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Adrienne McLean of Richardson, TX, is the owner, handler and trainer of one of the most agility titled dogs in the AKC Canine Partners program — MACH5 James Albert McLean also known as “Jimmy.” Jimmy has qualified for the AKC Agility Invitational as one of the top five All-Americans in the country and also qualified for AKC National Agility Championships. Adrienne’s two newer All-American Dogs are no agility slouches — MACH Jinx Falkenburg McLean and Judy Scott McLean MX MXJ.

If there is anything I wish I’d known before I entered my first trial, it would be how many Qs we were going to get down the line — literally thousands, as well as hundreds of titles.

So rather than stressing about not doing well right away, I would have used every run, as I do now, as a learning experience and a way to identify gaps in our training.

With my third dog especially, who just turned three, our first runs may have looked like exercises in futility, but they weren’t — not to me, or to her. Now she, too, has a MACH and many many Qs, so what I advise is to make sure, above all, that your dog and you try to enjoy whatever happens in the ring for the first few runs — even for the first six months of runs or longer.

Ideally you don’t compete until your dog has all the necessary obstacle skills, of course. But unless you are one of the lucky few who never gets nervous, there is no substitute for actual competition, so don’t be surprised if your dog is more stressed than usual, because you likely are too.

With my new dog I did not repeat any obstacles missed or correct any “mistakes” on our first few runs — and I try not to correct her much even now. With a few notable exceptions, most agility dogs need time to build confidence in the ring, and the handlers do too. I do know how annoying it is not to earn a Q you are after, and I am not always successful myself at keeping the frustration from showing when something unexpectedly goes “wrong.” But I trust that my dog is not trying to “get” me, is not “being bad,” she is simply unsure about what I want — especially if my voice is higher than normal or my body is tense.

So go to the start line as confidently as you can, don’t forget to breathe, and even if all your dog does is run in circles or bark at the judge or sniff his or her shoes (like mine did), don’t worry about it, and make your dog feel that whatever he or she does is okay and will be rewarded and that the ring is a fun place to be. If you can do this — and of course are socializing your dog to all kinds of distractions and are building your relationship outside the ring, as well as honing and proofing basic skills, it will be no time at all before you are addicted simply to the thrill of running with your dog, and earning Q after Q and title after title along the way.
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This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today ($12.95 for 6 issues, including digital edition) to get expert tips on training, behavior, health, nutrition, and grooming, and read incredible stories of dogs and their people.
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