Two-year-old Shy more than lived up to her name when Hope Schmeling rescued her. An Australian shepherd with epilepsy, Shy spent her formative years being shuffled from home to home. She approached everything and everyone with wariness or fear. Then came rally obedience, which gave Shy a way to succeed in the ring and in life.
"I can give her extra feedback and support that I can’t necessarily give her in other sports,” says Schmeling, 35, who lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Rally has allowed her to utilize her brain and live a full life and really build confidence. It has definitely spilled over into her everyday life. She is not the same dog I adopted nearly 7 years ago.”
Others report similar experiences with shy, fearful, or normal dogs gaining confidence or self-control thanks to the relatively new sport, which was introduced in 2000.
Charles (Bud) Kramer, a retired university professor and longtime dog enthusiast, invented rally as a stepping stone between what typical pet dogs can do and serious competitive obedience, which seems out of reach to many dog owners. Kramer’s goals included showing people the fun side of having a well-behaved dog. “Traditional obedience was going downhill,” Kramer explains. “Entries were declining, and it seemed to me that if we could develop some sort of obedience program that had the characteristics of agility, it would appeal to people.”
Kramer guessed right. Rally obedience, or rally-O as it is often called, enjoys strong growth and popularity. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), which held just three competitions in 2001, sanctioned 100 trials in 2006.
Set up outdoors or inside large facilities, rally courses feature 10 to 20 stations. Dogs complete obedience exercises required at each station, which are marked with signs. Those exercises begin with the basic commands that most dogs learn as puppies—sit, down, stay, and come. Courses may also feature detailed patterns such as figure eights and 90-, 180-, and 360-degree turns. Rally judges design their own courses, so no two courses are alike.
What sets rally apart from traditional obedience is that judges allow and even encourage handlers to use unlimited banter with their dogs. That might mean clapping or encouraging the dog onto the next obstacle with, “C’mon, you’re doing great!” Rewarding with treats after completing an exercise successfully is also sometimes allowed. (Food cannot be used as a lure, but in some cases it can be pulled from hiding and given after the dog does what is asked.)
“I have heard judges admonish people for not having enough fun,” says Dr. Milan Hess, a veterinary reproductive specialist and rally participant in Colorado. “You’re supposed to be there to encourage your dog and really have fun, so handlers who are worried are not going to score as well.”
Teams complete level one or novice courses with the dog on leash. At higher levels, dogs work off leash and complete more difficult courses that include jumps and heeling backward, for example. Some high-level courses challenge dogs with distractions such as full food bowls.
After years of agility, traditional obedience, and some herding, Meg Ramsay, 51, now does rally in Albany, New York, with her 13-year-old Shetland sheepdog named Dan. She jokes that the figure eights around food bowls will take some work. “I have to practice that,” she laughs, “because Shelties are very food motivated. His ears may be gone, and his eyes may not be as good as they used to be, but his nose still works.”
Judges score each team by deducting points for any mistakes—pulling on the leash, turning the wrong way, having to repeat a station more than once to get it right.
While some participants use rally as Kramer intended—as preparation for traditional obedience competitions—many see rally as a fun and challenging stand-alone sport. Rally’s more lenient handling rules make it more accessible and less intimidating to green handlers—those who are new to competitive handling. That includes Dr. Marcella Ridgway, a veterinary school professor and internal medicine specialist at the University of Illinois. Despite her day-to-day contact with dogs, Dr. Ridgway says, “I never anticipated competing with dogs and being involved with this sport.”
With encouragement from fellow handlers, Dr. Ridgway led her youngest dog, Porter, whom she adopted from a local shelter, to the top spot in APDT rally. In 2005, Porter became one of only 13 dogs with the highest APDT rally title available.
“Porter just works his heart out for me,” says Dr. Ridgway. “He used to be very shy and fearful of new situations. Rally has made such a difference for him. I get to talk to him when we’re in the ring, and people have been so supportive. Now, he thinks it’s just a big social event.”
Even longtime handlers understand the appeal of rally. Gail O’Neil in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, has some 40 years of obedience experience and currently handles a 6-year-old Belgian sheepdog named Rocky and a 20-month-old one named Navarre. She says all that talking and encouragement “makes them really happy and makes them really like rally much more than formal obedience, where you can’t say a word.”
Rally also gets dogs working in unfamiliar situations—in other words, in the real world. Many dogs seem perfectly obedient at home, but watch out in public or if there are distractions like people, other dogs, or some sort of commotion. “Most people go to puppy class or basic obedience, and they never go on,” says Dr. Hess. “Then, they wonder why the dog they took to obedience class 5 years ago doesn’t listen. Rally gives them a lot more to back up that initial training.”
Rally also gives dogs something to do that is both mentally and physically stimulating. “If they just sit around all day and do nothing, it’s not the best thing in the world for them,” says Kramer, rally’s inventor. Plus, all that walking around and turning keeps dogs flexible.
The teamwork of rally builds strong bonds. With each new course, dog and handler must work together, rely on each other, and communicate consistently to succeed. “It just seems like my dogs are far more integrated into my life now because we’re much more bonded,” says Schmeling. “Our relationship is on a whole other level.”
Even after mistakes, which are inevitable, handlers learn valuable lessons and get the support they need from more experienced participants. “I had several people, including a judge, encourage me to try level three when I didn’t think Porter and I could do it,” Dr. Ridgway says. “And, you know what? We did it. Now, I get to turn around and do that for other people.”
The benefits of rally extend to handlers through friendships, accomplishments, and a sense of community. Schmeling, who came to rally with zero experience, is now an APDT judge, and she serves on the Australian Shepherd Club of America’s rally committee. “I used to be a very shy person,” she says. “Getting into the dog world has given me a great deal of confidence. Rally is an area where you can be successful a bit more easily, perhaps, than in some of the other sports. A few years ago, thinking of speaking to large groups of people would have been insane for me. As a judge, now, I have to. I like that it takes me places I never thought I would go.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT RALLY
An Introduction to Rally Obedience, Third Edition
by Charles L. (Bud) Kramer
American Kennel Club
Association of Pet Dog Trainers
RALLY WELCOMES EVERYONE
Many rally events welcome dogs of all ages, sizes, and breeds, including mixed-breed dogs and those adopted from animal shelters or rescues. In fact, five of the top 20–ranked dogs in APDT are mixed breeds.
Rally also encourages people and pets with physical challenges to take part. Many judges happily make adjustments for those who need more time, lower jumps, or modified exercises to be successful. You’ll often see three-legged dogs, deaf dogs, or even blind dogs taking part in rally events.
Those with purebred dogs who lack a pedigree or breed registration can apply for an Indefinite Listing Privilege (ILP) through the American Kennel Club if they want to take part in AKC rally events.