Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired

This is a rewrite, with significant changes, of a post originally published in March 2013.

Dog Trial venue
The distracting, sometimes scary environment of a dog trial

In March of 2013, Summer and I competed in her last AKC Rally Obedience trial. Yes, I was one of the many people who took a moderately reactive dog to trials to compete. She was such a good sport. She was a wonderful partner (she passed away in 2017) and did a great job, but I decided afterward that I was asking too much of her.

Sable mixed breed dog walks briskly in heel position next to small woman wearing jeans and red sweatshirt
Summer stepping out with a jaunty gait, relaxed mouth and face, and a happy tail

What It’s Like for a Reactive Dog at an Obedience Trial

Summer encountered many challenges at performance events and venues. A dog trial will never be the favorite environment of a dog who is indifferent to most people, primed to be afraid of men, bothered by certain types of dogs, and easily startled. Every time you turn a corner, or even while you sit in your own little area minding your own business, somebody new pops into your field of vision or right in your space. And the noise!

Once I described the trial environment and what it was like for a dog like Summer to a friend, and she said, “Like a funhouse!” She nailed it. For those a bit younger than my generation, a funhouse is an interactive carnival attraction that people walk through.

From the Wikipedia definition:

…funhouses are participatory attractions, where visitors enter and move around under their own power. Incorporating aspects of a playful obstacle course, funhouses seek to distort conventional perceptions and startle people with unstable and unpredictable physical circumstances…

Public domain image of what an obedience judge might look like to Summer

Funhouses have mirrors that distort your appearance or confuse the pathway or aren’t mirrors at all. Some floors give way and move when you step on them. Weird characters may pop into view. They often have a confusing maze. In other words, a funhouse is an out-of-control environment that is hard to escape.

The big difference, of course, is that humans generally enter such attractions voluntarily, knowing roughly what to expect. For some reason, some of us actually seek out experiences that startle or scare us or bewilder our senses. I don’t think dogs do. Summer went (rarely) to obedience events because I took her. I did my very best to make them easy and pleasurable for her, but this was a challenge.

Summer’s History in Competition

I got Summer at about 10 months old from a local shelter. She was under-socialized and feared children and most men. She was anxious, she hated most small terriers and other feisty dogs, and she became somewhat sound-sensitive over the years. Besides these traits, she didn’t have a huge drive to do stuff with people. She was an extremely mixed breed, close to the phenotype of the village dog except for her longer coat. She generally wanted to do her doggie things like chase varmints and she liked her comfort. Finally, she was hypothyroid, on medication, and tired easily.

Perfect performance dog, right? Actually, for me, she was.

Summer and I were very close. We worked together for all of her life with me and she always read me better than any of the other dogs. She was my crossover dog and we grew up together in the dog training world. She loved to go places and have me to herself. I reinforced the hell out of rally and obedience behaviors, and she came to enjoy them almost as much as agility. Plus there were always those wonderful smells at dog trials!

Sable dog sitting in heel position gazing upward at woman (mostly out of picture)
Summer in the ring maintaining nice contact

How I Helped My Dog at Rally and Obedience Trials

Here are some of the things I did at trials to maximize the good for Summer:

  1. She got tired easily, so we minimized the time at any event (We stayed for about 2 1/2 hours at this event but we were outdoors for plenty of that).
  2. I left her by herself as little as possible since it worried her. Even if I had to go to the bathroom, I would get someone she knew to sit next to her crate.
  3. I set up our crate in a less-trafficked area and set up visual barriers in our little zone to cut down on some of the stimuli.
  4. I sought out and let her visit with a couple of people whom she adored (and who adored her).
  5. I took her outside as much as possible. She loved to explore outdoors.
  6. If there was an opportunity to work in the ring beforehand, we always did. I used the time to get her comfortable in the space while still staying connected with me.
  7. I stayed hypervigilant (since she was). I tried to see every possible startling thing before she did, to protect her or give her a heads up. (Also to protect other dogs from a possible snark.)
  8. I took the best treats ever, both for after her competition run but also for sitting around in such a difficult environment.
  9. I was responsive to her energy level and generally didn’t take her more than two days in a row.

