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When Is Your Agility Team Ready to Trial? (The Pitfalls of Showing Too Early in Dog Agility)

Kristin is a dog agility instructor and competitor with 20 years in the sport.

Watching the Novice Class

You sit in the stands waiting with anticipation for the novice (beginning) agility class. You've always enjoyed watching the green dogs and brand new handlers start their agility careers in the novice class. There is so much potential wrapped up in these beginning teams, and it is fun to watch them blossom and grow in the sport.

Finally, the class begins as a young sheltie steps up to the line with his middle-aged female handler. The handler removes his leash and orders him to "stay" at the start line. Watching the sheltie, you can see him licking his lips. This is not a good sign you realize and examine the sheltie more closely. What you first thought was excitement you now realize is nervous stress. The sheltie breaks his stay because of his nervousness, and the handler returns to the dog to reprimand. This has the opposite effect intended, and the sheltie wanders a few steps away from the handler and sniffs the ground.

You have seen this stress pattern a thousand times. Sure enough, as soon as the handler releases the sheltie to run, the sheltie takes the first couple of obstacles slowly, losing all of the energy with which he had entered the ring. After the first two slow jumps, the A Frame looms. The sheltie immediately puts his nose to the ground, sniffing and walking away. The handler yells for her dog to come back. He does not, continuing to sniff and avoid the handler and the obstacle. The handler changes from yelling to pleading, and the dog slowly returns and completes the A Frame.

At the dogwalk two obstacles later, the pattern repeats. After a few more obstacles the weaves appear. The dog immediately takes off in what seems to be excited, happy zoomies. The crowd laughs as the dog zooms around the ring, trying to "change the subject" from doing the weaves to play and stress relief. The handler eventually gets the dog back, and after several unsuccessful tries at the weaves, the judge orders the team to move on. The rest of the run continues in much the same way as before.

The team leaves the ring with only a little verbal praise from the handler.

This, you know, is a team not yet ready for prime time. The dog has been forced into the ring well before confidence, speed, fun, and proficiency have been created in the team.

The author's sheltie, Jericho, charging with confidence up the A frame in the Novice (beginners) Class.

The author's sheltie, Jericho, charging with confidence up the A frame in the Novice (beginners) Class.

The Problem With Trialing Too Soon

This is an unfortunate and yet all too common occurrence in dog agility today. Agility trained right takes one to two years of steady, hard training to even begin to think about entering the ring, yet many instructors are encouraging their students to show early.

Why? Well, simply put, money is often the reason. Students new to agility do not want to be told they aren't ready month after month while other more experienced teams or teams with more confident dogs get to enter the show ring and have success. These teams will leave an instructor for another who will tell them what they want to hear. Rather than tell the team the truth and lose students, instructors often allow the teams to show early. Instructors may even convince themselves this is a good thing to do as it allows the teams to "figure out what they need to work on."

The fact is, this allows the dog to experience career-damaging stress in the ring as it is asked to do behaviors it is not yet prepared for in an already high-stress environment. All that results is the dog learning the ring is a stressful, no-fun place.

The author's young Sheltie weaving.

The author's young Sheltie weaving.

When Should You Start Showing Your Agility Dog?

Ideally, a team should set foot into the ring for the first time filled with confidence. The team should have independent obstacles and 12 independent weave poles. Independent means the handler should not have to be present by the dog's side to get the dog to correctly and safely perform an obstacle. The team should already be working master's level courses cleanly in practice, and the team should already have taken that show on the road to fun runs, matches, and other people's facilities. (See Side Bar at right.)

Before showing, a dog should possess confidence with all the equipment. In addition, the handler and dog should show strong communication, and the dog should have good focus skills. The dog should also have a reliable recall (come command) and off-leash skills before showing.

Teams prepared to this level enter the Novice ring with confidence. The brand new handler can look at the Novice course and think "Wow. This is easy." And she SHOULD think that. She should walk into the ring knowing her team has the skills to do everything on that course. They may make a mistake, or even many mistakes, because they are still green, but she knows that they have trained - and trained well - everything on the course.

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She also knows her dog understands his job. She won't have to worry about him not wanting to do the A frame because he's had issues in the past. They have already conquered those issues before competing. She knows he'll charge that A frame with confidence.

Because the handler knows they can be successful, there is nothing to be stressed about. This confidence and lack of stress will run right down the leash to the dog, who will also then step into the ring with confidence and joy because that is the signal being sent by the handler.

They may not qualify, but they will have a run with minimal stress and tons of fun. After all, novice and open at their core are simply about teaching the dog that being in the agility ring is FUN!!!

The author's Sheltie at the 2013 AKC National Championships.

The author's Sheltie at the 2013 AKC National Championships.

Training Stages Before Competing

The training process needed before entering the agility ring is a long one. Below is a general guide to help the new agility student understand some of the stages they need to have completed before entering their first trial. These stages can easily take up to two years to complete.

Attend Classes

Practice in the backyard and at your agility school's facilities several times a week (ideally five times a week). Take weekly classes. This step continues throughout competition.

Attend Fun Runs

Fun runs (show-n-gos) are simply non-sanctioned events where an agility club invites other agility enthusiasts in the area to come out and use their equipment.

Usually the participants pay a set amount for two to five minutes out on the course. The participants can spend their minutes in the ring working on whatever skills they wish. Usually treats and toys are allowed.

Fun runs are great for teams that have equipment and sequencing skills.

Visit Different Facilities

Dogs don't generalize equipment well. While your dog may fully understand what the dog walk is at your agility school, when he sees a different dog walk at a different facility, he cannot generalize that this different dog walk is similar to his usual dog walk.

Because of this, it's important to get your dog to many different sets of agility equipment and facilities. This is done by going to other trainers for private lessons, setting up visits to the homes and agility fields of your friends and through fun runs and Matches.

