Trials and Tribulations of Newbie Handlers



By Jo Deurbrouck

It’s the morning of your first agility trial. Your dog wriggled and wagged under the judge’s hand but finally was measured. You found a piece of clothing that your “armband,” a sticky paper nametag, could adhere to. After a couple tries you got that borrowed travel crate set up and went searching for a spigot so you could fill your agility partner’s water bowl. Then the judge called for the Novice meeting and your knees turned to Jell-O.

A nanosecond later you were told your dog was “in the hole,” then “on deck,” then “on the line.” And then the gatekeeper said, “Get out there!” and you did and the timer said “Go!” and you did and—everything clicked.

The trial environment had been confusing but you and your partner had trained and trained for the course. Even the weave poles went perfectly. You crossed the finish with your arms thrown up in victory.

And then your friends’ cheers turned to urgent shouts.

That’s what happened to Doug Wale and his two-year-old partner, a GSD named Helki, this September.

What had gone wrong? Oh, just another of those newbie pitfalls that you could have read about in AKC’s 74-page “Regulations for Agility Trials” or the USDAA’s 71-page version. That your experienced friends now wish they had thought to warn you about.

Doug had known he couldn’t leave the AKC trial ring with an unleashed dog. But this particular ring had a double fence and although he didn’t know it, it was the inner fence that defined the ring. The outer fence marked the entrance and exit chutes. Doug, happily petting and praising his dog, had walked out of the ring to leash Helki, thinking he was still inside the ring.

Jan Skurzynski, judging one of the first runs of her first trial as a judge, watched from across the ring with what looked like horror. And didn’t disqualify the run.

I asked later what Jan had been thinking as the crowd shouted, “Leash! leash!” “It was his first time out and it was flawless,” she said. “I was thrilled for this guy.”

She was also remembering how anxious this Novice A handler had seemed when, just before his run, he came to explain that if she thought she heard him yell “hell” during the run, that was his dog’s name, Helki. “I couldn’t bring myself to take it away from him,” said Jan.

So Doug learned that even a seemingly simple rule like the AKC’s requirement that dogs leave the ring leashed can have nuances that trip up a novice. And I learned that good judges hate dishing out unpleasant calls as much as we hate receiving them (and do it anyway).

“Would I do that again? No,” said Jan. “It’s important for judges to be consistent in their calls.”

Nearly every novice handler has a story like Doug’s. Slow learners like me have several. My second-best mistake happened the same day Doug learned the boundaries of a ring. I stepped to the line, put my Australian Shepherd, Radar, in a stay, then took a deep breath and began to lead out. As I crossed the start line the judge said, “Wait, wait, wait.”

Which was of course what I had not done: The timer wasn’t ready. I’d been so focused on my dog and my plan for our run that, after what felt like an hour but was probably only a few seconds, I assumed I’d missed hearing the “Go!” and went. Now, if I think I missed hearing the timer, I ask the gate steward, “Can I go?”

My best mistake happened at my third trial, in Ririe, Idaho this fall. During the meeting for Open Standard, the judge said what I’d heard a total of four judges say: “The four-paw rule is in effect.”

I knew what that meant because the first time I’d heard it I asked. It meant that if my dog put all four feet on a contact obstacle and then left the obstacle she couldn’t try that obstacle again. We’d be unable to qualify.

We’d just moved up from Novice and the turns and obstacle approaches were challenging for us, but we were solidly on course until Radar, running ahead of me, had to choose between a jump I wasn’t indicating and the table, which I was trying to send her to. She took the jump. I called her back and sent her to the table.

The judge began to count, “Five and four….” And then Radar hopped halfway off the table. This dog never leaves the table. She loves the table. That was what I was thinking. That and we were done. The dreaded four-paw rule, right? She’d had all four paws on a contact obstacle and left.

Radar read the “Oops” on my face and executed an acrobatic reverse crawl to reunite her front and back halves on the table. It made me laugh but didn’t change anything. Four-paw rule: We were done. I almost called her ahead to the final jumps, just for fun, but the crowd was cheering, so I stayed put. The judge said, “And three and two and one and go!”

Later that day I learned we’d qualified. I couldn’t figure how, but eventually I learned that as well: The four-paw rule doesn’t apply to the table. According to table rules, my dog had never left the obstacle because she had kept at least one foot on.

