Teaching a dog to walk backward is important for competing in the Rally Excellent obedience trials. One station requires the pair to walk three steps backward with the dog off-leash in the heel position. Since Rally Excellent exercises are based upon all the exercises learned in Rally Novice and Rally Advanced, the handler and dog should now work as a team.
Walking backward, off-leash, with a dog, is not as difficult as it sounds. At this point in obedience training, the dog has learned the heel position and will stay on the left side. All it takes is to let the dog know exactly what you want of it.
The following method is not the only method that can teach a dog to walk backwards, but it works.
When teaching a new skill, it is always best to begin the training session by reviewing skills already learned. Start with basic heeling routines: forward, left and right turns, about turns and U-turns, circles, half-circles, come-fronts, finish left or right, pivots (both left and right), and side steps. These are all familiar exercises. Take the time to review them all before teaching a new skill; it is relaxing. Make this review as pleasant as possible.
The unaccustomed exercise begins with positioning the dog in the heel position, next to a wall, fence, or garage door. Stand in the heel position, facing in the same direction. The dog is nearest the wall, on the leash, and in a sitting position. (Putting the dog back on the leash is used for control.)
Ask the dog to stand using the usual method.
Do the following three things simultaneously:
1) place the right-hand flat, close to the dog’s nose, but don’t touch it, and waggle the hand;
2) give the voice command “back!;”
3) reaching back with the left foot, gently tap the dog’s rear right foot. Repeat “back” frequently so the dog associates the command with the activity.
As soon as the dog’s foot is tapped, move backward.
The dog will have a startled reaction to having its foot tapped. Expect that.
Most dogs have very sensitive feet and don’t like having them stepped on. The dog will probably try to move away. Don’t let it. When the dog reacts by backing up, praise generously. If using a clicker trainer, as soon as the dog backs up, click. If you use treats, as soon as the dog backs up, give a treat. That’s all there is to it.
The purpose of having the dog against a wall is just another form of control. The wall provides a means of control over body position.
For this first session, don’t make over five attempts at getting the dog to move backward. Do practice the exercise against a wall at every training session. Reinforce with praise, every backward move.
When the dog seems to understand the command and responds readily, move away from the wall and try the exercise in an open space. Keep the dog on a leash until the back-up on-leash becomes automatic. Go back to the wall if the dog still seems uncertain what to do.
Eventually, the dog no longer needs the nudge to the foot or the waggling hand but responds to voice commands and steps backward. Continue to praise generously.
There is nothing so awesome as to watch a handler/dog pair going through the Rally Excellent exercises and when coming to the three steps backward station, interrupt their forward motion, move backward together smoothly and seamlessly, and then move on again. A good team looks as flawless as an experienced couple dancing the waltz.