Giving rally obedience a go
Often called ‘Rally O', or just rally, it's a fun, user-friendly version of obedience that absolutely everyone can take part in. It's a combination of traditional obedience exercises with agility-style numbered courses.
You don't need a particular breed of dog to take part in rally - all sizes, ages, abilities, and disabilities can enjoy it - and that goes for the handlers too. One of the best things about this activity is how few rules and regulations there are. It is simply a sport that's about having fun with your dog while training him at the same time.
To begin with, your dog needs to know some basic obedience. He must know sit, down, stay, and recall commands, although they certainly don't need to be perfect. He must also be friendly, without aggression issues. Dogs can start training at any age, but they must be six months old before they can compete.
In a rally competition the dog and handler make up a team. On the judge's command the team works its way through a sequence of exercises called stations. The stations are commands mounted on stands, and as handler and dog approach the station the handler reads the command and instructs the dog accordingly. For example, at a ‘Down, walk around' station, you need to put your dog in a down/stay and walk around him. To start with, the stations can look a little complicated, but with practice the simpler ones become second nature - you soon recognise, for instance, that a red circle is always a ‘halt' instruction.
The instructions get harder as the teams progress through the levels. Newcomers start at level 1, which is performed on the lead, and you can choose to remain at this level if you wish. Level 2 is off-lead and a little more tricky, and finally for those wanting a real challenge there is level 3, which is also off the lead. This level includes some of the more difficult exercises, such as the bonus exercise ‘Retrieve, finish right', where the dog is sent to retrieve an object previously hidden from him, return it to his handler, and then finish sitting at her side.
The stations are all colour-coded. A green sign denotes level 1, a blue means level 2, and a yellow is for level 3. Within any one course you may have signs of different levels; in a level 3 course there will be a mixture of signs from each level, and the colour coding quickly tells the handler what degree of difficulty to expect.
A course will have between 15 – 25 stations, depending on the level. Teams start the course with 200 points and deductions are made for any errors, such as a dog failing to go down in a down/stay. The judge designs the course, and also decides on any bonus stations, which can be performed for extra points if the competitor so wishes. But, be warned, it is possible to lose points at bonus stations, as well as gain them! Obviously, the winner is the team with the most points at the end.
During the course the dog is expected to work in a happy, willing manner, on a loose lead, and in a heel position that is more relaxed than for traditional obedience. The rough guide is that the dog's head should remain within reach of the handler's fingers (or at least theoretically so, if he is a small dog!).
Rally began in the USA, where it was developed by renowned dog trainer Charles ‘Bud' Kramer in 1998. It really took off in 2002, and now there are believed to be around 100,000 active participants, with competitions run both by the American Kennel Club and the US Association of Pet Dog Trainers. However, in Britain rally remains relatively unknown - but Pam and co-promoter Becky Skelhon aim to change all that.
Pam has a varied background as a dog behaviourist, including a long career training and working with drug detector dogs for HM Customs, training Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, and working as the behaviourist for Wood Green Animal Shelters. She founded her company Talking Dogs in 2004. Becky, previously a volunteer at Wood Green, has joined Pam to help set up Talking Dogs Rally. She will help with the training and also man the office to ensure there is a point of contact for anyone interested in the sport.
Pam has been running rally classes, under the name Clever Canines, for the past two years, which has enabled her and Becky to try out and refine the stations. These have all been taken from the US sport, but have been simplified, and now include full instructions on how to perform them on the back.
To learn more about Rally, visit www.talkingdogsrally.co.uk or call 01487 820040.