By Jennie Brass, Assistant Resort Manager
“My dog never stops moving, it would be simply awesome to run agility!” Get your running shoes on; and not only that, but your thinking caps as well. Regardless of which performance sport may have caught your eye for the first time (be it Rally, Obedience, Agility, Tracking, Disc Dog, Fly-ball) there is a considerable amount of prep-work to be done. Just because a dog likes to jump doesn’t mean they will excel at agility. After all, the sport is lovingly known as ‘obedience in the fast lane’. It’s important for us as handlers to do our homework and get to know the ins and outs before we approach a trial’s start line for many reasons. Sometimes it can take more than a year to get comfortable enough to compete. The most important reason is to be fair to our dogs, secondly we want to be good sports at the event. How can you make sure you are prepared?
First and foremost, when you become interested in a dog sport is to see what it’s all about. Locate people who actively trial in it and chat with them, find out how they prepared, who they trained with, what you need to know. Attend a few trials to get a feel for it, especially if this is your first performance sport. There is an atmosphere in the air at each event one must be prepared for. Find a training class or club if one is available to work the essential skills you will need, preferably with people who are actively trialing. They will be familiar with the most current ring rules. Then—practice, practice, practice! The best tactic is to be training/running practice runs a full level (or more) above the one you intent to trial at. For example, Ashenpaw did not debut in Rally Novice until we were comfortably working all the Excellent level stations. This helped me out as I had experience in harder stations than we were going to be presented with. It also gave us more time to develop our ring relationship.
Be early, watch the ring stewards at the board so you will be there in time for your scheduled run.
Once you are ready to trial use those sources you have developed to help you find a local event and give you a hand the first time you register. Some of those forms can be tricky the first couple of times! Be aware that you will need to send in registration for a trail well ahead of the actual date. The club organizing the event needs time to get the line-ups in order and notify exhibitors of the schedule. Sometimes the schedule does not run as planned, this is only one reason to be early to a trial site. Arriving early allows you time to find your ring, set up your things, and find out about anything that may have changed. Make sure you have everything you need! The proper length leash, the correct type of collar, end of run reward treats, etc.
If you and your dog are not used a trial site situation, it can take some time to acclimate. Some dogs get overly stimulated with all the sights, sounds, and smells. They need time to take it all in before they can perform. Every dog is different. Also keep in mind you are responsible for your dog’s actions. Keep an eye on them at all times, make sure they are not invading another dog’s space! Some exhibitors may need time to take a few deep breaths as well. Do not under-estimate how much your own nerves effect your four-pawed companion! It goes straight down the leash. I get excited at a trial, I have learned to shield my dog from that overly-abundant energy after seeing Ash burn out from that spill-over before a Rally run even began. A good tactic is to keep a dog in their crate until just shortly before their run. Trust me, you will have enough going on as it is!
Some events include a Judge’s briefing for exhibitors. Sometimes you can ask polite questions.
Take advantage of a judge’s briefing, if available. Sometimes you can ask a question about a station; not how it is done, but perhaps on a detail such as how the judge prefers something be completed. This is not available in all performance sports. When allowed to do a walk-thru on course take full advantage of the time to get used to the course and figure out any tactics or angles you may need. In some cases having other trusted classmates or mentors walking with you (if in the same class) can help you plan your strategy or answer questions. Just remember, they are planning their own run so be considerate of their time! When the time runs out, leave the ring as quickly as possible. Then comes the waiting game.
Can you tell someone is happy to be here?
While it is good to be ready on time, take care in not taking your dog out too early. Around the ring the atmosphere is crackling with excitement for your dog to feed on. Not to mention there are dogs coming and going. Remember that bit about being responsible for what’s on your leash? Yup, this is a part where you need to know how your dog is doing. Generally, it’s best to pull your dog from their resting crate with several runs to go before yours. A little warm-up may be needed. Keep your dog happy, and connected with you. That connection can be tricky to maintain, make sure you get it and keep it before you enter the ring!
Can feel that anticipation as I watch the dog before us running!
