Thursday, April 25, 2013

First Rally FrEe Competition - Reflections on the Sport

My final reflections on our big competition weekend are on the sport of Rally FrEe itself.

When I first heard of this new sport, I thought it was an excellent concept that would appeal mainly to a niche group of dog sport enthusiasts.  A group that might include: Freestylers who are looking for something new to do with their Freestyle skills, or who are seeking to build their skills in a structured format; Obedience participants who want to try something more "relaxed" that still requires a high level of precision; Rally participants who are interested in expanding their Rally skills and experiences.

I still believe that it will appeal to that particular niche, but after competing, I would say that this sport deserves to be considered as a fun and unique sport in its own right, and that its appeal may go well beyond those particular groups of handlers.  While it is a hybrid of Freestyle and Rally, it comes together to make something that is actually quite different from either, complete with its own goals and challenges.

I was surprised to find that the most difficult part of Rally FrEe competition was remembering which Free Choice behaviors I had planned at the Free Choice signs on each course.  Of course, if I used a prop at a particular Free Choice station, that became a non-issue, but except in those few cases, I did have to work very hard to remember some of the behaviors that I had planned at the Free Choice signs.

This was made even more challenging by the fact that I was working two dogs on each course and there actually isn't a great deal of overlap on the Free Choice behaviors that the two of them do best.  Tessa doesn't pivot with all feet on the floor yet, but Dean's pivots are so beautiful that I would be a fool not to use them as a Free Choice exercise for him.  Tessa's simultaneous spin looks so nice that I used it on every course, but I don't typically do those with Dean, so I didn't plan any at all.  Granted, I did end up doing one with him at a Free Choice sign where I completely forgot what I had planned, and he performed it just fine, but that isn't something that he and I do in Freestyle.  So, I had to remember 6 - 8 Free Choice behaviors per course, and then remember which one I was doing with each dog, and at which sign.

I wasn't the only one who found this difficult.  I spoke with some other competitors - all of whom were experienced Freestylers - and all agreed that they found remembering Free Choice behaviors to be difficult, as well.  One fellow Freestyler and I discussed this at length, considering why this might be.  After all, we remember entire routines of moves that aren't spelled out for us on signs in our Freestyle performances.

Freestyle is different, though.  Most of us create our own routines, and we are very familiar with them.  Also, we practice our routines for months on end.  When I am preparing to compete in Freestyle, I take time daily to listen to our performance song and speak the correct cues as I listen to the music, I visualize the routine over and over, and I practice with the dog as  many times as I can manage.

In contrast, we had these particular Rally FrEe courses in our possession for just 10 days, and I was only able to practice two of them twice with each dog.  Not exactly enough to have the Free Choices memorized like a Freestyle routine would be.

And, of course, in Rally there is no such thing as a Free Choice behavior.  The team does what the signs say and that's it!

This is a very worthy challenge, and I appreciate this particular aspect of Rally FrEe.  I love being able to incorporate behaviors that my dogs execute well, enjoy the heck out of doing, or simply look good doing.

Perhaps with experience, this will get easier.  I actually expect that it will.  I will be considering Free Choice signs, and how they work into practice courses, with a good deal more thought now that I have seen them in competition.

In comparison to Freestyle, which is my personal favorite dog sport, I found Rally FrEe to be delightfully low-key.  My dog and I were able to go out on the floor, move to music, enjoy working on the floor together, and test some of our Freestyle skills, but the pressure of performance was not there.  And while I like the pressure of performance - if I didn't enjoy performance I wouldn't choose to do Freestyle - this was a very refreshing and fun change.

To my surprise, I found that, aside from the concept of the course and moving from sign to sign, Rally FrEe isn't a whole lot like traditional Rally.  One of the most obvious differences is the fact that the dog works on both the right and the left, but the differences really did go far beyond that.  The vast majority of the individual exercises in Rally FrEe are not Rally exercises.  There are a few, such as 270 degree turns and the sit-stand, but most of the Rally FrEe behaviors are Freestyle moves, or hybrids of Rally Exercises and Freestyle moves, such as the call front-three steps back.  Furthermore, in traditional Rally, sits are emphasized, but there are very few sits in Rally FrEe.  The dog remains standing through most of the exercises, even when the team stops.

That said, the potential benefits to the dog and handler team that can be gained through Rally are available through Rally FrEe.  Rally can help a team develop synchronized movement, Rally can foster excellent attention and focus, Rally builds the give and take of teamwork between dog and handler, Rally helps develop precision, Rally helps develop versatility of behaviors.  Rally FrEe has the exact same benefits, with a few additional.  For example, the dog has the opportunity to develop confidence, comfort level, and skills on both the right and the left.  In addition, the dreaded default sit is not likely to develop since most of the dog remains standing through most of the stopped exercises.

Finally, and much to my surprise, in some ways Rally FrEe is similar to Agility.  I was as mentally relaxed going through the Rally FrEe courses in competition as I am when I am running Agility.  It seemed more like a fun game than a performance or obedience-type assessment, and when things didn't go perfectly I didn't really think anything of it, except maybe to laugh at what my crazy dog came up with.  From there we simply went on to enjoy the rest of the game.  A good friend of mine always says that Agility is the most fun sport to NQ in because the game is self-rewarding (to the handler).  I would say that the same it true of Rally FrEe - it is self-rewarding in the sense that the game itself is fun enough to enjoy regardless of the qualification results.  I found that I was very much "in the moment" with my dog at each station, as I am always "in the moment" with my dog when running Agility.

Overall, I am absolutely delighted with this fun new sport.  I love the exercises in both the fun and the challenge that they provide, I love the teamwork aspect of Rally FrEe, I really, really like the scoring system.  I believe that in creating Rally FrEe, Julie Flannery has given a true gift to dog sport enthusiasts, and I hope this takes off and becomes wildly successful.

One final note - I want to give a shout out to Diane of Happy Tails, who hosted the first eastern Rally FrEe event.  She was accommodating, welcoming, and supportive, and a better job of hosting could not be done!  And to Gay, who has been always been one of my favorite WCFO Freestyle judges.  She was supportive, helpful, and encouraging to all of us as we pioneered this brand new event together.  Last but absolutely not least, kudos to all of the volunteers and participants.  Everyone was friendly, cooperative, and supportive.

I will always count the experience of this first Rally FrEe competition as one of my all time favorite dog sport memories.

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