When is Your Agility Team Ready to Trial?: The Pitfalls of Showing too Early in Dog Agility
The author and her sheltie, Aenon, in the Novice ring learning the agility ring is all about FUN!!!!
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 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.
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 Masters 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.
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!!!
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 class. Practice in the back yard 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 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 so 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.
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 pupil.
- 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.
Is Your Team Ready to Show? A Quiz Just to Get You Thinking....
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 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.