Just as kids learn life skills by playing team sports, dogs can learn everyday manners by practicing canine sports. If your pup struggles to walk politely on leash, it’s Rally Obedience to the rescue!
What exactly is Rally Obedience? Also called Rally-O or simply Rally, this low-impact canine sport involves a series of heelwork tasks, plus lots of sits, downs, stays, and other “obedience” type behaviors. At the higher levels, Rally-O involves elements of Agility and other sports, too. A Rally-O course is set up in a large ring with 12-18 signs, each indicating a task for you an your dog to perform. Your job is to navigate your dog through the course, accomplishing each task that is printed on the sign and then proceeding to the next sign. Signs might ask you to walk in a spiral pattern with your dog, have him do a Sit/Stay while you walk in a circle around him, or do a Sit-Down-Sit series. (Click here to see the signs) It’s easy to practice these exercises at home. If you choose to enter a Rally Trial through WRCL, AKC, or another venue, a judge will score your performance. As you get more and more qualifying scores, you can move up to higher levels.
Is My Dog Ready?
Many owners assume that their dogs aren’t “ready” for Rally or other sports classes until they’ve developed perfect doggie manners. In fact, once your dog has learned just a few of the basics, namely Sit, Down, Stay, and Heel (or loose leash walking), you could consider enrolling him in a Rally Obedience class to hone his skills in a fun, no-pressure way. If there are no classes in your area, books and online courses can guide you.
Since much of Rally relies on loose leash walking, the more you practice Rally exercises, the more refined your dog’s leash walking skills will get. Consequently, the easier it will be to keep your dog’s attention in the presence of squirrels or other sidewalk distractions. Here are a few exercises to get started.
Walk as a Team
This lays the foundation for all loose leash walking skills. Here you will reward your dog whenever he looks up at you. This teaches him that checking in with you is more rewarding than the birds, fire hydrants, and other distractions on your walk.
- As you walk your dog, talk to him cheerfully. Be animated and fun.
- Whenever your dog looks up at you, surprise him with a treat. Reward him from the hand that is closest to the dog. (If he is on your right side, reward from your right hand.) Hold the treat near your leg, so he has to get roughly into heel position to eat it.
- Practice this in short intervals on your walk, with your dog on both left and right sides.
In the higher levels of Rally-O, courses are done with the dog off-leash. It’s essential to teach your pooch to pay attention to you, even without the leash on.
Walking in a straight line is boring! Take unexpected turns and teach your dog to turn with you on cue. You can turn 90, 180, 270, or 360 degrees to either the left or right. The size of your circle should be roughly the diameter of a hula hoop. One hint here: when your dog is to the inside of the turn, he will have to slow down significantly to stay in line with you, but when he is to the outside of the turn, he’ll need to speed up.
- Have a treat hidden in your left hand, with your dog also on your left.
- Say “this way!” and turn 90 degrees to the right. As you turn, hold your left hand (with the treat) a little ahead of you, so your dog hurries up to follow the treat.
- At the end of he turn, reward your dog with the treat in heel position.
Repeat the same exercise with 90 degree left turns. In this case, the dog is to the inside of the turn, so you will draw your treat hand a little behind you as you turn. This slows your dog down through the turn. Reward at the end of the turn. Once your dog is comfortable with 90 degree turns, try 180 degree and higher turns.
Rally Obedience not only teaches your dog essential leash walking skills, but also engages his mind and builds clear lines of communication between you. What do you have to lose?
Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer at Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY, and author of the training book, “BKLN Manners.” She draws upon her experience as an educator and dog trainer to apply positive training techniques to a challenging urban environment. Kate is a rescue advocate drawn to special-needs dogs and currently has two Chihuahua mixes, Batman and Beans.