And Other Performance Events
At the moment, all of my six Cavaliers have Rally titles and one has her regular Obedience CD. I trained my Papillons for Agility way back when, but there's no Agility club within an hour's drive and if I'm going to work on my own, I'd rather do Rally.
So what are Cavaliers like in performance? And what IS Rally, anyway? And what does your dog need to be able to do to succeed in Rally? I touch briefly on all those points below.
What are Cavaliers like as performance dogs? They are willing, fun, fast, and all-round excellent at performance events! If your Cavalier is sound, he should be fun to show in Agility; if you're a decent trainer with a positive attitude and a light touch, your Cavalier should do fine in regular Obedience; if you happen to like Flyball, there's no reason your ball-crazy Cavalier shouldn't be an asset to a team.
Why do I like Rally best?
If you don't have room to set up Agility equipment, if you don't have a handy Obedience club to help practice your group exercises, if you don't have a Flyball team to join, then you can still print off a deck of Rally cards that describe the signs, teach your dog in your living room, practice on street corners and in parking lots, and have a great time at Rally events.
Rally, if you don't know, is a kind of less-formal Obedience. It's meant to be an intro to regular Obedience, and that's all very well, but you can certainly do Rally as an end in itself. Like all the performance sports, you need to qualify three times to get a title. There are three levels in Rally: novice, advanced and excellent, but you can keep going and pick up a special RAE title after you've gotten your Excellent title and lots of people do. I think I was the only competitor at the last Rally show who had dogs in the ring getting their Advanced titles; everybody else at the Advanced level was working on their RAE titles.
In Rally, the judge sets up a course with about twenty signs. Each sign tells you to do something, you get ten minutes to study the course, and then you run the course and do each sign in order. You can ask the judge or other competitors if you're not sure exactly how to do a given sign.
The reason it's less formal is that you can talk to your dog all the way through and give as many hand signals and verbal commands as you want. You can't drag your dog around by the leash or push him into position or give him treats while actually on the course, and I'm sure you're not allowed to scream at your dog, either, though I've never seen anybody try. But if your dog's attention wanders, you can call her name, and if you want to tap the ground to remind her how to lie down, fine.
There are lots of novice signs, then some added at the advanced level, then a few more added at the excellent level. Except for "Heel Backing Up" I don't think anything at the excellent level is much harder than anything at the Advanced level. The signs can be as easy as "Right Turn" or as complicated as "Halt - Front - Left Finish - Halt - Forward".
I don't want to get into a complete list of Rally signs -- if you're interested, go look at Rally on the AKC website. But for example, here are all the ways I can think of offhand to turn right --
Right Turn (novice level)
270 degree Right Turn (novice level)
Halt - Turn Right - One Step - Call to Heel -- Halt (advanced level)
Right Pivot (excellent level)
I'm a fairly decent trainer and I like to work fast, maybe other people have other experiences, but I'd say that it shouldn't take more than four weeks or so, training every couple of days for a few minutes at a time, to get a Cavalier ready to zip through a novice Rally course and get perfectly decent scores -- for me, that's scores in the nineties. They seem to do fine even if you only take them to town to practice three or four times. You'd think they'd need more practice working in a crowded environment, but they don't seem to be very easily distracted. I think this must be because Cavaliers aren't fearful, they love your undivided attention, and they focus on you very easily when they're working with you in the ring. When they do get distracted, you can easily get their attention back.
Example: at her last show, Dora was finishing the third leg of her Advanced title. Somebody in the regular Obedience ring threw a dumbbell and it landed right in front of Dora. She notices things anyway -- if a branch snaps in the woods, she's the one who whirls around and says "What was that?" So, unsurprisingly, she stopped and stared at the dumbbell. At the time, I was asking her to do a front and a left finish. I just leaned down and said loudly, "EARTH TO DORA!" and she turned at once to look at me. Since you can repeat commands without a penalty in Rally, I once again gave her the signal to front and she stopped thinking about the dumbbell, came in and gave me a nice front, then a nice finish, and we went on. I think her final score was a 98 that day.
That's what I mean by saying it's easy to get a Cavalier's attention back. A Welsh Springer at the same show got distracted by something at ringside, stopped, stared, heeled reluctantly after his owner with his head turned to stare over his shoulder, stopped again, turned to stare, etc, etc. That is an example of a dog who is hard to get back once he's been distracted.
