Managing Dogs With Trial Stress

Everything is fine when you are training agility in class or at your own training field; your dog is happy and excited to run and there are no worries in the world. When you take the same dog to a trial, he acts all stressed and worried. What can you do?

Tips from the coaches

  • Find the best way to get your dog excited. You can use a verbal cue that the dog associates with something exciting or you can touch the dog in a certain way to help get them into the correct mental state. You can also let your dog watch the previous dog run the course. Get more tips from our Building Drive foundation video.
  • Expose your dog to situations that are somewhere between your regular classes and a competition. You could have one of your training buddies act as a judge in your training class and use a whistle. If your dog worries about people, ask some of your friends stay close to the startline and act as timers. Ask some of your friends to visit your class and let the crowd make some noise. Let the other dogs bark. Have someone act as an announcer. Increase the distractions gradually so the difference between a very quiet class and a very noisy competition is not overwhelming for your dog. Does your dog react to sounds? Find some tips on the Sounds foundation training video.
  • Create a routine for trials, and get your dog used to that routine in training as well; the way you walk to the startline, the words you use to leave your dog in a stay, the way you lead out to the course...
  • Check your own thought; are you the one who’s worried or nervous? Dogs sense our emotional state very easily. If your dog thinks you are acting weird, it’s only logical that your dog might start acting weird too. You can get your dog used to you acting weird by practicing it. You could try walking in a stiff manner or acting nervous in training. One of the best ways to get agility handlers nervous is to create a competition in class; whoever runs clean and gets the fastest time, wins and gets a little prize! Ask everyone to bet a little amount of money for the winner, and you'll create even more excitement. Read more about learning to handle your ring nerves.
  • If you’re not sure whether your dog reacts to your state of mind or to the surroundings, try letting someone else take care of your dog, the warmups and cooldowns etc, on the trial site, and bring the dog to you to the startline. You can even try what happens if someone else handles your dog in a competition.

Looking for more tips? Join the discussion about this topic in our discussion forum!


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Diana Chapmanlast year

Here I am again, two years later! In the meantime I have started two new puppies. The most important thing I did with these two, which was not possible with my first agility dogs, was to take them to trials as soon as they came home with me. So, even at a few weeks old, they were at trials soaking up the atmosphere while I competed with my two older dogs. They learned to love the trial atmosphere, everyone played with them, gave them treats, picked them up and cuddled them. Now, when we go to a trial they are so happy to be there, looking for their dog and people friends. One has been competing for a while and doing very well, no ring stress, the other is still too young, but we did a fun match (for which I had to drive seven hours to get there!) last week, and he loved it. That early exposure is very important, I think.

Niki Drage3 years ago

Hi Diana, That's a very useful method for helping dogs that have specific issues in a trial environment, thanks for the suggestion :) Do you find that doing these "not for competition" runs more often also decreases your own stress in competition runs?

Diana Chapman3 years ago

Yes, definitely. I have been involved with agility for almost ten years, so at this stage I don't feel very nervous about competing, but it helped me a great deal in the earlier years. I also think going to different venues where the courses and the rules are different is good mental training, teaching you to think more and be more flexible.

Diana Chapman3 years ago

Here in the USA there are many different organizations that have trials, and all are different. Some allow training in the ring, where you can touch your dog or repeat an obstacle. Of course, then your run doesn't count, but that is OK. NADAC allows limited training in the ring and UKI allows a toy in the ring if you have signed up for that. I found by doing different venues with one of my terriers she behaved very differently, mostly, I think because I knew these runs were just for practice and didn't count, so I was very relaxed and had a specific goal in mind, like contacts or start lines, and frequently I didn't even try to complete the course, I just went in, did what I thought she could handle, then left. We don't have fun runs in my area.

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