Virtual titling opportunities have made dog sports significantly more accessible to everyone, especially those who are geographically isolated or are living with disabilities. They’re also great for people whose dogs have behavioral issues like reactivity or anxiety that might struggle in a traditional show environment.
But while the virtual competition is a good way to get a taste of what showing dogs is like, you might be wondering if you would enjoy competing at a dog show in person. Entering your dog in an upcoming trial for the first time can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to decide if you and your dog are ready to compete. Here are a few things to consider first.
When you aren’t sure what to expect from a dog show or trial, it’s a good idea to attend one without your dog first. You can go just as a spectator (if the trial allows spectators), but local clubs are always looking for volunteers and will be happy to teach you how to help. Volunteering is a great way to learn how a trial is run, meet new people, and get a feel for what it’s really like to be at a dog show.
Familiarizing yourself with how the trial environment works will help decrease your nerves and allow you to support your dog whenever you enter your first show. It will also help you to decide how well your dog will fare in that busy environment. If you think it will still be a little overwhelming for your pup, take the time to train a little more and enroll in a class (if possible) so they can practice being around other dogs and people.
Know Your Goals
Before entering a trial for the first time, it’s a good idea to have a realistic sense of what your goals are for the experience. Some people won’t want to enter a dog in a trial for the first time until they are confident their dog can go into the ring and qualify. For others, entering is more about getting ring experience, regardless of whether the dog is going to qualify. There’s no right or wrong answer for when it’s time to enter your dog, but to avoid frustration, make sure you know what your goal is and be realistic about your dog’s level of training before entering. This can help prevent disappointment on the day of the show and instead let you have fun with your dog and be proud of what you’ve accomplished together.
Know the Rules
As you’re getting ready to enter your dog for the first time, you’ll want to make sure you understand all the rules for the sport that you are entered in. For many sports, there are some differences between the virtual regulations and the regulations you’ll face when competing in person. Make sure you’re familiar with them and that your dog is ready for that level of competition in a trial environment. In AKC Rally, for example, if you have completed your dog’s Novice and Intermediate titles via the virtual program, you are eligible to enter Advanced at an in-person show. But you’ll want to consider if they are going to be ready to compete off-leash. It’s completely okay if your dog isn’t ready—you can enter at the intermediate level for your first show, or shows, to get a sense of how your dog will react to a trial environment while still on leash.
Practice, Practice, Practice
A key to getting your dog ready to transition from virtual competition to in-person competition is to practice — reasonably. Remember that over-practicing can lead to a dog that becomes bored or frustrated. Sessions should still be short, positive, and fun.
In addition to your regular practice sessions at home, try to practice obedience or other competition-related skills in as many different environments as possible. Pet supply shops and many hardware stores are great for practicing training with your dog in new, distracting, and stimulating areas, but be sure to check they’re dog-friendly before going. It’s also helpful to connect with local training groups and breed clubs in your area. They may have regular club training sessions, run-through opportunities, and/or fun matches. These are set up like a regular trial, but you can (usually) have treats and/or toys with you in the ring.
If you work with a trainer, ask them whether they think you and your dog are ready to enter an in-person competition. It can also be helpful to reach out for guidance and support from trainers, friends, and fellow competitors. If you haven’t already, this is a great time to join local training groups (online and in-person), as well as breed and training/sports clubs. It’s likely that people you meet in local groups will be entering the same shows you are looking at. These more experienced community members will be able to help assess your dog’s current skills and answer any questions you have while you fill out entry forms. Having friends in your local area will also be a big support on the big day when you get to the show. Your friends will be able to help you get checked in, pick up your armband, read the schedule, and cheer you and your dog on when you get into the ring!
Managing Your Nerves
You and your dog have worked hard for this day and it’s important to remember that everyone from beginners to seasoned competitors gets nervous before stepping into the ring. When you enter a trial environment for the first time, your dog will be taking in all kinds of new sights, sounds, and smells. The energy and feel of the space will likely be very different for a dog who has previously only trained at home or a small local training facility.
While it’s essential to focus on how your dog will respond in this environment, it’s also important to think about how the experience will be for you. Take care of yourself leading up to the show, indulge in a little bit of self-care, and don’t be afraid to ask for support. When it’s time for the big day, try to lean on friends and/or family for support. It can be helpful to bring someone with you to help watch your dog or to keep you company, especially if you don’t know a lot of people in your local dog community yet. If you get to the show and aren’t sure where to go or what to do, don’t be afraid to tell someone you’re new and ask for help. Other people at the show will be happy to support and point you in the right direction.
Enjoy the Journey
Training and competing with your dog can be addictive! If you’ve had success with the virtual titling programs, you might be very eager to enter your first in-person trial. As you’re looking at local shows and entry forms, be thoughtful when deciding your dog is ready to start competing in person. Practice in as many distracting areas as possible and go at your dog’s pace to make sure that the show will be a fun experience for both of you. If your dog has been thriving in virtual competition but you think they aren’t quite ready, it’s perfectly okay to take your time and wait until you are confident they are ready. It’s not a race and there’s no need to rush to enter right away. But when you’re ready to have fun—win or lose—know that you’re going home with the best dog.