I'd like to discuss how to use practice matches to help prepare you and your dog for a trial. My experience is primarily with obedience and rally matches, but you can take this same approach at an agility match or a field training set up.
When I first started in obedience in the mid-1980's, a rule of thumb that is still valuable today was this: when you can participate in 3 different fun matches with your dog under similar conditions to what you will be showing under in an obedience/rally/agility trial (similar levels of distractions, no food in the ring, no special collars, no extra props) and pass all of the exercises at your current level with scores and performances from you and your dog that satisfy you, then you are ready to enter a real trial.
When I was preparing to show my first dog, Casey, in Novice A, I didn't really understand how to use matches. I used them as a test rather than as part of my training progression. I went in the ring to "see where we were" and being a newbie at the game, was wrapped up tight in a bundle of nerves and anxiety. Neither my dog nor I did very well at any of the three matches I entered before our first AKC Novice A obedience trial. I was learning ring procedure while trying to teach it to my little dog. That's one of the hardest parts of training your Novice A dog - it's like the blind leading the blind. So what have I learned over the years since those early, poorly-used matches?
Before I ever start entering my inexperienced puppy or dog for a run-through at a match, I start taking him along with me and my older dog(s) on road trips as soon as it's practical to do so. I have shown most of my dogs in conformation, which helps them get used to the dog show scene with much less pressure for performance put on them. It doesn't hurt that I can take food and toys into the conformation ring. This gives them a fine early imprint that the ring can be a great place to be.
When I take my inexperienced dog along with me, I walk him around the grounds, letting him meet people and see the sights. I set up a crate for him so that he can get used to resting at a busy trial. If he's far enough along in his training, I work on some voluntary attention work. I encourage my dog to play with me (I confess that getting my dogs to play other places is one of my weaknesses as a trainer) and to perform any silly tricks he's learned. Nothing very long or demanding, just laying the foundation that when he goes to a new place, we do some stuff together.
I am fortunate to live in an area of the country (SE MIchigan) where there are many clubs and training schools. This means that with some effort on my part, I can get my dog to many different training buildings for practice, whether simply renting floor time to train or attending a fun match.
As my new dog progresses in his training, I will start asking a friend to follow us around the training area while I work on heeling. I might ask for her to call commands, but I don't necessarily respond to her commands. I want to see how my dog handles having a person nearby while we train. I start putting different heeling components together and as I see my dog able to handle these different parts when training on our own, I ask my friend to call a pattern for us. When we can do this with some reliability in day-to-day training, I will then enter a match.
I still remember taking Treasure (Ch. OTCh. U-UD Grousemoor Forget Me Not UDX OA OAJ WC; Can UD) to her first match. Unlike my more recent dogs, I trained her consistently in obedience from when she came home at 8 weeks old. She was 13 months old and just learning halts – I think she'd had about 10 days of training on them – when we attended our first match. During the on-leash pattern, I asked the "judge" to skip calling halts. I used extra verbal commands (this is how I teach my dogs to heel) as she needed them. She did well enough during that first pattern that I added some halts during the second heeling pattern. I kept the leash attached, even though in a trial it is supposed to be off leash. I knew my dog wasn't ready for off-leash heeling, so we didn't try.
When you enter a match, especially the first several times, remember to expect less from your dog than what you can get from him in a familiar location, especially if it is much busier at the match than your dog is used to. One thing to be careful of is that you don't suddenly start correcting your dog more at the match than you do where you normally train. Too much of this will sour your dog on new places instead of building his desire to work with you in a new place.
During your run-through, if something goes wrong, ask for a do-over of that part. Maybe you are doing the Novice Stand for Exam and, as you return around your dog, he turns sideways. I would at the very least mark the error with my verbal correction, and do it over. If a 2nd or 3rd try doesn't fix the problem, I move on, but make a mental note that I need to work harder on that particular part.
If your dog errs in an unexpected way, pay attention to where the judge was in relation to your dog or what was going on nearby, and try to recreate the error in training. For example, dogs are often really surprised in Open when the judge is nearby and walks in close behind the dog as he comes into his sit in front of his handler. One of my dogs finds it overwhelming to retrieve his dumbbell if someone is standing nearby, so it is something we continue to practice.
Another important ingredient to explore at practice matches is time. How long does your dog need to be at a busy place before he can focus enough to work? Does crating him in the building create the right desire or is keeping him in your vehicle better? If it's possible, I usually crate mine inside when I'm doing obedience, rally, or conformation, though they are now used to a lot of time in my van at hunt tests and field training outings.
How long does it take to "air" your dog? Does he need some way to blow off steam before getting down to work? At most trial sites, there isn't anywhere to let dogs off leash to run. I know some people who take along a bike or a scooter to give their dog some exercise before going in the ring. I've gone out with a retriever bumper with my dog on a flexi-leash to give him a chance to run a bit.
How much warm-up time does your dog need? What sorts of warm-up works the best? I personally always do some rhythm heeling to warm us both up and help calibrate our attention and teamwork. I do some fronts and finishes and general position maneuvers. I'll add more components to our heeling (turns, halts, pace changes). If I'm going into Novice, I do a Stand for Exam. If I'm going into Open, I might do a short, on-leash retrieve and possibly a short drop. For Utility, I add on glove turns, signals on a 6-foot leash, possibly a moving stand, possibly an article retrieve or two (my current dog, Gryffin, seems to benefit from this). With my terriers in particular, I have to be very careful to not use too much food in warm up, because this dramatically illustrates the lack of food in the ring to a dog who you have shown a lot. If you can give the majority of your treats inside the ring at a practice match, you can increase your dog's desire to get into and stay in the ring.
Over time, my goal is to make our time in a match ring as much like a trial as possible. I reduce and eventually eliminate extra commands, props, and any treats during the performance. I don't correct every little mistake. I feel it's critical for you to let some minor mistakes go by to make sure your dog can recover and get back on track, because you know what? You are going to both make mistakes! If something happens in a match that would be an NQ (non-qualifying score) such as a failure to drop on the Drop on Recall or a substantial deduction (3+ points off) such as an automatic finish, I do correct that and repeat the exercise if possible.
Fun matches are a great place to figure out some of these ingredients and to fix problems that crop up when you start to compete in trials. Use them wisely. There aren't any matches in your area? Organize one! If everyone brings their equipment, whether jumps or ring gates, you can simulate a trial.
Until next time, happy training.
The common definition of a fun match is an event at which you can practice competing with your dog, but doesn't earn you scores towards any title.
There are AKC Sanctioned Matches, which a club must hold under AKC rules in order to show the AKC that the club is ready to hold an actual trial. Back when I was first training, there were several of these a year in my area of the country, and at least in the Novice A classes, there were trophies given out and you were scored.
There are also so-called Show 'n Go matches, which I believe were named that because there weren't any prizes, so there was no need to stay around and wait for the end of the class - you just showed and could leave.