Were we lucky, or was it something more?
On Sunday 25th August, I drove around 130 miles after getting up at 5am to compete in a TD Rally trial with three of my collies. It was our first trial as a competitor and despite my nerves we managed six qualifying rounds with very respectable scores. This blog is a reflection on our day together, and why I think it was more than luck to gain such exciting results. Ultimately, choosing warm-up exercises to suit each individual dog added to a foundation of key skills helped us despite our lack of formal trialling experience.
Talking Dogs Rally is one of several Rally-Obedience sports in the UK, and is closely based on Bud Kramer's original idea of a free-flowing 'doodle' incorporating various exercises to warm dogs up for competition. You can find out more about TD Rally here. I've been learning about and training Rally exercises with my collies for about 6 years now after reading about the sport in Pam Dennison's inspiring book "Bringing Light to Shadow" (short review). I run classes in Rally and have been a qualified Level 2 KC/APDT UK Rally judge for several years now, but due to the majority of trials being over a day's travel away haven't had much chance to compete.
Rally courses (of any flavour) are made up of numbered stations. Each team (human + dog) have to navigate the course in their own time, undertaking the exercise at each station. For example the dog may have to sit, lie down and then sit before moving on with the handler. Handlers are encouraged to talk to and praise their canine team member. In the lower levels food and toy rewards can be given although not used as bribes! Each round is scored out of 200 (or 210 with a bonus exercise) points and you lose points for various errors/faults. 170/200 is the minimum qualifying score.
I made the decision early in 2013 to focus on TD Rally for a number of reasons, primarily because the explicit focus on reward based modern training methods and building a happy relationship between handler and canine partner fits well with my own training ethos. I also appreciate that disabled dogs (and handlers!) are explicitly accommodated within the rules and attitudes of the sport. For example, one of my dogs is deaf and part-blind, so the "disability modification" certificate allows me to use additional hand signals (rather than verbal cues) and permits me to touch Bronte to gain her attention since I can't call her name.
Our first trial
When I made the long trip down to Abbots Ripton for our first live TD Rally competition, I was excited and nervous, but mostly expecting that we might not get many qualifying scores. It was going to be a valuable experience and a chance to prepare for the future. I'm writing this, not because I doubted my dogs or myself, but because it seemed a reasonable expectation for our first trial. Here's a brief reminder of the dogs who came with me:
Farah - 8yrs BC, deaf from birth. Farah came to me about 7 months of age and has probably had the most training. Together we completed all the KC Good Citizen Awards, took and passed the Pets As Therapy certification and were an active member of the Tailwaggers Demonstration Team for four years. Farah is relatively easily spooked by sudden movements/shadows and struggles in bright sunlight as it can be harder to see my hand signals. For the past four years Farah has also been rather performance shy and finds the pressure of people watching rather intense. Its something of an ongoing project to slowly expand her comfort zone!
Bronte - 5.5yrs BC, deaf and part-blind from birth. Bronte came to me after spending 3 years in a rescue centre where she was very happy but rather a wild child! Bronte adores people and just loves to snuggle. With only having partial sight in one eye (and no vision in the other) it can be a challenge to keep her attention, and I have to make sure my hand signals are in her field of vision. New places are intensely distracting and over excitement results in high pitched squealing and bouncing. Training with Bronte has focused more on everyday skills, reducing her separation anxiety and to some extent Rally exercises though we don't practice nearly enough.
Freya - 2.5 yrs BC, adopted in December 2012. Freya is affectionately known as my ultra-collie. Keen to work and up for any challenge she stretches my training skills and demands faster, more precise information at every turn. Freya came from a travellers site with a sweet nature and no basic training, but a very keen prey drive instinct. We've been focusing on every day skills (not chasing after every squirrel in the forest), focus around distractions and only really started formal Rally training about three months ago.
If I was to be brutally honest, I expected Freya to be amazing despite lack of experience, Bronte to probably just snuggle the judge and steward, and Farah to panic a little at some point resulting in cuddles in the middle of the ring. Specifically I figured we might get one qualifying score out of six rounds.
Instead the girlies were amazing, I could not have asked for more from them. Despite my shoddy handling in places, all three gave their best in the ring. It was a long day, we left York at 6am and were at the trial venue from 8.30am to 7pm. All three dogs had to spend a fair bit of time crated in the car in between walks and competing, and although TD Rally trials are quiet compared to the agility field, there were a few barking dogs, a couple of sirens and the usual noises.
Strategies and reflections
My goal for Farah was to have her come out of the car, settle in the new environment and perhaps be able to play with a toy (she stops playing very quickly if at all stressed or nervous). If we made it into the practice ring and managed a couple of stations I was willing to call it a success so long as Farah stayed positive and engaged with me!
What actually happened was everything I wanted and more. Farah chased her favourite ball near the ring areas, and came into the practice ring in great form. We've been using some of her favourite tricks to warm her up and keep things light for both of us. So our warm-up both outside and inside the ring consisted of the following: nose touch to hand, paw to foot, paw to hand, spin both directions and finished with jumping through my arms from behind a couple of times. We raised a lot of smiles from the other competitors!
I had to pop her back into the car while I walked the course, and I made sure to use my hand signals and identify good reward spots on the walk through. I also did some visualisation and deep breathing at the start of the course, which I repeated before working Farah in the ring.
We had two rounds, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. On the morning course Farah was paw perfect! I mis judged a couple of the signals meaning we lost points for flow and position, but Farah worked with me all the way round. No panicing at the flapping barriers (ooops! we never traning for those), the spectators or other dogs. By the time we finished the bonus round I was close to tears - I know my amazing little girl can turn out stupendous performances but its rarely in front of other people. This time it all came together.