Don't skimp on this step, as one of the biggest causes of stress in the Novice agility dog is fear of the different equipment.

Attend Matches

Matches are more formal affairs that mimic trials. At Matches, teams are often required to run the course, and usually treats and toys are not allowed in the ring.

Matches are great for new teams that are getting ready to trial but are not yet there. This is where new teams can go to find out what they need to work on in an environment far less stressful than a real trial as there are no titles or qualifications on the line in a Match.

Enter Trials

After teams are fully prepared for competition, they can begin trialing.



Trialing Early Teaches the Dog That Agility Is About Stress

But what of the team not prepared for the novice class? The handler is teaching the dog that being in the agility ring is about stress. If at its core novice and open are about teaching a dog that being in the ring is fun, why do handlers instead show their dogs early? It would be better to wait.

As a trainer, I know I can't stop teams from competing early. I also understand that the long road through training can demotivate especially the true beginning handler that I will sometimes fudge a hair on some of these "must have before showing" requirements as long as I am sure the handler truly understands that Novice and Open are—at their core—only about the dog learning that the ring is fun. If a young team shows a little early and the handler or dog becomes stressed or nervous, I will strongly suggest the handler wait and continue to go to only fun runs and matches.

Panting can also be an indicator of stress.

Panting can also be an indicator of stress.

Some of the Signs of Stress in the Canine

It's important to know some of the signs of stress in your canine companion. If these are present in the ring, evaluate whether your team should continue trialing.

  • Avoidance. Avoidance can be a dog avoiding a piece of equipment, avoiding a known behavior (like a stay), avoiding eye contact with the handler, running off, etc.
  • Sniffing. Almost all sniffing in the ring is stress sniffing. You can see the difference between stress sniffing and real sniffing very easily. If a dog is on a true scent, the sniffing will have purpose and there will be strong meaning in the dog's movements. Stress sniffing is more aimless and without purpose. When a dog's nose drops to the ground in the ring, assume it's stress sniffing because only very rarely is it not. Sniffing is basically avoidance.
  • Zoomies. Most new competitors don't realize that when a dog gets the excited zoomies, it is actually a sign of stress. Of course, it looks just the opposite. The dog is joyful, running around the ring, smile on its face and its tail in the air. How could THAT be stress? Well, it is. Some dogs stress "high." Think of it like a college student after finals. All the stress of studying late nights and taking long tests builds up. After the last final, the student goes out to party the night away, relieving that pent up stress. Your dog is partying out in the ring to relieve the stress of having to do an obstacle it finds scary or having to be in the ring where it has learned stress is highest.
  • Lip licking. Often photographers at agility trials can catch this behavior while the owner doesn't even realize the dog is lip licking due to stress.
  • Whale eye. This is where the dog's eyes are so large that the whites are showing.
  • Enlarged pupils.
  • Scratching. An uncommon sign of stress, this is also an avoidance behavior.
  • Peeing or pooing in the ring. Just like some of us, when some dogs get nervous, they have to go. Even dogs who have just been taken potty before a run may exhibit this behavior under stress.

How to Respond to Canine Stress

When you see these signs, if you respond with punishment (i.e. usually a harsh voice command, "No, Rover, Come!!) you are heaping more stress on the dog. This is the exact opposite of what you want to do. If your dog is stressing, rather than come down on the dog, go "up" on it. Raise the pitch of your voice to the higher, happy levels. Lighten up your body posture. Go into play mode. Remember agility is about FUN - not punishment and forced work.

There is a fine line between a dog doing avoidance behaviors from stress and a dog stubbornly not obeying. If a handler is certain the behavior avoidance is not stress-related, the best bet is to seek the advice of the team's instructor on how to best handle the situation. Adding any punishment into the ring environment has to be done exceedingly carefully and only after taking the dog's temperament under full consideration. One over-correction done in the ring can leave lasting effects on a dog's agility career.

If your dog shows signs of stress in the ring, it may be best to remove the dog from showing and return to attending fun runs and matches until the stress-causing issue can be trained away. Continuing to show will probably only cause more and more stress heaped onto that issue, making the problem worse.

The author's sheltie, Jericho, happily takes the dog walk in the Novice class.

The author's sheltie, Jericho, happily takes the dog walk in the Novice class.

The Novice Class Continues

The sheltie you saw run in the novice ring leaves with its handler, and a new beginning team steps to the line. This is a dark colored schnauzer with a young woman handling. The dog is obviously happy, looking excitedly up at the handler and out into the ring at the first obstacle. The handler sits the dog, tells her to stay and leads out briskly past the first jump. The schnauzer glances briefly about, but settles quickly focusing on her master as the owner finishes her lead out.

Upon release, the schnauzer happily and quickly takes the first two jumps and runs headlong up the A frame. The team runs well, staying in constant communication throughout the run. The dog misses the weave entry the first time, but corrects it upon their second retry. The handler, who is obviously new to agility, turns her shoulders too quickly pulling her dog off of a jump and sending it out to a wrong course. The team regroups from the common mistake and continues. A bar is later knocked when a cue is given late, but while the team didn't qualify, it is still obvious this green team is prepared for the challenges of the Novice class.

Upon finishing, the handler squeals with excitement to her dog as if they had just earned their championship, and the dog responds with unabashed joy. The dog ran with confidence and although the team did not qualify, the dog has learned the most important part of agility.

Being in the ring is all about fun.

A Word From the Author

There is much debate among agility instructors on when to allow students to trial, and this topic is surprisingly rather emotional and controversial. I strongly believe that agility should always be first and foremost about fun. In my opinion, there is absolutely no sense in putting extra stress on the dog by asking her to perform behaviors in the high-stress ring environment that she does not already solidly understand.

