Tips For The Novice Agility Competitor

Tips For The Novice AKC Agility Competitor

There are a lot of official rules to learn, and a lot of unofficial trial etiquette tips that most of us have learned in drips and drabs over the years, usually when we make a costly mistake.  This list is offered to help you learn your way around more quickly.  For complete rules, visit the AKC website at
You alone are responsible for knowing this information in all its detail.  Rules for USDAA and other competitive venues may vary. 
Here are the most common things to get you started:
1.     At no time during any trial is your dog allowed into any ring except during their run, neither in the evenings after the day’s trialing is over nor in early morning before the trial begins.

2.     Dogs may not be tied off to ring gates, banisters, crates, etc. anywhere on the trial grounds. 

3.     Dogs may not run loose on the trial grounds at any time.  They must be either on leash with a handler or in their crates except during their run, and at the warm up jump.  In surrounding fields far from the arena, shadow handling and playing  games of “fetch” are usually tolerated so long as your dog does not bother another dog.

4.     Outside the ring, handlers should endeavor to keep their dogs quiet.  Incessant barking may result in a request that you move your crate space to a remote area, or removal of the dog from the arena.

5.     You are required to pick up your dog’s poop, so keep a plastic bag on you at all times.  Deposit sealed bags in an outside trash can (not inside the arena).

6.     Dress code is informal, and running shoes are a must (no heels, pumps, sandals or flip flops in the ring).


1.     Don’t train your dog within eyesight of the ring.  It can be very distracting to the dog running to hear commands such as “Come”, “Over”, or to see a ball or Frisbee being tossed.

2.     Don’t bring human food near the ring. Dogs can be distracted by the smell of a juicy hamburger.

3.     The dog’s household members and best human friends should probably disappear from ringside during the dog’s run, or risk the dog stopping their run to visit and say hello.

4.     People bring their chairs and sit all along the ring gates to watch teams run.  They usually sit a few feet back from the gates.  It is very rude to take a position standing in front of those seated, blocking their view, even to take videos.  If people are seated, stand behind them.  If you are asked to move, move. 

5.     No part of an observer’s body is allowed in the ring. Some clubs strictly enforce that you not prop your feet or arms up or lean on the gates, and certainly don’t let your leashed dog wander into the ring. 

CRATE SPACE ETIQUETTE:  Handlers set up their crate spaces pretty much wherever they want, with the following exceptions:

1.     Stay at least 10’ back from the ring fences, and don’t block any walkways or doors.

2.     Some arenas are short on crate space.  Take no more space than you need.  Rule of thumb: 5x7 space for 1-2 crates/1-2 chairs/cooler; 8x10 space for 3-4 crates/2 chairs; 10x12 space for multiple dogs/2 or 3 chairs.

3.     Place your rug touching the adjacent rug, except that every 4 or 5 spaces in a center row,  leave a 2’ walkway so teams can cut through to the next aisle.

4.     Since strange dogs may crate right next to yours, most handlers bring a sheet or blanket to drape between the crates.

5.     While standing around, don’t block the aisles, stairways, hallways, or doors!  Take your conversations to an open area where people can pass.   If you are asked to move, move.

6.     Keep your treats and human food in a closed container.  Some dogs can’t resist stealing food, others may be allergic or become aggressive around food.

7.     Never stick your hand in another dog’s crate, pet a dog, nor give treats without permission. If permission is denied, don’t be offended.

8.     Don’t let your dog sniff or greet a strange dog without strict supervision and permission.  Hold them on a tight leash when passing other dogs.  Not all dogs are friendly.  Some are afraid of strangers.
1.     Judging of the run begins as soon as you enter the ring and continues until you leave the ring.  The judge may even excuse you from the trial for unseemly conduct outside the ring.

2.     Dogs may run with or without a collar.  If a collar is worn, it MAY NOT have any tags.  Some competitors have a separate collar reserved just for trialing, and an everyday collar with tags worn while travelling to and from the trial site.

3.     Dog may not wear a kerchief nor any form of advertising. Collars and leaahes with their names are OK.

4.     No fanny packs, toys, whistles or other training aides may be carried by the handler into the ring.

5.     Dog must enter the ring on leash, and leave the ring on leash.  Even small dogs that are carried in or out, even if handler has the dog by the collar, the leash must be on when entering and before leaving the ring.

6.     Dogs are not faulted for barking in the ring.

7.     Handler must be wearing their badge in a clearly visible location.  Get your badges (one for each dog) first thing as soon as you arrive each day, or risk forgetting and being disqualified.   If you can’t find your badge, approach the Trial Secretary.

