What is "real" Obedience? Discussing rally, ring craft and doggy manners.

Recently, a friend told an older dog handler that she wanted to start her trialling "career" with Rally O. The older handler snorted. "If you're going to trial, why don't you do *real* obedience?" 

 Sit and drop - basic building blocks of all forms of obedience. 

Sit and drop - basic building blocks of all forms of obedience. 

Another friend with a range of obedience titles on at least three dogs had a conversation with a lady at the shops about obedience. The lady told my friend that her own dog "was obedient, because he sits and waits for his breakfast bowl."

When we talk about obedience, we all have different perspectives. There's obedience, Obedience, and Rally Obedience. Then there's Freestyle, Dancing with Dogs, Jumping, Agility and dozens of other dog sports. Trying to compare these things is very challenging.

My friend with several titles does a really simple warm up when she gets her dogs out of the car to start work. She asks the dog to heel and they play a little game where they step backwards and forwards a couple of paces in various directions. It doesn't look like much to most people, but I'm aware that there is years and years of experience and training even in such a simple game. The dog is engaged, the team moves smoothly together, the handler's posture, footwork and hand signals are all finely tuned. The dog understands what it is being asked to do, but the routine is random, so the dog hasn't memorised it, but must look for direction. The handler uses voice and rewards to mark the behaviours as correct - this alone is an incredibly important and challenging strategy to develop. More experienced people than me watch my friend and critique her hand signals and footwork, suggest more or less talking - it's never perfect. We're humans, working with dogs - two mammalian brains trying to communicate without a common language, surrounded by an environment that gives us different stimuli.

When I watch an advanced class in an Obedience trial, I'm both in awe of their simple excellence and struck by my own ignorance. I can be really impressed with the team's performance and therefore shocked when the handler is disappointed by a missed component or a subtle error  - I don't yet know exactly what a UDX trial consists of, or a Rally Masters circuit. But after several years of Obedience training, I can appreciate how much effort it takes to train the human brain and muscles, the canine brain and muscles, and build the teamwork that ensures the two move together in sync. (Especially because my dog is still highly likely to take off into the distance no matter what I do!)

 Czar doing platform work with a friend today. 

Czar doing platform work with a friend today. 

Therefore I feel really annoyed with people who want to rank straight Obedience above Rally O or one of the Dog Sports. One of my older trainers has never trialled in Rally O, but is open minded enough to cooperate when some of us request incorporating Rally moves into our heeling patterns. Recently we asked him for a Novice level Rally station #25.


For this station, the handler needs to stop in a particular position in relation to the sign, and the dog sits in heel. Then the handler takes one step forward, the dog moves with them in heel, and drops to a sit almost immediately. They then take two steps, moving together and stopping together, with the dog again sitting in heel. Then three steps before the final sit.  

When we tried this in a heeling pattern, the older trainer was very struck with the complexity of the task. It's a real test of teamwork, that shows the communication, good or bad. In a team with great communication, it's like an old fashioned court dance. When it looks bad, you see dogs surging forward, handlers yanking on leads, frustration and annoyance from both parties.

Rally is seen by people who do straight Obedience as "easy" because it starts entirely on lead, with lots of talk and less formality. But I would suggest any sneering, old fashioned Obedience trialler tests themselves with some Rally Novice exercises. Because, even without the etiquette that a Rally trial ring requires, there is as much complexity and challenge there as in any form of training.

And the lady at the shops who just wanted an obedient dog? Well, she has a really good point. I can get Czar into a ring and ask him to sit, stand, drop, walk, turn, spin in a vast range of manoeuvres. Especially if I've got treats in my hand. But when we're walking alongside the rings and he's surging in front of me, looking for other dogs to greet, and my arm is ready to pop out of my shoulder, I wish for a well mannered, obedient dog too!!!!