Do you enjoy teaching your dog commands and tricks? Then the sport of AKC Rally might be for you. In Rally, a dog and his handler move together through a course made up of 10-20 signs. Each sign displays a skill to perform such as turns or behaviors like sit, down, or stay. The dog and handler work together and should show a sense of teamwork and enthusiasm throughout the course.
The performance is timed, but it’s not about being fast, it’s about accuracy, control, and teamwork. And as the class levels progress, so does the difficulty and therefore the training required. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to foster good manners in your dog. And best of all, you can easily train at home with little equipment required.
What Should Your Dog Know Before Starting Rally?
Because Rally is based on beginner obedience skills, your dog should know the basics before entering the sport. Pamela Manaton, Director of Obedience, Rally & Tracking for the American Kennel Club suggests preparing your dog to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test as a prerequisite for Rally. “CGC is part of the AKC Family Dog Program, and it provides a great foundation for getting started in dog sports. There are 10 skills dogs must be able to perform for the CGC test. However, a dog that can walk on a leash, sit, down, and stay will be very successful in training for AKC Rally.”
Other helpful skills include your dog being comfortable around other dogs and people as well as coming when called. Although none of these skills must be perfect, they will help you get more out of training for Rally. And whether you teach your dog these basic manners at home or in class with a trainer, be sure to reward your dog for the behaviors you want him to repeat. Positive reinforcement-based training methods are very effective for teaching obedience, and even better, they create a dog who loves to learn. That enthusiasm will go a long way on the rally course.
According to Manaton, the key to training is to be consistent and fair. She also suggests keeping your training sessions short and interesting. “During the lessons, always begin with something easy that they may already know and move to something that is a little more challenging. Then finish with something that the dog already knows to make the lesson end on a positive note.”
What is Your First Step in Getting Involved in Rally?
Once your dog is ready with the basic skills, it’s time to start some rally-specific training. You might consider finding a rally class through a local training club. That will give you the benefit of professional guidance. Before signing up, ask if you can observe a class to see if the trainer’s style suits you. You might also want to observe a rally event or two to get a feel for how things work during the heat of competition.
AKC Rally is open to all AKC-recognized breeds and Foundation Stock Service breeds, dogs with an AKC PAL (Purebred Alternative Listing) as well as mixed breeds that have an AKC Canine Partners number. So as long as your dog has an AKC number, he can compete when you feel you’re both ready. In addition, AKC Rally is open to people of all ages so you can get the whole family involved if you wish. Although at most trials Juniors compete alongside adults, there is currently no minimum age requirement for people participating in AKC Companion Events like Rally.
How Can You Prepare for Rally at Home?
Manaton believes that owners can prepare dogs for Rally at home. She says, “To begin, the owner should be familiar with how to perform the Novice level signs, such as ‘Right Turn,’ ‘Left Turn,’ ‘Halt – Sit,’ ‘About Turn Right,’ etc. There are 42 signs that may be used at the Rally Novice level.”
Manaton says it’s important to become familiar with the requirements of each sign before teaching the dog that skill. And although learning 42 signs might seem overwhelming, the AKC has video files for every rally sign to help you through. Each video will show you how to perform that sign correctly. Manaton adds, “In addition to the videos, a copy of the AKC Rally Regulations will provide all the information necessary to learn the requirements of each sign.”
You can even create a complete mock Rally course at home. All you need are the signs and pylons. All of the AKC Rally signs can be downloaded and then printed. And pylons can be found in the sporting goods section of many stores. Some rally courses require up to 12 pylons, so it’s a good idea to purchase that many.
By the time you and your dog reach the Advanced level of AKC Rally, dogs should be able to work off-leash and there is at least one jump per course. There are three styles of jumps used in the sport and although you can purchase them, you can also build your own at home. Complete instructions for do-it-yourself jumps start on page 39 of the AKC Rally Regulations book.
How Can You Make Rally Training Easier?
Here are a few tips that will help make your rally training easier. First, Rally is done with the dog at the handler’s left side. So, work on your dog’s heeling skills and be sure he understands that your left side is a great place to be. Deliver treats while he’s in that position rather than letting him get in front of you to get his reward.
Second, you aren’t allowed to touch your dog in Rally. So when teaching new behaviors, resist physically manipulating your dog and instead use shaping (building a behavior using baby steps) or lure and reward training. This will prevent your dog from becoming reliant on your touch as a cue to perform a behavior. As your dog begins to understand the behavior, slowly reduce the rewards until you are only using praise!
Finally, at lower levels of competition, handlers can clap their hands and pat their legs to encourage their dog. However, as the levels increase, only praise, verbal cues, and hand signals are allowed. Therefore, you need your dog to become more confident in his skills and more focused on you as the difficulty increases. Manaton suggests building your dog’s attention. “By continuing to keep the dog’s attention during the course, it will help to keep the dog engaged with the handler and not looking around at anything going on outside of the course.” Consider training your dog to keep his eyes on you regardless of surrounding distractions.
How Can You Teach Your Dog to Jump?
Manaton offers some tips for jump training. “To begin, the handler can keep the dog on the leash and lay the jump bar or board on the ground between the uprights that would normally hold the bar/board and walk the dog over it. Do this several times in a row with lots of praise for the dog to feel good about doing the skill.” When it’s time to place the jump on the uprights, make sure it’s just barely off the ground and then walk your dog over some more, again using lots of praise.
“Never force or drag the dog over the jump, instead use positive reinforcement by using a praising voice and by clapping your hands or patting your legs,” says Manaton. “When the dog consistently performs the skill correctly moving over the jump well with you, then you can ask him to sit on one side of the jump (again on the ground) and then step over the jump and turn and face the dog. Then ask the dog to move toward you as you step backward leading him. Again, use lots of praise.”
As with any new skill, increase the challenge slowly. And every time you add a new complication, such as walking away from the jump, make things easier to set your dog up for success. For example, when you ask your dog to jump while you stand a distance away, go back to laying the bar on the ground. Manaton says that when the dog is performing the jump with the handler, the handler can then remove the leash and go back to the basics until the dog is consistently performing the jump on his own.
What Are the Benefits of Participating in Rally?
There are many benefits to participating in AKC Rally such as a better-behaved dog, the chance to meet like-minded people, and great exercise, along with the sheer fun of working and training with your dog. “You’ll enhance your bond with your dog, and dogs with basic obedience training are a joy to live with – interacting well with other people and dogs and responding well to household routines,” says Manaton. “The dog will be fun to take on walks or to the veterinarian or grooming appointments because they will be so well behaved.”
You don’t have to be at the Master level either to benefit. Manaton says even the beginner skills are practical in everyday life. And although AKC Rally was designed for the traditional pet owner, Manaton says it can still be very challenging for those who enjoy higher levels of competition. “A stronger bond will be built between the handler and dog and as they become a ‘team,’ the handler will be amazed at how their dog will be able to read their body language and understand immediately what he is being asked to do without words.”
Hear from the 2019 AKC Rally National Champion.