8.     Woven felt slip leashes that can be construed as long tug toys, or leashes with dangling tips, are not permitted.

9.     Dogs may be brought to the start line on slip leads, choke chains, body harnesses or other collars. Pinch/prong and electrical collars (dummy or not), head halters and special training collars are not allowed.

10.  Throw your leash towards the leash runner.  You don’t have to hand it to them, but be courteous.

11.  Wait for the GO signal before you start your run.  Start as soon as possible after you hear GO.

12.  “Wait to hear the O in GO” before you leave the Table during your Standard run.

13.  After starting your run, you may not touch your dog for any reason until you pass the finish line.  If your dog jumps on you, nips at you, or briefly brushes against you, that is OK.

14.  If the Judge blows the whistle for any reason, get your dog on leash and leave the ring immediately.  Do not continue your run. It either means YOU HAVE BEEN EXCUSED, or A PROBLEM HAS ARISEN.  If it’s a problem (broken timer, wrong table height, wrong bar height, strange dog in the ring, not enough ring crew, etc.) you will be approached by the judge to begin your run again.  You may NOT approach the judge to find out why you were excused.  The scribe can probably tell you afterwards, between bar height changes, or the Judge may ask to speak to you.
  1. Dog may be lying down, sitting or standing behind the start line, at any angle that does not cross the plane of the first obstacle.
  2. You may start running with your dog from behind the start line.
  3. You may lead out, but only once.  If you return to your dog to reposition, you may not touch your dog nor lead out again, and if you pass the plane of the 1st jump before your dog does, you will be disqualified.
  4.  If Dog goes around the first obstacle (Novice and Open), you may return them behind the jump but may NOT position them into a down, sit or stand.  Treat it like any mid-course obstacle.  Keep moving.  Lack of forward momentum is a fault, except for the Table and brief pauses at the down contacts.  While the timer doesn’t start until the dog trips the timer, judging of the run has commenced.
SCORING & FAULTS (Standard and Jumpers):
1.     All obstacles must be taken successfully.  You can’t skip anything.  If you miss something or your dog takes an obstacle out of sequence, go back to the error point and proceed running the course in order.

2.     If your dog detours to visit the ring crew, this is not a fault provided you call them back quickly and they continue their run where they left off, in proper sequence.

3.     If your dog runs over the chute fabric or under the A-Frame or Dog Walk, this is not a fault.

4.     The score begins at 100.  Score of 85 is a Q, so 3 faults are allowed to Novice and Open Competitors. Each fault is -5 points.
Faults include:
  1. Time Faults:  Each run, at each jump height, has a time limit.  -1 point for every second over course time in Novice, -2 points in Open, -3 points in Excellent deducted from 100.  At the Masters level, no time faults are allowed.
  2. Refusals/Run Outs:Refusals: Your dog ceases forward motion or goes backwards in front of an obstacle. If this happens, circle the dog around you and try again.  -5  points  Run-Outs: Dog runs around a jump or contact obstacle.  If this happens, bring dog back around to the take off side and put them over again.  -5 points   
  3. Maximum of 2 Refusals/Run Outs in Novice, 1 in Open, none in Excellent and Master.
  4. Wrong Course: when your dog engages one or more pieces of equipment that is not the next one in the sequence.  If this happens, bring dog back to the error point and continue your run.  -5 points  Maximum of 1 Wrong Course allowed in Novice and Open, none in Excellent and Masters.
  5. Contacts:  If your dog puts 4 paws on the upside of the contact equipment then bails off, the obstacle may not be repeated.  Move on to the next obstacle.
  6. Missed weaves.  Novice: Up to 3 attempts at correct weaves are allowed with no loss of points.  In Open, you get 3 tries but lose 5 points.  After 3 attempts, you must move on and cannot qualify. No incorrect weave performance allowed in Excellent and Masters, but you may try the weaves up 2 more times for “training purposes”.
  7. Table:  If your dog overshoots the table or bails off during the count, you can put them back on 2 times for a new count,  -5 points.  BUT, If your dog bails and takes another obstacle, move on.  Also, if your dog is committed to the table and releases prematurely just before GO, that’s an NQ. Move on. 
  8. Outside interference:  The judge may deduct 5 points, or excuse you from the ring, if you receive help from outside the ring.  Tell your friends to keep quiet when you enter the ring.
Automatic NQ’s:  Some mistakes automatically NQ you, but you can still complete your run.  The judge will continue judging your run and the scribe will continue recording any faults.

