Category Archives: Rally Obedience

Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie


When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

The Allure of Luring

Luring is sometimes frowned upon by clicker “purists,” but it can be one useful way to help a novice dog figure out what you want or to get to the end goal faster with any dog. A lure is a small reinforcer, such as a toy or treat, that is used as a “magnet” to position the dog. Many trainers use lures to teach position behaviors, such as sit, lie down, or heel. While I rarely use luring with my own dogs, I certainly think it’s a useful tool to keep in your training toolbox.

Photo by niXerKG on flickr

Photo by niXerKG on flickr

Luring is quite straightforward for both dog and handler. The dog knows right from the start what’s at stake if he can figure out what you want (whatever’s in your hand at the moment), and you can easily show your dog what to do (by using the magnetic properties of the lure). When your dog gets it right, you simply click and give your dog his reward. Easy!

As straightforward as luring can be, it can also cause some problems down the road. In the beginning stages, some dogs become too focused on the toy or treat to think about what they’re doing. Especially for food- or toy-obsessed dogs, you may find that your dog is blindly following the lure without a clue as to what behavior earned him a reward.

Another potential problem with luring is that some dogs become dependent on the lure. They become “show me the money” dogs, not performing until they know what’s at stake. This is easier to prevent than it is to fix, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker if it happens.

Preventing lure-dependency is as simple as not letting the lure become a pattern. Use your food or toy to help the dog get into position 3-5 times, then get the reward out of your hand. Make the same hand motion you were doing with your lure, and when your dog does the target behavior, click and produce his reward from a hidden place such as a bait bag, pocket, or from behind your back. You’ve now switched from bribing the dog (showing him what he could have ahead of time) to rewarding him (surprising him with something special after he does what you want).

If your dog has already learned to wait for a lure, this is a bit trickier to work through, but still not the end of the world. In this situation, we need to reverse expectations. Many dogs learn (rightfully so!) that if you’re not holding something in your hand you’re not planning to give him anything when he complies. Your goal at this point is to change your dog’s expectation by teaching him that he’s more likely to get a reward if you don’t have anything in your hand than if you do.

Start by putting a very valuable reward in your hand and showing it to your dog. This could be a favorite toy, a hunk of roast beef, or anything else that will really get your dog excited. Ask your dog to do the behavior you’re working on. When he does, praise and pet him enthusiastically, but do not give him the reward.

Now, take that tempting reward that’s in your hand and put it away nearby where your dog can’t get it but you can still get to it quickly. Perhaps you might set it on the counter, tuck it in a bait bag, or store it on top of a nearby bookshelf. Make sure your dog sees you put it away and knows that your hand is empty. Ask for the same behavior again, and wait. Don’t repeat your cue, and don’t be surprised if it takes the dog a few moments to comply. Wait him out. At this point he’s likely to very slowly do what you asked. The second he starts to comply (before he’s even completed the behavior!), click and give him the reward (pulling it out of your bait bag, sweeping it off the bookshelf, etc). Repeat this exercise several times a day until your dog starts to get the idea that an empty hand is likely to predict great things for him. And hey, remember to be fair, okay? If you ran into this problem in the first place you were probably being a bit stingy about rewarding your dog for listening, so spend a little more time proofing that behavior before asking your dog to do it for “free” again.

Luring can certainly be a useful way to teach your dog, as long as you do so thoughtfully. Just remember to switch from luring (showing the reward to the dog ahead of time) to rewarding (producing the reward after the dog has done what you asked) quickly so you don’t become overly dependent on it.

What behaviors has your dog learned through luring? Have you ever run into any problems with this training technique? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below!

Relationship Q’s: Listening to Your Dog

Recently, several Paws Abilities instructors and students attended an APDT Rally Trial. During this successful weekend, we had many brags. However, not every moment has to do with ribbons and awards. I’d like to write about one of these today.

I’ve written about Dobby on this blog before. Dobby is an adolescent mixed breed (I call him a “Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog”). He came to me as a very fearful dog, pancaking his belly to the floor and peeing all over himself if he was so much as looked at. Dobby’s come a long way, and I’m incredibly proud of his progress. True to his nature, he was both earnest and enthusiastic during his time in the rally ring last weekend, trying his hardest to do as I asked. While I certainly have some further training to do with him in order to solidify his understanding of the rally game, he scored well in his first run, earning 209 out of a possible 210 points.

See for yourself here:

If there’s one characteristic that defines Dobby, it’s how very hard he tries to be right. This is a dog who desperately wants to do well, a trait that can be both a blessing and an enormous responsibility. Because of the relationship we’ve formed through training, Dobby will try with all his might to work through some pretty intense fear or stress if I ask him to.

Many clients come to me with dogs who are very similar to Dobby. These dogs are sensitive to the environment, to people, to other dogs. They worry, and they feel the need to be watchful in new situations. If the pressure becomes too much, they react by withdrawing into their shell or by exploding into an impressive series of barks and growls while lunging at the end of their leash. Some dogs, Dobby included, may bite if they feel sufficiently terrified and trapped. These dogs require their owners to support them, to protect them, and to communicate with them. Most importantly, though, these dogs require their owners to listen to them.

