Agility Trial Etiquette for Competitors

This was an introduction to agility competition etiquette for competitors that I wrote in September 2009, and I’ve updated a couple of points. Even though the sport has evolved, these etiquette points have remained rather consistent. I hope these help and make it easier for newcomers to the trial scene, but also I hope this helps organizers make events smooth and more enjoyable for all who go. Please feel free to share.


Over the years, I have managed to put in too many hours to count into agility competitions across Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland), and even some in England.  I have competed in large, multi-ring trials, and in small evening trials, and regardless of the location, one thing remains the same, agility trial etiquette.  I am writing this document with the purpose of helping newcomers to agility trialing find their way through a trial without making any egregious etiquette faux-pas.  

Agility trials are a little different from other types of competitions.  In other dog-related competitions, which I must confess I have never competed in so this is what I understand from word of mouth, volunteers are volunteers and competitors are competitors.  Furthermore competitors only need to focus on and worry about their own dog, and not necessarily worry about the flow of the competition, assisting other competitors, or the site beyond the usual poop-n-scoop rule.  In agility, nearly the opposite is true. 

Agility is true a team sport, but there are many teams to consider.  First and foremost, the team to consider is the “Trial Team.”  All competitors and volunteers are members of the Trial Team.  It is everyone’s responsibility to help every single way they physically, emotionally, and socially can to make the event an efficient, fun, and safe event.  The competitors aren’t spectators or customers of the event; rather they are what makes the event run smoothly or take forever.  This leads to the first general set of etiquette rules for being at a trial.

Trial Team Etiquette Rules: Committee Members

  • Be sure to register your dog with sanctioning organization (UKI, AAC, CKC) for a Dog ID number well in advance of the trial (~2-6mo at least in advance is recommended for some – UKI can be processed very quickly).  This is the dog’s lifelong number.
  • Bring your Dog ID card/certificate with you to the trial, always!
  • Support the Trial Committee Members (secretary, volunteer coordinator, equipment manager, chairperson, fundraiser, etc.) any way you can.  This starts with speaking to them with respect and being courteous.   Being belligerent to a Committee Member is not tolerated by UKI, AAC and CKC, and you can find yourself being disciplined by being excused from the trial, or in more severe cases, from sanctioned trials in that organization altogether (lifetime expulsion).   All agility organizations values sportsmanly behavior, and disrespectful behavior does not exemplify sportsmanly conduct.
  • The trial secretary is extremely busy the days of a trial, and should not be bothered unless it is critical. 
  • Show up on time for check-in and measurements.  This helps the Trial Secretary do her/his job.  If you are late, you will significantly impact the Secretary’s ability to focus on his/her next task for the day.
  • The chairperson/manager/superintendent should be the one to receive all complaints, questions, concerns or reports of abusive or inappropriate behavior, not any of the other committee members or the judge.
  • If you have a spare moment, offer a Committee member a drink or snack to help them do their job.  It’s like a wedding – oftentimes the Bride and Groom actually get forgotten and go hungry or thirsty – these folks are focusing on making your competition a pleasurable experience.  Show your gratitude by helping them stay upright.

Trial Team Etiquette Rules: The Trial Ring

  • Find out when set-up and tear-down is for the trial site, then arrange to be there to help.   While some trials arrange for volunteers to do this and don’t expect competitors to help, that is the exception to the rule.  If you will be using the equipment (i.e., competing), then you should be helping with both set-up and tear-down.  Many hands make for light work on this.  Few hands make this a very onerous task.  If it is your club hosting the trial, then assume you are definitely expected to assist with this, unless given explicit reprieve from these duties! 
  • If you run a dog at the trial, your dog should be in a kennel (safe and sound), and you should be in the ring assisting with as many course changes as possible – minimum of one, regardless of whether or not you are officially “scheduled” or not, maximum of the number of runs the trial offers.  A bonus of setting up the course you are running is that you get insider’s knowledge of the course!  Also, this makes a huge difference in the time it takes to run the trial (the difference between the minimum of 2 people and ideal 8 people doing the course change is about ~40-80min over the course of a day depending on the extent of the judge using nested courses or radical course changes).
  • If you hear “course change” – put your dog away (if the dog has cooled off properly from its run, that is) and run to the ring.  Find a person with a course map and have them tell you what to do, or else pick up the number cones (always needs doing).  If there are too many bodies, it is better to be sent off the course change, than for there to be not enough bodies.  (Generally, if there are 8 bodies in the ring, then that’s enough.  Try harder to be one of the 8 the next course change.)
  • If you don’t have a dog and food in hand and you hear “Height change,” run into the ring and grab a bar and change the jump height.  There is nothing worse than having your own dog on the line, waiting for two people to change 10 jumps, when 10 people could have done it instantly.  Over the course of a day, this difference of 2 versus 10 people helping is ~50-75min (i.e., one hour).  Be courteous to your fellow competitors and help – it could just as easily be your dog waiting on the line for a height change next course.
  • Never ever bring food, cigarettes, or beverages into the trial ring (even in course changes).  It can create a nasty distraction for dogs and disadvantages them.  The only exception is offering the judge a bottle of water (which is a good thing to do), but never take food to the judge in the ring, bring it ringside for them.
  • It is really nice to sit near the trial ring to be able to watch other competitors’ runs.  Be kind to them and don’t play with a loud squeaky toy with your dog.  While we try to proof our dogs, it is unkind to them, and you wouldn’t appreciate it if your dog chose to play with a spectator’s squeaky toy instead of run the course with you.

