by Ruth I. Kellogg

Foundations or basic skills that can be built upon are needed in order to have a comprehensive learning pattern for whatever skill that is being worked upon. Some handlers may argue that a basis in formal CKC/AKC novice obedience should stand as the foundation for Rally-O competition, but I’m suggesting that starting a young dog with specific foundation skills will not only prepare him for Rally-O but also will provide a strong foundation for CKC/AKC obedience.

Early foundations

At an early age, I introduce my pups to the concept of clicker training. With this easy to use tool, pups as young as 7 or 8 weeks can easily learn the absolute foundations of sit, down, stand, and come when called. During this process, the pups are lured into the various positions, hear the click, and then receive a yummy treat. It takes few repetitions before the pups are starting to offer or do the behavior on their own. I also introduce the target stick at an early age. I’ve found it to be a useful tool to have in the "handler’s toolbox" of ideas that can accessed if needed to help the dog understand a future lesson.
The final "early foundation" that I teach is the "watch me" or basic attention work. It is next to impossible to try to teach anything to an inattentive student! All of these early foundations can be incorporated when training specifically for different events (e.g. conformation showing or agility) and not just for obedience competitions.

Novice skill foundations

In the Novice Rally level, the dog and handler are required to do more than just right, left, and about turns. There are actually 29 different "signs" or tasks at the Novice level. In addition to the changes of pace, right, left, and about turns seen in CKC/AKC obedience, Rally Novice has pivots, 360 degree turns (either direction), 270 degree turns (either direction), changes of body position at a halt (eg. sit-down-sit), changes of handler position (eg. sit-handler walks around dog), moving side steps to the right, call front with dog finishing in either direction, call front with the dog moving to handler’s side in specified direction with no sit at heel but immediately moving forward, and spiral sequences. As each trial judge determines what course the dogs will run, not all 29 signs will be used. Each dog and handler team is allowed a maximum of 3 to 4 minutes (at the judge’s discretion) to do the entire pattern. If there is a tie in the scoring, the fastest team will win. Judges also deduct points for sloppy heeling, poor sits, poor downs, and poor fronts. With this in mind, it is advantageous to have the foundations solid before working on speed!

The two most important skills that must be developed are attention work and a thorough understanding of the correct positions that the dog must be in while in heel position or in front of the handler. As the exercises/patterns in Rally are always changing, it never becomes boring for dog or handler. An attentive dog is a successful one. With the pattern being a maximum of 4 minutes to run through, it is certainly within the capability of any dog to maintain attention for that short period of time! This is particularly easy for the dog to do if he receives lots of positive reinforcement throughout – which is encouraged in Rally. If the dog has a thorough understanding of what positions he is to be in when cued "heel" for example, the more challenging turns (such as the 270 degree turn to the left) will not be a huge obstacle for the dog to overcome. Sloppy heeling, in addition to costing points, will also just waste time.

When I start a young dog in his more "formal" training sessions, I begin with early puppy exercises with the clicker. The youngster does many "doggy push-ups" as Dr. Ian Dunbar calls the exercises of sit-down-stand (and then mixed up in order). While the pup has certainly learned these body positions, I now shape for quicker responses. The early attention work is also re-visited. At this stage, I shape for longer and longer periods of direct eye contact. The target stick is brought out and the dog is asked to move in varying directions. Only when these foundations are solid (and it may only take a session or two to refresh these), do I start to work on the other foundations.

A Training attitude

My attitude with working with my dogs is a combination of "let’s have fun" with self-discipline (on my part) to not accept anything less than what the dog is capable of doing. In the beginning of learning a new skill/command, the criteria for earning the click/treat is very loose. For example, when cued to heel, the dog may sit crookedly and at a short distance away from my side. With successive shaping, the criterion is tightened slowly. When the dog knows the correct behavior, I will not accept anything other than what he is expected to do. For example, when he knows where and how to sit when cued "heel," I will not accept crooked, far-away or otherwise sloppy sits. If I do not exercise my own self-discipline and relax the criteria once, it happens more frequently until the ideal behavior or skill has been lost and the teaching has been compromised.

