Entering Your First Agility Competition: Team Doggie’s Reflections & Suggestions

Tacarra Andrade of Novi, MI, and MACH8 Prince Doggie are the most titled team in the AKC Canine Partners program, holding eight AKC Master Agility Championships and having qualified for the AKC Agility Invitational and AKC National Agility Championships on multiple occasions. Princey is Tacarra’s first agility dog -- she had never heard of agility before she got her puppy. She happened to see an agility competition on television one day and thought that Princey would enjoy it. She has a lot of good advice for others starting on their first agility journey.

Your very first agility trial is a unique experience often full of conflicting emotions/thoughts. There can be excitement, anxiousness, nervousness, joy, hope, fear, optimism, etc., all at the same time.  While all of these feelings frequently associated with the first competition experience should be embraced, agility newbies should try to focus on the positive elements of the varying emotions above all others. Success in the sport of agility is largely determined by a positive approach to training and competing, along with a strong mental game. If you start out with this in mind, you can begin to condition yourself accordingly at an early stage.

Some aspects of my very first agility trial, I remember so vividly...like the overwhelming sense of unfamiliarity with the trial process/flow, the first fellow exhibitor I met that showed me where to check-in, the Trial Secretary, the first BIG personality I encountered, and the first new "friends" that helped me survive my first trial and encouraged me to come back again for a second. Other parts of my first agility competition are more of a blur...like my first walk-thru, going to the start-line for the first time with Prince Doggie, running our very first course together, crossing the finish-line for the first time, etc.  This disconnect between the various recollections is my biggest regret as I seem to remember the insignificant details quite clearly, but what I should remember (and really want to remember) of the experience -- my time with Princey -- is just not as clear and kind of fuzzy. What I also recall is the nervousness...and hands down it was the nerves that caused me to, in a sense, block out many of the precious moments I so dearly wish to remember with complete accuracy.

Stay Present

That said, my number one piece of advice for newcomers to the sport that are preparing for their first trial is to try to minimize any nervousness as much as possible. Being a little nervous is totally normal, but being overly nervous can kill the experience for all involved; so please remember that the first trial with your dog/teammate should be treasured and enjoyed by both of you and that there is actually very little to be nervous about. One way to minimize first agility trial nerves is to stay present in the moment; don’t get so far ahead of yourself in the process that you start to check-out and/or lose appreciation for what is currently happening in moment between you and your dog. Another way to minimize any nerves during your first agility trial is to care as little as possible about the outcome of any individual run, i.e. qualifying or not qualifying. Whether your dog qualifies or not is honestly the last thing you should concern yourself with at your first trial; worrying about qualifying is a guaranteed way to invite unnecessary nervousness. Your major goal for the first trial should be to make it a completely fun and positive team-building experience for you and your dog no matter what happens or how you think you might be embarrassing yourselves! A non-qualifying mess of a run where you and your dog enjoyed playing together and had fun is such a stronger foundation to build on long-term and a much bigger success than a qualifying run that resulted in a negative experience for you and/or the dog. 

Stay in Your Lane

Similarly, do not compare your team’s skill set or progress to that of other teams!  In other words, stay in your lane and focus only on your own team. This should always be true throughout your time in the sport, but especially so for your first agility trial. Another key to success in agility is learning early on that you should only be competing against yourself/your last performance and not other teams. You should use your team’s performance at your first agility trial as a benchmark to identify strengths/weakness and then create a training plan to expand on your strengths and improve your weaknesses. Bringing along a video camera to have your runs recorded is essential to this process. Recording your runs will provide visual proof of what actually happened during the run as opposed to relying on your memory, which can often be distorted and not completely representative of reality. If possible, inviting a friend or significant other to assist with this during your first trial can be very beneficial. Eventually, you will start to make friends with other exhibitors that will most likely be willing to record for you as your team continues to trial.

Plan Ahead

My next piece of advice for first-time exhibitors is to plan ahead as much as possible. Do not overwhelm yourself by being unfamiliar with the process like I was; instead, familiarize yourself ahead of time by paying close attention to the details of any pre-trial documents that are provided before the actual trial, e.g. the trial entry confirmation, club welcome letter, running order, etc. If you find yourself with any lingering questions even after reviewing all of the information (which is likely), do yourself a favor and feel free to contact the Trial Secretary for clarification; the Trial Secretary is the greatest resource for information and available to help new exhibitors. Another suggestion is to make a check-list of everything you and your dog might need while at your first agility trial.  This list will vary from team-to-team and what should be included on that list will largely depend on the kind of trial it is, e.g. indoors or outdoors, etc. Trust me, it is better to arrive at your first trial as prepared and with as few questions as possible to ensure a less stressful, more enjoyable and fun experience since that what it should be anyway!!!

Be Prepared

My last piece of advice to agility trial newcomers is be prepared to wait; there is a lot of down-time in competitive agility! Since it will be your first agility trial, your dog will need to be measured before you can run. That said, you should arrive early enough to set-up your crating area, check-in and have your dog measured without having to rush. Since you are being forewarned about the wait, you should also come prepared with constructive ways to pass the time. You can always bring a book or magazine to read; you can socialize yourself and your dog with the other exhibiting teams at the show to make new friends; you can work your dog on various obedience commands/tricks or even bring along a friend or significant other to keep you company and provide help as previously mentioned. Another constructive way to use down-time at your first trial is to observe and start to familiarize yourself with the various volunteer positions available at all agility trials. Trials can only happen with the help of exhibitors that volunteer to work so if you spend any significant time in the sport, I guarantee that you will find yourself at some point working as a bar-setter, course-builder, timer, scribe, leash-runner, etc. 

Have Fun

One final note...your very first agility trial is a one-time only experience so cherish it and make the most of it by really engaging with your dog/teammate, focusing on the relationship and appreciating the important moments shared for just how special/meaningful they are for your team and the journey of bonding ahead. Agility is a challenging sport that requires perseverance, patience and lots of consistent hard-work, but the reward of achieving success through true teamwork with your dog is unmatched and will undoubtedly keep you coming back for more! Best of luck, enjoy and have fun!!!