4 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Agility Trial

black dog at first agility trial with beginner handler
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I entered my first trial about a year after I took my first agility class with my first agility dog. My dog ran well in class. She knew all the obstacles. We had even done a couple fun runs with good success. I figured the next step was to compete in a local trial. Looking back, I wish I could have slapped that trial premium out of my naive little hands and shaken the stars from my eyes. As a total newcomer to the sport, there was so much to competing I wasn’t aware of. Here are four dog agility tips for beginners I wish I knew before my first trial. 

My dog needs to understand the reward happens outside the ring.

One of the biggest differences between class and a trial is that at a show, handlers will have no rewards on their body, nor will that reward appear in the ring. The party happens outside the ring. Unless you have one of those special dogs that is crazy for tugging on a leash, and even then they need to know when it’s okay to do so. But for most of us, we need to teach our dogs about delayed reinforcement. I never even considered this as a necessary skill for trialing. Ruby’s first run at the trial was the first time she didn’t get treats in the ring. While she ran really well, over time, this became a big issue that hurt our performance and I had to go back and build delayed reinforcement skills. I’m glad I eventually took the time to help her understand this concept; it has significantly helped boost her confidence. You can read about how I taught my dog about delayed reinforcement here

Develop a crate to crate routine.

A big mistake I made was getting my dog out of her crate about 30 minutes before it was time for our run. Waiting for our turn was like hell. I was already SO nervous and now I had to kill a bunch of time. The trial was at a large indoor sports complex and I remember sitting inside a soccer goal with Ruby, hugging my knees and trying to do breathing exercises. Yeah, I was not handling my trial nerves very well (#anxiety). This situation could have been avoided if I had created a crate to crate routine that suited my dog’s individual needs.

Having a clear plan for all the in-between pieces is so helpful! Knowing when I’ll potty my dog, where and when and how I’ll warm them up, how I’ll get them from point A to B in a crowded and chaotic environment, how much time I need to accomplish all that before their run, and what I’ll do while we wait to enter the ring. Then having a plan for where the reward will be, where we’ll celebrate, how I’ll cool my dog down, and getting them back to their crate to rest. It sounds like a lot, but with a little forethought and some training, it becomes a routine that flows from one step to the next. And it eliminates a lot of stress from both dog and handler.

Bad Dog Agility has a great podcast on putting together a crate to crate routine, which can help you think through all the little pieces.

Be aware of the agility organization’s rules.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but rules do vary from organization to organization. Some let you run with collars, some require collars to be removed. Scoring and fault systems are different. In my first ever trial, Ruby knocked one of the broad jump sections in our novice standard run. I was immediately flustered – was this like a missed weave pole in novice, in which case I have the option of repeating it? Or was this like a knocked bar, in which the damage is done and I can’t try again? I started looping around to have Ruby reattempt it when the judge stopped me and told me I couldn’t do that and needed to move along on the course. My poor dog was left standing there confused as to why we suddenly stopped to have a conversation with the nice judge lady. I would have done myself and my dog a favor if I was more familiar with the rules before stepping into a trial ring.

rhodesian ridgeback and beginner handler at first agility trial
My husband, Ruby and me after our first run at our first trial.
Have a plan for mistakes.

I was lucky that my jumpers run was clean and I didn’t have any in-the-moment existential crises as to what to do if an error occurred. I tend to freeze up when things go awry, which is really hard on my dog, who tends towards being sensitive. But as you already know, my standard run had a little bobble, which threw me off. Since that first trial, I’ve learned a lot more about my dog and I really value keeping her confidence high, so if I could go back in time, my plan would be to just run through any mistakes. Popped out of the weaves? Keep moving. Missed a jump? Keep moving. For me, preserving confidence and speed are more important than getting a Q, and I work on those mistakes in training. Depending on your dog, you may have other goals, or your dog may be better suited for “training in the ring” type scenarios. But don’t let a trial be the first time you execute that strategy, otherwise it may be unintentionally punishing to the dog by way of confusion. Do your best to plan ahead of time how you will handle those errors, and it’s okay and even a good thing if your plan changes from trial to trial.

Despite the fact that I was lacking quite a bit of skill and knowledge, there were plenty of positives about my first trial. I showed up and got in the ring! And that is a big, scary thing that takes courage. My dog handled the trial environment pretty well and was able to sleep in her crate. Some really nice friendly people noticed me walking around bewildered, and showed me around. And I had my husband and some friends there to cheer me on and potty my dog while I walked the course. Though some of these gaps in understanding are easier to fill than others, figuring out how to rectify things hasn’t discouraged me from the sport. So if you’re new to agility or to dog sports in general, or even if you’ve been around for a while, consider what tools you may need that you haven’t quite acquired before you fill out that next trial premium. You absolutely CAN learn them and maximize your success!

Tell me about your first trial experience! What went well? What was hard for you and your dog? Do you have any tips for agility beginners?


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