How to Handle Mistakes in the Rally Ring

You're in the middle of a rally run, and something goes wrong. Your dog makes an unexpected mistake, and you're left frantically wondering what to do! Making those split decisions in the moment can be hard, but those decisions can make the difference between a qualifying and non-qualifying run! Let's talk about the best way to handle some of the more common mistakes that happen in the rally ring! 

Dog Incorrectly Performed a Sign

Oh no! Your dog just sat instead of standing, or maybe he turned the wrong way, or he anticipated coming to you. You have to make a decision - take the 10 point hit for an incorrectly performed (IP) sign, or redo the sign for 3 points? First, remember that you may not retry a jump or a sit stay. There are also no redos in the Rally Master classes.

Knowing the rules here is important, because you only get an IP (incorrect performance, which is a 10 point deduction) if your dog fails the principle part of the exercise. Not sure what that means? Check out the rally regulations. The principle part of each sign is underlined in the description.

If your dog sits crooked on a sign, that's just a point deduction. If you redo the sign for a crooked sit, you'll lose 3 points for the redo, so it's best to take that crooked sit and move on!

If the dog fails the principal part of the sign, it's generally best to redo the sign. However, that is not always the right answer! Maybe your dog really struggles with a certain skill. It may not be in the best interest of your dog to retry that sign. For instance, if my dog really struggles with a moving down and I'm pretty sure he's not going to do it correctly, I'm definitely not going to give him the opportunity to not do it again! If you redo a sign, you lose 3 points, and if your dog fails the second time, you get an IP for a 10 point deduction. When I am trying to decide if I should redo a sign or continue on, I will only settle on redoing the sign if I am reasonably sure my dog will perform on the retry. If there's any question, we move on.

If you do decide to retry the sign, you must tell or indicate to the judge that you are going to retry. I usually turn to the judge, say "redo", then go back a few steps and heel into the sign again. It needs to be clear to the judge that you are retrying the sign.

Handler Forgot a Sign

It's best to work really hard during walkthroughs to look for signs that are easy to miss. However, it happens to the best of us! Unfortunately, forgetting a sign in an NQ in the rally ring. If you realize right away that you forgot the sign, you can do it a little late or a little past the sign, but if you've continued on, there's nothing that you can do. Just enjoy the rest of your run!


Have you ever seen a dog get the zoomies in the agility or rally ring? It's cute until it's your dog. When a dog disconnects from a handler and starts running around the ring, it is often because of ring stress. It's a version of avoidance behavior. In that situation, on that day, you've asked more of your dog than s/he can handle, so it's important to evaluate later what exactly happened and come up with a training plan.

If it happens to you, try to get your dog back. If the dog comes right back and starts working again, you can continue on, as long as the judge doesn't excuse you. If the judge feels that your dog is out of control, s/he will excuse you. If you feel that you need to leave because your dog is not going to work, politely excuse yourself. It's always better to excuse you and your dog than trying to suffer through the rest of the run!

Dog Runs out of Ring

If your dog accidentally runs out of the ring but immediately comes back and starts working, keep going. You'll lose a point or two but it's not an NQ. If your dog purposely leaves the ring and doesn't immediately come back, the judge will likely excuse you (and you'll receive an NQ) for the dog being out of control.

Dog Eliminates on Course

This is every exhibitor's worst nightmare. If you show long enough, it probably will happen to you! Sometimes dogs get stressed in rings, and when they get nervous it messes with the digestive system, or maybe your dog was too distracted by all the smells to eliminate outside. Regardless of the reason, please don't feel bad! Sh*t happens! If your dog has an accident in the ring, you cannot continue on. You'll need to collect your dog and leave. Someone will generally come in and clean up the mess, or will hold your dog while you clean it up.

When Judges Get it Wrong

Sometimes judges misunderstand or forget something in the rules. Or you might see a course with super tight spacing, that might even be unsafe for a large dog. It's important to remember that judges are human and they will occasionally make mistakes. That being said, what the judge says goes, at least in that moment. If you truly feel the judge is breaking the rules, I encourage you to contact the AKC (or the office of whatever venue you show in). At AKC, they do look into things if you contact them, and will educate the judge if necessary.

If the issue is that of tight spacing or unsafe distances, I encourage you to very politely approach the judge during the walkthrough. You need to do it before the class starts. State your concern and your reasoning in a short polite way. I've had to do this multiple times and judges have been very receptive and made adjustments as necessary, but this may not always be the case. If the judge decides not to change anything, that is his or her right. Do not argue, just say thank you and walk away. At that point you need to decide if you're going to compete with your dog. If you truly think it's unsafe, you should consider pulling. If it's a particularly tight space, be prepared for your dog to possibly knock over a sign or lose a point for being out of position.

If you decide to pull, simply go to the table steward and say "I would like to pull number ___." You will not get a refund, and you will not be able to show once you've said that. In some situations though, it's the best thing to do. (And yes, I've done this in obedience for safety reasons, multiple times. It sucks, but the well-being of my dog is my first priority.) If you have multiple runs in one day, pulling your dog does not affect your ability to show in the other classes.

