This article originally ran in the “Training & Behavior” column of AKC Family Dog.
Congratulations on entering your first rally trial! The hours of practice with your dog are about to pay off. Now all you have to do is stick with your plan for pre-show week and you’ll be good to go.
Show Countdown: 7 Days
Do not panic. This week is not the time to start “fixing” things. There is nothing that can be fixed in seven days, but there sure are a lot of things you can mess up by over-training (also known as “drilling”) and being too hard on yourself and your dog.
Today, identify the three major challenges that you and your dog need the most work on for the upcoming show. In your session, you may address one of those issues, provided that you lead into it with something you and your dog have mastered and are extremely confident about. End your session the same way, throw in some play, and always end on a positive note! If you keep this schedule over the next few days (rotating among the three challenging exercises) you’ll be able to work on difficult areas while keeping your dog happy and upbeat.
Show Countdown: 6 Days
Take some additional time today (or tonight) to sit quietly and do a mental run-through. Olympic athletes, business people, and agility World Team members are just a few of the people using visualization techniques to help improve their game. The general idea is to visualize everything going perfectly at the event—from your arrival at the show site, setting up your chair and crate, your “walk through” of the course, and your performance.
The more vividly you visualize, the more you will gain from the exercise. Use all of your senses for maximum effect—the sounds you hear (the judge’s voice), the sights you see (the signs on course), the smells (the grass), how your mind and body feel (focused and relaxed). I know you may want to add an extra practice session with your dog before a trial instead of sitting in a chair with your eyes closed for 15 minutes, but remember this: Imagining yourself more successful is never a waste of time if you’re spending equal or more time physically developing your skill set.
Show Countdown: 5 Days
Plan your outfit. Trust me on this one: If you’re wearing a special outfit to show in, now is a good time to test it. One of my friends was showing her dog at a trial that took place between Thanksgiving and Christmas. To celebrate the season, she arrived at the show wearing a brand new Christmas-themed sweater, complete with an actual working bell! She walked—it jingled. Loudly. My friend was horrified, and held her upper body stiffly as she heeled in an attempt to keep the bell from jingling. Her new body position and tense demeanor affected her dog, who was not nearly as amused as the spectators. In response, the dog stayed a foot out of heel position and refused to come when called.
The lesson here is simple: What seems like a good idea and what looks good in the dressing room may not give you (or your dog) the level of comfort needed for a great run. Do a practice session wearing the outfit (this goes for new footwear as well) to be sure that what you’re wearing is functional—and doesn’t jingle! While we’re on the subject, it doesn’t hurt to practice while wearing an armband, either.
Additionally, be sure to read through the rulebook and understand the collar and leash requirements. If your dog’s collar and leash aren’t allowed, it’s better to know that now while you can still go out and buy something new than when you’re entering the ring.
Show Countdown: 4 Days, 3 Days, and 2 Days
Start having fun! Now is not the time to concentrate on the things that you’re dog isn’t doing perfectly, but rather to focus on building his confidence and enthusiasm. This is the day I like to set up a practice course that contains 75 percent of exercises my dog loves to do. The result is a happy, confident dog and a happy, confident owner!
Show Countdown: 1 Day
Start packing. This is the day that you make a list of everything you need at the show and then pack it all up. The only thing you should pack on a show day is your dog into your car. Go over directions to the show and make sure you have a printed copy just in case your GPS has poor reception or technical issues.
You can have a short practice session, but remember that the theme should be “Aren’t you a clever, wonderful dog!” It should emphasize everything that is good about your dog’s performance.
Make sure that you and your dog have a normal night’s sleep, and remember to add in a visualization session before you go to bed. My final words of wisdom, from someone who has been competing with dogs for over 25 years: No matter what the outcome of your run tomorrow, you and your dog are spending the day together and that is something to cherish.