Whether it's your 5th sports dog or your first, that leap into your dog's first trials is a huge mix of emotions. Lots of excitement, and then that pit of dread as you put that entry envelope into the mail (side note, why can't everything have electronic entries in 2023?!?).
We often picture the worse. Our dog runs wildly around the ring sniffing, or runs up to punch the judge. Perhaps the dog sits there at the start as you heel a large portion of the heeling pattern all by yourself. Maybe the dog even poops in the ring and everything has to come to a halt while you clean it up.
I don't know about you, but I've had all of those things happen to me. The pooping one is scarring!
But if I'm honest, it's not the end of the world. In all likelihood, no one is paying much attention and they are very unlikely to remember what happened to you even very shortly!
So how do you know if your dog is ready to be there at a trial? How do you minimize the chances of those things happening to you?
I wish I could give you a magic formula. Do these calculations and the answer will be clear!
But the truth is, we don't really know. It's always going to be somewhat of a gamble when we enter that first trial. Or even the first time we go back to a show after taking time off to try and fix some issues.
There are things we can do to hedge our bets. Because crazy stuff can certainly happen that is beyond our control. But a lot of what will happen IS under our control!
Preparing Our Dogs
We spend a lot of time training the exercises themselves. The majority of my prep last summer for agility was cramming in my running dogwalk training, weave poles, and jump work before winter hit and I couldn't do it anymore.
In obedience, we may focus a lot on teaching the dog how to heel, position changes, and fronts.
And all that work on the actual exercises can cause us to miss prepping for the pieces in between.
Here is a list of general areas I look at in training my dog and a few examples of the many pieces within each category!
Focus in different places (acclimation routines, ready-to-work routines...)
Trial structure routines (how to wait outside the ring, plan for moving to the startline/between exercises, delays...)
Interaction with judges and stewards (plan for being approached/greeted, comfort with being followed by a judge or workers standing/sitting out there...)
Formality and silence (seeing silence as a good thing, the expectation of pauses to wait for the judge's order...)
Rewards at a distance (expects to see rewards set down outside the ring and move away from them, end of run routine to get them later...)
Duration of work (there's not a specific place the dog expects a reward, # of behaviors before reward/duration of each exercise...)
Confidence in the exercises themselves (different locations, people pressure, higher difficulty level than needed for the trial...)
Whew, that’s a long list!! And it's one that needs constant work. You can’t pick an item,
train it, and check it off your list. A lot of these areas need regular upkeep throughout your dog’s entire career as none of it will be natural for your dog!
Some dogs might be able to wing it, picking it up as they go. But many dogs will seem ok in their first trial, possibly even their 2nd and third, but it will get worse as you continue.
Unfortunately, this was the case with my very first dog who went from scoring in the mid 190’s in novice obedience to actually in the 170’s over his first few trials. But I realized I had a problem, and set to put those missing foundations back in! In his particular case, I was primarily missing teaching him about rewards being off my body and about my silence being a good thing! Well technically the other stuff was missing too, but since he was a confident dog they played a much smaller role in getting him back on track!
How do you really know?!
But I hear you! Some of you are screaming how do you actually know if your dog has that stuff down?!
You don’t. Even in the ideal situations where you can get your dog access to fun matches and regularly train in different environments you still don’t know.
Try to answer the below areas honestly when looking at their training in different environments. That might be training at a park, or a friend's backyard!
Did they focus easily on you?
Did they have a happy attitude?
And did both of those statements remain true when you had no rewards in your pocket and added in some more formality to their training?
For me, trial readiness is mainly about how the dog is going to handle that environment: their attitude and focus. Yeah, I also want to qualify, but I also know that failures are going to happen!
And sometimes you just don’t know what your dog is going to have a hard time with at a trial until you show!! Expect NQs to happen. It’s a dog show!
Take what you learned, go back to the drawing board and see what you need to focus on.
As for the quality of the actual “work,” the exercises themselves, that part is purely up to you. I would want to be confident that my dog can put the pieces together in new places with a helper standing nearby, rewards at a distance, and consistently respond on the first cue. Past that, well the Q ribbon doesn’t show your scores. Perfection isn't needed!
If you are holding back on entering a trial year after year because you aren’t sure if your dog is perfect then I urge you to make that leap.
If on the other hand, you’re barely holding yourself back from entering a trial and you haven’t put a lot of effort yet into seeing how your dog has generalized their skills to different environments and how they hold up under a little pressure, then try to take a deep breath and wait just a little bit longer!