Want to get your dog involved in Rally and Obedience but not sure where to begin? Many people think you need easy access to the outdoors, like a yard, to begin this kind of training with your pup. But one of the great things about sports like Rally and Obedience is you don’t actually need a lot of space (or equipment) to get started. There are many fundamental skills you can teach and practice with your dog at home, even if you live in a tiny apartment.
Building on the success of the AKC Virtual Rally Pilot program in 2020, which allowed people to earn Novice and Intermediate Rally titles virtually, the program has been expanded through 2021, giving you and your dog the chance to earn titles from home. You can learn more about how to get your dog involved and see the different courses here. These virtual titling options have made sports increasingly accessible to dogs and people who might not previously have been able to participate. The AKC will also be offering Virtual Beginner Novice and Virtual Novice Obedience titles along with Rally Advanced and Excellent titles. The regulations are available now, so you can start training at home.
Even if you don’t have a lot of space, you can work with your dog on clean turns, which will help you when you’re able to practice full courses. Left turn, right turn, about right/left turns, about U-turns, 270-degree right/left, 360-degree left/right, etc. can all be worked on in a small space like your living room. If you need a refresher about how to perform any of these signs, the AKC Rally YouTube page is helpful. Make turning practice a game for your dog by doing turns at different paces. If your dog is toy-motivated, you can include toys into the game by doing a turn and then tossing a toy for them to tug or play with.
If you live in a small home, you might not be able to practice big heeling patterns, but if you live in an apartment building, you can use building hallways to your advantage. To start teaching heel, you can lure your dog into position at your left side with a treat and then praise and reward. To start heeling in motion, begin by luring your dog with a treat to show them the position you want and keep their attention to you, and then reward after a couple of steps. As you practice, you can begin to phase out the lure for heeling, and increase the number of steps you ask your dog to heel before rewarding.
While they’re sometimes overlooked in favor of flashier skills like turns and pivots, it’s always beneficial to practice positions like sit, down, and stand and teaching your dog to make smooth transitions between them. It’s a good idea to teach standing at the same time that you teach sit and down—you’ll save yourself time later by making it another position your dog knows from the beginning. Work on them while you’re preparing your dog’s meals, as well as when you’re playing games like fetch and tug. This will not only improve your dog’s fluency with the behavior, but also build value and drive to perform these stationary positions that some dogs find less exciting.
A skill that you can always practice without having a lot of space to maneuver is a stay. Not only does stay have lots of real-world applications, it’s something your dog is going to need to be confident with for both Rally and Obedience. Practice your stays everywhere in your home. Start with very short stays (even just a second to start), and then build up to longer stays. The goal isn’t to see how long your dog can stay for, but rather to build the skill so that by the time you ask your dog for a long stay, they have an understanding of the exercise.
If your dog breaks their stay by getting up or changing position, don’t get upset. Just calmly return your dog to the position, ask them to stay again, then praise/reward and release. If your dog is continually breaking their stay, you’re likely asking for it to be too long or the environment is too distracting. Lower the criteria for your next training session to keep your dog successful and then build back up to the higher distractions and/or longer durations.
When practicing, it’s helpful to return to the stay to praise before releasing dogs. This helps to reinforce that your dog is being rewarded for staying and not the release (which most dogs already find naturally rewarding). Be sure to practice stays with your dog in the sit, down, and stand positions and while you walk around them.
Putting It All Together
Focusing on individual obedience skills and building your dog’s technique and familiarity is far more important than running full courses. Even if you don’t have space to put together a full Rally course, you can create small sequences with just two or three signs.
Pick signs that include skills that you have been practicing, like turns and stays, and set up a small sequence in the small space you have in a hallway or living room. You can print or make your own signs (sticky notes work well in small spaces). Then switch your signs up for your next practice session so you work on all the different skills you’ll see on a course. Even if you aren’t practicing full courses, short sequences will help you and your dog start to develop a flow for working together, which will help prepare you to be competition-ready.
When the weather allows, you can take the skills you and your dog have been practicing at home into bigger and more distracting environments. Remember to build up distractions slowly when you bring your skills into the yard (if you have one), parks, dog-friendly public places like pet stores and hardware stores, as well as dog-training facilities. All this practice will help you and your dog to be ready to put all the skills together and earn Rally and Obedience titles virtually and/or start to compete in person at a local show.