I have seen possibly hundreds of promising agility teams drop by the wayside from having been struck by the "trialing-too-soon" speedster. These teams showed much promise in training, but a desire to enter competition too quickly caused the dogs to become so overstressed they shut down. Soon the teams disappear from agility, casualties of a rushed performance.

I realize others may disagree, and indeed, I have seen teams enter the ring early and go on to become Champions. I did that with my first sheltie, Aslan who is now an agility Champion five times over. However, I now feel that if I had waited longer, some of the recurring issues we have experienced over the years would not have happened. We would, today, be a stronger team if I had given Aslan more training before entering the ring.

I believe it is always best to err on the side of caution and develop confidence, accuracy, speed, and enthusiasm for the game outside of the ring, and then take those important foundational qualities into the ring for the first time to ensure a wonderful, early agility experience.

© 2013 Kristin Kaldahl


Kristin Kaldahl (author) on January 25, 2019:

This is not uncommon. Fun runs and matches can be hard to come by. Other options are to find places outside of your usual training haunts to train. I send my students around to local agility people's homes who have equipment. The set up doesn't have to be a full course. Just getting your dog in a new environment with a new teeter and three new jumps will be great. The more of these places you can visit, the better. Ask your trainer if she or he knows anyone who would allow you to visit their training yard for a little practice. Go to several. The more, the better. You'll for sure want to find good teeters to practice on, and if you can find A frame, dogwalks, tires, tables and other stuff, even better. Also, if your area offers venues with pre novice training - like the AKC's ACT program or USDAA's nursery program - enter those. Some venues have for exhibition only opportunities, which are awesome places to start too. Good luck!

LunaTheAgilityDog on January 25, 2019:

I plan on competing with my dog in about 4 months. However, there are not any fun matches anywhere close to my town. Do you have any other recommendations that could help get Luna ready for a trial?

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on December 07, 2016:

Unfortunately, I don't know your team and thus can't tell you if you are ready for prime time or not. However, if you are wondering, find a fun match (also called fun runs, show-n-gos, etc.) where you can go and train in the ring. These are "fake" trials that also allow you to train in the ring, take toys and sometimes treats in the ring, run whatever obstacles you want, etc. These are great places to see how your skills match up outside your usual training environments. I like to go to as many of these as possible before I show my dogs. I believe my current 3 year old went to four or more before I knew he was ready for showing.

Also, how independent are your obstacles? In other words, do you have to be next to them for him to do them? If so, you have more training to build confidence in him before you attempt trialing.

It is true that for a few people, they wait too long to trial. Most, however, trial early. Very few hit the nail on the head and begin trialing at the right time. Of the three, trialing early is harder on the dog than trialing too late.

Also, consider going to an AKC ACT trial. These are trials specifically set up for the beginner to test their skills and see where they are. Are you ready for a real trial? These beginner trials are less intense and more relaxed and a great way to introduce your dog to the competition ring. You get a real title after completing the requirements through the ACT program too. It is new, and you can find out about the ACT program through the AKC's website (if you are in the USA that is).

SmileOn on December 07, 2016:

So I'm going through the debate of if I should start taking my boy out our not. I have a hard time judging. He pretty much took to every obstacle from step one. Even the weaves have pretty much been a breeze. But I know the agility trials are very high energy which he really isn't most of the time and other dogs barking at him can confuse him when walking past crates. Do you think starting with a rally trial would perhaps be a good way to introduce the Full on trialing environment? I'm the type of person who gets analysis paralysis and probably without being pushed wouldn't ever enter anything. Like you said above it would be all about having a good time and his obedience is much further along since I initially planned to start him with that but agility classes were easier to find.

I don't know just a million and one thoughts swimming in my brain. For the most part I'm working fairly alone at the moment to introduce my understanding of skills but I do come from a horse background and there is something to just getting out there and going to SOMETHING as long as you keep the right attitude.

Jean Rowe on September 07, 2016:

I am a fan but was the age description necessary? " middle aged female handler." was the poor handler and the young one the better. I am 72 and am having a blast with my high drive, 3rd and 4th agility partners, field Labradors.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on August 05, 2016:

Ah!! That may tell you something. I suggest not doing lead outs unless you absolutely have to. Practice sits and stays in distracting environments such as Petsmart, Lowes, Home Depot. (You can take dogs there.) That will help him learn to feel more confident with stays in agility. Practice "acting" happy at the start line where your nerves are going wild. And remember, everyone has seen it all before. The only thing I haven't seen is a judge actually get bit. Otherwise...I've seen it. You just go do your thing and have fun!! Smile before you take the ring, and keep that smile as you lead out.

And thank you for your kind words. I am on the computer today doing a "house dog training" version of the feeding emotions article. It should be out soon. It's geared toward the general dog owning public.

You can do this!! You can overcome all of these obstacles. I have faith in you. :)

Good luck!!

Laurie on August 05, 2016:

I will revisit that article! It was one of the first I saw yours that got me to follow your blog. I am also slow and limp because of MS. Your articles on distance were excellent for me. I will also have some friends of mine observe to see if there is anything specific that I'm doing. I just get so gosh darn nervous when I step up to the start line, that I know there's a disconnect there. Today I just had a standard run with a tunnel and I couldn't lead out. Guess what? No disconnect. No sniffing. And we qualified. First AKC Q! But I Need a lead out. *sigh*. Thank you for the feedback!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on August 05, 2016:

Unfortunately, since I can't see your team work, I can't answer. Have you done due diligence with the fun matches, visiting novel equipment, etc.? I suggest you talk with those who know your team best. See if they see any holes in your training that may be causing your dog stress. Also, video yourself in practice. Then video yourself in trials. At the trial, be sure to video yourself at the ring gate before you go into the ring as well as after you exit the ring. Look for stress signals from you. Are you paying attention to your dog or the environment? The ring gate is where you destress your dog and get your bond going. I see a lot f handlers with stressed dogs ignoring their dogs at the ring gate. See if your emotions in practice are similar or different from those pre-run, run and post run at a trial.

