It's not easy to navigate a rally course while staying connected to your dog. Many dogs need a lot of connection from their handlers, and if we don't give it to them they will often disconnect and their attention will wander. When there are a whole bunch of distractions nearby, we don't want our dogs disconnecting!
I've put together a few tips for saying connected to your dog while navigating a Rally course.
Know The Signs!
First, knowing the signs very well, so you can recognize them quickly upon first glance, is critical to your success in staying connected to your dog. If you need to read the sign and study where the stop signs are, or think about it much, your dog will feel that attention shift.
During your walk through, which you will get prior to your run, you need to remember which signs are on the course, so when you see the first part of the sign, you'll know exactly which one you're doing. By the time I walk into the ring with my dog, I know when I see Call Front, it's the Finish Right Halt one. I don't have to take the time to read the whole sign.
Where to Look
When I heel with my dog, I look in front of her about 2-3 feet or so on the ground. This allows her to see that I'm connected to her, and it allows me to see what's coming up next.
Try this exercise. Put your arms slightly out from your sides. Look straight forward and move your hands. Can you see your hands? Now look down in front of you and move your hands again. How about now? When you look down, your peripheral field of vision widens significantly.
Be sure when you're heeling with your dog through a course, you are staying connected and looking towards the ground, so you can see what's coming up. When you look at a sign, try to glance with your eyes and not move your whole head.
Check out this recent Rally run with Strive. Notice how my head position is fairly consistent, and I stay connected to her. Every once in a while I glance up, but my head is mostly staying down, and I'm never obviously disconnecting.
There will be times that you need to look up, or double check a sign, so it's a good idea to practice that with your dog.
Start without any distractions and your dog in heel position. Stay really connected to your dog, then glance up and forward. As soon as you do, mark and treat in position. When you've done this a few times, you can do the same thing while you're slowly heeling. Look up and forward, immediately mark and reward. You want your dog to expect something good to happen when you disconnect. Once you can do this slowly, start heeling at a normal speed, then eventually put in distractions like signs, cones, even toys, if the dog is ready for that.
This training will help the dog get through the times that you have to disconnect.
Stay Connected on the Start Line!
Another tip is to stay connected from the minute you walk into the ring. Some judges will get chatty and although I'm very polite and respectful, I don't look at the judge. My attention is 100% on my dog. If the judge asks me a question I'll respond while still staying connected to my dog. The last thing I want to do is disconnect right when our run begins!
Here's an example of my start line routine in Rally. Many dog do well with heeling into the ring and sitting to take the leash off, but my dog Strive found that demotivating, so I let her stand and look around briefly. You can see once I get the leash off and set up, she's all business. The judge speaks to me and although I respond, I never look away from my dog. This is not the time you want to disconnect from your dog!
I also teach my dogs a "Ready" cue to help get them back if they are looking around at the judge or the environment. I train this long before I even think about entering the ring. I set up the dog in heel, then say "Ready!" and treat the dog. I do this many times, until the dog perks up as soon as I say "Ready!"
Then I'll start the conversation that I'll have with the judge. I'll say "Are you ready?" and respond "Ready!" and treat. Then I'll add more to the chain. I'll say "Are you ready?" in a normal tone of voice, then "Ready!" the way I would say it in the ring, then I'll say "forward" (which is what the judge says) and treat. Last I add heel. It looks like this:
"Are you ready?"
"Strive, heel!" left foot steps out, I do a high hand touch, and reward.
If my dog's attention has wandered at all during our getting into the ring and setting up, my trained "Ready!" cue brings it back. It's a very helpful cue to have. I make sure that before I enter the ring, I have someone play "judge" and ask those questions, to help the dog prepare for what will happen at a real show.
If you take the time to think about each of these tips, and work on training them and learning your signs well, you'll find that staying connected to your dog is much easier, and if you do disconnect your dog won't immediately check out. Remember that we as handlers are half of the team and it's important that we do our part in supporting our dogs.