In Rally, I expect to lose more points than the dogs. Since I don't go to a Rally class and have never had an instructor snapping at me, "PAUSE for a second after you walk around your dog!" or "NO, YOUR OTHER LEFT!", I make mistakes. If I don't make any egregious mistakes, I expect scores over ninety-five, because the dogs don't make many mistakes at all.
I certainly would say that treats are the way to go when you're training a Cavalier. Though you can't use treats IN the ring, you can give a treat right before you enter the ring and grab one or two to give your dog as soon as you come out of the ring. I make no effort to 'fade' treats during training. I use plenty of treats -- lots while teaching something new, of course, but at least one every four or so moves when I'm training also, even for exercises my dogs know well and like doing. I have no trouble at all working without treats in the ring. Rally courses are so fast to run than I don't think my dogs realize they're not getting treats in the ring. But actually, even when taking Pippa through her CD in formal obedience, I had no trouble with her 'turning off' because of no treats in the ring. I petted and praised her enthusiastically between exercises and that was fine. Cavaliers are happy to work for approval, but the treats are motivating too, and of course if you hand out treats during training, they know for sure they're doing the exercises right. Anyway, my suggestion is, don't worry that you might be using too many treats if you're working with a Cavalier. Not a problem. Unless you're worried about your dog's weight. Then use little bitty treats.
Here's a list of the very few things your dog needs to be able to do well in order to succeed at Rally (and brief descriptions of how I teach those things to my Cavaliers) --
A good Heel, including slow and fast and all kinds of turns. A Heel isn't good if you have to hold or drag or jerk the dog with a leash. In trainer's lingo, Cavaliers are soft, soft, soft! There's some variation, of course, but even the ones who aren't very soft for Cavaliers are pretty soft compared to lots of other breeds. They hate leash corrections (they hate any kind of corrections!). Luckily, my Papillons taught me how to train without corrections, so this isn't a problem for me and I just ignore anybody who tries to tell me how to do leash corrections 'better.'
I train Heel exclusively off-leash to make sure I don't ever succumb to the temptation to deliver a leash correction and also to make sure I don't accidentally teach the dog to depend on guidance from the leash. And ALSO because I hate it when the leash gets tangled up around the dog's leg or I trip over it or have to switch it from hand to hand. I am a klutz with a six-foot training leash. I use flexis for walking in town and no leash at all for training. My vote for "best Rally reform" would be to make leashes optional at the novice level. And for the stay at the Excellent level, too. I'd never use a leash in the ring again. In training, I introduce the leash for heeling only right before the show, just so neither I nor the dog will find it too impossibly weird in the ring.
I teach the Heel very casually, by going a few steps at a time with plenty of treats. I might mess around with the Heel a little inside, but I teach it primarily outside and off-leash, just a few steps at a time while going for a walk. I don't find it hard at all to go from three steps of heeling to twenty steps. Cavaliers seem to get the concept really easily and they're willing and attentive, so extending the distance you go while heeling is a non-issue. I don't care if they're six inches from me or eighteen, as long as they stay with me and are attentive.
Right away, I teach a puppy to sit when I stop. It's very easy, you just lift your luring hand a bit and their heads go up and their rears go down and poof! Instant sit. Most Cavaliers automatically sit straight. If a puppy does sit crooked, I don't worry about that very much. You don't lose many points in Rally for crooked sits, so why obsess? I do like a reasonably straight sit, though, so I just use a treat as a lure to get a puppy's head away from me as she comes to a stop; that brings her rear end in toward me and straightens her out. Do that consistently for the first few training sessions and they learn to sit pretty well straight without prompting. No need for finding a dowel with which to touch her rear end, no need for heeling next to a wall or curb so she has to sit straight, no need for any corrections of any kind. The only trick is remembering which dog needs a bigger, wider hand signal to get her head away from you. Anyway, after the dog learns the proper habit, crooked sits disappear and the hand signals shrink.
