The reason I fell in love with rally, and became a judge, is because rally is about having fun and working together with your dog. Teams of all ages and abilities are welcome to participate and corrections in any form are heavily penalized. I also love CARO rally in particular because the trial environments I have encountered have been more relaxed, more encouraging and less stressful than other venues I have competed in.
I have been judging since 2010 and have had the opportunity to watch some really great teams at work, however, because rally obedience is a sport complete with rules, point deductions, passing and failing, some of these teams have not qualified and more often than not, it breaks my heart.
Sometimes great runs are non qualifying because a team completely misses a station.
Sometimes the dog does exactly what he or she was asked to do but the handler asks for the wrong behavior.
Sometimes a dog is incredibly unfocused to start but is able to refocus and finish the course.
Sometimes a dog is struggling with his or her own fears and anxiety and the handler just decides to stop competing, take out a toy or cookie, and make sure their dog has a good time.
Sometimes a handler is working very hard to keep a dog “in the game” but for whatever reason, the dog just can’t do it.
During my judges briefings, I always try to tell competitors that it is unlikely that anything that happens in the ring will surprise me because Bear and I have not qualified many, many times for many, many reasons. I share this because I want them to know that I am aware of the time, effort and training that goes into preparing a dog for trials, how much courage it takes to perform in front of an audience and how much composure it takes to be happy and positive with your dog no matter what happens in the ring. I also share this because I want competitors to know that I have been where they are and I understand all of the stress, anxiety and emotions that crop up when things do not go as we had hoped. But more than anything I share this because I want competitors, especially new ones, to understand that not qualifying does not mean that you have a bad dog or that you are a bad trainer, it just means that you had a bad run. The best thing to do about it is to learn what you can from the experience and use that knowledge to improve on the next run.
Unfortunately, aside from my judges briefings, time to seek people out to give them a quiet word of encouragement is limited and time to draw attention to great non-qualifying work is almost non-existent because it is a trial, not a class or a seminar: there are scorecards and ribbons to hand out, courses to set, questions to answer and trial records to sign.
After thinking about all of this for some time, I decided to start recognizing great work (qualifying or not) at a time when everyone is gathered and attentive – when it is time to hand out ribbons and scorecards. I give scorecards and ribbons to qualifiers and then, while everyone is present, I highlight the great work being done by dogs and their owners by giving out Judge’s Choice Awards. These awards are given to teams that I think exemplify team work, enthusiasm, or great work ethic, regardless of their score. I have also given them to teams and individuals that have made a drastic improvement throughout the trial or to handlers who remind me through their actions that rally is all about having fun with our dogs.