Your dog’s first agility trial: a comprehensive guide

It’s time to enter your first agility trial. Daunting? Perhaps. Here is some information that will guide you through the process.

The venue

There are numerous agility venues in the United States and Canada. Decide on which to enter based on your dog’s breeding, proximity and frequency of trials, classes available and competitiveness of the venue. Limit competition to two or maybe three venues so you can learn the rules and classes for those organizations and begin to accumulate points towards titles. All venues require your dog to be registered with the venue to compete. Some allow registration with the first entry. Your dog’s registration number will stay with him throughout his agility career.

Jump height

The height at which your dog jumps, which is based on his height, is often required for registration and always for entering a class. Agility classes are segregated by the height of the dog and each venue has its own jump height requirements. Try to get the best measurement you can prior to entering with a wicket or a yardstick, recording your dog’s height at his withers or shoulders. Official measurements will be required and available at the competition.

The premium

The premium is usually available on-line from the club hosting the trial and includes the entry form plus all the information you need about the trial: date, location, classes, judges, running surface, availability of water and food, costs, directions, hotel and camping information. There are also many on-line sites that list upcoming trials. All venues require pre-entry, though day-of entries are occasionally accepted if the trial hasn’t filled.

The entry form can be complicated. Fill it out carefully. You will need to start at the first level, usually Novice A or Starters. It’s a good idea to ask a seasoned competitor to look over your form. And pay attention to the opening date. The secretary will not accept your entry before that date, and many trials fill very quickly. Many forms will also ask if you are willing to volunteer. Agility trials depend heavily on volunteers, though doing so at your first trial might be a bit overwhelming. Consider volunteering at future trials. It’s a great learning opportunity.

The confirmation

When you receive confirmation for your entry, check it carefully to make sure the information is correct. Sometimes there is a preliminary confirmation and just prior to the event a final confirmation indicating the approximate run times for various classes.

Go to a show, find a mentor

Finally, attending a trial before you enter one will give you and your dog a much better idea of what your first day of competition will be like. Try to find a mentor in your club who can help with your entry and answer questions at the competition. Many are very experienced and would be delighted to help. Just ask!

What to bring along

Your entry is confirmed and you are ready to set out for your first agility trial. So, what do you need besides the dog? Plenty! Though you might not need everything listed here, many are things that will keep you and your dog comfortable in a variety of conditions. You will probably find that the more you get into agility, the bigger the vehicle you require to keep things on hand!

  • Paperwork. Bring your trial confirmation and height or registration cards.
  • Crate or X-Pen. You need some place to safely secure your dog while you walk the course or go to the bathroom. Some people confine the dog to the car in very mild weather. Having a place to rest is also essential to the dog’s comfort.
  • Shelter. A tent or canopy offers shade and protection from rain. You may be lucky enough to have a friend or mentor who will share their shelter.
  • Ground cover. A plastic tarp or mat keeps your belongings clean and dry and prevents dogs in X-pens from eating grass or dirt.
  • Sun shade. Reflects the sun’s rays when draped over the crate or car, or hanging from the shelter.
  • Portable fan. Cools you and your dog.
  • Cool coat. For a heavy or dark- coated dog, consider investing in a coat designed to keep him cool in hot, sunny weather.
  • Chair. For long stretches of down time. Pull your chair up to the ring to watch others run the course. This is very educational.
  • Dog bed. If your dog is more comfortable on something cushy, bring it along.
  • Dog toy or tug. Whatever you typically use to rev him up.
  • Water. This may or may not be available at the site, and many dogs prefer their own home water.
  • Treats. To reward that good dog!
  • Snacks and meals. For both of you, particularly if you will be gone during meal times.
  • Clothing. You want to be dry and comfortable, warm or cool, from head to toe. Always pack an extra layer. A raincoat is a must and rain pants are often very welcome. Some people keep an extra pair of shoes and socks, pants and shirt in the car or their trial bag. Tuck a pair of gloves and warm hat in as well. Waterproof shoes and socks are great on wet days. Remember a brimmed hat to protect you from the sun.
  • Sundries. Sun block; any medications you might need including allergy meds and anti-inflammatories for injuries; something to keep you entertained between runs such as newspaper, book, puzzles or music; notebook and pen for recording information about your runs; baby wipes or sanitizing gel; sunglasses; bungee cords or large clips; a video camera to record your runs; and, of course, poop pick-up bags.

Make sure that you have ample gas and directions to the competition site. Some confirmations include directions. Just to be safe, cross check them with an online service or a good old-fashioned map.