Here are a few more stories, from other novice handlers I met last fall.

Rickie van Berkum & Zane

Rickie van Berkum and her Australian Shepherd Zane were having a phenomenal Novice Jumpers run at their third AKC trial in Ririe, Idaho this year. Zane even executed the weaves perfectly. He’d never done that before.

But as they came to the finish jump, Rickie did something (she’s not sure what) that pulled her dog from the jump. He zoomed past the finish without triggering the stop timer.

Rickie had tried to learn the rules of agility trialing, but reading hadn’t helped her much. “You have to learn the language before you can have it mean anything. It’s hard to tell what the important bits are, even,” she said.

But she was pretty sure that if a dog passed the finish line without triggering the electronic timer, there was no going back. The run was over. So Rickie simply called her dog to her. Zane came immediately, back over the jump. Later when she was told her disqualifying fault wasn’t passing the finish jump as she’d thought, but inviting Zane to take the final jump backward, she was floored.

Here’s what she says she learned: “No matter what goes wrong, don’t assume you’re out of the running. Finish the course.”

Michelle Steed & Olive

Michelle Steed had noticed the neat slip leashes displayed by a saleswoman at her first show, but at the end of her first Novice A run with her Chihuahua Olive, she realized one reason people use these leashes for trialing.

She and Olive had had far from a clean run. They had missed the double jump; Olive is so tiny she ran through one upright instead of going over the jump bar. But they’d gone back successfully for it. Then the friendly little dog had raced off to visit a jump setter, but she’d come back when called and they’d continued without further mishap. The two reached the finish and Michelle called Olive into her arms to reward and leash her.

Which was when she lost track of the calm she’d counseled herself into. Her hands started to shake so hard she couldn’t operate the leash’s tiny clasp, couldn’t get hold of the even tinier ring on her dog’s tiny collar. She heard the timer say “Go!” to the next competitor and here she still was with her unleashed dog, still in the ring. She’d be disqualified if she left, rude if she stayed. She half-panicked before she realized she could loop the leash through the dog’s collar to exit the ring. Which she did for the rest of the trial, but she sees a slip leash in Olive’s future.

Tessa Heath & Sunshine

Tessa Heath also learned something about trialing nerves. At her fourth trial with her Pomeranian, Sunshine, Tessa was trying yet again for a first Novice Jumpers leg. Sunshine loves agility but she’s distractible. Sometimes when she slows for weaves in a Jumpers run, she veers off to bark at the judge or visit the ring crew. This run, though, was going well. Until the two turned to approach the weaves and Tessa saw that the judge was standing beside the obstacle, putting her dog’s two biggest challenges side by side and straight ahead.

Tessa felt herself tense. She swears Sunshine looked at the judge, looked at her, saw her sudden nervousness and decided the judge was the reason for it and jetted toward him, barking.

What Tessa learned: Your dog reads what you don’t mean to say every bit as well as what you do say.

Laurie Pepin & Maggie

“Nobody tells you that you need to make a plan C and D when you’re out walking the course. You plan for perfect but what if that’s not what happens?” said Laurie Pepin after a recent trial.

She’d always wanted to try agility and, this spring, finally started classes with then two-year old Maggie, a Border Collie. By September she and her teacher thought the team was ready. Apparently they were, since they qualified on all three of their Novice Standard runs at their first trial and one of three Novice Jumpers runs.

At their second trial Laurie found herself far more nervous than she was for the first. She went to her first competition with few expectations, but here at her second, Laurie wanted to do even better. Besides, she and Maggie were within reach of a title.

So when, on one of their runs, Laurie botched a front cross and wound up with her dog behind instead of in front of her as she’d planned, “I just had a brain freeze.” She didn’t have a clue what to do if she was in position facing the next jump, but her dog was not.

What Laurie did the next time plan A didn’t work was back up until she was in the safe zone halfway between obstacles, call Maggie back to and then around her, and start forward again with her dog. She had developed her first plan C.

Gracie Bartholomay & Oddie

Thirteen-year-old Gracie sent this story via email:

“I had a [Miniature Pinscher] when I was [eight] years old and I took agility classes with her. Her name is Oddie and she was the star of the class, the best dog there. When we were ready, we entered a trial. After I walked and memorized the whole course it was time to run. I yelled Oddie, Tire and she went through just perfect. Then I shouted Oddie, Tunnel and she ran to the other side of of the ring, and she took a dump.”