You might benefit from reading this article: You may be feeding nervousness and fear instead of confidence to your dog in the trial ring.

It is true that sometimes if you have done all of the due diligence with training, fun matches and visiting novel equipment that you just have to jump in. I have had students who were ready well before they got the nerve to trial. Talk with your friends. Let them help you evaluate your preparedness. I wish you luck!!

Laurie on August 05, 2016:

I recently started trailing my dog too early, and pulled her because of ring stress. She was doing well in practices, but not at trials. After keeping her out for 4 months, we started back again last week. We are having the same issues.

I've never been a confident handler, especially at trials. My former first agility dog also had major ring stress, even into her masters and elite levels. I think it is more a thing I have to work through and not related to my dog's skills. She is almost two, we are running masters courses with few mistakes in practice, we diligently worked flat work and foundations in the months we were off, and my conclusion is that I need to trial with her to work on trial issues -- even though they are mine. Could I be missing something in her training?

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on August 05, 2016:

Thank you Melanie. As the article says, if you see those signs of stress in your dog, you should EVALUATE whether you should start trialing - not that you should absolutely not trail. Even now with my MACH/PACH and Masters dogs, I evaluate signs of stress. Are the signs caused by the adrenaline of the situation or are they something more serious? All good handlers should be constantly evaluating such signs to be sure their training/showing is not causing any ill emotional effects on the dog.

My dogs also get dilated pupils. As that is the only sign they show and as I have high drive dogs, I don't worry about it. When combined with lip licking or any other sign, then I step back and give it some thought.

Melanie on August 05, 2016:

I don't disagree with most of this article, but my 9 yo Masters dog would still not be competing if enlarged pupils meant that I should not be trialling her yet!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on September 28, 2015:

I wish I could see your dog in person, but as it is, I suggest relying on your trainer's advice. There are probably other factors involved here, especially if you have turned to medication which is always a last resort. I had an abused rescued American Eskimo who loved agility at home and at school, but did not have fun in the ring. We worked for a few years doing tons of socialization, Classical Conditioning and more, but her past abuse made her nervous in the high stress agility environment. I retired her after her NAJ title because I won't show a dog who doesn't love it. She loved being my house queen. :) Talk to your trainer and behaviorist and knowledgeable friends who know you and your dog in person. Be sure to look at your home environment and training, as that seeps into agility more than we realize. I hope you can find a solution other than rehoming. Good luck!!

riskon0402 on September 28, 2015:

Thank you so much for your input. I think it confirms what I am afraid of - which is this dog needs re-homing. I purchsed him specifically for agility when my other dog started having recurrent back problems. All of the things you mentioned have been done. He was taken to trials from 3.5 months old when I got him and seemed comfortable after a while. Socializing events yes but he still does not like anybody but the 2 people and 4 dogs he lives with. He usually pulls me out of the car and to the rings at trials and school and seems happy to be there now. He was on Paxil the first 6 months I had him just to get him to school and out and about. He is definitely 1000% better but personally he stresses me out with his separation anxiety and nuphobia. When I get him out of his crate to run (and he has been in for 30 mins?, it's like he hasn't seen me in 5 years!) Lots of things can drive people away from agility, in this case it might be the dog!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on September 28, 2015:

With the little I know about your situation, I would be looking at my dog's signals. Sniffing? Avoidance? That means stress. Stress means agility is not fun in the ring. If you were my student, I would suggest you stop trialing immediately because you are rehearsing stress behaviors with your dog and building even more stress in the ring. I WOULD do all of the things in the blue colored side bar above for a year. I also would be visiting all the trials I could with my dog, sitting on the sidelines working Classical Conditioning. I would also be socializing the dog to pieces, going somewhere new and exciting almost every single day. You can keep working through the ring fear without actually stepping foot in the ring. When your dog is eager to go visit trials, is running happily in fun matches at OTHER strange facilities and is comfortable in almost all socialization settings, then go back in the ring. That would be my advice. It isn't "avoiding" the ring. It is training FOR the ring. :)

All of that said, I haven't seen your dog in person, so please take that into account. This advice is just based on the tiny bit of info in your reply. If I saw your dog in person, I may have other ideas for you.

riskon0402 on September 28, 2015:

What to do with a 20 mo. old PRT who does everything at home (I have a full competition equipment course at home) and at school perfectly at great speed, weaves 12 poles fast at all angles, great stays, jumping, contacts, etc. I started trialing him at 15 mos. and have 5 mos. of 39% "Q" rate. He fluctuates between good performances and bad (sniffing, wandering). He is not friendly with strange dogs and people and I have consulted behaviorist about working through this. She doesn't feel avoidance is the best course. Keep him away another year or just keep trying? I stay upbeat no matter how bad things turn out at end of run!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on November 04, 2014:

Thank you!!! He just LOVES showing. It is his favorite thing by far.

FuffandJill on November 03, 2014:

Aww...big grin! He is such a beauty, and what a good time he was having! :-) Great video!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on November 02, 2014:

BTW, I added a new video to the top of the page. My baby sheltie, Aenon, debuted in mid-Oct., and these are his debut runs. He has entered the ring with confidence and joy.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on November 02, 2014:

Yay you!!! I am so glad you and your dog are enjoying the journey, which is exactly what agility is all about. And I am glad you have a new trainer who is teaching you so much. Have fun!!