The afternoon was slightly wobbly for Farah as the sun came out making for rather a lot of suddenly moving shadows and we had a tiny panic through the slalom exercise. None the less, Farah coped, came with me when asked and increased in confidence as she moved on. The joy of TD Rally was being able to reward that amazing achievement right then with a food reward - it cost us some points but was crucial to building on Farah's fantastic choice. Both courses were tough - lots of heelwork and moving stations which are not usually our strong points. I think its fair to say that the years of foundation work, plus some carefully chosen warm up exercises definitely paid off for us.
Humorously, Farah made two attempts to break out of the car during the afternoon. Normally content just to settle on her mat and watch the world go by, clearly Farah was in the mood to work and wormed her way past the puppy barrier which was bungeed around the back of the car! Its hard to be upset when your dog is that keen to get out and work!
Bronte is a very dear and special dog, large for a collie and with many unique mannerisms. She has come into her own since we discovered Talking Dogs Scentwork (another blog to come on that!) growing in confidence, enthusiasm and focus. Bronte struggles with Rally as sometimes she finds the repetition of exercises difficult. It is as though having sat several times in a row, Bronte then looks up bemused and asks if she somehow did it wrong last time? Why am I asking her to sit again! Plus when really confused, Bronte's default behaviour is to lie down...this is a big improvement on leaping around and shouting at the top of her considerable voice, but still not ideal in the Rally ring.
When I brought Bronte out for a quick walk and a chance to take in the new environment, I noticed that she was in a great mood but incredibly distracted and unfocused. I decided to try a new and potentially risky strategy. Scentwork (for which Bronte wears a special harness) is one of her favourite jobs but it can be difficult to switch her out of scenting and back into anything else even once the harness has been taken off. I decided to try doing some scentwork in the hope it would settle her, so off I headed to hide the little plastic pots of ginger cake! Bronte loved the scentwork and we seemed to be in a good place together, so back she went into the car before our walk through.
Both of Bronte's rounds were in the afternoon, and I was also competing in the same classes with Freya. This posed some additional problems that I had not anticipated. On the walk through I was thinking mainly about Bronte (first to run) and her hand signals...which meant I was not at all prepared for working poor wee Freya right after wards! Despite Bronte's disabilities she is excellent at catching treats, so our warm-up was a really good cuddle and catching pieces of sausage.
The courses were hard! Lots of combo stations which I've not practiced much (note for the diary) and plenty of slaloms and spirals which test your ability to keep the dog moving nicely by your side. We had a few wee moments of distraction but over all I was delighted. In the second course, Bronte did contemplate visiting the judge for a moment (lost points for the extra sit as she leaned hopefully in the judge's direction) but recovered well. The bonus call to heel exercise was paw perfect right up until Bronte shot past me and began a lap of honour to greet the spectators - thankfully not too costly a mistake.
On reflection my expectations for Freya were rather high. After all, she had very little foundation or Rally-specific training, had spent a large part of the day in a crate and was asked to come out and work with no time for a warm-up. Worse still on a toilet break earlier, Freya had realised there was a large rabbit warren at the far side of the competition field. All my dogs work with me in my job as a behaviour consultant and assist in the rehabilitation sessions, for private clients and for rescue branches. This means they get lots of practice at focusing on me regardless of anything else that might be going on. Freya of course has only just started doing this with me, so everything is all rather new and exciting to her.
Our first round felt disastrous though the score suggests it was more in my head! I had to rush Bronte back to the car and swop for Freya, so had very little time to settle her or me. I really noticed this walking into the ring as there was just no connection between us. I did a little bit of pattern games to try and remedy it, but too little too late. We made it round the course, but my hand signals were really aimed at Bronte (wrong dog!), I was using verbal cues that meant nothing to either of us (why?!) and at one point we almost fell over each other *sigh*. Too rushed in every respect, yet that little ultra collie tried her best to interpret my incoherent stumbling.
Having realised my many mistakes, and thankfully having more time between dogs in the second course, I set out to repair our working relationship. Freya and I spent some time just pottering together and playing with her squeaky ball before we went anywhere near the practice course. We only did a few behaviours before breaking off for a cuddle break and by the time we were due in the ring, I could feel that lovely warm connection with her again. Not surprisingly this helped enormously! We lost points in the expected places (still not quite cracked the sit into stand exercise for example) but it flowed and was enjoyable. Freya even chased her squeaky ball on a rope for a reward at the end, which is quite something for a food-obsessed previously starved dog.
Farah: Ace (194/210) and Ace (197/210) (just one rosette away from a potential Award of Excellence...)
Bronte: Outstanding and Ace
Freya: Outstanding and Ace
It was an amazing day. I was already hooked on teaching Rally and practicing on my own, now I'm hooked on competing too. I loved the friendly welcoming atmosphere. I relished knowing that I was competing against my own scores, rather than anyone elses. And I really appreciated being part of a sport where all dogs are welcome regardless of abilities or breed.
The experience was a great reminder that good training foundations really do make a huge difference in a competitive situation, and I need to take time to connect with each of my dogs as individuals. Farah certainly reminded me that the most important aspect is having a dog who is keen to work with you, after that its just about the details. But there is no point nagging a dog into doing any exercise when their heart just isn't in it. I'm delighted that Farah is confident enough to demand to work with me, and look forward to seeing what happens at our next trial.
I am super excited that Well Connected Canine will be hosting two TD Rally workshops with Becky Skelhon (co-founder) in October 2013, and two official trials in 2014, plus we have a regular monthly TD Rally Club for practice and support. More workshop details here