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.

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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!!!! 

Obedience with a husky - tips and tricks for getting started.

Thanks to CD for the photos of us and our friends from the SHCV 2016 Christmas Party, and SODC 2016.

Back in December, we went to the annual SHCV Christmas party - always heaps of fun. The club puts on a BBQ and organises silly games - egg and spoon race with a husky on lead was a big hit this year - and competitions - waggiest tail, best Christmas costume, noisiest husky. For the last couple of years, we've had a Rally O course laid out, which is heaps of fun for me! Often, at the Christmas party, we have a heap of our sledding friends, and our obedience friends, as well as other club members - and this year there were plenty of questions about obedience from some of the folks who hadn't thought about doing something like that with their husky.

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Now, I'm definitely NOT a professional dog trainer, but over the last few years I've learnt a few tips and tricks that helped us get where we are today. This is NOT an exhaustive list of training techniques, and these tips and tricks WON'T work for every dog and every owner. But, in case this is a bit helpful for anyone who is thinking about it, here's what worked for US.

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Collars and Leads.

We use a lot of different collars, to help cue the dogs about what our expectations are. Normally, the dogs wear a semi slip collar. We add a racing X-back harness to go sledding, or a body harness for running alongside the bike. Our dogs have learnt that the X-back harness means "pull! line out! mush! let's go!" and the body harness means "keep pace". 

For Obedience, Czar wears a Martingale collar. Its mostly mesh, the same as a semi slip collar, but it has a loop of chain in it that jingles when the lead pulls on the collar. Czar has learnt that he can't drag on the lead with the martingale; he lunges forward once, hears the clink of the chain running through the loops, and walks with the lead firm, but not tight. He comes easily into heel when we start working.

I also use a mesh lead for Obedience. It has a handle near the collar for easier control of the dog in heel position, and a padded handle at the end. When Czar does get excited, I have excellent control with these two handles, and my hands don't end up raw.

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Motivation.

Some dogs have been bred to retrieve game and their instinct to catch ball or a toy has been intensified genetically. Others come from a long line of people-orientated dogs that has made them keen to follow instructions and offer behaviours to please their owners. These dogs can be trained with a toy or a "Good dog!" as the reward that keeps them going. Huskies can fit into both of those groups, depending on their upbringing. However, sled dogs are generally bred to be independent - the lead dog in a 12 or 14 dog team can see things in dark, snowy conditions long before the musher at the back of the sled can, so that dog needs to have the smarts to disobey an order that might plumet the team into a crevasse or onto a weak piece of sea ice. Their motivation is to run and explore, which is completely unhelpful in Obedience!

Many huskies will enjoy the challenge and stimulation of Obedience work, either because they find it fun, a great game to play, or because they enjoy the opportunities to earn food rewards. Many huskies are absolutely obsessed with food. Early on, an instructor suggested that a dog should not have breakfast before an obedience class or trial, so that their appetite is sharpened and they are more compliant. I found that this was a bad idea for Czar, as he was more likely to attempt to swallow my fingers rather than take a treat politely when he was hungry.

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Communication.

Having established that Czar worked best for teats, I next had to learn how to explain to him what I wanted. I was taught a technique called Luring, which involved holding the treat in front of his nose and then moving my hand so that his head followed my hand. If I wanted a Sit, I said the command word and moved my hand up over his head, so his head followed the treat up, and his backside came down. It was really important that the correct position was immediately "marked" with a "yes", closely followed by a treat. This built the connection in Czar's mind - when I said this command word, he needed to perform the appropriate maneuver to receive his reward.

Once he learnt to associate the word with the position, I could refine it by "marking" incorrect position by saying "no" and lifting the treat out of his reach. I could also build in body language that could replace the command word when necessary - a hand signal or stepping on a particular foot. Combining verbal and non verbal communication was extremely powerful.

I still find that the most important part of Obedience is holding Czar's attention. If he is busy watching something in the distance, it doesn't matter what I do with my command or my body language. So I regularly play a game called "Watch" where he gets a reward just for looking at me or my hand signal. One of the reasons I like Rally O is that I can tell Czar to "watch" during a trial or pat my leg or do anything else to recapture Czar's attention.

Practice and Consistency.

For some dogs, constant practice is really important. For Czar, I found that two obedience classes a week was a really good amount - he didn't get bored, the activity remained fresh and exciting. A third class was ok, but daily practice didn't really work for us. A complete holiday from Obedience work during the height of summer and the racing season also helped. I have found that in the first week or so after an extended break, Czar's performance in Obedience has an extra snap to it. Unfortunately, I'm often quite rusty and make silly mistakes after a break!

