To Trial or Not to Trial...That is the Question

One of the most common questions a dog sport instructor will receive is, "Should I trial with my dog?". This loaded question has so many potential answers, with each depending on a multitude of factors. If two students come up and ask the same question at the same time, it can be an uncomfortable situation to say the least, as each may require a drastically different response.

Allow me to give you a glimpse of what is going on inside an instructor's mind when they are trying to answer this seemingly simple question:

What does this student really mean by "trial with my dog"? In other words, are they asking if they should enter a trial tomorrow or if this a long-term goal they can work toward? Which competition organization are they talking about? Would that organization be a good match for them and their dog? What level are they looking to start in or eventually end up at?

Are they asking for my permission to trial? If so, why?

This was a common theme when I specialized in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs. In my opinion, the latter category of dogs should not trial. Simply put, it is too dangerous and risky. Truly aggressive dogs who are being heavily managed and participating in a behavior modification programs can still enjoy the benefits of the activity at home or in a controlled training environment, but putting them into a trial situation would be similar to dropping a ticking time bomb in Times Square. It is inappropriate and full of peril. Furthermore, for those fearful or reactive clients, trialing should not be used as a public demonstration of how far they have come. Trialing can certainly be a goal or something to work toward and do, but when the dog is more comfortable in their own skin, trusts their handler to keep the safe and makes better decisions, those are the true victories to celebrate, not a given title or ribbon.

Or, are they asking me if they are ready to trial? This is where there needs to be a honest assessment of the skills of both the dog and handler. Perhaps they have a solid foundation in the given activity, but now they need to work on finessing their skills, practicing proofing exercises and taking their practice sessions "out on the town". How long will that take? A few weeks? A few months? A year? Are they going to okay committing to that, or will they be drawn to rushing, and if so, what detriment will that befall their dog?

Do I know why they want to trial? Was this the goal when they got this dog in the first place? Has this been something they have been working on? Did they just find out about it, and think it may be something fun to try? Or, are they trying to prove something about themselves or their dog?

Do I think their dog would do well at a trial? Can they handle the multitude of environmental stressors that go along with trialing? What about the requirements of the trial itself, can they rise to the occasion? Will the activity of the trial itself set them back physically or behaviorally?

Do I think they, the handler, would do well at a trial? What is their relationship with their dog like right now? Is there a possibility trialing could put a negative strain on that relationship? Are they mentally ready to deal with the stressors of trialing, while maintaining the goal of having fun with their dog? Could trialing offer them a helpful and healthy outlet, or become something that is negative and counter-productive? Is the venue they are interested trialing in supportive and compatible with their personality and goals?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the million considerations that go buzzing through an instructor's brain as they trying to answer the "Should I trial my dog" question. The fact of the matter is, there is no perfect or correct answer; it will be different for every dog and handler team. And that very same answer can change over time for the same team and activity.

For instance, I have been going back and forth for years whether I should do the level of training necessary to trial in agility with my Doberman. He is athletic, fast and loves the short sequences we do at home. However, he also just turned 5 years old, is 75lbs of pure muscle and is not big in the self-preservation department. Which means it is likely he would throw himself around a course at light speed, throwing caution to the wind, exponentially increasing the possibility of him getting injured. I would look for those venues with larger and flowing courses, and where we can run preferred with lower jump heights...maybe even forgo the contact equipment. When he was two years old, the positives to giving agility trialing a-go were fairly high. Now, the likelihood of us running in agility competitively are quite low.

Does that mean we do not trial in anything? No! He regularly competes in Scent Work trials and also competes in Barn Hunt and Lure Coursing, and we will be doing Rally Obedience and Competition Obedience trials in the near future. However, if ever a given trialing activity became too physically or mentally draining on him, we would immediately stop trialing and simply play the game at home. This is important: just because trialing is off the table that does not mean the dog cannot play the game at home. Do not limit your dog's joy solely because ribbons and titles are not involved.

So, if you've ever asked, "Should I trial with my dog", go through the questions above and see where you stand. You may find out that you and your dog are the perfect match to trial in a given activity, but you need more time to prepare. On the other hand, you may determine trialing in this activity is not the best match for you or your dog. Neither conclusion is better or worse, it is simply information that should inform you on how best to proceed. The most important thing is to maximize on the limited time you have with your dog, and chose those things that both of you will truly enjoy.

Looking for tips on how to ensure your trialing experience is a wonderful one? Check out the recorded version of our Tricks for Terrific Trialing Webinar.

Dianna L. Santos has been professionally training dogs since 2011. Having specialized in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, Dianna's main goal is to help dogs learn how to be successful in a human world. She does this by outlining ways dog owners can better understand their dogs while designing fun and effective training programs and games both ends of the leash will enjoy. Dianna is also particularly passionate about Scent Work is on a mission to promote the idea that ALL dogs should be playing the sniffing game!