When the ring steward calls your name, let them know you are there. Stand politely out of the way and in running order with the other dogs. Wait far enough back from the ring gate so as not to disrupt the dog running in the ring. After all, you wouldn’t want that distraction during your run. When the steward tells you to enter, go in and prepare for your run. Agility is always off lead—however the dog MUST enter and exit the ring on lead. Do not make the mistake of exiting without this detail in check. Rally Novice is on-leash, however Advanced and Excellent are off-leash. Remember to reattach the leash before leaving the ring. In some sports, such as Rally, you can be judged for the degree of control you have over the dog as you approach the start line. Make sure you have your dog’s attention before you even set foot in the ring. I cannot stress this enough after seeing dogs immediately get the zoomies and dash right out of the ring.
Listen for the cue to begin. Each ring will differ. From here you begin your performance. All that hard work and commitment is playing out there. When that connection is dead on a performance can be stunning! Even when a performance isn’t perfect (and they rarely are) a lot can be gained from it. Did you remember to have a good time with your dog? Where did things go well and why? Where were the hiccups? What caused those? The majority of the time the answer here is ‘handler error’. Don’t fret, we all have to learn to overcome our own stumbling blocks. If possible, record your runs so you can watch them. You will be amazed! Both at identifying where you handled things superbly, and picking out stray motions that created the problem. Then in training sessions you can work on improving those points. If you feel a judging error occurred, be polite about it when you inquire. Don’t make a scene. Most judges are willing to explain the reason for a call if approached with consideration. Learn from these situations, these points can help us understand what a judge is looking for.
Keep in mind, some days a run will go completely downhill. This happens to everyone. We are human, they are dogs. Both of us can send and receive mixed messages. The important thing here is keep cool, and still try to have a good time. Look at your dog. Is the heart in the performance even if the head isn’t? Well… we can fix training issues in sessions, we can’t easily put the heart back into the dog. So if that tail is still wagging, don’t get too upset. Yes, we all want to succeed. We always go out with the hopes of a perfect run. But the bottom line is that this is supposed to be fun for both of us. The best handlers out there keep it in perspective and aren’t overly serious. Never melt down on your dog if a run goes bad. Things happen. Don’t lump the blame on your dog at the site or they might learn to dread or hate the ring—or the YOU in that ring!
Awesome rewards at the end of the ring trip!
After the run don’t forget to reward your dog, even if the run wasn’t qualifying! It is a mistake to simply put your dog in their crate and forget about them. Have a little party. This helps them want to continue working with you, to anticipate the next opportunity to run. Recently I started packing a small container of crunchy peanut butter just for Ash to lap up after he’s done. We exit the ring, have our little hug session, and out comes the peanut butter. This lets him know I appreciated his efforts out there. Yes, he even gets this for a Non-Qualifying run.
One of the ways I help runs be successful is by setting mini-goals. Of course, the ideal is the Q (Qualifying Run), but by setting mini-goals I help remind myself what we need to work on to achieve that Q. In agility it may be keeping the bars up on all the jumps—this helps remind me to patiently set the line for him and not to rush. Or to stick all his weave poles. This reminds me to be careful not to pull him out! These mini-goals can easily turn a series of NQ runs into a bright spot be seeing improvements towards consistently smoother handling. All training and competing is a journey, don’t forget to enjoy the ride!
What a ham!
Performance rings are a lot of fun to be in. They bring fitness to the owner, a deeper bond through time spent together, and create a stabler dog over all. Even though it is a lot of work, this is time well spent. The dog gains some awesome skills and tricks, while the owner is able to take advantage of a dog that is more willing to listen. There is even a community feeling to getting more comfortable around the rings, a sense of comradeship with other exhibitors as you chat with them before and after runs. The world is full of amusing stories from people running all sorts of dogs in all sorts of situations, both success and botches. Share, laugh, and love!
Always remember, while those pretty ribbons are nice to bring home and decorate your wall with. Your dog has no clue nor care about them. The real reward isn’t in those strips of fabric…
…it’s the joy of bonding with your dog!
Ashenpaw Agility Standard Excellent A Preferred Video: