Ready to Rally?

Alberta accepts her ribbons after earning her Rally Excellent title
Alberta accepts her ribbons after earning her Rally Excellent title. Deni and Alberta are the first guide dog team to earn an Excellent title. They have already two of ten needed “legs” toward their Rally Advanced Excellent title. 

I’ve watched both formal Obedience competitions and Rally-O (or Rally Obedience) competitions, and the difference is as stark as the difference between traditional training and cognitive education.
Both have the same goal: demonstrating a dog’s ability and willingness to follow specific commands when cued by the handler. They use similar sets of commands. Competitors are scored based on the preciseness of the dog’s response, the accuracy in completing the set of commands presented, and the time it takes to accomplish each task. Above the novice level, dogs compete off-lead. Dog-and-handler teams can earn titles in both kinds of competition.
That’s about where the similarity ends.
Rally is variable. The course is different in every round. The judge sets up the course within an hour of the competition; which exercises are included and in what order is a surprise for handlers and dogs. Formal obedience competitions, on the other hand, follow a set pattern of exercises at every level of competition. Experienced dogs and handlers could run the pattern in their sleep.
While competing, Rally handlers talk to, praise, and encourage their dogs. In the lower levels, the handler can use targeting and clapping or even touch the dog! Formal Obedience handlers cannot interact with their dogs other than to issue each cue, verbally or through hand signal, once.
To my (very biased) way of thinking, Obedience competition is all about showing the dog who’s boss (hint: it’s not the dog). Rally is about relationship and having fun. I strongly favor anything that builds relationship between dogs and their humans. Rally acknowledges the uniqueness of how each handler and dog interact as a team. Rally allows each team to excel in its own way.
The differences between Rally and Obedience underscore the differences in traditional vs. cognitive approaches to teaching dogs. If all you care about is getting an instant, precise response to a command, traditional obedience will do it for you. But that approach limits what you can accomplish with your dog and defines your relationship inside very narrow parameters.
Expecting precise, predetermined, responses to every cue essentially forbids your dog from thinking. There is a single correct response to each cue. Any other response results in punishment or lack of reward. The dog is not allowed to think about how to respond. Nor can the dog think of a better way to respond. When a dog schooled in this way confronts a situation that is slightly different from the training scenario, that dog will not know what to do. If the precise, rehearsed response is not possible or ineffective, the dog faces certain failure.
On the other hand, a dog who is taught with a cognitive approach will be able to figure out how to apply his or her learning in a variety of situations.
Here’s an example. Let’s say there are two dogs who have been taught to retrieve as part of their education. The obedience trainer, focused on the next competition, polishes his dog’s retrieve. The dog can flawlessly follow instructions to watch where the dumbbell was thrown over a jump, go out over the jump (even if a bad throw makes this the least efficient way of reaching the dumbbell), and bring it back, jumping over an obstacle on the way back. Perfect every time.
The cognitive trainer also teaches retrieve, but in a more jumbled way. Sometimes the dog retrieves a dumbbell. Sometimes it is the newspaper on the front porch. As training progresses, a set of keys, a cellphone, a pair of glasses, a spoon, a pen, a bottle of water are added. Sometimes the dog can see the item; sometimes the dog must search for it. Sometimes, it is an item that the handler has dropped. Sometimes it is the pair of slippers in the other room. The dog trained cognitively to retrieve has learned to follow her handler’s point, gaze or verbal cue for the item that needs to be retrieved.
Which of these dogs is more likely to fetch your keys if you drop them and they bounce, landing under your car? Which will find your cellphone when you fall and need help?
The dog who is trained only to produce a rote response will freeze when the dumbbell is not where he expects it to be or the judge produces a leather dumbbell when he has only practiced with a wooden one. This dog knows the retrieve as a patterned set of responses: sit, stay, go out, come back, sit in front holding the dumbbell, release, finish to a heel position.
This is different from understanding the reason behind a retrieve.
The dog who is trained to think about the retrieve as a practical skill, figure out the goal, and find a solution — the cognitive dog — will size up the situation and, chances are, do what needs to be done, even when it is not expected. I know more than one dog who has taught himself an “automatic retrieve,” picking up anything the handler drops, as a result of this style of retrieve training. Dogs who are allowed to freelance by adding variations to the task based on understanding the goal, will do so. This can come in handy when the handler unknowingly drops important material — like money.
Cognitive education enhances communication between dog and humans.

3 thoughts on “Ready to Rally?

  1. While your assessment of Obedience and Rally similarities is accurate, your assessment of the differences is incorrect on some points (there are actually several exercise orders and heeling patterns in upper level Obedience) and a different perspective (but not “wrong”) in other ways.

    Rally is meant to be a bridge between basic “manners” training and formal Obedience. The ability to talk, clap, etc is not so teams can express their own style – it is because the sport is allowing for both handler and dog to be at an intermediate level where the tasks cannot be performed without help. Ignoring the power aspect, think of a supervisor and employee – when the employee is fully trained, they don’t need a supervisor around coaching them and cheering them along because they are fully equipped to do the job. The supervisor can give directions and trust the job will be done.

    Now to the “alpha/boss” portion of your comments – I have only read a couple of your posts, but your comments make me think you need to meet some new Obedience trainers! Obedience was originally established to demonstrate the intelligence and working ability of dogs (check out the Obedience history page on AKC to see the full story). Some popular training methods in recent history may have been based on being “Alpha” but it isn’t fair to paint an entire sport or group of trainers with the same brush. Many of the people I know focus on the partnership with their dogs, allowing their dog to problem solve, and building the drive and enthusiasm for the tasks. I recently spent a weekend with one trainer who’s focus was setting the dog up so that inside the ring was as fun and rewarding as training sessions outside of it.

    I hope you’ll check out my blog. I am still fairly new to Obedience, but much of what I write is about my relationship with my dogs and how we work together.

    I look forward to reading more of the thoughts from you and your dogs!


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