I normally don’t like going to shows at all. You have to get up early, pack for the whole day (or weekend), possibly rent a room, drive a distance, and in that time I can train many more dogs, go for a hike, and have time to do a whole lot more with my life than sit around at a trial. I do believe it’s good to get out to a competition to test yourself and your training under the extra pressures of strange environments, but I don’t have a surplus of time, energy, and money that I want to invest going any more often than necessary. There are lots of ways to test my dog without having to go all the way to a show (blogpost to come). However, I was really looking forward to my first live Rally-FrEe show that happened Jun 2014.

At this event in Arlington, WA, I appreciated the opportunity to talk to everyone involved in this young sport, including Julie Flanery, creator of the sport. I was really excited to go to the event because for me personally, Rally-FrEe is the one training activity that motivated me to become highly systematic and thoughtful about how I move through the expansive list of things I want to train. With the other sports I’ve been involved in, the training variables don’t necessarily have a linear progression (after your dog learns the basics, that is), and your always bouncing back and forth working on different variables (think about all the variables to training weave poles, for example). It doesn’t seem so hugely critical to teach certain things first (with a few exceptions), but in Rally-FrEe, it seems like there are so many contexts for a dog to discriminate, via verbals, and without the benefit of very different setups or the visual aid of seeing tangible equipment (like an A-frame, dumbbell, etc) that, in my opinion, this sport requires a lot more clarity and consideration in the training progression.

Because asking a dog to do a behavior in not just one position, but in any position relative to the handler is a training task on top of just training the behavior itself, I wondered if people pursuing this sport would have to be better trainers. Not that there aren’t difficulties to Competitive Obedience or Rally-O, but, it’s a whole different game if you’re only using left side heel position and a handful of behaviors: sit, down, stand, front, around, fetch, discriminate, over a jump, etc. Training in that scenario has some crutches to lean on, the dog can always default to heel position, or choose one of these behaviors they perform exhaustively. In Rally-FrEe, there’s are so many changes that your dog can’t guess, and you have to train more fluency, and there’s room to make it much more dynamic and fun utilizing movement and props.

I’d like to believe that because the training task is so enormous, that people are a little more humble and friendly, but maybe that’s my imagination?? Either way, it was a really great experience to go to this show and meet a lot of people who pursue both Rally-FrEe and/ Freestyle (there was a Musical Freestyle practice following the competition). During lunch Julie wanted to pick people’s brains and talk and ask for feedback and it was a discussion I appreciated partaking in. Julie started off by explaining how in just about every dog sport, in the last 15 years or so, the proficiency and training has elevated significantly, but, she wasn’t seeing the same true of Freestyle. The discussion went into the dilemma of the freestyle world having such a vast array of options—you can train any trick (and there are a whole lot of excellent tricks out there!!!—that ultimately could contribute to an unbalanced focus on the “shiny-fancy tricks” without hardly enough attention to the foundation: positions and transitions.

Julie pointed out and the light bulb illuminated, Rally-FrEe is just a collection of positions (heel left/right/front/behind/between) and transitions (leg weaves, 180 spins away, handler and dog swapping side while the other stands still). Well, that’s probably why I enjoy it so much. Training foundation skills is hugely appealing to me. Once you’ve established a good base to depart from, the fancy stuff is supported by solid behaviors that, incidentally, take up the majority of any freestyle routine. And we all are guilty of training the exciting stuff before we’ve done our elementary homework. Julie asked how many of us have trained backwards circle around before teaching your dog to circle around forwards both directions…and I think every one of us was guilty, including her.

My own personal thought about the elevation of the caliber of this sport I only just started (not that I have the authority) is that the element of dancing on time is really hard to embody. And I can’t wait to explore what I can do with my West African and other dance background!!

Anyway, it was a lot of fun seeing how the different dogs handled the venue and what skills everybody taught their dogs. After the competition there were hours of freestyle practice, and, since everyone gets tired at the end of the day I usually end up helping out extra, and ended up watching everyone while playing dj. Some exciting performance are in the works…and a couple of people really need go back and do some more training. But overall I’d have to say it was an excellent turnout and did not disappoint. I’m grateful to ask the judges (there were multiple present) lots of questions (thanks for being so generous!) and have conversations with good trainers. Now I better understand the criteria I’m shooting for in competition (which, incidentally, is what I train for all the time, I just would lighten my demands on my dogs during a competition), with the biggest insight being that they like to see the dog return to a solid heel position before moving forward to the next sign. No problem, my dogs can hit moving into heel with me at a standstill in many different contexts. In fact, I appreciate getting points for that, so, moving forward, my competition entries will be much cleaner. We just got a 1st for our most recent video submission. And as for the live event, I was able to train my older dog, who has lots of concerns, giving him tons of reinforcement at the event for good work. Unfortunately, I worked him too long (poor guy) both in my practice run-through and a competition entry. I just got greedy thinking he’d be up for more. Shame on me.

My other little girl, well, she did stellar. Would have done even better if I knew to show tidier positions. We missed 1st place both times by a point or 2. And she titled moved up to the next level. My main focus for her was to set a precedent for the competition scene to be fun and for her to stay at a good enthusiasm level without going over the top. I’ll have to get out and put agility titles on her…or do I? 😉

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