Working with a fearful dog, especially one with whom you have a strong relationship based on trust such as Dobby’s and mine, is an enormous responsibility. While we may understand that the things our dog finds frightening are harmless, our dog doesn’t feel that way. Forcing them to face their fears head-on because we feel those fears are silly damages our relationship and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Fears and phobias are sticky things, as anyone who’s ever felt afraid yourself understands. If you’re terrified of spiders, you’re not going to be okay with me placing a tarantula on your lap, even if I laugh at you and tell you that the tarantula can’t hurt you.

Our first responsibility when working with a fearful dog is always to that dog himself. Silly as his fears may seem to us, they are very real to him. When Dobby entered the rally ring later in the day, I could immediately tell that he was more concerned than before. Why he was concerned is immaterial, and I honestly couldn’t say. We had the same judge, and while we had changed rings we were in the same building. The area was no busier than the one we had been in before. While I may not know his reasons, Dobby told me by his reactions that he was uncomfortable.

Check out his body language in this second video:

In this later run, Dobby felt the need to look around much more than before. He was sometimes slow to respond to cues, even needing a second cue to sit at one point because he was so busy looking for danger. He was conflicted, unable to devote as much attention to his performance because he felt compelled to keep an eye on the judge, the exhibitors, and everything else that was going on.

Many people would consider Dobby’s performance in this later run to be a training issue. I disagree. A fearful dog such as this loses focus, not because he doesn’t understand how to focus on his handler, but because his fear is forcing him to watch for danger. The lack of focus is a symptom, and the best way to treat it is to treat the underlying cause. Just as a cough suppressant doesn’t cure pneumonia, training the dog to watch you more closely in scary settings doesn’t cure the underlying fear issue, only masking it for a short while and setting the dog up to feel more pressured and conflicted. Dobby’s lack of focus here was not a training issue, but rather a confidence one. Because he didn’t feel safe and comfortable, he couldn’t give the performance he would otherwise be capable of.

So, what’s the best way to work with a dog like this? In Dobby’s case, I ended our run early. His performance wasn’t awful, and we certainly would have earned a qualifying score, probably in the lower 190’s. Because of his training and relationship with me, Dobby would have continued trying to do as I asked in the ring. However, asking him to remain in that situation where he was clearly uncomfortable would not have been fair to him. Many people were surprised when I walked out halfway through the course, since Dobby wasn’t doing as poorly as some of the other dogs who had already gone. This was immaterial.

The bottom line is that rally obedience (and every other dog sport out there) is a game that we play with our dogs. Our dogs don’t care about the ribbons, the titles, or the bragging rights. They care about doing something with their person. If my dog is not having as much or more fun than I am, I owe it to him to listen to what he’s saying. In Dobby’s case, he was telling me that he wanted to leave. Treats and praise were less important to him than getting away from the uncomfortable situation.

Working with a fearful dog is an enormous responsibility. By putting Dobby into a situation where he felt concerned, I was stepping onto dangerous ground. Trust is a precious and fragile thing, and each time we overface our dogs, we begin to erode that trust. By listening to what my dog was telling me and aborting our run, I was protecting that oh-so-sacred responsibility that my dog has granted me. I was showing him that he could depend on me to listen to him and to put his feelings first.

After we left the ring, I took Dobby for a long walk outside, where he decompressed by sniffing around, rolling on his back in the grass, and playing with a couple dog friends. We ended our day on this positive note, with Dobby feeling comfortable and content. I couldn’t be more proud of his ability to communicate with me and to bounce back from situations that formerly would have left him pancaked in fear.

After Dobby’s last run, a student asked me whether I felt her dog was too stressed in the ring. My answer to her was that I couldn’t answer that question. Every dog is different, and a more confident dog may do absolutely fine with the level of stress that Dobby exhibited. Furthermore, a year ago I wouldn’t have gone into the ring with Dobby if he showed some of the displacement signals apparent on the video, because he was much more fragile then. Only you can examine the relationship you have with your dog, and only you can determine what is best for that individual dog in that moment of time.

Regardless of which sport we choose to play in with our dogs (or whether we decide to do any sports at all), listening is the most vital skill we can bring into the ring. This applies to everyday life just as much as to any sport: vet visits, walks in the park, and trips into the pet store all provide us with the opportunity to support and communicate with our dog. Know your dog. Stop demanding, and start listening. You may be surprised by what you hear back in return.

APDT Rally Trial Brags

Congratulations to every one of the Paws Abilities teams who competed in APDT rally this weekend! We had a great weekend for titles and awards, but more importantly, I was so proud of how supportive and helpful everyone was with one another. Experienced competitors were so helpful with mentoring new participants in the sport, from walking courses together to videotaping runs to answering questions. Each of the Paws Abilities family cheered on and encouraged one another, and I couldn’t be happier to be part of such a great group.