I introduce slow, fast, and turns immediately. I don't specifically teach 270 degree or 360 degree turns, or the serpentine, or anything like that. I just teach my dog to stay with me wherever I go and that takes care of all the turns and weaving and what-not. Nothing in heeling is hard if your dog just gets that she should stay with you. Except if she forges ahead a little, then left terns are a pain because you can so easily trip over her. But it's a lot easier to teach a dog to slow down a little than coax a dog to speed up. I hate a dog that lags. Cavalier never lag. At least, not mine. Unless it's really hot. Everybody lags then! Just teach them from the start that heeling is fun and introduce the fast pace immediately, that should prevent any actual problems with lagging.
One point of confusion for most dogs is, they mistake 'slow' for 'stop-and-sit'. Or the same with the turns to the left, if you turn in a left circle they think you might be stopping and they sit. But they figure out the difference quickly with a little help. Make bigger circles (I remind myself) so they aren't tempted to sit. I might use my voice a little to encourage them to keep coming and not sit as I slow down. I mean, I might say 'here, here, here,' meaning 'come on, keep moving, don't sit.'
That reminds me, I don't say 'Heel.' Not that I have anything against the word, but I use a lot of hand signals, so I don't need or use a lot of verbal commands. Most dogs, not just Cavaliers, pick up hand signals much faster than verbal commands. My heel 'command,' such as it is, is just the dog's name, or maybe, "here," by which I mean 'come with me' or 'pay attention' or 'speed it up'. Even in regular Obedience, I just said, "Pippa!" and started forward, I never said "Pippa, heel!" Why use special words when all you want is the dog to notice that you're moving?
Cavaliers seem to be able to focus on you so well that they have no trouble at all heeling in a circle around a bag full of treats or a brand-new squeaky toy. They need to be able to do this for one of the Advanced signs. I have seen a dog -- a young Boxer -- who went back again and again to a basket of toys being used as a distraction in the ring, until he'd emptied the basket and the toys were scattered all over the ring. This was absolutely hysterical! But not okay if you want to qualify, of course. But even when trying it for the first time, my Cavaliers seem just fine at tuning out curiosity about a distraction and staying right with me. I just say their names if they start to look at the distraction and there's no problem. Pippa always did great at figure-eights in regular Obedience. It just seems to me that Cavaliers are naturally good at heeling. My girls and I never lose many points for our heeling.
Oh, and if you might think about going on to regular Obedience, use people as distractions sometimes. Just have some stranger stand still and heel your dog around him in a circle. People are happy to help you with this as long as you let them pet your dog first.
A Front and Right and Left Finishes. A Front is where your dog sits facing you. A Left Finish is where your dog swings around to your left and winds up sitting parallel with you, in heel position. A Right Finish is where your dog goes around you to the right and comes back around into heel position on your left.
You teach fronts and finishes by luring the dog around with a treat, remembering that where the treat goes, the head will follow. The only hard part is getting the dog to move when she thinks she is perhaps supposed to be on a sit-stay (use your voice, take one step back, or both). Fronts are easy. Unlike Papillons, Cavaliers don't mind getting in close to you and sitting because they don't worry about getting stepped on. Also they usually sit straight without much training.
In a left finish, the dog will most likely sit crooked, her rear out too far. When you teach her the left finish, move your hand (with a treat) in a broad counter-clockwise circle, leading the dog to swing out away from you and then straighten out close to you. Move your hand farther out from your body to finish the move, so that her head will follow your hand a bit farther out and her rear will wind up closer in. This winds up as a hand signal to your left. I have a little bitty hand signal for experienced dogs, but use a much bigger wave of my hand, or even both hands, with novice dogs.
The right finish is easier because the dog usually sits straight from the beginning. Lure her around behind your back with a treat in your right hand, switch her attention to a better treat in your left hand, and complete the exercise by bringing her to a sit in the correct position. That might be easier to demonstrate than explain, but it's a bait-and-switch technique, you have to switch them from following your right hand behind you to following your left hand into place as they come around to your left. Again, you turn the initial lure gesture into a hand signal. It takes a couple of training sessions to teach each finish, I guess. Not very long. Ten minutes total, in sessions of two or three minutes each? Once the dog catching on, you practice now and then while heeling -- heel a few steps, front your dog, finish right or left, heel a few more steps. Treats whenever she does a particularly good job at anything, of course. No need to be stingy. If you only work for a minute at a time, she won't get either fat or bored.