FuffandJill on November 02, 2014:

I hope you're not tired of my updates, because although I have kept trialing with my not-really-ready dog, I am STILL so glad I read this post before our first trial or I think things could have turned out a lot different. Because of what your post said about specific course levels and skills teams should have before competing, I sought out a trainer with a much more structured, competition-oriented program that includes lots of foundation skills. My dog and I both love our new trainer! We didn't Q until our 3rd trial (in July), but since then, we've been to four more trials and have been steadily improving and getting more consistent. My dog is MUCH more consistent than I am, so I still have to be really really careful to try not to let him know when I'm frustrated with myself. He's still at his happiest when we're doing agility, whether we're practicing or competing, so I think we worked through our lack of preparation without my doing major damage to his psyche. I'm not sure I exactly *regret* starting to trial too early, but knowing now how quickly we could progress with a good trainer in just a few months, I would probably choose not to rush to compete if I were starting all over. (If I'd stayed with our original trainer, who was great with obedience but not agility, I don't know if we *ever* would have been ready.) I'm not sure where this accidental agility journey will take my dog and me, but it's sure a lot of fun so far! Thanks again!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on July 13, 2014:

Thank you for posting your opinion. :) First, may I point out that I never said "all" zoomies are stress zoomies. That being said, I'm thinking you may not have understood where I was going. A person wouldn't consider a college party a sign of stress either, and yet it is. Zoomies are a way of relieving pent up stress. So while your dog may be doing zoomies in the back yard during a game of ball, it is the dog's way of relieving the stress of being in the house all day. It's a way of expending pent up energy and going, "Whoo!!! I've been locked in the house bored for hours. That was hard on a puppy!! It's time to let loose and party!!" Is it a stress reliever and a sign that your dog needed energy release? Yes, it is. Do I think ALL zoomies are signs of stress that needs to be addressed by the trainer? No. But zoomies in the ring need to be examined carefully to discover the reason for the stress. That stress may need immediate intervention.

Lisa Padgett on July 13, 2014:

I disagree all Zoomies are from Stress/Avoidance, etc. I have a Zoomie dog. She Zoomies in the yard every day when alone. I watch her through the window. We play outside. I'll throw a ball, she'll zoomie. We practice agility games for a few minutes here and there a day in the yard. She will zoomie. Those zoomies are not from stress. I 'have' seen my dog stress zoomie a couple times and it looks different to me. I remain in strong disagreement against the camp that proclaims 'all' zoomies are stress.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on April 28, 2014:

Thanks for letting me know how it turned out!!! It sounds like you made each run fun for him, and that's what it's about. Yay!!!

FuffandJill on April 28, 2014:

I thought you might want to know how things turned out. I really took your advice to heart, which was good because my dog had epic anxiety - more than I'd ever seen from him except on the 4th of July - for the first day of the trial. He actually finished his first run, and then went through a streak of runs where he zoomed. Then, for our very last run, he was absolutely at his best, so I didn't let him know I'd completely had a brain fart and sent him to the wrong jump. We sort of jumped our way back to the real course, and he had a beautiful finish. So proud of my little dog!

All things considered, I'm glad we went, and I'm planning to keep going to trials as we continue training, with the caveat that I'm going to keep thinking of them as training, as you suggested. There were a lot of things I couldn't have learned in any other situation but a real trial, but I think the advice to make sure he's having fun and not to try to Q till we're ready to try to Q was exactly what I needed to make it all work.

Thanks so much again!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on April 21, 2014:

Yay for you!!! You are SO RIGHT about your frustration with yourself transferring via non verbal (and verbal) ques to your dog. In class, I won't let my students say, "Oh shoot!!! My shoulders were turned wrong again!" or anything similar to me because the dog hears "Oh shoot, my dog messed up again!" I work with my student to have them reward and play with the dog FIRST and then when it's done, turn to me for a discussion of what went wrong.

Good for you for seeing this in my video!! It's exactly right!! :D

Thanks for commenting, and have a blast with your dog. Agility is so fun!!!

FuffandJill on April 21, 2014:

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! This has to be the best post ever!!!! (It helps my nerves, too, to think about the long term instead of just next weekend.) Aslan is totally amazing - I loved seeing him fly.

My dog is a 3 or 4 year-old cockapoo (he's a rescue, so I'm not sure which), and one thing I've noticed in class is that all his "mistakes" are really my handling mistakes - he is a wonderful mirror in that if he's clear about what I want, he'll try to do it. But watching your video, I realized that even if I'm frustrated with myself and not him, he'll just see my disappointment and respond to it...he won't know it's because I feel I've let him down, and I imagine it affects class as well, which is still his favorite thing in the universe.

Thank you for the terrific take-away! I know it will be good for both of us, and I've already given up my fantasies of a Q this time out.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on April 20, 2014:

My advice has to do with your mental head game. Since you're entered, make sure you're going into it NOT thinking about doing well or Qing. Your only job is to make it fun for your dog. As long as your dog doesn't bite the judge or attack a ring steward, then you need to let him know that being in the ring is a blast!!! I use lots of excited, play, praise voice in the ring. Lots of toys and treats outside the ring (especially afterward).

If you're thinking of doing well or even qualifying, you might - even accidentally - give off negative signals when your team makes a mistake. This puts stress on the new dog in the ring. By not caring how you do and looking at this soley as a training experience, you won't care about the mistakes. All you need to care about is that the dog has fun in the ring.

I'm going to include a link to a video I have of some of my runs with my little boy Aslan where things didn't go so well (at the beginning of the video and in the middle of the video). Watch me, and see if you can see the subtle non-verbal ques I send off showing my disappointment with the error. These small, unintentional signals (deceleration, hand signal drops, shoulders drop, energy leaves, etc.) would, over time, affect even a seasoned dog like Aslan causing him to lose confidence. These would far, far more greatly affect a green dog in a scary, new ring.

By not caring about how you do - really not caring - you may be able to avoid some of these non-verbal signals and energy loss from me after our mistakes.