Below are some of the accomplishments from this weekend:

  • Mitchell, a mixed breed, earned his Level 1 title under Amy’s guidance. This was their first rally trial ever.
  • Evan had two picture-perfect runs in the Junior class with his two mixed breeds, Charlotte and Jordi. All of the adult handlers could learn something from watching his kind and patient handling style, and it was clear that both of the dogs absolutely adore him.
  • Shelly earned two legs in Level 1 with both Charlotte and Jordi. Charlotte also earned High Scoring Mixed Breed under her guidance as well as the Sophie Award, which is given to the Level 1A team exhibiting the best positive working relationship built on trust and respect.
  • Tank the Schnauzer mix earned his Level 1 title with Linda.
  • Willow the Australian Shepherd earned multiple legs in Level 1B, and is halfway to earning her Level 1 excellent title. She also had her very first experience in Level 2, and her focus on Carrie was amazing.
  • LeRoy, a mixed breed, earned multiple legs towards his Level 1 excellent title with Julia.
  • Ruler the Basenji earned his second Level 2 leg with Laura.
  • Laura also helped her Chihuahua cross, Cruiser, earn his second Level 1 leg. This may very well have been the cutest rally run ever.
  • Jade the Australian Shepherd earned her Level 1 title with Denise in an incredibly flashy performance.
  • Dalton the mixed breed earned his first Level 1 leg with Sarala and enjoyed every minute of it.
  • Mischief the 6-month-old puppy earned her Puppy Title with an Award of Excellence and also completed her first leg towards her puppy excellent title. She earned first place in every one of her classes. Sara entered Mischief in the trial as a “North American Yodelhound” since her actual breed mix is unknown.
  • Dobby the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog earned two legs towards his Level 1 excellent title with Sara.
  • Layla the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog completed her Level 2 Excellent title and also earned a leg towards her Level 3 excellent title. She was the High Scoring MMBC Member Dog.

Mental Exercise

As we mentioned before, mental exercise is every bit as important for dogs as physical exercise. Sadly, this basic need is oftentimes overlooked by well-intentioned pet owners. Relying solely on physical exercise is not enough. Many well-cared-for dogs nonetheless lead impoverished lives because their cognitive needs are ignored. We would never dream of starving a dog by withholding food, but by not giving our dogs the chance to use their brains, we are also withholding a vital ingredient to happiness. Research into canine cognition has shown time and time again the remarkable capacity that dogs have for problem solving, and by providing opportunities for our dogs to think and puzzle things out we enrich their lives and make them so much happier.

So, what are the best ways to provide mental exercise for your dog? Every dog is different, and it’s important to play to your dog’s strengths. This is such a complex topic that an entire book is in the works, but here’s a brief overview of some great ways to engage your dog’s brain.

It’s All About the Food: One of the easiest ways to fulfill your dog’s need for daily mental exercise is to simply throw out his food bowl. Whether you use his dog food as training rewards, feed him from a puzzle toy such as a Kong or Tug-a-Jug, feed him by hand, or scatter his kibble on the floor or in the backyard for a scavenger hunt, mixing up mealtimes will add an element of fun to his day.

The Nose Knows: Dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell, which we largely ignore. Engage your dog’s olfactory abilities by having him follow treat trails, playing hide ‘n seek with yourself or a favorite toy, introducing novel scents into his environment (ask a farm friend for some used straw to put in your back yard, let a pal’s pet hamster crawl all over one of your dog’s toys, or dab a drop of essential oil on a tree or rock), or learning the fun sport of K9 Nose Work.

A Classy Dog: Training class is a great source of mental exercise! In addition to the weekly stimulation of class itself, enrolling in a class gives you motivation to work with your dog on new skills regularly. Whether you’re trying rally obedience, canine freestyle, agility, or fun tricks, think of class as date night with your dog. Can’t make it to a class? Try teaching new tricks or even helpful service dog tasks at home.

Change it Up: Dogs enjoy routine, and it’s important to stick to one. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enrich your dog’s life by making little changes. Try a different walking route with new sights and smells, introduce your dog to new people or animals, play different instrumental music during the day (Mexican guitar? Celtic harp? Classical piano?), create an obstacle course in your backyard, or try a new dog treat recipe that you bake yourself (and don’t forget to let your dog lick out the mixing bowl). Think of new sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures you can introduce into your dog’s environment to engage his curiousity.

In future posts we’ll talk about some of the potential problems with exercise, as well as some of our favorite puzzle toys. In the meantime, please share your comments with us below! Do you provide regular mental enrichment for your dog? What are your pup’s favorite activities?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Check out this short video of Dobby learning to heel. Dobby’s toy drive is much stronger than his food drive, but over time he’s learned to work for a variety of rewards. In addition, by playing the It’s Your Choice game, he’s learned to work even when there’s something he wants on the ground or a tug toy dangling next to him. As he continues to mature and gets more training under his belt, he’ll be able to work for longer periods of time with higher levels of distraction. A two-minute-long training session like this is the perfect length for a young dog.

What are your dog’s favorite rewards, and how long do you train for at a time? Tell us below!