A good, reliable Sit and Down and Stand. That includes staying in position while you walk around your dog in a circle. Sit and Down are very easy to teach, including the stay-while-you-walk-around-them part. If she already has a Sit, takes about ninety seconds to teach a Cavalier to Sit-Stay while you walk around her in a circle. I should time it to see, but I recently taught this to four of my dogs in quick succession and honestly, I think it takes about ninety seconds. You then have to practice it from time to time, of course. The dog has to recognize your stay gesture and you have to figure out which gesture or command you want to use, and then you need to practice now and then on walks or in parking lots to get the stay to generalize and become reliable. And for me, I have to remember which dogs need help to keep them stable and which ones are rock-solid, and that's not constant because after all they should all get more solid with practice.
To teach a dog to sit while you walk around her, you tell or signal her to sit, give her a treat, take a small step to the right, quickly take a small step back in front of her, and give her another treat. If you're quick, she'll still be sitting. You keep on like that, move a little, a little farther, a little farther. To the right, to the left. Back away and return. Work fast. Remember you're teaching this in ninety seconds! So be brisk! Lots of treats. No corrections if she breaks, just ask her to sit again and make it easier so she's succeeding. When you actually go to walk around her, hold a treat right at her nose to focus her attention forward instead of letting her watch you. You can keep your hand right at her nose and walk around her in a tight circle -- honest. Even I seldom trip while doing this. Cavaliers don't mind you stepping near or over them, so it's not hard.
As soon as your Cavalier gets the idea, you use your empty hand to keep her attention forward, not a treat. Then you hold your hand farther away from her, just sort of up and out to keep her from turning her head or body. You can keep doing that forever, even in the ring. That's what I meant by 'helping a dog stay stable'. You give her a treat when you complete walking around her, of course. And lots of cheerful praise while she's right, then silence if she breaks. Or you can say "oops!" if she makes a mistake, but honestly, a couple of my dogs are so soft they're crushed if you tell them they're wrong more than once in a whole training session. It's easier just to set them up to be right and ignore their mistakes.
It's easy to go from this stage to just a hand signal for 'stay right there'. They're watching your hands anyway, right? I just hold out a hand, palm out, to mean 'stay right like that'. Usually two or three minutes a day for a couple of days is plenty to teach this kind of walk-around stay. You practice it after that, naturally. Just throw walk-around stays in while you're heeling. Put your dog into stays in front of flowers when you're taking pictures -- that makes your dog learn to stay while you back away and kneel down and do all kinds of weird things to get a good picture. I swear that even when a show is coming up, I don't practice more than a few minutes every couple of days. I mean, if it took hours, how would I have time? Usually I'm training all the dogs at least a couple of minutes because nobody wants to be left out. Ten minutes per dog x six dogs is a significant chunk of my free time, even five minutes per adds up to half an hour, so I sure don't do it every day.
The down-stay is just like the sit-stay.
Teaching a Stand is a bit harder -- even a conformation dog who 'gets' the stand-and-pose thing when she's wearing a show lead will probably find the stand-stay and stand-walk-around harder than the sit-walk-around or down-walk-around. Plus, in advanced, there's the Moving Stand where you stand your dog right out of a Heel, no halt or sit first. You play around a bit to find what works. You can lure a dog into a stand with a treat -- they think they're supposed to be sitting, so you have to encourage them to move. You can tickle a dog under the belly with a finger to coax her out of a sit. You can tap a dog under the belly with your foot if she's standing but then starts to sit -- try not to fall over if you do this, as it startles your dog!
My 'stand' command starts as a hand drawn from the nose out a couple of inches -- that's the movement of the treat -- and ends as a flat palm held a couple of inches from the nose. That's the final signal I like to try to teach. Some of the girls also 'get' that a touch on the flank means 'don't sit, this is a stand.' Others wonder what you're doing if you touch, or move your hand toward, their rear, and they turn to look. What you do just depends on the dog. You get them to stand still while you walk around them in a circle exactly as for a sit or down. Hold your hand out in front of them to get them to focus forward and keep your circle tight. I expect to teach a dog to stand in, I don't know, three training sessions of five minutes each? With at least three or five more sessions to really get pretty good at it? And a review of the stand right before we go in the ring for a dog who's new to the idea. I've never had a dog fail to stay in a stand in the ring.