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Consistency was far more important for me and Czar. I needed to be consistent in how I performed - keeping my hand gestures the same, stepping on either my left or right foot, using the same command and marker words - which took me a LOT of practice. In some places, there are dog training spaces that are set up like ballet schools or dance studios - with a big mirrored wall that allows you to see what you're doing. We don't have that luxury here, so I have to rely on feedback from my instructors and friends. I also needed to be inconsistent - once Czar had learnt a particular command, he didn't always get a treat for performing that action. Randomising the rewards keeps him trying and interested in this game we're playing.

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Obedience really has become a wonderful game, a very enjoyable thing to do with Czar. He loves getting time out with me, one on one, for a class. I find Obedience relaxing - it operates like a form of Mindfulness, because it requires so much concentration. And recently, we've enjoyed success in the Ring too. This year, Czar has officially gone from being just "Czar" to having the title "RN" at the end of his name. We got three passes, after a series of failed trials, with every pass being a score of 95/100 or higher. Its always lovely to succeed, especially when you have friends encouraging you along the way. But its taken four years, lots of work and probably several tonnes of Devon sandwich meat and sausages!!!

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What's Rally O?

So, last year, Czar and I had a major breakthrough and got two passes in Rally Obedience, Novice Class, which qualifies Czar for his first title. It was an awesome day, made better by having some great friends there with us, a group of ladies who've encouraged, supported, congratulated and commiserated us for several years now. My friends and I all went a bit social media nuts afterwards, posting each other's successes to our various clubs and groups.  

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At work during the week afterwards, a colleague was asking me about what it was all about. It's a bit hard to explain, but here goes... 

Everyone wants to have a well trained dog, but most of are happy if our dog will listen to us in the privacy of our own homes, while we're holding their breakfast bowl. This scenario (low distraction/familiar environment, high quality/quantity reward in view)  is a pretty good one - our chance of success is pretty high, which makes training your dog to sit and/or wait while you put the bowl on the ground relatively enjoyable. When you take your dog outside it's familiar space, and surround it with other dogs, such as at a dog Obedience class, most dogs are easily distracted and their compliance drops. When the food rewards stop, many dogs are less motivated to cooperate. So, to have a dog that works with you to heel, sit, drop, stand, stay, regardless of the distractions or rewards, is a huge challenge and a huge achievement. 

But, the next biggest challenge, and therefore next biggest achievement, is when you and the dog perform so well as a team that you can work through a heeling pattern or a series of tasks, in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by unfamiliar dogs, without treats, with the stress of having a judge score your performance. This is basically an Obedience trial. An Obedience Club advertises a date, sets up a series of rings on their grounds, and people bring their dogs to be tested on various tasks, for which they are scored and can gain certificates, ribbons and trophies.

Finally, many dogs will work well with their owner, but not every single time. (We had a successful trial at Berwick earlier in the year, and then failed miserably at KCC Park a few months later.) So, its agreed that each dog needs to achieve a passing score, not once, but three times, to gain a title and move up to the next level.

In a pure Obedience trial, each team is asked to complete a heelwork pattern, to stand while the judge physically examines the dog, to have the dog "recall"  to the handler, and to complete two stays - one sitting and one lying down. These tasks are all verbally controlled by the judge and are very formal - there are lots of rules even about something as basic ad when and how you can speak to your dog!

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In Rally O or Rally Obedience, the judge is pretty silent. Each task the team must complete is written and drawn out on a sign, and the handler controls the pace at which the team completes a circuit of tasks or stations. The handler is allowed to speak to the dog continuously. It's a great way to get started in Obedience. And it starts out nice and simple in Novice - see the little N in the top corner of the signs?

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Some of my friends prefer to have the verbal commands from the judge. I prefer to read the signs myself. It takes a bit of practice, especially as we move up to the Rally Advanced Level. 

In the last few weeks, I've had to make a decision about whether to continue competing in Rally O. Now that I've achieved Czar's Novice title, I have to up the ante to successfully work at towards the Advanced title. We have to work off lead (gulp!) and add some more complicated stations to our repertoire. Some of the minor errors that are overlooked at Novice will need to be fixed. It's going to take some work. But I've decided to keep going. 

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The major reason for this is my awesome trialling friends. It means a lot to have people who will sympathise and support you when you're trialling. When things go wrong (your dog urinates in the ring, runs off, pretends to be deaf, you forget how to turn left... the list goes on and on and on.) it is very easy to be embarrassed. You know you've found great people when you volunteer to embarrass yourself in front of them, and a bunch of strangers, and a judge! And now, we're not just embarrassing ourselves at trials, we're also sharing our terrible training videos at home. It takes a great friend to ignore your pyjamas and tell you about your floppy hands! With that kind of love, how can I say no to more trials and tribulations with these ladies?

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Look forward to more training videos and updates on my Facebook page!