I will emphasize that using positive operant conditioning (specifically with the click/treat method) is highly successful with intelligent dogs such as Malamutes. The potentially dry, boring, and unpleasant "training" becomes, in the dog’s mind, a big game of "how can I make her make that noise so I can get rewarded?" For the mercenary Malamute, this is a game they never seem to tire of! I will also emphasize that with any skills taught using these positive operant conditioning methods, the reinforcement schedule begins as a constant (every time) in the learning phase to a variable reinforcement schedule when the behavior is learned. It has been shown that the behavior is actually strengthened with variable reinforcement schedules. The reinforcements don’t always have to be food treats. I’ve found that as the dogs begin to discover the joy of working, the food becomes less important to them and their reinforcement becomes a combination of hearing the click and the verbal praise.

Position Play

This is the name for a game that I use with my dogs to teach the necessary foundation of where to be when hearing the cue words "heel" or "front" and how to get there. Since I’ve changed the order of how I teach exercises/skills to my dogs and have concentrated on position play before taking more than two steps "at heel" with my dogs, I’ve noticed a huge difference in the attention of the dogs, the joy in their furry faces, and when we do take more than 2 steps "at heel," the heeling is considerably better.

The first cue that I work with is "heel." I want him to know exactly where he is to sit when I’m standing still. Ultimately, this will easily translate to the position when moving. Using whatever works with the individual dog (eg. target stick, lure, body language), I will shape the sit to the position that I want. In the early learning phase, I’ve found that many of the dogs will assume the position, get their reward, and then move away. Then the cue is repeated. This continues (in however many teaching sessions required) until the dog understands that heel also means stay there but without the handler saying the "stay" word. At this point, the dog’s attention is usually improving and a "watch me" command immediately results in eye contact. I keep working at this one thing until it is solid before I move. The first direction that I usually do is turn slightly to the right. The "heel" command is cued, dog executes it correctly, and is rewarded. I’ll then move one step ahead, cue the "heel," and the dog executes it correctly. Then (and not necessarily in the same training session), I’ll get creative and move in a variety of directions and positions, cueing "heel" and staying still waiting for the dog to move to the correct position. I will point out that when you do creative moves such as moving ahead and turning to the left, the dog may be sloppy in the straight sit. It is very important not to accept anything but what you have already shaped for. This is the one thing that you are working on – a straight sit in heel position. It is not difficult for the dog to do – but they will test to see if you really want it each time! Expect perfection and you’ll get it!

The next cue that I work with is "front." This cue means that the dog is sitting squarely in front of the handler – toes to toes. Depending on the dog, I may be working on teaching this cue in the same session as working on the "heel" command. Again, using whatever works with the individual dog, encourage the dog to sit in front. As with the heel cue, the behavior is shaped into what is desired. I personally do not use any gimmicks (boards, chutes etc.) while teaching this as I want the dog to use his brain! In the beginning of teaching the front, I’ll often step backwards and cue the "front." When this behavior is becoming solidified, I’ll keep the dog guessing and not anticipating cues by mixing up "heel" and "front." In the beginning, body language and/or luring may be needed to help the dog be successful. If I use lures or the target stick to move the dog from the front to the heel position, I’ll teach the "swing" or finish to the handler’s left side first. This seems to be the easiest for most dogs to figure out quickly.

The third cue to teach in the position play is "around." This is the cue for the dog going to heel position by passing by the handler’s right side. I’ve had good success in using the lure method (not pulling the dog around) to teach this. Like the other new cues, the around is shaped with the use of the click and treat. When the dog understands "around" means the movement behind the handler and a sit in heel position, then it’ll be added to the other two cues into the position play. I’ll frequently cue an "around" when the dog is sitting in heel position. To do this, he must circle around me and return to the heel position.

