Are You Ready?

Q. I have been training Buddy in agility for about a year and I think the time has come to take the plunge and enter a show. My trainer says to wait a bit. How do you know when your dog is ready to compete?

A. I will never forget my first agility show! I didn’t win anything, but I was so proud of how I handled myself and my dog on the courses. Your first time in the ring with Buddy will be a lasting memory. Make sure it is a good one.

Is your dog prepared? Assess your dogs’ performance in class honestly. Buddy must be able to tackle all the agility obstacles and string them together on a course. Competition introduces new variables into the agility equation- different equipment , a strange venue, and a nervous handler. Don’t be hasty to fill in your entry form.

Proof your performance. Try running a course at a higher level than you will enter at a show. Can Buddy cope with increased difficulty? If he sails over the finish line with no faults and a fast time, you have nothing to worry about. If he struggles, it’s back to the drawing board. Introduce Buddy to some of the things he will meet at his first show. Get a friend to stand in the middle of the ring as a judge and find someone else to stand at the side eating ice cream. Is Buddy still focused on his agility?

Take advantage of practice rings and progress tests. Put your name down for interclub matches. Look out for simulated shows. These are the closest you can get to the real thing and you can still correct Buddy if he goes wrong.

Are you prepared? Even the most seasoned agility handler will get nervous at a show. You and Buddy are a team and your dog will pick up on any negative thoughts racing through your mind as you stand on the start line. Can you cope with the extra pressure of competition?

Offer to help at a show. It’s a good way to learn the ropes and meet fellow competitors. You’ll get an idea of what to expect when it’s your turn to strut your stuff in the ring.

Practice running different courses. There are an infinite number of equipment combinations and you should know where to go without reading the numbers on the jumps. Work the spaces between the obstacles.

Learn to think positively. If you stand in the line wishing you had done more contact training, your dog will sense your doubts.

You can do Buddy more harm than good if you put him in the ring too early. If you have not adequately prepared yourself and your dog to meet the challenges set by the judge, you will leave your first show disappointed and frustrated. Buddy will wonder how he has let you down and the agility game won’t be much fun anymore.

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Used with permission.
From Questions and Answers on Dog Agility Training, by Mary Ann Nester, T.F.H. Publications
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14 Comments on “Are You Ready?

  1. Our instructors tell us we should be comfortably running excellent level courses in class before going into a first trial. Their philosophy worked for my black lab and I at our first ever trial. She seemed to feel quite confident and ran faster than she ever did in class on the novice course! I had to put it in 4th gear to keep up with this usually slow dog.
    I viewed this first trial as practice, fun, and a learning experience…why was I nervous anyway??

  2. Thanks for the encouraging remarks. William (the sheltie) and I both appreciate it. He is a very serious and responsible dog 🙂 so it is up to me to teach him to loosen up and have fun. Uh-oh, guess I am going to have to figure that out, too!

  3. I’m with Lisa, if your dog is familiar with the obstacles and you’ve been training for a year and have watched a few trials, go for it! No matter how much you train, nothing can simulate the real thing. Just have fun and go with it!

    If it makes you feel any better, Last night I took my excellent level dog to an outdoor trial. We haven’t done many of those. After the first run, I decided my goal would not be to Q, but to at least hit the contacts! My dog had a great time, ran like crazy and I had a hard time keeping up with him to give him direction. He’s never shown that much drive and speed before, so now I know that we need to spend more time training distance outdoors.

    We both had a blast anyway, the weather was great, the dog could really open up, and I learned what to work on and the dog learned to focus in a different setting. By the way, he did hit his contacts in the second run. So, go for it, nothing takes the place of experience.

  4. I probably waited too long to enter an event with my first dog, Buddy (real name). He qualified in both novice JWW and Standard two days straight. My club, my husband, and myself were all astonished. It ranks as one of my best agility trial memories.
    Perhaps you need to discuss with your instructor why she feels you and your dog aren’t ready. It may be that she sees an area that you guys needs to polish before entering first event

    • Wow, congratulations! I’m so glad you had a great first experience.

      That’s a good idea to speak to the instructor on what needs more work- possibly it’s the handler, not the dog!

  5. I don’t know anything that can wreck you and your dogs competition experience faster than performance anxiety, butterflies, nervousness, or whatever you want to call it. I used to be a pro at that, and my dogs showed it, not to mention I felt physically awful I was so stressed.

    There are a couple of tried and true remedies – eat breath mints (eat them by the roll, they get rid of the fear smell – really!) and breath deeply (but don’t hyperventilate). Smile relentlessly no matter what – it is impossible not to brighten inside when you make the outside smile.

    Most important, put on your sense of humor, put away taking yourself and the competition seriously, and remind yourself that you owe it to your dog to make this a fun experience – you are doing this to be together and because you love each other’s company. Don’t let her down.

    Pretend that you are training one of those “not made for agility” breeds (like me, english bulldogs) who will forever think up new and unique ways to do the course. Even if your dog is a border collie or a shetland sheepdog, it could always have a bulldog moment. Focus on remembering that you must not laugh no matter how funny their new variant. Then no matter what they do, you can be proud that you stiffled your giggles. This will give you something constructive to worry about and take your mind off whatever is making you nervous.

