Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Trials of Trialing

DISCLAIMER: This advice is to newbies trialing from a newbie!! I have less than no expertise or great accomplishments in agility, so take it for what it's worth!

My dog Muggle and I just competed in our 7th agility trial. We've only been competing for a year. Although we're both new to the sport, we now have seven trials worth of experience, and loads of lessons learned on both what to do, and what not to do in preparing for your first few agility trials.

In the days before our first trial, I calmed my frazzled nerves by assuring myself we were ready. Muggle knew all the obstacles (sort of, mostly) and I'd been working on my handling skills. The trial would be just like the many run-thrus we'd gone to; we’d sit around and wait for our turn, run around the field doing what we'd done dozens of times in practice, and then wait for our next turn. It would be a fun, relaxing weekend.


I quickly learned why they call agility competitions TRIALS. If you've never experienced an agility trial, it's very similar to a swim meet: long periods of waiting around for a brief race, followed by more waiting, then another short race, etc. Considering you only actually compete for a total of maybe 10 minutes over the course of the whole weekend, it's exhausting!

It's not only exhausting for the handler, but maybe even more so on the poor, first-time dogs who've never experienced anything like this before. They've spent the past months learning that going to the agility field means "It's time to play!". Instead, they get stuffed into crates from where they watch other dogs play. New and different people and dogs are walking by, whistles are blowing, buzzers are sounding, and dogs are barking. At our first few trials, by the time it was Muggle's turn, he was either so ramped up that he got the "zoomies," or he just didn't care anymore. The whole ordeal was so stressful that he had diarrhea for days after his first two trials!

Lesson learned! An important part of training a new-to-agility dog for trialing should include getting them comfortable with the trials of trialing: long waits in the crate or car, lots of activity going on around them, dogs running (and often barking) on the field, and a few minutes when mom or dad hope they're perfect. No pressure there.

Here are some of the things that have helped minimize the trial of agility trials for Muggle (and me), and that might help other new-to-agility dogs and handlers adapt to the trial environment. 
  • For your first trial or two, only enter 1 or 2 events per day. If your dog is very uncomfortable around new people, dogs, or situations, only enter them on one day. 
  • Choose consecutive events to minimize the time you spend at the field on any one day. If your dog has never been at the field for longer than an hour in class or two hours at run-thrus, just enter the first two events so you can arrive, get measured, run, and go home by noon. Even that will be a long day for a dog that is used to agility in one hour increments.
  • Get them used to their trial's crate. Take that crate to run-thrus, on vacations, day-trips, everywhere! If possible, keep a crate at your home field so the dog becomes comfortable in it. 
  •  Slowly increase the number of events per day, days per trial, trials per year as your dog gets comfortable with the trial environment.
This past weekend's trial marks Muggle and my first complete, from start until finish attendance at a two-day trial. We only ran six events, but we stayed all day both days. Muggle was pretty content hanging out and napping in his crate or socializing for that whole time.
We still come home from each day of a trial exhausted, but not stressed out, and not with diarrhea. Muggle can now relax and even sleep between events. He isn't alert and on guard the whole time. We still have a lot to learn about agility, but we've gotten over the frustration and stress of all that waiting. And sometimes, the off-the-field and on-the-field work all comes together for us. When we're at that point, it's magical. And that's what keeps us coming back again and again, despite the trials of agility trials.

Lynne Hinkey