Your goal is only to make your dog have fun in the ring. If this means your dog goes in the ring and runs past everything but one jump, then hey. That's the best jump any dog ever took!!!! Celebrate it like that!!!! :D

FuffandJill on April 20, 2014:

I don't know if you're still checking responses to this post, but I found it very helpful. My dog and I are signed up for our first CPE trial for next weekend (a first for both of us), entered only in events where we feel very comfortable with all the obstacles. I'm pretty sure you would say we're not ready yet, but I don't want to back out. Do you have any advice for making this trial fun for my dog (besides giving lots of praise and not scolding him when we act as inexperienced as we are)?

TX4dogs on October 24, 2013:

Just came across this article. I agree with many of the points, however I think that the key to deciding when to enter your novice dog is the handler's ATTITUDE.

I have put my novice dogs into trials "too soon" - but I had zero expectations of Qs and usually had just one or two goals (for example: practice contacts) per trial. Also, I only did trials that allowed some training in the ring (NADAC, CPE, ASCA, etc) so I could do as much or little as I thought the dog needed. One time I even told the judge - we're doing the first 5 obstacles and that's it. I just wanted the dog to have a positive ring experience and stay focused for 5 obstacles. Big celebration after that 5th obstacle. Exited the ring. Also, when starting a novice dog trialing, I never corrected the dog in the ring. I might make the dog re-do the obstacle, but I'd act like it was part of the course to go around and do it again and be the cheer leader when the dog did it right the 2nd time.

If I am expecting Q's at the first trial with my novice young dog, then yes, I should wait and not enter. But if I am expecting to reinforce skills already taught, practice, and show the dog the trial environment is FUN, then yes I think it's okay to go ahead and enter. And sometimes you Q anyhow!

murraymonster on October 24, 2013:

As someone who recently started competing with her Novice A dog, after about a year of training, I agree with the majority of this article. But I'd also say that it really depends on the team AND also to caution against waiting too long.

When I entered my first AKC trial, I didn't even think about the Q. I just wanted my dog (who's a reactive and soft rescue) to have fun. I got his measurements before entering a trial to take off that stress. I thought about how we'd party post-run and walked the course with phrases like "good boy." I planned for a start line stay but also decided that if he seemed the least bit stressed I'd run with him. As it turned out, I entered the ring completely non-stressed and my dog ran great. And that's been our routine at every trial and he's been doing really, really well.

The other upside in trialing when I did (and I entered my first trial only after going to many a show-n-go, etc), is seeing what agility is supposed to look like. When you're a Novice A competitor in a group class with others at your level, you don't know what the end result is, or that it's all about SPEED (as you so aptly put in your agility for rookies article). When I went to my first show-n-go, I was lucky because it was held at a place that held USDAA trials and there were a lot of top competitors their tuning their dogs up for Cynosport. So I got to see good agility. Going to a trial is the same. I realized that there's a clock and that speed did play a role. When I first signed up for an agility class, I knew nothing about it other than "my dog will look so cute climbing on stuff!"

Conversely, I have friends who waited for 4-5 years to trial (our local club's agility instructor told students to wait to compete until they knew they could Q in every run). They didn't know about SCT or the emphasis on speed, period. When they enter the ring it's much more stressful as they have the expectation to Q and also the worries about the end result because they waited a long time. Most of their dogs are accurate but are now running into time fault issues, which is another beast. But the handlers look stiffer, and more nervous, and the dogs in turn are more nervous. However, if I went in with that same mentality, my dog would do just the same.

So while I do think that there is such a thing as starting too early, there's also a lot of stress in starting too late. For me & my dog, when we started was "just right." Some people may have entered the ring with him earlier or later than me, but we have a great time on every run and in his mind, he's a champ after every single run, Q or NQ.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 14, 2013:

I'm hanging out on the internet today and caught this shortly after you posted it. I'm so very pleased that my article has helped you!!! Yes, don't give up. You're just a new, green team that needs more seasoning. :)

The biting and nipping is a very normal herding behavior, and border collies, shelties and other herding dogs often do this when they get over excited. And, yes, like zoomies, it is often (but not always) a sign of stress. This behavior indicates a dog who is perhaps frustrated with his handler. Dogs need to know where to go much earlier than we think, and the nipping/biting herding behavior is usually a dog saying, "TELL ME WHERE TO GO!!" It's often a sign that the handler isn't handling well.

The good news is that time will fix this. As you learn how to handle, this behavior will improve. You do need to address it though. I can't tell you exactly how because I do not know your dog. Is your dog soft? Is he tough? Will he wilt with correction or not? Often many trainers deal with this by stopping all fun when it occurs. This is a good method for most dogs. You're running and your dog turns and nips at you. Poof. All fun stops. You stand stock still, don't move, slump your shoulders and act really, really bored. Often you don't need to say anything. He may bite more in frustration, but just hold your boring stance. I'd hold this for a minute or so after he's quit biting. Then, I'd ask him if he'd like to try again and go back to work.

For a while, you'll be doing nothing but standing around until he realizes that the fun only occurs if he's behaving himself.

This, however, does not work for all dogs, and a stronger method must be applied. The problem is a stronger punishment can shut down a dog, and I don't know if your dog can handle that or not. I'd try the "stop all fun and be really, really dull" method first and see if that doesn't help. You have to do it 100 percent of the time for it to work, so be consistent!!

Don't give up. You are mentioning such common issues I see in teams all the time, and those that continue are often the MACH teams we cheer for in only a few years.

Here are a few other articles you may wish to read that can help you.

I don't know your trainer. He or she may be awesome, or you may find a change is in order. Here's an article to get you thinking. It may build confidence in you for the trainer you have.

This article was written for the 2013 Nationals Competitors, but I think you can apply it to your team. You guys CAN do this. The fact that you went to the internet for help proves you are determined. Grab that determination, dream big and go for it!!

Good luck as you continue to play in agility. This sport is never easy and is always a roller coaster, but if it were easy, we wouldn't be doing it!!

