Handler Moving:

If you were relying on taking steps backward to help your dog find front or heel position at the Novice level, you must eliminate that help for Intermediate and above.



Harder Pivots in Heel:

These should go over fine if you taught your heelwork correctly to begin with, but Intermediate includes more challenging turns, sidesteps, pivots, and sudden halts in heel.



Figure 8 with Distractions:

Your dog must be able to ignore 2 “dog-safe toys or covered containers with treats in them.” These distractions may be included on the ground, spaced 5-6 feet apart, next to each post of the “offset figure 8” exercise.



Stand from Sit:

Your dog must know how to move from sitting in heel position to raising themselves into a stand-stay.



Stand-Stay while Handler Walks Around:

Your dog must hold still in the standing position as you walk a counter-clockwise circle around them.



Dog Circles Right/”Schutzhund Turn” Variations:

“Schutzhund turn” is my terminology, not the AKC’s. Your “left about turn” move, or as I call it, your “Schutzhund/German turn”, gets a little fancier here. Again, your dog circling around you clockwise is essentially just a right finish. So your dog circles right, but now, you turn different directions - as opposed to the left about turn of Novice. (This is a skill best watched rather than read about if you’ve never encountered it before.) These moves are probably harder for your own coordination than your dog’s. These signs include the direction “dog circles right.” Do not be fooled that the old “left about turn” sign looks different; it’s the same skill.




Advanced (and Above)


Leash-less-ness:

Your dog must be able to perform their Rally course off-leash.

If you are trialing in person, your dog must remain under control as you hand your leash to a stewardess.



Jump:

Finally, the most fun skill! At this level, your dog must know how to leave your side and jump over a hurdle. Ideally, your dog does not touch or bump the jump at all.


Here is how high they will need to jump:


Dog’s Height at Withers/Shoulder Base = Jump Height

<10 in. Tall = 4 in. Jump

10 in. - <15 in. = 8 in.

15 in. - <20 in. = 12 in.

20 in. and over = 16 in.




Excellent (and Above)


Work without Pats or Claps:

For Excellent and Masters, “Handlers are not allowed to pat their legs or clap their hands to encourage the dog” (from the AKC handbook).


More Duration:

Excellent and Masters have 15-20 signs. Since the moves are also more complex, your course may feel significantly longer than the lower levels.



Sit-Stay while Handler Gets Leash:

Your dog must hold a sit-stay while you walk about 10 feet away, grab your leash, return to your dog, and wait for the judge’s signal to leash your dog up.



Down and Stand Out of Motion:

During heeling, without you stopping your striding forward, your dog must be able to lie down. The same goes for your dog stopping and doing a stand-stay. They must then stay in place as you keep walking, either forward or to circle behind them and back to heel.



Back Up in Heel:

Your dog must be able to follow you in heel as you take a few steps backward.



Sit-Stay as Handler Walks Away:

I wrote about this being easier, in my opinion, than teaching a dog to stay as you walk behind them. However, at this stage in the game, dogs are often overly tempted to break their stay, because they are anticipating you calling them. They say, “Wait, don’t tell me, I know what’s next!” It will lose you points for your dog to come before you call them, so your dog has to know how to restrain themselves, even when they are anticipating the next part of the pattern.



Sit and Down at Distance (from Stand):

Your dog has to be able to follow your position cues while you stand at the next sign. Ideally, they don’t creep forward at all when moving into the position.



Front from Distance:

Your dog should know how to come confidently into front position from a few feet away. Again, they should come in straight and close enough that you can touch you - but they shouldn’t jab you with their snout or knock you over.



Send to Jump from Distance:

In Excellent, your dog must be able to move out and ahead of you to go over the jump when you send them - as opposed to you taking them right up to it. If you taught your jumping foundations properly, this shouldn’t be an issue.



Masters


Send Away:

Your dog must be able to go out about 6 feet to a cone/pylon and sit by it. Your dog can go straight to the cone or go around it, but be aware that some courses may have something blocking the backside of the cone.



Spin at Side:

In this skill, your dog starts in heel position, spins a clockwise or counterclockwise circle (always staying at your left side), and returns to heel position. Counterclockwise means that your dog must move away from you and use the same lateral movements with their back feet as they do for left finishes, left turns, and keeping themselves from forging/crabbing ahead of you in heel. In other words, it’s the same right-pivoting skill that I emphasize greatly in my foundation work.

A clockwise spin is different. The dog actually moves into your space to perform the spin. Unless your dog is small and super flexible, your dog will probably have to arc outwards from you in order to have space to perform a clockwise turn. You may also finesse your own leg out of their way in order to pull this skill off.

There is no sit in heel after the spin; you just walk forward.



Spins at Side with Handler Spinning:

In Masters, your dog also must be able to perform the “spin at side” skill while you spin a 360 left or right turn at the same time. For most teams, this is harder for the handler than the dog.



More Dog Circles Right/Schutzhund Turn Variations:

Your dog must be able to perform 2 “left about turns” in a row, followed by a heeling turn to the left or the right.

Your dog must also be able to circle you to the right (schutzhund turn style) while you make a 360 degree circle to the left. This sign (#321) can trick some dogs, because they pass by heel position once (meaning your left leg and their right shoulder pass one time) before completing the full circle needed for the sign. That’s different from all of the other “dog circles right” signs, where the dog is done with the circle when they return to heel position.


Recall Over Jump:

Your dog must be able to hold a sit-stay 8+ feet away from a jump while you walk to the other side of the jump. Then, they must be able to take the jump that is in between the two of you and come to front position.



Side Steps in Front:

Your dog must be able to maintain front position as you take a couple of side-steps to the left or right. The dog can stand up to side-step but must sit down again as soon as the handler stops.



Back Up + Turn:

This is just another variation of finding heel position, but your dog must be able to do a left or right turn immediately after backing up 3 steps.



Stand from Backing Up:

This is just another variation of standing from heel, but your dog must be able to stand after backing up in heel. You may pause to signal them to stand, so it’s not necessarily an out-of-motion skill.




How to Train Rally


Rockin’ Rally-O is an A-Z Rally curriculum. It can be watched or read and has 10 comprehensive levels of content. (That’s 3 hours and 12 minutes of webinars.) The course covers heelwork from beginning to the finished product, positions and stays, drive and enthusiasm, proofing for competition environments, and more. It was written to be appropriate for dogs with a basic set of skills, those with extensive foundations ready to put the pieces together, as well as teams who have started competing but are looking to up their game. You can purchase the course for a one-time fee, or, sign up for the monthly subscription and receive one-on-one coaching and feedback from the instructor. You'll also have access to a private group forum to ask questions, share progress, celebrate success, and connect with a dedicated community of students. Click here to read more about the Rockin' Rally-O Group.



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