While Rally is a great sport for newbies (click here to learn why), that doesn’t mean that earning Rally titles is an effortless affair. It’s not uncommon to see a dog at a Rally trial lagging behind their owner to look around at the crowd, or stopping and sniffing the ground. This is usually not because the dog has no clue what it means that their handler is saying, “Heel! C’mon, Fluffy! Heel!” Usually, the cause of poor performance is one (or more!) of these mistakes:
Mistake #1: The dog is not prepared for the lack of reward and/or correction.
Any AKC Rally or Obedience trial is filled with people “getting their dog warmed up” by nagging them over and over with collar pops and verbal corrections and/or having the dog “heel” with cheese in front of their nose the entire time. I have watched many people do this song and dance and then walk directly into the ring. This is bad! You do not know if your dog is ready to perform if you didn’t give them a chance to function independently before stepping into the ring. Rally does allow you to prompt your dog, but you are not allowed to pretend to wave food at them, and you are not allowed to pop their collar.
Furthermore, if you perform a hand-holding warm-up routine of continuous corrections and lures enough times, your dog will recognize that the cookies or the corrections turn off as soon as you step into the ring. That contrast is stark. If they were relying on those cookies or corrections to perform, they will become what is called “ring-wise.” A ring-wise dog will recognize the Rally ring as a place to turn off/check out at best, and a place of stress and confusion at worst.
If you are interested in learning more about warm-up routines, I talk about them thoroughly in my Rockin’ Rally-O course. However, warm-up routines are not the only place that corrections and/or rewards are relevant to trialing.
Your dog should be acclimated to working inside the ring for a reward that is either:
Known to be outside the ring, and the dog knows that they must do their Rally work in the ring in order to be allowed to run back out and collect their reward. OR
Trusted to be procured seemingly out of thin air - such as hidden in the owner’s clothes, hidden behind a prop and ran to unexpectedly, etc.
I teach my students to train Option 1, as I tend to prefer very organized and structured plans. The element of surprise involved in Option 2 adds extra spark to some teams’ performances and it works for many people. However, Option 2 is also more likely to go wrong and confuse some dogs. So experiment with care.
For full trial performances, it is advisable to make your reward a “jackpot” reward. This is going to be different for every individual dog. It may be a certain type of treat, like stinky wet food. It may be a toy. It may involve chasing and playing with the handler. You should figure out what your dog’s favorite rewards are well before you trial.
Whatever your routine is, you want to make sure that your dog is not thrown off by the fact that you’re not wearing a treat pouch - or worse, that she cannot smell cookies in your hand.
Mistake #2: The dog’s skills are not yet up to par.
This is somewhat related to Mistake #1, in that if you feel the need to constantly give your dog feedback, the skill is probably not “fully trained.” That means if your rally run sounds like this:
“Get in, get in close, there you go, ok look over here over here look look look, yes THAT way yes cookie, no, no sit, yes, there you go, look look look!”
You probably have some more training to do before I would give you the green light to trial.
A Rally course is 10-20 signs. How long running a course will take depends on how fast you and your dog are, but an entire course takes at least a couple of minutes. I recommend ensuring that your dog is fluent at a longer and harder course than what you will do at a trial, before you compete with them. I am not saying to work your dog into the ground and burn them out before trialing, but you should not feel like performing a full course is a stretch for their capabilities.
Your dog will also become “ring wise” if they associate competing in a ring with doing a course that is harder than what they’re used to. You don’t want your dog to cross the ring gates and think, “Oh god, not this again!” Instead, you want to finish your course and have your dog running to their reward thinking, “That was it? Easy peasy!”
Mistake #3: The dog is thrown off by the “trial picture.”
Dogs are contextual creatures. Some dogs more than others are very sensitive to pattern changes - in life and in training.
If all of your training so far has looked like this:
Dog watches you prepare treats in your treat pouch.
Dog follows you off-leash into your empty backyard.
You train for 10 minutes.