Maryorcs on October 14, 2013:

Hi, After a very demoralizing agility trial this weekend with my two year old border collie I went on line to see if I could find some answers as to why it was so awful. Your article said it all. I felt pressured by trainers, family, and myself to sign up and have fun with my dog when I felt very ill prepared and knew my dog was as unprepared as I was. I've been off and on training for about a year and am totally new to the sport. I also agree with you that a many of the teams at this trial were woefully undertrained, which resulted in the perverse reaction from me " At least my dog isn't running around the ring like a crazy thing or running off with the cones!" No, my dog herded and bit my feet during every run--how I got one Q I'll never know! He did sniff, wouldn't sit/stay ( he doesn't do that in practice much either), or look at me, so I'm presuming the biting is also part of stress behavior.? He does this at our home when we are outside and he's excited. He also does it sometimes in practice. Do I treat this behavior differently from the other stress behaviors ie he sniffs and acts uninterested with me at agility practice sometimes too. Any advise would be appreciated. I realize we do not have a strong foundation and thus are both lacking confidence. However, your article has given me hope that we can be a successful agility team one day. Thanks again for a great article.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on May 23, 2013:

Thank you for dropping by!!! You pointed out something important that's not in the article. You can train your dog to be ready for the ring and save a lot of money by Qing through the ranks quickly rather than spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on NQs and ring-wise issues. :) And I also agree that some areas have a culture of showing dogs early and other areas do not. Thanks for your comment. :D

eileenanddogs on May 23, 2013:

Beautiful article. Whether one's dog is old, young, herding breed or not, and whatever the circumstances of the handler, it should be about the dog not just being OK with it but thrilled to be out there with you, not to mention having the skillset. My first teachers encouraged all their students to get out and compete way too early; it's part of the culture around here. I have seen so many miserable and confused dogs. After the first go round I found a better teacher who is a total advocate for the dog. We had been practicing for four years before we competed in AKC. My dog, an unlikely agility prospect, runs fast and happy. I progressed more quickly with my second dog and started competing in two years. Both breezed through Novice and with about 90% Q rate and nothing but first places, with faster times than the B dogs. Open is going the same way. So I get my reinforcement, too. I really wonder about the hurry. Thanks for spelling it out.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on April 01, 2013:

I had to learn how to use the nerves or let them eat me up. Now if I'm not nervous, I'm not on my toes. If I'm not nervous, I actually look around to see who's watching to make myself nervous. I use the "fight or flight" feeling to fight. :) It took awhile for me to learn how to do that though!

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on April 01, 2013:

I know; I thought I would pass out from dizziness at my first herding event. I was so keyed-up; I wanted everything to go perfectly or at least to qualify; I thought I might have some kind of attack! Same thing for my first conformation shows. I thought I might have a heart attack, and everyone would laugh at the crazy lady who died over being nervous about nothing. lol

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on April 01, 2013:

Thank you Solarias. :) Yes, at a local trial this weekend I saw the same thing. It's all about having fun, and if neither teammate is having fun, more practice is needed. People get so antsy to start their dogs way before they are ready. It is frustrating to watch.

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on April 01, 2013:

Thumbs up - Useful and Interesting! I was at an agility match a few weeks ago as a spectator, and saw many of the signs of not ready for prime time that you describe. I felt sorry for both the dogs and the owners; they left the ring frustrated and not enjoying each others' company.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on February 27, 2013:

I, personally, think there are great advantages to starting with an older dog as your first dog in agility. You can make your newbie mistakes on him, and you can learn how to handle on him. Then, when you have an understanding of the sport, you can start your next pup knowing more of how the training process and puzzle works.

It takes years, though, to fully understand this sport. One of the joys of teaching agility is to have my handlers come back to me after five or more years of training with me and trialing and say, "You know, after I'd been in this sport for about three years, I thought I knew it well. I'm learning that I'm only now discovering it."

Also, you briefly mention that people should be trialing while still taking classes and seminars. OF COURSE!!! LOL. You should be taking classes and seminars for the life of your agility dog!! It's how you continue to grow in the sport. My students come to me as newbies and stay with me through the careers of their dogs - all the way to National Championships or World Team tryouts. The training NEVER ends, and neither should classes, seminars, etc.

You have so much ahead of you in this sport. You're going to love learning and growing. It's a new sport, so it's constantly changing. Every few years, the sport undergoes a major change. It's so much fun to "keep up" and learn new things.

Also, I would say that my article never says I expect "perfection" in the ring from the new dogs. In fact, my article says just the opposite. I do expect my novice dogs and handlers to be proficient to the Excellent/Masters level courses in practice before entering the ring, but that does not indicate "perfection." As you progress through the sport, you will understand.

You also might be interested in a hub I wrote on being competitive..a word that is almost always used incorrectly. For many people, competing against themselves is what keeps this sport fun and exciting throughout a dog's career. And, no, perfection is never, ever reached - except in very small moments.

Continue to have fun in this sport. It is a beautiful, constantly challenging sport, which is only part of what makes it so much fun. The best part of the sport is the hours spent with your dog training, IMO. :)

(The hub on being competitive is at

Bre on February 27, 2013:

I think I see now the point you're trying to make. My viewpoint is a little different since I'm starting with an older dog and he's my first agility dog. I started doing agility, first and foremost, to have fun with my dog (as most competitors at any level would probably say), but I also just enjoy training my dog. I love to see him make the connection between what I've rewarded in the past and what he's currently doing. I knew coming into this that we would never be as competitive as some other beginner teams, simply because of my dogs age. Yes, Papillons can live a long time, but he already sees a chiropractor for some minor joint issues, and I trial him in preferred so he can jump 8 instead of 12. As soon as he seems like hes no longer enjoying it or he seems to be in pain, we'll stop and I'll be perfectly happy with him regardless of whether or not we're trialing anymore.

