by Kristin Thober
You’ve been taking some agility, obedience or Rally classes for a while and now have the bug to compete. How do you know if you’re ready or not? The answer is based on a few different variables – and it must also take YOU into consideration as the other member of the performance team, not just the dog. Are you ready? The following are some ideas and questions to help you answer that question.
Practice makes perfect, and with today’s gas prices it’s a real bonus if you can practice close to home. But it doesn’t have to be just your backyard. Take it on the road -- visit a friend’s house, use parking lots for obedience and Rally work, and bring a few jumps in your car to a vacant field. The idea is to take what you’ve learned to new places with new distractions. Often times the classes don’t provide enough time to try each skill introduced, so if you can practice between classes you’ll be ready faster. It also helps identify specific problems, especially when you have to try exercises on your own. You can then bring these questions with you to your next group class.
Often times a dog with lots of talent may be ready before the handler is, and then a few private lessons may be a big benefit to get the handler up to speed.
Are Group Classes Enough?
Most group classes by themselves do not prepare the first-time novice competitor for competition, unless there are many experienced handlers and the class moves along quickly to advanced exercises and holds “practice” competitions. But group classes are great -- you can learn a lot from watching the other people and their dogs in the class. They are fantastic for providing a noisy, show-like environment for learning, but often go slow enough so that everyone in the class can keep up the same pace. Often times a dog with lots of talent may be ready before the handler is, and then a few private lessons may be a big benefit to get the handler up to speed.
Even the top handlers need an extra pair of “eyes” to watch the interaction of the team. Worrying about what the dog is doing often makes a handler forget what they are doing!
Often times, it is the handler needing some extra help on developing specific skills that group classes do not have the time to address. A balance of weekly group classes combined with a monthly private lesson seems to work the best. Your instructor is also the best person to give you an honest evaluation if you’re ready to compete, or identify the skills you or your dog needs before you’re ready.
In years past, matches were available all through the year and a great way to see if you were ready for the real thing. Often times, you could use it as a practice show, or just to train and try certain exercises in a new environment. Sadly, they are getting few and far between with the advanced cost of gas, building rentals, and people’s time. If you find a match offered in your area, definitely take advantage of the opportunity. Individual matches will post their rules, such as allowing food or toys or leashes in the ring.
CPE’s philosophy is for the dog and handler to have fun first, and their shows may not have the competitive atmosphere as other organizations.
If your goal is to achieve a title in a specific organization, such as AKC, you might want to consider entering a performance event in a different organization to see how you do. For instance, Canine Performance Events (CPE) offers first level agility titling classes that do not have weave poles or the see-saw as obstacles. CPE’s philosophy is for the dog and handler to have fun first, and their shows may not have the competitive atmosphere as other organizations.
“If all else fails, read the directions!”
You’ve heard that one many times, but it applies to dog shows as well. If you are new to a specific area of performance, it’s a good idea to read the rulebook for that sport. Most organizations have their rulebooks online, and you can browse through the requirements for the first level of competition. Did you know that your dog needs to be measured before running in your first agility class? Did you know that Rally has a walk-through for handlers before the start of the class? It can be confusing, especially on your first day of competition and nerves are running high. A good recommendation is that if your first performance event is held over a weekend, enter Sunday only but go on Saturday for a few hours to watch, volunteer to work a class, and learn how the event runs without the stress of actually competing.
You Still Think You’re Ready
There are a couple of things to consider, now that you know the rules and you think that your dog can perform all the exercises. Does your dog have a reliable recall? Agility is done entirely off lead, Novice Obedience has half the exercises on lead and half off lead, and Rally Novice is entirely on lead. The excitement at a trial is very high, and you need good control of your dog. Can your dog do the exercises without food or toys? Can you do 15 obstacles in a row to make up a Rally or Agility course? Talking is allowed in Agility and Rally, but not during Obedience exercises. A private lesson at this point can be critical in your preparation to see if you are weaned off of your training aids.
Can It Ever Be Too Early?
Yes, you can enter an event too early. However, as long as you recognize the signs that things aren’t going as well as you planned, you can always stop. Agility allows you to leave the ring without doing any further obstacles at any time, as long as you courteously let the judge know you’re stopping with a wave of your hand and collecting your dog. In Rally you can skip an exercise that is giving you a hard time or just move on to the finish line. The bottom line is to stop before stressing your dog (or yourself!) to the point of either one of you not wanting to come back and play again.
You Are A Team
Remember – it’s not just the dog who needs to be ready and it’s not just you who needs the skills to compete – it’s how both of you can take what you’ve learned and work together in a show environment. Now go out and have some FUN!
Kris Thober first competed in obedience 20 years ago with a tri rough collie, who completed his Utility titles in both the U.S. and Canada. Her second collie was “Chelsea,” the smooth son of CH Oakhill Kismet Anticipation. Chelsea went on to be the first smooth collie in history to win multiple High in Trial awards in all-breed obedience trials in both the U.S. and Canada -- proof that collies were as competitive in Obedience as any other breed. Chelsea was the #1 Obedience ranked collie in the U.S. for many years. Finally bitten by the agility bug, she has completed Master level titles on her current smooth collie, "Booker," as well as handled him to his Breed championship, Obedience and Rally titles. She teaches classes in both competitive Obedience and Agility, using positive methods and emphasizing it should be fun for everyone involved, both dog and handler.