You finish and go back inside.
Your dog is going to be very thrown off if you go to trial and:
Your dog sits in the car for 2 hours.
You walk your dog around outside, attempting to get them to potty.
You have them crated at the trial site for 30 minutes.
You take them out and attempt to warm them up on-leash.
You keep them on-leash as you wait your turn for 30 more minutes.
You walk into the ring and hand the stewardess your leash.
You greet the judge.
You run your Rally course.
Many people don’t appreciate how different those experiences are for their dogs and how that affects their dog’s performance.
Unless you have access to an obedience training club, you may have to go out of your way to “play pretend” and set things up to look more like a trial. Ask a friend to “play judge” for you. Set up fake ring gates out of chairs and blankets.
Another thing you can do in order to bridge context or “pictures” for your dog is to religiously use your warm-up routine, so that it functions as a start button in new places. I go over more trial preparation tips in my Rockin' Rally-O Group.
Mistake #4: The dog is not prepared for the distractions of a trial environment.
This is related to Mistake #3 but deserves its own section. Many people do the majority of their training in a “sterile” environment, meaning that nothing else is going on that is competing for their dog’s attention. A sterile environment is perfect for training new skills—especially precision-based skills—such as what we train for competition obedience and Rally. When your dog is learning something new, you want them to be able to devote all of their attention to figuring out that new task. After they understand the new skill, “proofing” your dog’s skills so that they can perform them under a variety of distractions is a crucial part of being trial-ready.
For Rally, you’ll want to focus a lot on heelwork under distraction. If your foundations were built properly, heelwork is inherently highly attentive. That makes adding distraction pretty straight-forward, because the criteria is very black and white: The dog is either focused on the handler and heeling in the correct position, or they’re not. If your foundations were done poorly - for example, with the dog often looking away or lagging behind in their heel - then adding distraction can get hairy. (“Is this amount of glancing permissible, or no?”) If you just got started in Rally, I highly encourage you to take your time building up your heel to look exactly how you want it to before you add distraction.
The key to adding distraction is to introduce just enough that your dog is aware that something is going on, but they are still able to commit and recommit again to their “job.” If your dog is repeatedly failing, then you have introduced too much distraction too quickly. Remember that distance is your best friend. This is especially true when working with organic distractions in the real world, such as working next to a dog park, where you’re not exactly going to ask everyone to get their dogs to calm down because your own dog just got distracted.
You want to prepare your dog for the distractions that will be at a trial. People and other dogs are the major, obvious distractions in a trial setting, but you also want to get creative and prepare your dog for the unexpected.
Mistake #5: The handler is too nervous.
“Ring nerves” are just a part of the game for some people, but there are certain things that you can do to make them better. If you have a sensitive dog that is very attuned to your emotions, you better do your best to get your nerves under control, for your dog’s sake.
Know what you’re in for. Go to trials without your dog and watch. Watch videos of trials online. Talk to seasoned Rally competitors - in person or online. Join Facebook groups. Join my Rockin' Rally-O Group!
Know your Rally signs. Walk Rally courses without your dog to practice your own footwork. Rehearse what you’ll say to your dog and how you’ll take your leash off.
Try calming techniques such as mindful breathing and visualizing your (awesome) performance. You may have come up with a warm-up routine for your dog, but did you think of a warm-up routine for yourself? Decide what you’ll do to keep yourself grounded and figure out when is probably the best time to do it - when you’re in your car, while you’re walking around the trial site, right before you go in the ring...
Remember, this is your fun hobby. Love your dog first and the sport second. Dog training is about the journey and not the destination, and no matter what happens out there, you still have your furry best friend.
Competing in Rally is not simply a matter of teaching heel, front, sit, and down. If you are new to dog sports, you are going to make mistakes. That’s how you learn! But I hope that this article helps you avoid some of the errors that I have both seen and made myself. If you’re interested in learning more, check out my Rockin’ Rally-O Group!
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.