I am not the only person who has made these efforts. Our name is legion, and since the original date of this post, the group has grown. There are now entire courses on helping dogs adapt to trial environments. Many bloggers write about competing, and sometimes choosing not to compete, with dogs who have difficulties in public situations. Thankfully, the pressure to compete at all costs seems to have given way to more consideration for the dog’s wants and needs. There are also many more opportunities for competition that accommodate the needs of fearful or reactive dogs, including all-virtual titles where you submit videos online.

I would not compete in public with a dog like Summer now. Why did I do it then? I had several motivations. Competing gave me specific goals and helped me keep focused on my training. It gave Summer and me something to do together with just the two of us. Also, I liked to get out and show people what a dog trained with positive reinforcement could look like in the ring. Even with Summer’s challenges, she always looked happier than 90% of the dogs who competed. And I wanted people to see a mixed breed dog competing and doing well. (This was still a rarity at the time.) And hey, I admit, I’m competitive.

With all these motivations, I had to temper my ego and preferences and avoid pushing my dog too hard.

Sable dog trotting toward camera with her mouth open and tail up (looking happy)
Summer heading for the gate (and probably thinking about chicken baby food)

Our Title Run in Rally Advanced

The sport of rally obedience involves lots of heeling in patterns and some other combinations of moves such as sits, downs, stays, and jumps. There are signs placed in order around the ring, each representing a defined behavior to perform.

Summer was one of the two first mixed breed dogs in my state to get an AKC Rally Novice title, a goal I set out to achieve as soon as I found out that she would soon be eligible. She got two first-place runs and a third place. The other mutt did well, too. I think the other owner was a motivated as I was to show that mixed breeds could perform well.

At the Novice level in rally, dogs compete on leash and there are 10–15 signs in the ring (out of a pool of 40 or so that you learn). In Rally Advanced (the second level in AKC) they are off leash and there are 12–17 signs, including more difficult ones. Summer and I already had two “legs” (qualifying runs) in March of 2013. A third qualifier would give us our title. Spoiler alert: we succeeded.

At this last trial, the course was a fun one, with a lot of Summer’s favorite moves and a couple of the new signs added that year. Things went very smoothly until we got to the very back of the ring.

We encountered a problem I had never experienced. The required behavior was a spiral left. You must take the dog in a certain spiraling pattern around some pylons, with the dog on the inside, between you and the pylons. But the pylons were set up parallel to the ring boundary and very close to it. We couldn’t walk comfortably in the space between the ring fencing and the pylons. I don’t know how the people with bigger dogs did it. I had trained Summer to walk at a certain proximity to me and she kept trying to move over into her normal position. This sent her toward the wrong side of the pylons. But she was only doing what I had trained her to do.

I kept getting her back in position but she finally made a move that would have made us fail the sign completely. So we took the option of a complete do-over, which lost us only 3 points instead of the 10 we would have lost if we had failed to perform the sign correctly. I walked a little more slowly the second time and clung to the boundary of the ring, encouraging her to stay extra close to me. Even with the do-over, we got a score of 96 (out of 100) and second place.

There were some other rocky moments when she got distracted by sights or sounds. I didn’t blame her. People were cheering in the other rings, and a bunch of dogs and people gathered around ours. I was so proud that she stuck with me so well in such a difficult environment.

Video of the Run

I’ve never posted a rally or obedience video before because we were decent but not all that great. We were true amateurs, competing in obedience less than once a year on average. But I was pleased when I saw the film. The only moments Summer looked unhappy were a couple of times during sit stays (at 1:13 and 2:15). When we were moving, her tail stayed up and she looked focused and happy. I even like the parts where she got distracted and looked out of the ring because she responded when I asked her to.

I edited out the first try at the spiral for brevity and clarity. I’m not embarrassed by the mistake. We were at the back of the ring and it’s hard to see our fatal error, so for most viewers, it would be 27 seconds of boredom. I linked to the unedited version at the bottom of the post for the curious.


As you can see from her body language, Summer was pretty happy in the ring. It’s not surprising; we practiced a lot and I regularly gave her a whole jar of chicken baby food after a rally run! She knew what was waiting for her. But even that ambrosia can’t turn a miserable dog happy, and she looked happy and comfortable for most of her time in the ring.