The next foundation to teach is "back." I’ve found that teaching the dog to "back" on cue is easiest when the dog is standing facing me. Using whatever works for the individual dog, I’ll use a combination of body language, hand signals, and voice command to have the dog take one step backwards. One step is rewarded with the click and treat. Then the behavior is slowly shaped until the dog is moving backwards in a two beat diagonal gait and in a straight line. Add this to a "come forward" to stand in front command and the dog can then go forwards and backwards in a short space. (This skill is very useful in conformation work – particularly in large classes to keep the dog’s attention and attitude positive.) When the dog understands the concept of "back" in front of the handler, it is then transferred to when the dog is in heel position. Again, this is shaped slowly from one step backwards at a time. Positioning the dog beside a wall is useful to help him learn how to back in a straight line. When the dog understands back, he will back either facing or in heel position for as many steps as the handler cues and in a perfectly straight line.

Putting it together

With the dog understanding the various positions and cues that have been solidified in the early foundation building aspect of his education, the handler can then start working on the various moves that incorporate multiple skills. In Rally-O, each trial can be unique with a variety of signs/exercises chosen from the large number of exercises available at each level. Many of these exercises must be done within a two foot vicinity of the sign. Small and medium dogs can easily make wider circles and turns and be within the prescribed area. Large dogs and handlers must learn new movements in order to stay within the prescribed areas.

For the dog who has a firm foundation in the basic moves and positions as previously described, putting together the various skills to smoothly execute a 270 degree turn to the left, for instance, is extremely possible. Even the less challenging skills such as "halt-down-sit" are enhanced when the dog is paying attention and has snappy responses to body position changes. Combining moving forward in a heel position to execute the "call front, finish left (or right depending on the sign)" is just a variation of position play. Tight 360 degree circles to the right or 90 degree pivot to the right are also just an extension of position play.

The tight turns to the left (360 degree circle, 270 degree turn, and 90 degree pivot) are usually new skills for the handler/dog team to master. Turns to the right have the handler as the pivot point that the dog moves around. These are easy for both to understand and execute. However, the turns to the left have the dog in the pivot position and are not quite as easy to correctly execute within a 2 foot radius. I find it very useful to break down a new skill or exercise into the smallest possible units, teach the units, and then chain them together to the complete exercise. The smallest unit for these new skills/movements is the 90 degree pivot; the 360 degree circle is 4 pivots chained together and the 270 degree turn is 3 pivots chained together. Here is where the work at establishing a clear understanding of the correct heel position pays off. I first start teaching the 90 degree pivot to the left with a small movement to my left cueing "heel." The dog shifts his position and earns a click/treat reward. At the beginning, I’m asking the dog to just shift and sit. As the dog’s understanding increases, then I’ll continue my movement to the left, again giving verbal encouragement to remain in heel position until slowly the pivot is shaped. When the dog understands, when I cue "heel" and do a complete 90 degree pivot to the left , he is also moving keeping his body parallel to mine. At the same time he is also backing up in an arc! To help the dog understand this important step, I often cue "heel back" when I move. As he has learned this cue in the foundation for back, it is easy for him to comprehend what is asked. Then I’ll start chaining the pivots together; first two pivots, then three, then four pivots. When these turns are executed smoothly, the handler turns to the left at the same time as the dog is backing up in a circle. The pivot point is usually in the shoulder area of the dog while the dog’s body remains in correct heel position.

While it does seem like the work for Rally-O is very precision orientated, if these skills are approached as a "fun games" then the precise work becomes enjoyable as opposed to other methods which incorporate drilling, repetition, and negative reinforcement. What adds to the fun of the Rally for both dog and handler is that there can be immediate communication and positive reinforcement throughout the "runs." Although a smart working team will be rewarded with qualifying scores and possible class placements, the focus of Rally-O is the positive attitudes and relationship between the dog and handler. When the handler teaches the foundations for Rally-O positively, the relationship between the dog and handler becomes a palpable joyful one. This can only increase the enjoyment when executing a course smoothly with a canine partner who is attentive, precise, and, most importantly, a joy-filled Happy Dog!

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