The two were disqualified and, although Gracie’s email doesn’t mention it, one thing she probably learned is that, of all the errors a newbie can make, forgetting to let your dog relieve himself outside the ring is one many competitors dread.

At my first trial I watched a dog make a steaming deposit on the table and, even though the judge and ring crew cleaned the table thoroughly, several dogs afterward hesitated or became distracted at that obstacle.

Bill Grof & Max

Energetic and excitable, Max hasn’t been the easiest dog to learn agility with. So the day Bill and Max made a tidy Novice run Bill was beside himself. They had just earned their first ever qualifying ribbon. The judge walked up to Bill as he was leashing Max and asked, “Did I see you give your dog treats?”

Bill is a member of the dog training club I belong to, the Upper Snake River Valley Dog Training Club, of Idaho Falls, Idaho. The club is supportive of novice trialers and full of good advice. Bill knew all the basic rules, including the one that says you never give treats during runs.

But as he led his excited dog to the line, before the timer said “Go,” he gave Max a treat to help him focus. In Bill’s mind, the run hadn’t started yet. After all, you can’t use a leash on the course, but you walk the dog to the line on a leash. Clearly there was some point at which the rules of the course took over and, just as clearly, it happened somewhere between entering the ring and beginning the actual run.

“Yes,” he told the judge, “I gave my dog a cookie before we started.” He wondered why she’d asked.

The judge thanked him for his honesty and disqualified the run. Which is how Bill learned that treats are allowed in the entrance chute if there is one, but nowhere inside the ring.

Tips to Make your First Trials Less Bewildering

  • If possible, come to a trial without your dog before you compete. Volunteer for ring jobs. Ask questions. Think about how long it took you and your dog to learn the obstacles on the course, and devote some time to learning the obstacles that aren’t on the course.
  • On your first trialing day, come early. Get someone to walk you around the trial grounds and show you where everything is. You’ll probably need to have your dog measured. Being measured is stressful for some dogs, so get that out of the way early too.
  • If possible, before your first trial, acclimate your dog to the measuring table to diminish the stress on trial day. This goes double if your dog does not like to be handled.
  • Don’t forget the basics just because it’s trial day: Your dog needs water, a chance to relieve himself, a chance to stretch his legs, and, probably, some stress-relieving play with you. Depending on how his body works and how exciting he finds the trial environment, he may need more or less food than usual.
  • Read rulebooks before you trial if you like. But be sure to read them after your first trial, when you’re more familiar with the language. Find complete agility rulebooks as well as abridged beginner brochures for AKC at and for USDAA at Other trial organizations have rulebooks or how to obtain them on their websites as well; be sure to check with any organization that you plan to trial with. 
  • The agility ring is an intense environment for even the friendliest, calmest dogs. Don’t pet or feed a competitor’s dog without permission, and don’t be offended if you hear, “No, please don’t.” Don’t let your dog disturb other dogs, especially dogs getting ready to run.
  • Judges want to see teams succeed and will err on the side of the team, but the sport moves fast. Mistakes are made. Etiquette says that whether a call goes mistakenly for or against you, accept your score and move on. 
  • “It’s about me having fun with my dog,” says novice competitor Mary Thompson. Remember that. Don’t let the fun be eclipsed by embarrassment because you or your dog make mistakes.
  • Think about the pitfalls awaiting the agility novice as gifts in disguise. When Rickie van Berkum and Zane failed to qualify in what would have been a title run, her mentor said something Rickie plans to remember: “Until you have clean runs in Novice, you don’t want to move up.”

When Mary Thompson’s Border Collie, Skylar, earned a Novice title before Mary felt ready for Open, she simply entered Novice Preferred (where competitors run a lower jump height than would otherwise be allowed). Running Preferred allowed the two to compete for a title but remain on Novice courses.

Novice is the place we learn. So welcome the mistakes. When you make one, no matter how avoidable and obvious it might seem in hindsight, just shrug, smile and give your dog a cookie for being so patient with you.

Author’s note: These tips came from several sources including personal experience, but particular thanks go to competitor and judge Jan Skurzynski.

Jo Deurbrouck is a writer, author, and newbie agility handler. Contact her via her website,