Is My Dog Ready For Its First Trial?
By Patrick Shannahan

As published in American Border Collie Magazine in Jan/Feb 1993

With the approach of trial season most of us with young or new dogs look forward to bringing them out in public. Before we get too hasty, we need to look at what is best to help our dogs in their first public appearance.

The first thought I have on this subject is I never like to put time constraints on the dog or myself. Many times I hear someone say they want to have their dog ready to run at the XYZ trial so they can enter them there. I find that by putting a time period on our training, we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves and the animal.

Training for a field trial is not something that you can predetermine how long it will take. All dogs have periods that they learn quickly and periods that they seem to stagnate in their training. By putting a time on the training we sometimes are reaching unrealistic goals. Then for some dumb reason stand by these goals and enter our dog at the XYZ trial even though it is unprepared for the challenge of a trial. We are setting ourselves and our dog up for disappointment.

I like to have the dog trained beyond the point of where I am going to test it at a trial. If the trial has a 200-yard outrun, I would not enter a dog that was not properly outrunning at 250-300 yards and beyond. If the trial has 100-yard drives I would like to be able to have my dog driving at 150 yards. Many people enter their young dog with the hope they can successfully conquer outruns at a trial that they are not doing at home. They are setting both themselves and the dog up for a big failure.

The next step is to set up trial situations away from home. Here you should feel comfortable to correct your dogs if it is running in-correctly. The trial is not the place to train your dog - but here you should use the chance to tune your dog to a trial level.

Take your dog to as many different places as possible to work sheep. Everybody has a good dog at home; it is the dog that can work different sheep at a new location that will be a winner at the trial. I have my sheep out to new place each week to get my young pup comfortable with different terrain. I teach him to run blind by setting the sheep where he can't see them. I also teach them how to cross ditches, run up hills and cross into different fields. Each time you take the pup to a new place you are making him more confident to find sheep.

After you are comfortable that your pup is running well away from home the next step is to pick the trial you will enter your pup. Do not take this lightly and pick the most convenient trial. I use a number of factors when deciding to enter a maiden dog at their first trial.

The first factor is the sheep. I want the dog to have confidence when they come off the field so I always consider how the sheep have been handled in the past. Certain trials are known for their "tough" sheep while others are known to have dog broke sheep. Find out what type of sheep the trial is using before you enter your new dog. This does not mean that I like to only run at trials with dog broke sheep - in fact I prefer tough sheep- but when entering a new dog I would want sheep that I know we can have success with.

The second factor is the course. I want to make sure the dog can handle the outrun, terrain, and any other factors such as the weather.

After you have picked your trial and you step onto the field with your dog - remember this is a learning process for both of you and the dog. We all have grand ideas of winning the trial but we must do what is best for the development of the dog. You will find that I retire myself quickly if I think my dog is in trouble. I want to go and make sure the situation is under control and not get in serious trouble. Don't wait until the dog has 5 sheep in 6 different corners - stop him early in the problem. Once again I am trying to build confidence so later on in his career he will be able to handle these tough situations.

Don't look at success as winning the trial when you first run - look at how your dog handled the situation. Remember young dogs and new dogs are usually very inconsistent. They run great one day and horrible the next. Try to get your dog to run consistently, but remember that he is young (or new) and forgive him if he has an off day.

If you do have a bad experience at the trial, try to reason out your failure. Go home and work on your problem and prepare for your next trial as if it was your first. Talk to other handlers you trust and ask them for their perspective. They might have a simple solution to something you have overlooked.

Remember with a new or young dog we are building a foundation that will last for many years. We want to make that foundation as strong as possible - so that it can withstand any adverse conditions that it might encounter. We can make mistakes as we build the foundation - but we must go back and fix them one day if we want the foundation to last.

Try to make your first trial a good first level on the foundation. If you don't think you can complete it properly with the tools you have, wait until you can have success. I know that I myself sometimes get enthused about a young prospect and want to have people see him early. But if he is not properly ready, I might have to go and tear down the first level completely and start all over again.

The first trial for your new dog is exciting and challenging. Think about the ideas I have suggested when considering that first trial. After that.....good luck and much success at your first trial.