Nonetheless, this was Summer’s last competition. We could have returned the next day to compete at the next level, for which we had practiced. But trials exhausted both of us. And with her potential for noisy reactivity if a small terrier should get in her face, I felt it wasn’t responsible to keep taking her. Remember, in the funhouse, you are never quite in control.


Unedited version of rally run for those who want to see the mess-up.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

6 thoughts on “Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired

  1. Hello Eileen,
    I started reading your column in 2015. I learned a huge amount about how to train and enrich my little black lab mix shelter dog’s life. We played hide- the- treat games, squeaky toy chase and I used conditioning to help her ‘enjoy’ getting her nails trimmed, etc. The advice and wisdom in this blog helped enrich both our lives. She recently passed away at 14, but she was content and fairly comfortable even at the end. I’ll be looking into adopting again and will keep visiting here to learn even more.
    I liked this article about Summer and bearing in mind a dog’s comfort zone. My condolences on your loss. It’s always sooo hard.

    1. Hi Karla,
      What kind words from you! Thank you!
      I’m sorry for the loss of your own dear lab mix, and feel privileged that I might have helped a little in making her life even sweeter.
      Thank you so much for writing.


  2. Thank you for this, Eileen. You and Summer were such a team, in all ways.

    We did the same thing with our dearly beloved late cattle dog Pica. She placed first in the one agility match I took her to. She was keen and focused and HAPPY! on the course – but the whole setting overall was difficult. I asked myself “why put her/us through this again?” We could have just as much fun in the back yard and in small classes – and we did. You’re reaffirming my decision that it was just fine not to push her.

    How is Clara doing?

    1. Hi Chris,
      It’s always great to hear from you.
      You learned faster than I did that trials weren’t necessary! Thanks for your kind words about the post.
      Clara is still having a bit of a hard time after losing Zani. She depended on Zani for stability in ways I had never known. But I think she is getting steadier.
      It will help when we can go on walks again—I’m waiting until after I’m vaccinated since my neighborhood can be a little crowded and people are overly friendly!

  3. Love the photos and videos–seeing Summer’s sweet, sweet face and jaunty body language was wonderful! You made a great team!

    Your story mirrored my own decision to stop competing with my own crossover dog many years ago. He was a rescue that had spent his first year in a kennel run and had not been socialized to anything at all–so he was afraid of absolutely everything in the world. But he was SO very smart, and so biddable and devoted to me. So I trained him in AKC Obedience. He was wonderful! And that was when clicker training was fairly new, so I was eager to show that a dog trained completely with positive reinforcement could handle Novice Obedience. And I earnestly worked with him to mitigate all the scary things, and did things like carry him to and from the ring so that he wouldn’t meet any scary new dogs or people on the way from his crate.

    And we did practice show & go’s, which he handled well, and then we went to an official Match–not a show, where the points would count, but a dress rehearsal, as it were, with the environment very much like an official show (I don’t see many of these in my area, so I jumped at the opportunity). The judge in the ring with us was wearing a leg cast all the way up her leg and using crutches, which we hadn’t prepared for, and he didn’t like it at all, but he did it for me. He did it ALL for me, even though he was absolutely terrified. In fact, we would have gotten a perfect score, except that on the last exercise (except the group stays)–the recall–he did a perfect recall, a perfect front….then threw up on my shoes and gave me such a miserable face, I felt like I wanted to die. That’s when I quit the ring–and when we quit obedience competition altogether. My clever, sweet, devoted little dog would do absolutely ANYTHING for me, even though he was so terrified and unhappy. How could I do that to him?

    I lacked the skills as a trainer to change his emotional reactions to the environment, and if we couldn’t make him feel happy in the ring, like your Summer, then I didn’t want to put him through such a difficult experience. He was happy to continue to train with me outside the ring environment, and was a great demo dog for my pet classes. He was eager to train and work, but performing in a ring was hell for him.

    You did so much better with Summer, and go so much further along, and still came to a similar decision. That was really encouraging for me, and made me feel better about my decision, all these years later. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

    1. Oh my goodness, Maria, what a story! Your fellow sounds like an amazing dog. What a little trouper. And oh, man. A judge with crutches and a cast like that. How many dogs were prepared for that, I wonder?
      I think you made a great decision. I’m glad my belated one was helpful to you, too.


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