Saturday, April 30, 2011

When to trial?

I have been having this discussion with my beginner students at class and via email.  When to trial? 

It is human nature if you have any competitive bone in your body to want to get out there and start competing and seeing what you've got compared to everyone else out there!  Well at least get out there and start to feel like you've made progress toward a goal.  Now I know not everyone wants to compete in front of a bunch of people, it can be a nerve wracking experience. 

Nothing makes me happier and prouder as a teacher than to see my students succeeding at their goals with their dogs.  For some it is being able to run the course in class flawlessly the first time and for others it is to earn a qualifying score at a trial and for still others it is earning an agility championship title on their dog.  My goal as a teacher and a coach is to help students realize their goals/dreams, whatever they may be.  I train everyone as if they were going to compete because that will help ensure success in whatever they want to do with agility. 

I really want my students to succeed when they first start trialing, especially with their first agility dog.  However many of us tend to get in a hurry with our first agility dog and we all tend to enter trials earlier than maybe we should have done with our first dog.  I have had only a handful of students who wanted to compete and had to be poked and prodded into entering their first trial.  I rarely need to do that.  In fact some students ask me to be a gate keeper for them to help them wait until I feel they are ready.  Sometimes I have had to push hard on that gate to keep it closed!  I try to keep the best interests of the team in mind and the last thing I want is to overface a dog and handler. 

Too often I see dogs and handlers in the novice class at a trial who are not ready to be there.  I often feel sorry for the dog because the dog is often confused and stressed in the situation and the handler is unsure how to cope with it.  Or the other extreme is the dog is so driven to be out there doing agility that the handler is left in the dust and not sure what to do with this very fast dog who has broken a start line, launched off a contact and is running past weave poles. 

Before entering a trial I feel that students should have the following skills:

1.  Be able to perform courses that are more difficult than novice courses and know how to handle the sequences on their own without outside assistance.
2.  Be able to keep the dog focused on agility both in class and at run thrus/open ring time in different places.
3.  Have a strategy for maintaining criteria on start line stays, contacts, weaves, jumps and general attitude for a trial setting and have practiced executing this strategy.
4.  Have implemented a program to transition from training to trialing that involves random reinforcement on course, concealing toy and food rewards in training and introduced a verbal reward marker that can be used in agility trials.

I have found when students are able to do all of these things they have a very easy time at the novice level in trials and will quickly move to the upper levels if they choose to do so. 

I also feel strongly that regardless of the organization's rules that teams should be running novice courses cleanly (no refusals/runouts or off courses) before moving up to the next level.  This will help reduce the "brick wall" effect that happens as the qualifying criteria increases in the upper levels.