Pippa's really good at the moving stand, the one where you're heeling and give them a stand command and they just stop dead and pose. But she's been through regular Obedience novice work, so she's had plenty of practice standing while all kinds of weirdness goes on around her. I do jumping jacks in front of her or behind her, kneel down, lie down, obviously I get strangers to touch her head and back while she stands. The regular Obedience Stand-For-Exam really needs a solid stand. None of my other dogs has had that kind of practice, so they could all improve.
A Jump -- once you're out of novice level, there's a jump -- two in excellent. Cavaliers love to jump! Any sound Cavalier should enjoy jumping! If your dog doesn't like to jump, you might very well suspect she is not sound. In the front, weak pasterns make it impossible for a dog to land without hurting herself. In the rear, slipping hocks or patella luxation or -- less likely -- hip dysplasia might cause problems with being able to jump. A back problem would make jumping hard or impossible. If your Cavalier hates jumping and you would like to know why, take her to a handling class and ask an experienced handler to watch her move and stand. Probably the handler will be able to tell you if something about your dog's structure is not sound.
This is why as a breeder I fervently believe that it is not okay to breed dogs that are not soundly constructed. I can't stand it when a dog can't do normal dog things because it is not put together properly. I swear to God, though neither should be rewarded in the show ring, I would rather see lack of type than lack of soundness in any pet. Lack of type bothers you when you look at the dog, but lack of soundness interferes with the dog's own ability to enjoy life and live without pain. I hate it when somebody tells me she has bred her pet and points to a girl who has weak pasterns and cow hocks and a roached back. If you can't tell sound construction when you see it, don't breed your dog.
Okay, end of rant.
Set up any kind of obstacle a few inches from the ground and ask your dog to jump over it. I use one section of a broad jump my Dad made me so I could practice regular Obedience with my Papillons. It's probably six inches high. Cavaiers jump eight inches in the ring. They don't even notice the difference, as far as I can tell. I certainly don't worry about it. Nor do they care if the jump in the ring looks different from the practice jump. I use a slender piece of plywood or a broom set up on books or bricks to show them the "bar" jump. That works just fine.
The more enthusiastic, livewire types of Cavaliers will immediately jump over anything you set up and instantly get that "Hup!" or "Up!" or "Jump!" means they get a treat for jumping over whatever it is. They jump back and forth with vast enthusiasm. They will jump anything you put in front of them -- high jump, broad jump, bar jump, broom, whatever. I'm sure they'd figure out an Agility tire jump just as easily. They are delighted to heel up to the jump and leap over it. The hard part is keeping up with them and getting them back into heel position promptly.
The more cautious type of Cavalier, or the sensible ones who wonder why you would bother jumping in the first place, will go around the end of the jump and look at you with puzzlement when you ask them to try again. They're on the other side, aren't they? Why no treat?
If thirty seconds of coaxing does not get a dog to jump, move the jump so one end butts up against a wall. That way they can't go around as easily. Coax some more. Lower the jump height if necessary. Hand out plenty of treats when your dog jumps the first time and she will rapidly develop enthusiasm and turn into the first kind of jumper.
You want some kind of high-jump thing, like a board stood on edge, and some kind of bar-jump thing, like a broom laid across books. Cavaliers have no trouble at all generalizing from the improvised jumps you teach them with at home to the real jumps they see in the ring. Once they learn to jump, Cavaliers will jump any odd thing you point them at. Just be sure and show your dog a bar jump, because you have to teach them not to go under the bar. Raise the bar or broom or whatever high enough that she could go under it and make sure she understand that she only gets treats for jumping over it.
And that's it! Heel, Front, the Finishes, Sit, Down, Stand, and Jump -- those and their permutations will get you through nearly everything in Rally and let you enjoy showing off in public, too!
I'm having fun with it. I have to say, it's nice to show in a performance event as well as conformation, although the timing conflicts between rings can be frustrating. Nothing can prevent a blind judge from giving the honors to a horrible bitch with neither type nor soundness nor anything at all to recommend her -- even if the judge is a good one, your bitch may not be the only nice one at the show! Depending on what the judge likes and who else shows up, you may not even get reserve, which is just provoking. But you don't have to beat anybody in the performance ring; everybody can qualify. Even if the judge is a tough one, if you've trained your dog, you'll do fine. So no matter what happens in the breed ring, you can always count on picking up another qualifying score in the performance ring to make the trip worthwhile!