1.     Knocked bar

2.     Dog fails to clear the broad jump, i.e., walks on the panels, etc.

3.     Unsuccessful weaves after 3 attempts.

4.     Releasing from the table before the judge says GO.

5.      Missing any down contact, or the up contact on the See-Saw (at least one paw must touch).

7.     See Saw fly-offs (the dog loses contact with the board before the see-saw hits the ground).  Dog can be pushing off into their jump off the board, with only back feet touching.

8.     Dog leaves the ring off leash (for any reason), even after the run is complete.

9.     Peeing, pooping or vomiting in the ring. Get your dog out of there. Ring crew will clean it up.

10.  Dog sits, lays down, bows, or rolls over on its back on course (lack of forward momentum)

11.  Dog takes obstacles out of sequence and this is not corrected.

12.  Handler looses control of their dog, such as dog getting the zoomies, jumping up onto or circling the handler, etc.

13.  Handler touches the dog, or does anything considered “training in the ring”.

14.  Handler touches, knocks over, or steps on or over any piece of equipment.

15.  Handler treats the dog harshly.

16.  Handler argues with the judge.

17.  Handler brings toys or treats into the ring, even hidden in a pocket.

18.  Handler uttering expletives, such as hell, shit, dammit . . . even shoot, frack delivered like a curse word.  (HINT, best not do this in practice or it will likely slip out when trialing.)

19.  Dog becomes aggressive with ring crew, judge, handler or another dog (growling, biting, jumping, charging).

NOVICE COURSES (Standard and Jumpers):
1.     Novice courses contain between 14-16 obstacles. Open 16 to 18. Excellent 18-20.  Novice courses are not supposed to contain complex handling maneuvers.

2.     The Broad Jump is a required obstacle in Novice, but not in more advanced classes.  The Panel Jump is also required. The triple jump is now allowed in Novice, as well as 1 bar jumps, which were once reserved for more advanced classes.  Be sure you train your novice dog on all these jumps.

3.     Only 6 weave poles are allowed in Novice, 12 in Open.

4.     Courses must contain at least 50% winged jumps vs. non-winged jumps, so be sure and practice using some winged jumps and some non winged jumps.

FAST CLASSES: (a game of strategy, speed and distance handling)

FAST stands for “Fifteen and Send Time”.  You begin your run at any spot behind the Start Line.  Obstacles may be taken in any order within a given time period, and with the exception of the SEND BONUS, refusals and run-outs are not faulted.  Obstacles are bi-directional and may be taken multiple times (unless the judge says otherwise), with an intervening obstacle taken first,  but the point value can be different depending on direction.  Fifteen obstacles have a point value from 1 - 10.  There can be other obstacles without point value.  You accumulate the most points possible, trying to get to the finish jump before or just as the buzzer goes off.  At some point you must send your dog over a sequence of 2 or 3 obstacles, in order, while you remain behind the Send Line.  If successful at this, you get a 20 point BOUUS. Novice line is 5-10’ away from the obstacles, Open 10-15’, Excellent 15-20’ away.  Failure to attain the SEND bonus disqualifies your run.  Otherwise, highest number of points accumulated wins.  Dog must stop the timer by crossing over the final jump.  One point is deducted for every second over the time limit – up to 20 seconds allowed.  Minimum points required:  Novice, 50 points;  Open, 55 points;  Excellent  & Masters, 60 points.

You can get FAST titles, but FAST Q’s do not count towards your Master Agility Championship.

TIME TO BEAT (T2B): (emphasizes speed and accuracy)

All dogs entered (Novice thru Masters) run the same numbered course.  Runs must be clean to qualify.  All faults applying to Standard and Jumpers courses apply.  12 weaves must be completed within 3 tries.  There is no Dog Walk, Pause Table,  Broad Jump, or Chute.  All dogs exceeding the Maximum Course Time are eliminated.  Best time wins, and additional points are awarded to clean runs based on placement.  You can get a T2B title, but this does not count towards your Master Agility Championship.

It is very important to develop pre-competition routines that can be set to auto-pilot, to reduce stress and free you to concentrate on competing.  This is different for every team, but here are some useful tips to get you started.