I still think some dogs don't need as much straight agility training to be successful. Herding dogs or dogs that compete in obedience are already really in tune with their handlers and already know how to learn. That's not to say they won't have their own individual issues-but these dogs have a much better basis to start off with than a house dog who has only ever been to basic family manners classes. In my mind, it would follow that those dogs with more training to begin with won't need to spend as much time learning to work with their handler as will a dog who is just learning the process of shaping.

Like you said, we'll see as I get older. But right now, I don't see why you can't start in lower level trials while still training and taking classes/seminars/etc. As long as the dog and handler enjoy themselves, I don't think they have to be perfect to learn that agility is fun. I think it can also be a good learning experience.

For example: I watched a woman with her JRT this past weekend compete in novice all three days. The first day her JRT took the first three obstacles with her and then lost all focus and started zooming (because of nerves or whatever). She realized she had asked too much of him. Her second class that day she set him up to take the first three obstacles that were in his path (not the correct course, but the obstacles she indicated). And as soon as he successfully stayed with her for those three she celebrated and he jumped into her arms. The second day she tried for five obstacles (not necessarily the correct course, but the obstacles she indicated) and the last day she got eight obstacles (on the correct course and what she indicated). I've seen this dog at show and go's be very successful on harder courses than the novice courses that weekend. But the dog didn't have much experience in the trial atmosphere so she decided to set her dog up for success and even though she never finished a course she made a lot of progress and she and her dog learned a lot.

To wrap this up: I've learned a lot since starting agility training/trialing, and I will definitely do some things differently with my next dog-mostly because I'll be starting with a young dog who I know will (hopefully) have a long career ahead of him/her. I'll definitely work more on distance control, handling maneuvers on the flat, and getting the dog used to the trial atmosphere early in life so he/she is comfortable in a more stressful environment. There are a few things I won't change though, I'll still approach this as something fun for my dog-if for some reason the dog just truly doesn't enjoy it, then we'll find something else to do together-and I'll probably start looking for another dog because the agility bug has bitten me! :-)

Thanks for the feedback!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on February 26, 2013:

A lot of beginners feel the way you do, which is exactly why I wrote this piece. :) After 15 years in this sport, I have seen team after team reach Excellent and fall away, unable to complete their journey because they didn't get the proper, solid foundation skills on their team. This article isn't intended to "scare" people away from the sport, but prepare them so they don't become victims of poor foundation skills later. That's where a lot of teams quit the sport.

Yes, you can get your Novice and Open titles pretty easily without the proper foundation skills. I've even seen teams with poor foundation skills get their Excellent AND Masters titles. And I've seen teams lacking foundations do well in titling venues that aren't as competitive. But almost all of them hit the wall if they attempt to reach the higher titles in some of the more difficult venues or classes.

If a novice title is all you are interested in, that is fantastic!! There's nothing wrong with that. Then you can go into the ring without the strong foundation skills necessary for long-term competition. However, if a team desires more out of themselves, then more must be given at the beginning of their training. And fortunately, age in agility isn't a consideration as most of the agility competitors are older, and as one of those older competitors, I'm sure glad for that!!

I applaud you for commenting as I know there are several who disagree with this article but did not have the courage to comment. And, I encourage you to continue in agility and have fun. After all, that is the main goal of the sport!! And when you've earned your MACH or ADCH, come back and let us know what you think. You may have the same feelings, or they may have changed. :)

PS - I just published another article about pushing through barriers and achieving your dreams. It fits a bit with this article and concept. You might find it interesting. It's at

Bre on February 26, 2013:

My almost 9 year old Papillon and I competed in our first AKC trial this past weekend. We've done TDAA and CPE once each in the past few months so we had a little experience. I think it really depends on the dog for when you start trialing. I don't think you can generalized and say at least X amount of time. I started Rally training in the November of 2011, we did our first trial in March of 2o12 (all trained at home, btw). I started agility training in September of 2012 and we did our first trial in December of 2012. Since my dog was already older and has been learning tricks his entire life he already knew how to work with me and vice versa. For us a few months was plenty of time to learn the rules, get independent obstacle performance (including 6 weaves) and run Masters/Excellent level courses successfully at show and go's.

I think it also depends on the handler though, I'm only 23 and can easily keep up with/stay ahead of my dog so I don't have to worry about having as much distance control as other handlers might. That's not to say my dog can't work at a distance, but he doesn't always have to.

I'm definitely a novice and it's just my opinion, but I'd hate for someone to lose interest in the sport just because they're being told they have to wait a certain amount of time before trialing.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on February 10, 2013:

Congrats to you and Mya for your hard work before entering the ring with confidence!!! May you have many happy agility years together. :)

1doggeek on February 10, 2013:

LOVE this! I attended my first AKC trial with Mya this fall, after 4 solid years of training an 4-H competing. I was shocked by the level of training these dogs had - even in advanced levels, many couldn't hold a stay or follow direction easily. There wasn't even a competition between Mya and the rest of the class - we easily took 1st in all 4 Novice classes that weekend simply because of our ability to execute many different handling options and to be confident in our choices.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on February 07, 2013:

Thanks wetnosedogs. :) I'm fast running out of videos I haven't used before though. I'm thinking I need to take more video footage at trials. Thanks for dropping by!!

wetnosedogs from Alabama on February 07, 2013:

I always enjoy your videos. What a great exercise both you and Asher get. Great going.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on February 07, 2013:

Thank you tillsontitan!!! I appreciate the votes. :) Yes, attending agility classes does leave life-long benefits outside of agility. The dogs learn to read out body language, and we theirs. Congrats for going to classes with your min pin. Thanks for dropping by.

Mary Craig from New York on February 07, 2013:

I really enjoyed this hub. My Min Pin and I attended agility classes but we never got to the competition stage. The benefits of those classes though are life-long. We are closer and he is more responsive, I believe, because of those classes.

I like your insight and beliefs and have to say your sheltie was amazing!

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

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