If you feel the judge has misinterpreted the rules or maybe scored your run differently than it should have been, feel free to approach the judge after the class is over. Be polite and say things like "would you mind clarifying why XX was an NQ instead of an IP?" or explain that you don't want to continue to make a certain mistake. If you're certain you are correct, you could say "the rule book says XXX and I want to make sure that I'm not misinterpreting it, can you please help me understand?" Some judges will be fine with this and will explain it to you, or even admit they made a mistake, and other judges might dismiss you or get defensive. Regardless of how the judge reacts, be polite and respectful and remember - the judge (in the moment) is always right. 

Jump too High

You have a fabulous run going and you get to the jump. At that last minute you notice that it's set at 16 inches, and your dog only jumps 8. What do you do?

Although it's technically the judge's responsibility to ensure that the jump height is correct for each team, it's something that you should be looking at before you come into the ring. Before every rally or obedience run, I glance at the jumps and make sure they are set correctly. If they look like they might be wrong I will clarify with the judge by saying something like "Are the jumps set at 8 inches?"

If you're already in the ring and approaching the jump before you realize it's the wrong height, you can handle it a couple different ways. If you think your dog can safely jump, so ahead and send the dog over and continue on. If the jump is too high for your dog, you can either stop right there and point it out to the judge, or you can heel past the jump and talk to the judge as soon as your run is over.

We Just Need to Leave the Ring

If you and/or your dog is just having a really bad day, attempting to salvage your run by finishing it may not be in the best interest of either one of you. Dogs are only dogs, and they have off days just like we do. If my dog wasn't performing to her usual level, I would certainly excuse myself. Be polite and firm. Say something like "Thank you for your time, we'll be back on a better day," or take your dog's collar and say "I think we're done now, thank you!" as you head toward the exit.

Dog Picks Up Toy Distraction or Cone

You're going through the offset figure 8 with distractions and your dog notices that the judge used his most favorite toy for the distraction. "What fun!" he thinks as he grabs the toy and gleefully runs around, showing everybody his prize. Cute, right? Not if you're the handler!

If your dog decides to pick up the toy (or a cone) try to recall him back to you and get the toy/cone as quickly as possible. If you are able to get it back right away and continue on, you probably will be able to finish your run. If you struggle with getting your dog to come back and give up his prize, you will probably be excused.

Work a little bit more on ignoring toys in different locations, and use different kinds of toys. Really break it down so the dog can be successful. Also be sure you're practicing with a few different types of cones on the ground, so your dog can learn to ignore them.

Dog Goes up to Judge/Ring Gate/Otherwise Distracted

Sometimes our dogs get distracted. Maybe they'll visit the judge, or maybe they will start sniffing the ground, or perhaps they will turn and stare at the working dog in the other ring. Perhaps the dog doesn't understand his/her job, or maybe they are feeling a bit stressed and disconnected. Maybe the handler is acting like a nervous blubbering stranger, and the dog is not sure how to deal with it. There are a lot of reasons that our dog gets distracted in the ring, and it happens to even the best of us.

There are several steps that you can take to minimize the chance of your dog becoming distracted in the ring, but the simple truth is we can't train for everything. Sometimes things will happen that we couldn't possibly predict, and we have to roll with it. When your dog gets distracted in the ring, think about why it happened. Then decide if it's likely that same distraction will happen again at a future trial. If it is likely to happen again, come up with a training plan! If the chances of it happening again are pretty slim, then don't worry about it.

Be sure your dog is adequately prepared to trial. Have you been to several new locations? Have you had strange judges in the ring? Have you practiced with people sitting right outside the gates watching you? When you practice in these scenarios, is your dog confident and happy? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you're not ready to trial, so get out there and expose your dog to new places and people! Most examples of disconnection from your dog is inadequate training.

Handler Turned the Wrong Way or Messes Up Sign

Oh no, you were supposed to do a 270 right and you turned left! What do you do? If you realize it right away (perhaps you're staring at the ring gate with nowhere to go!) then look at the judge, say "redo" and take a few steps away and approach the sign again. You will lose 3 points for the redo.

With direction changes you're going to figure out pretty quickly that you turned the wrong way, because the course won't make sense, so for most of those mistakes you will just redo the direction change. But if you messed up another type of sign (maybe you cued your dog to sit instead of heel forward) you can handle it the same way if you realize it right away. Look at the judge, say "redo," take a few steps back and approach the sign again. If you realize later that you messed up a sign, just keep going. You'll lose 10 points for an Incorrect Performance but as long as you attempted the sign it will not be an NQ.

Dog Took Jump Out of Order

It happens - you're doing a fast right past the jump and your dog sails over the jump instead of staying in heel position. If this happens, get your dog back to heel and keep going! You will lose 1-2 points for being out of position, but in the grand scheme of things, it's no big deal!

Please remember that we are only human and our dogs are only dogs! Sometimes things go wrong, regardless of how well-prepared we are or how well-trained our dogs are. Never forget that you're taking home the best dog in the trial, regardless of how your ring experience went!

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