1.     When you get to the trial site each day, get your badges first thing and affix to your clothing.

2.     Pick up your course maps for the day.  Study them at your leisure, away from the literature table.

3.     Review the Course Schedule, usually posted at the Trial Secretary’s desk, or mailed to you for printing out ahead of time, which shows the order of classes, running order of every dog, all day.  This is how you know when your runs are coming up, and the running order (tall to small, small to tall).

4.     Get your dogs situated in their crates in plenty of time for you to attend the judge’s briefings and walk the courses when it’s your turn.

5.     Most trials have no PA system.  You have to be aware of when it’s your turn to walk your course, when the judge’s briefings are, etc.  You have to PAY ATTENTION.

6.     Be sure and check your team’s name off at the gate prior to your walk.

7.     About 5-10 dogs before your run (5-10 minutes), take your dog out for a pottie break, then a little turn at the practice jump.  After many reps, this helps alert your dog they are about to enter the ring with you and helps them concentrate on you.

8.     Don’t forget to warm up.  Body stretches, ankle turns, a bit of jogging in place for the handler, a bit of tugging with your dog or other tricks to boost concentration, such as touch and handling cues for the dog to perform.

9.     Decide what reward your dog will receive for running with you in the ring.  Are they anticipating something wonderful?  Where will it be delivered?  When?  This needs to be planned out ahead of time and delivered consistently (in training and at trials).  Some handlers store treats just outside the ring, but this can backfire if your dog runs out of the ring to get to their treat during or after their run.
PERSONAL EQUIPMENT: Develop a packing checklist. Nothing much changes from trial to trial, except summer and winter clothing.  Items can include:
1.     Crate or x-pen to store your dog in.

2.     Doggie duffle bag.  Contains everything your dog needs, so you don’t have to repack for every trial.   Just load it and go.  Should include copies of your dog’s registration papers, first aid, trial collar and leash, poopie bags, toys, treats, an extra leash in case yours disappears, nail clippers, brush, paper towels, etc.

3.     Tarp or rug:  About half of the trial sites are on dirt, so a tarp is important to keep your dog’s pen clean.  You can set your tarp out first to reserve your crate space, then set up your equipment on it at your leisure.

4.     Towels and Blankets:  In cold weather, covering your dog’s crate will help them stay warm.  Also helps with privacy and keeping your dog calm, relaxed and isolated from the next dog over.  Towels are important in rainy weather.

5.     Camp Chair:  Most competitors bring a folding camp chair or two.  They may leave one at the crate space, another at ringside.

6.     Cooler:  Not all trials offer concessions.  You may need to bring your own drinks, snacks and lunches.

7.     Fan, either battery operated or electric, for hot weather trials in open arenas. 

8.     First Aid Kit:  Bandaides, Ice Packs, Aspirin, Ointment, etc.

9.     Spare pair of socks and shoes:  In case your feet get wet, or rub a blister.

TRIAL SITE SUMMARIES:  It’s good to keep notes on each trial site you visit for future reference.  Check out Michele Fry’s Dog Training Blog, where she keeps a growing list of trial sites in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

You may not set up your own agility equipment at any trial, including outside on trial grounds nor even at your motel, which is considered an extension of trial grounds.  No practice jumps, no stick in the ground weave poles, no chute, etc.  However, AKC can’t stop you training in a nearby park or other public area, nor in your room.
Be respectful to competitors lining up to enter the ring.  3-5 dogs ahead, they are most always running the course in their mind, prepping their dog, and paying attention to exactly when to enter.  Be respectful by not interrupting their process with questions or conversation.
Jump Height: At two (2) years of age two measurements are required by two different VMO’s, AKC Agility Field Reps, usually Judges.  If these two measurements put the dog in two different agility jump heights, then a third measurement is required to determine the dog’s official jump height.  After 2 non-conflicting official measurements are turned in to AKC, no further questions are asked.  To avoid surprises, you should confirm your dog’s jump height and train at the correct height before entering any trial.  Learn more at:
Regular or Preferred:
Dogs may compete at jump heights higher than their official minimum jump height, but may not jump lower unless entered at the Preferred Level.  Q’s earned at Preferred level go towards a Preferred title only, Q’s earned at jump heights at or above official jump height go towards a Regular title.  You may switch back between Preferred and Regular classes, but not at the same trial.  Preferred dogs have 5 seconds more time to complete the exact same courses as the Regular classes, and jump height can be lowered by 4 inches.

