In conversation with several students, it came up that their dogs performed better (faster, more confidently) at a NADAC event vs an AKC event. One might think that every agility competition is equal to another agility competition, but obviously this isn't the case! The dogs are telling us that!
Some factors that may be at play here, at least in comparing NADAC to AKC events in my area (PNW) are:
- One ring vs Two – One ring trials are typically smaller, quieter, and less stimulating overall. Dogs that “stress up” or “stress down” can benefit from less visual and audio stimulation, i.e, people, dogs, noises.
- Course Complexity – NADAC courses tend use a bigger ring and be more wide open, encourage more speed and extension from the dog, and because handlers are typically using more distance skills, less physical pressure on the dogs to turn, take obstacles, etc. AKC courses, (also because of typically being two rings!), have smaller rings, smaller spacing, more complex coursework.
- Handler's Expectations and Goals – It's of course different for each team, but the handler's state of mind is going to be different at each of these events, because their expectation and goals are different. Perhaps one organization has more pressure to run clean than the other. I do not compete in NADAC so I don't know how their titling system works completely. Regardless of the titling system, I suspect the handler cares more about the outcome at one event more than the other. Maybe it also has something to do with how many people are “watching” at the events. It all plays a part!
What can we do about it?
If your dog is struggling with some competition environments and not others, take a look at which aspect he's struggling with. If it's the amount of activity/stimulation, look for one ring events. I personally love one ring events for myself and for my dogs. Additionally, take your dog to two ring events and focus on his behavior and reactions to the stimulation without asking him to perform. Can you observe differences in how he takes food or plays with toys outside of the ring at a one ring trial vs a two ring trial? Typically, the dog is struggling long before you enter the ring to compete.
If the course complexity is throwing your dog off, focus on your handling skills. Is your timing too late and your dog is slowing down so that he can be correct for you? What about when you make a handling mistake that results in a refusal or wrong course? Is your response to those (human, and totally acceptable) mistakes causing your dog to slow down or not be confident in following your handling? As daunting as it sounds, it's a good problem to have, because your behavior (timing and handling skills) are relatively easy to change!
Last but not least, the handler's mindset. Really give this some thought. Do you have an overwhelming outcome goal that is making YOU nervous and unable to perform to your maximum ability? That pressure you put on yourself to “run clean” (or insert goal here), is trickling down the leash to your dog, and could be causing these confidence issues. Again, this is a good problem to have (if you've gotta have one!), because changing your thoughts about competition is again a mechanical skill that can be practiced!