    I will never forget an instructor watching me have a melt-down moment. I’d gotten my knickers in such a twist I was literally shaking. He looked at me and said something like “what on earth are you getting so excited about?” and for some reason that hit me just right and I realized there was nothing that could happen that was worth panicking over. I won’t say I never get nervous, but when I do, I say that to myself, take a deep breath, pop a mint, paste a big grin on my face and remind myself “I am so happy to be hear, me and my dog!”

  6. My sheltie and I went to our first trial last November. We started taking agility classes in August, just three months earlier. He was about 22 months old at his first trial. It was AKC and our instructor normally sets more difficult courses than you will find in AKC Novice, so my dog was really prepared. He is a nervous little guy, but he focuses well and wants to be near me so I was not worried about him running off. I had not been to a trial before, but I had years of horse-show experience behind me so I knew how to prepare for events. Since we take mostly group classes, on grass at a park, the venue was not that different from what we were used to. My dog Q’d his first time out. But…sometimes that very characteristic which allowed him to learn to do everything and compete so fast causes problems. He watches me closely and never wants to make a mistake so sometimes he worries, which causes him to slow down too much. A less perfectionistic dog who has fun may make more errors early in his career but in the end, he will be faster. So, if your dog gets a bit silly in his early trials, it is okay. You won’t be having to constantly try to build his “self-esteem” and get him to let loose and go! As others have noted, even excellent dogs make mistakes and don’t qualify sometimes. It takes practice. Generally nothing too terrible is going to happen…unlike at horse shows, where that scared, green filly or colt just might dump you and break your collar bone!

    • Your dog sounds like my friends’ Sheltie. Shelties think so much! I’ll bet he’ll eventually loosen up and have a good zoom!

      Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  7. A fun match is a good idea to expose your dog to a different setting.

    If you’ve been training for a year and your dog is familiar with the obstacles, then enter a trial. The challenge then becomes yours – to learn the courses and deal with your nerves without stressing your dog.(I think my dog got very used to my heart racing before we went into the ring – that probably was her signal that we were on deck!)

    Maybe it depends on the handler/dog – I was cautioned to wait but I knew we were ready and my NovA dog got 3 firsts (and an NQ – dropped bar probably) in her first weekend. So I say, “Go for it!”

  8. My dog and I ran our first “fun match” this past weekend. She had been doing really well in practice the past few weeks. My trainers told me to view this match as training, (b/c there are no points earned) and to have FUN and see what happens. That was good advice b/c all she did at the match was zoom all over the ring!! She did about 2 obstacles, and kept jumping over the tunnel!! She had FUN alright! All I could do was laugh when she kept jumping over the tunnel. I am sure we entertained the crowd!
    But many other competitors there were very encouraging, stating their dogs did the same thing the first time they went to an official trial, and that my dog is still young. Just to keep practicing and exposing her to different venues to help her get comfortable with them.
    I agree with the other comments about volunteering to work at trial. I worked for the first time this weekend and learned soooo much. You will learn just by being in the ring at eye level, by listening to veterans talk about strategy and the like, and watching how they prepare their dog while waiting in line to run that particular course.
    I came away with several new strategies, and things we need to focus on. It was a great weekend!
    Just remember to always have fun and not take yourself too seriously b/c anything can happen–you are working with a dog . And if you stop having fun, so will your dog. It’s all about bonding and having a great time with one of your best friends! Happy training!! Patti

  9. After reading the first comment, I was kind of discouraged about starting to compete with my young dog (Muffin). Yes, she is still a puppy, but is doing well–but with a long way to go on dependability. But now I can remember the trials I took dogs to several years ago. They were older (10 1/2 and 7) as beginners and never did Q, but we had a wonderful time. I kept my expectations in check and went for the fun factor, and we had a lot of it. There was actually a professional photographer at one show that got shots of my dogs going over jumps and they looked like pros! The exhilaration that I felt at that show comes back every time I see those photos–even without a Q!

  10. I went into the ring, after my dog being one of the *stars* in my upper level agility class, thinking that this would be a piece of cake for my dog. Not so. I got very nervous and my dog sensed that and ran out of the ring! So much for our *first memory*!

    That was a frequent occurance during our first year of competition. It was frusterating, but it just goes to show you that no matter how prepared you think you are, well, stuff can happen in competition that you can’t prepare for.

    I actually would encourage you and Buddy to go into the ring, even if you think that you might not be 100% prepared. And do go to a show ahead of time, if you haven’t seen one already. You will see that even in the upper classes, dogs don’t always Q, and that may give you a reality check on what to expect in the future. Also, you will see novice dogs having a very hard time and think to yourself, “my dog will never do that!” Remember that, and give yourself a break if your dog actually does just that in your early competition.

    Except for being out your entry fees if you don’t Q (which may happen anyway, even if your dog has a fairly good run,) I don’t think there is any harm in entering the competition ring earlier, rather than later. Just keep your disappointment and frustration in check. Maybe go into the ring with less of an expectation of success and more as a “practice” or “learning experience.” That way, you may be surprised at how well you actually do, or what you will need to work on for future trials will become obvious.

  11. Go to a couple of show just to watch first. And take Buddy so he can get used to the atmosphere.

    For my first trial my goals were 1)don’t fall down in the ring, 2) don’t let the dog poop or pee in the ring, 3) don’t forget the course.

    Make it easy on yourself and Buddy. And have fun. Give Buddy a treat and tell him he’s a good boy regardless of how he does.