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Teaching Your Dog Obedience and Rally-O

The American Kennel Club (AKC) is perhaps the largest and most well-known venue for obedience. Though it currently only allows purebred dogs, the AKC Board of Directors is considering a listing service that would allow mixed breeds to participate in obedience, rally, agility and tracking. All dogs, including mixed breeds, are welcome to participate in obedience programs through the American Mixed Breed Obedience Registry (AMBOR), the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), St. Hubert’s Companion Dog Sports Program and the United Kennel Club (UKC).

UKC obedience competitor Ray Czubek of Illinois recently retired his mixed breed, J.D., one of only three dogs to earn her AMBOR Obedience Trial Championship. Having competed in both UKC with J.D. and in AKC with German Shepherds, Czubek finds the former to be more relaxing and family-oriented. But no matter where he participates, it’s working together with his dog that counts. “Most people are instant-gratification-oriented,” says Czubek. “I like the precision teamwork, and find it challenging to keep my dog motivated. You have to make the effort.”

Evolving Methods
At its earliest stages and well into the 1970s, dogs were taught obedience using punishment-avoidance techniques such as the “jerk and pull” method. People believed that if the dog experienced a negative consequence for not doing what was asked, that would be enough to create the preferred behavior. This worked for some dogs, though not all. Obedience training pioneer Terri Arnold of Massachusetts, who has earned multiple Obedience Trial Championships (OTCh) in AKC over more than 30 years, was one of the first to question and improve upon traditional training methods.

In the 1970s, when Arnold started training a Shetland Sheepdog, she soon realized that choke collars, harsh commands, and withholding praise or play would not work. But, she discovered, food was an excellent motivator, and she asked her trainer if she could bring some to class. He told her no. Her Sheltie performed wonderfully and happily at home with the food, but was miserable without it in class.

“I decided to sneak food into class, and it fell on the floor from her mouth,” says Arnold. “The instructor started screaming at me in front of the class, and I said, ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ I turned around and walked away. I knew there had to be a better way. I will never forget that day as long as I live. It was a turning point in my whole life.”

The introduction of operant conditioning and clicker training to competitive obedience over the past 10 years has fostered a growing movement toward more positive and motivational instruction. In his book Clicker Training for Obedience, Morgan Spector explains how operant conditioning and the use of the clicker can shape behaviors that, together, combine into a complete obedience exercise. Dogs learn step by step instead of being expected to learn an entire skill set all at once.

The Birth of Rally-O
For someone who has never shown a dog before, the formality of competitive obedience can be intimidating. With that in mind, the AKC and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) now offer Rally-O, a more fast-paced version of traditional obedience exercises, which takes place in a relaxed, though still competitive, setting. The judge creates a course in which the handler and dog follow numbered signs and perform the exercise described at each station. Rather than standing stiff and silent, handlers may use their upper bodies and talk to their dogs for encouragement.

“I love Rally,” says Certified Pet Dog Trainer Diane Lavigne of New York. “I think it’s a great way for a dog to get ring experience without going into the Novice [Obedience] ring. The exercises are based on what you need to do to get a Novice title.” Lavigne also competes in UKC and AMBOR obedience with her mixed breed Hershey, AKC obedience with her Golden Retriever Skye, and is training her young Golden, Eagle, for his competition debut. In December 2005, Hershey was ranked third in the nation by AMBOR for UKC Novice Obedience.

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