Lessons Learned from Agility Trials

Maverick with his title ribbon

A few months ago, Maverick started his agility journey. With Abbey handling him, he had two qualifying runs in his first two trial weekends. Things were going great. It felt like the sky was the limit for Maverick.

Then Abbey went back to school. I took over handling duties. It was up to me to keep the momentum going.

Well, it took almost three months and five trial weekends, but we did it. Maverick finally got his third qualifying run in Novice Jumpers With Weaves (JWW). With the third qualifying run, he got his first agility title.

Doing agility trials with Maverick the last few months has been quite the journey. I’ve learned a lot about doing agility and working with animals. Here’s a few of the lessons I’ve learned.


It almost goes without saying because it’s so obvious, but patience is key when working with an animal. They do unexpected things. They don’t always listen. They frustrate you. But eventually, it clicks. When it does, it’s so rewarding. Sometimes it takes a few tries during a training session. Sometimes it takes months of practice. Either way patience is key. The payoff is worth it.

Dogs feed off your energy

Dogs have a way of sensing your emotions. It gets to the point of being creepy. If you’re anxious, they’re anxious. If you’re stressed out, they stress out. If you’re relaxed and focused. they’re relaxed and focused.

It sounds crazy, but an agility trial can be a stressful experience for you as the handler and for the dog. Staying relaxed, calm, focused, and confident during the trial as a handler is key to keeping the dog relaxed and focused. Having done a number of trials, it’s certainly easier said than done. It’s a skill that I know I need to practice and work on.

Practice makes perfect

As with any activity, practice is key. Abbey and I work with a trainer to practice with Maverick, but training practice is not the same as time in the ring. There’s a different energy and anxiety level when you’re doing a trial versus training. Yes, training is important. Training matters, but getting experience in the ring matters more.

If you’re thinking about doing trials with your dog. my advice is to just start doing them. Only by doing trials will you identify the areas you really need to work on with your canine partner. Trials will not only help you identify what you need to focus on when training but also build your confidence and technique as a handler.

Dogs are human too

You can practice for months and have every obstacle down pat. Then you do a trial and it all goes sideways. Yes, dogs have off days too. They make mistakes. They get distracted by things in and around the ring causing them to lose focus. It happens, even to the most experienced dog and handler teams. I’ve seen it happen.

The lesson, don’t let the mistakes get you down. They happen. Get up, dust yourself off, continue to practice, and prepare to try again.

It takes two

I’ve had a few agility runs where we didn’t qualify. It’s easy to place the blame on your dog. After watching the video though, I’ve realized where I either made a mistake or could have helped Maverick with my handling.

The lesson learned is that agility is a teamwork sport. While the dog has to execute the obstacles, it’s up to me as the handler to provide the guidance and instruction so he performs at his best. If either one of us are off, it’s unlikely we’ll have a qualifying run. It takes both of us at peak performance to achieve our goal.

Celebrate the successes

What I’m learning is that there’s going to be a lot more failures than successes when competing in agility. It’s one of those things you need to be aware of before you start. Don’t let the failures get you down. Most of all, celebrate the successes with your dog. Strange? Yes, it is. But like I said before, dogs feed off your energy, so they know when they’ve done well. When they do, reward and praise them. They’ll respond in kind.

Just for fun, here’s the qualifying run. There’s still some work to do with his weaves (OK, maybe a lot), but overall he’s looking pretty good. We plan to keep working at it to continue moving him up. With patience, practice, and teamwork, who knows how far he’ll go?

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