Reasons for going Preferred include slow dogs, semi-retired dogs, advanced age, and/or other physical limitations. Preferred helps keep dogs playing the game with less stress. 
Record Keeping and Ribbons:
Usually within an hour after your dog’s jump height has finished running, you can check the score sheets printed by the Trial Secretary and stored in a 3 ring notebook at the Score Table.  You can find out if your dog Qualified, Placed, and if NQ, how many faults were recorded.  If you qualify and/or place, you pick up a green Q ribbon.  If you place 1st, 2nd, 3rd , 4th, or if you QQ, you pick up those ribbons if offered.  (Clubs are NOT REQUIRED to give out placement or title rosettes - check the premium list to see if they are offered).  In the Score Book for each day, if you Q there will be a sticker to affix to the back of your Q ribbon or in your Record Keeping Book.
This is all on the honor system.  You keep track of your own dog’s Q’s and titles.  3 Q’s and you may pick up your Novice Title Ribbon or button, if offered.  Only your qualifying runs are sent in to AKC.  Your bad runs are not kept track of.
After receiving a Novice or Open title, you may continue entering trials at that level.  Most don’t see an advantage to doing this, but some handlers may want to keep their dog at an easier level for awhile.  Once you choose to advance to a higher level, you can’t drop back down.
A great place to search your dog’s cumulative agility scores (back through 1999) is at  It takes a few months for them to update their database.
Move Ups:  If your dog obtains a Title during the weekend and you still have runs to complete the next day, it is your responsibility to fill out a Move-Up form (available at the Literature Table), and submit it to the Trial Secretary before the close of that day’s trial.  Failure to do so will result in your next day’s runs being recorded at Novice level, any Q’s of which will not count towards your next title.
WHERE TO FIND TRIALS: (trials within 8 hours of Baton Rouge)  Click on Dog Shows & Trials in the Menu bar, choose your state, click Agility. (North America's most comprehensive list of upcoming agility events, including AKC, USDAA, NADAC, CPE, etc.)

Trials have an opening and closing date for entering.  Be sure to read the fine print on each premium list, and enter as early after the Opening as possible.  Trials fill up fast.  Filling out your Entry Form, be sure to select the right Class and Jump Height for your dog.  Send you fees in with your form (your entry is not confirmed until the Trial Secretary has received your form and full payment).  Once entered, you will receive a Trial Confirmation by email.  Be sure to check this information for accuracy every time, as mistakes are sometimes made.
Novice A is for handlers who have never put an agility title on any dog, the handler must be the dog’s owner, co-owner or household member.
Novice B is for handlers who have put an agility title on another dog but are running a new dog.  This could be the dog’s owner or any other handler.
Open is for all dogs who have acquired their Novice title but have not acquired an Excellent leg in that class. 
Excellent (formerly Exc A) is for all dogs entering the Excellent Class, who have obtained their Open title (OA, OAJ, or OF), and are working on their Excellent title.
(formerly Exc B) is for all dogs entering a Master Class who have obtained their Excellent title (AX, AXJ, or XF), and are working on their Master’s Titles and beyond.

NOTE: After Novice A, anyone is eligible to enter the ring and run your dog.  In case you become unavailable for any reason (injury, illness, emergency, etc), it’s a good thing to train your dog to run for other people.  Entry fees are not refundable after a certain date.
After the trial, you will receive an email showing your scores, including your dog’s run time, faults, Q’s, placement and any MACH points received.
Every opportunity you get to run your dog in an agility match, you should do so.  Matches take place usually the day before a trial, at the trial site, using the same equipment.  You can train in the ring, and use toys in the ring, but no treats are allowed.  You usually pay something like $5 for 2 minutes in the ring.  You can run the numbered courses provided, or you can make up your own course, practice short sequences, weaves, etc.  You can sign up ahead of time, or some clubs will let you sign up when you get there and pay cash before you go in.  Matches are low key.  Fewer dogs are present.  There is no judging. Nobody is counting your mistakes.  Matches help you and your dog get comfortable running in a strange venue, on strange equipment, and can really improve their performance at the trial, even with advanced dogs. Plus, it’s a great bonding experience, quite unique, loads of fun.  NEVER MISS A MATCH IF YOU CAN MAKE IT.

Good luck trialing!  Have fun!  Don’t obsess over your mistakes. 
Enjoy, learn and move on!


This document prepared by Michele Fry, with input from other agility competitors.  Rev. 9/2012

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great info. Only as being a leash runner at MANY trials-don't throw the leash in the direction of the leash runner. Just take if off the dog and leave it on the ground. Then the leash is always in the same area for each run. Been hit by a few of the flying leashes too!