What to expect when you arrive:

Setting up

If you are not working out of your car, it’s handy to set up near the ring in which you will be working unless you think your dog will be over stimulated by the dogs on course. If you have more than one dog and the crated dog will be barking while the other is running, this also may be distracting for the running dog.

Registering

Your confirmation will tell you what you need to do to check in, including having your dog measured. Some venues, such as AKC, require armbands to be worn. They will be available at check-in. Pick up a course map for each of your classes. It can help you memorize the course and plan your strategy. There are often running orders for each class, too.

Walking the course

Before your class, all competitors walk the course. Use this time to familiarize yourself with the course and plan your handling. Check in at the sheet by the gate. This is how the gate steward and score keeper know that you are present.

The Briefing

Sometime before or during the walk, the judge will call a briefing to introduce him or herself, tell you the rules of the class, the table count, when they want the next dog to enter the ring, course time, whether it will be a sit or a down on the table in AKC, and any other information that he or she thinks you need before you run. Even if you think the information is not pertinent to you, it is courteous to listen.

On the line

Check the running order for your class and make a note of who you follow so you are ready to go to the start line when it is your turn. The gate steward is usually shouting out the names of the upcoming dogs: Fido on the line, Rex on deck, Fifi in the hole. If you have a conflict with another ring, or are running two dogs that have been listed one right after the other, don’t hesitate to ask the gate steward, usually found with pen in hand, by check-in sheet at the gate, to move you before the class begins.

When you get to the line, set your dog up, remove your leash or collar and place it on the ground behind you. A leash runner will put it by the gate at the end of the course. In some venues dogs must run naked, in others, some types of collars are acceptable. Many people choose to run collarless in every venue. A slip lead is handy for trialing. It’s easy to remove and easy to put on again after your run. Remember to leave all treats and toys outside of the ring! Listen for the go, then run the course. When you are finished, get your leash on quickly and party outside of the ring, so the next competitor can start.

Making the most of the experience

With so many rules and courses, registrations and running orders to keep straight, it’s sometimes easy to forget why you are trialing in the first place! Some ideas for making the most of your first trial experience:

Walking the course

Some walk the dog’s path first; some break it into sections, maybe walking the ending portion before the beginning. There is no right or wrong way, just use your time wisely. This isn’t the time for socializing, but if you have a buddy who likes to discuss handling options, walk together to figure it out. Be courteous of others. There are often bottleneck spots on course where handling may be a particular challenge or a number of obstacles are close together. Don’t choose that busy spot to chat.

Warming up

Prevent injuries to you and your dog by warming up. Everyone has their own ritual, and sometimes finding the right plan is trial and error. There will be a warm-up jump somewhere close to your ring, and this is your opportunity to practice a few jumps. Keep in mind that other people will also be waiting for the practice jump. It’s important, too, to give your dog the opportunity to relieve himself. Urinating or defecating in the ring is an automatic disqualification.

Running the course

Set your dog up just like you practiced with all those start-line stays in class. Then try to run just like you do in training.

Oh NO!!

Everyone forgets a course, misses a contact, or messes up some other way. Just go on. Some venues are tolerant of training in the ring, in other venues you will get whistled off the course. The best plan is to make the experience fun and positive for your dog. Check the rules before you compete so you know what is allowed in the venue you are in and by all means, ask the judge at the briefing if you are unsure what is allowed.

After your run

Sometimes a copy of your score sheet will be available to pick up, after you have praised and rewarded your dog appropriately. In other venues you have to wait until the class is finished and scores are posted to see how you did. If you don’t understand a score, ask someone. Be judicious about asking the judge–they rarely change scores.

Ribbons and Records

Most shows give qualifying (Q) ribbons and placement ribbons and sometimes small prizes. In AKC you must qualify to place, in other venues you can place without qualifying. On the back of your ribbon write the date, class, score, show name. This will help you to keep good records. You should also consider a notebook in which to keep information. Make notes on the course map, and record what worked and what didn’t. This will help your future training, as will videotaping your runs.

Run fast, run clean, but most of all have fun!

Sally Silverman is a freelance writer who writes for horse and dog publications including Dressage Today, USDF Connection and Clean Run. She shares her home and heart with three Australian Shepherds. A member and instructor at Y2K9s Dog Sports Club outside of Philadelphia, she enjoys Agility, Canine Freestyle, Tracking and Rally O. She is happiest when with her dogs: learning, competing, hiking, or sharing a cuddle on the couch.

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