How do I know my dog is ready to trial?

That is a question I am often asked. I think that can be answered by examining the progression of your training.   First and foremost, can your dog execute all equipment properly and safely with minimal assistance and in sequence?  Second, does your dog respond to your handling cues you both have been learning with some consistency?  If your timing is off and an error in handling occurs, does your dog look to you for further guidance?  In fairness to your dog, are you able to acknowledge that 99% of mistakes that happen in agility are due to human error?  As a team, have you been able to consistently manage sequences of 15 obstacles or more?  Does your dog understand what they get as a reward upon completion of these sequences.  Have you introduced your dog to a trial like atmosphere with success?  I define success in this situation as the dog being comfortable in his surroundings.  Your dog should be able to move around or be crated with no signs of stress.  Remember that the dogs do this for us.  If they can’t be happy between runs, then why expose them to it?  For this very reason I begin exposing my dogs to trial atmospheres while they are puppies.  I consider this a very big part of their socialization period.  Can your dog work with you while being distracted by other stimuli (other dogs for sure!)?  These are all important considerations and questions to ask yourself.

Handler and dog teams mature into readiness at different rates.  Make sure you aren’t entering a trial just because you are eager to get into the sport!  Just because one person in your training class has started trialling, it doesn’t mean that you should or feel bad that you aren’t!

Trialling before you are ready can have disastrous results.  You have to remember that things you may be able to do in training are not accessible to you in a trial atmosphere.  This means that your dog can inadvertently learn unwanted behaviours!  That brings me to my last point for readiness.  Are you able to cope with the behaviours your dog is showing you and are you aware of what your options are for addressing them in the moment?

If you are confident about all of these points and can answer the questions positively then you may be ready!  I say “may” because there is always an element of unknown and you need to know that you are prepared to deal with it.  The next step will be how to introduce your dog to trialling.  Look for the followup post on my blog addressing how to do this with success!