Trial Team Etiquette Rules: The Trial Site

  • If someone looks flustered, lost, confused, or needs a poop bag, offer to help them.
  • Poop’n’scoop – as always, if you dog goes, clean it up.
  • Pee’n’poop areas – sometimes trial sites have preferred elimination areas – please follow those guidelines.
  • Adopt a poop – if you see a poop on the ground and it’s not your dogs, pick it up anyway.  The trial site is often “on loan” and maintaining a clean site can ensure future bookings.  A dirty / poopy site is a fast guarantee to no future bookings/trials there.  Same thing applies for garbage.
  • Do not allow your dog to eliminate in the ring, on the ring fencing, or on the equipment!  Some trials are on indoor turf and dogs absolutely must not eliminate on that surface.  Do everything within your power to ensure your dog goes before its run.  If it doesn’t go beforehand, and starts showing bathroom cues, excuse yourself from the ring politely to the judge and take it outside.  If it goes – you get eliminated and add time to the trial for the clean-up, so it’s better to take the bullet and exit before there is an accident.
  • Keep your dog on leash.  We do need to exercise and warm up our dogs, but if the competing dog in the arena “escapes” it is easier to manage the situation if there is only one loose dog on site.  It also comes to maintaining good relations with the site owners and the hosting club.
  • Keep your site area clean of garbage, recycling, papers, etc.  Someone has to clean it up eventually – you bring it, you clean it.

Beyond the above general etiquette rules for an agility competition, there are also some more general etiquette rules for being at an agility trial as a competitor.  Again, these etiquette rules are based on the assumption that agility competitions are about team building with your dog, and supporting the other teams (human/dog) at the trial.

Team Competitors

  • Cheer on your fellow competitors! Agility is a great sport in which everyone can be a winner in Canada.  Generally, most competitors don’t put emphasis on the placings; rather, they concern themselves with their own performance and their own performance goals.  If you know someone has a goal of getting fewer than 100 faults, and they earn 90 faults – cheer for them! If you know someone has been trying to get that last clean run for a title, and they achieve it – cheer for them!  You get the point.
  • While cheering is highly recommended, please never assist or guide your competitors in the arena.  Telling them where to go next is a BIG no-no!  They can earn faults for your “helpfulness”  / co-handling.
  • If you see a competitor who is “on their own” (i.e., they don’t know anyone else at the trial), invite them to be part of your Team Competitors!  I have been at many trials where I have been part of the “gang” and trials where I have “been on my own.”  The trials where I have been on my own and never invited or even talked to by other competitors make for a very boring and sad trial, versus trials where I’m invited into groups and included as a fellow competitor makes for a very pleasurable trial and one that I am motivated to enter again!  It also provides a lot of opportunity for learning about different training techniques or club policies/cultures.
  • Something that is also very common at trials is the use of the “secret stash buddy.”  This is where a competitor who is about to enter the ring, very secretly passes whatever toy or treat they have for their dog to the “secret stash buddy”.  The “secret stash buddy” then very discreetly receives and hides the toy/treat from the competitor’s dog.  The secret stash buddy should be waiting just outside the exit (or wherever allowed given they have food/toy in their hand) and similarly discreetly pass the reward back to the handler.  The handler then offers it to the dog for such a marvelous run!  The key to this if you are the secret stash buddy, is to not draw any attention to yourself or the treat to the dog.  The dog should think its handler has it, as it is the handler who should be rewarding the dog, not a person who has been outside the ring all the while.  Etiquette-wise, if you are secret stash buddy, make sure you follow the trial site rules about location of treats.
  • Entering and exiting the ring.  In a large trial, the judge and gate steward will inform you when to enter the ring (usually when the preceding dog is still running).  Ensure you keep your dog on leash and under control until the preceding dog is leashed and on their way out.
  • If you have a dog that is sensitive about others being near them, it is proper for you to inform the gate steward that the next dog should wait for you to be out of the ring with your dog on leash before they enter.  You may also wait to enter once the previous dog is out.  This should only be if you have a potentially aggressive dog. Otherwise, you should follow the instructions of the judge and gate steward.
  • Enter and exit the ring as expediently as possible.  Slow turnover in the runners can add significant time to the length of the trial.  On the other hand, if you are the one on line, be sure to check in with the timer, scribe and judge to make sure they are ready before you start running your dog.
  • It is wise to not make the area near the ring entrance a socializing / play time with the other dogs.  Teams have been working on focusing their dogs on the handlers, and it is not puppy-play time.  This is a distraction that is not appropriate.  Similarly, it’s not a good idea to pet, coo at, or play with a dog that is not yours that is about to enter the ring.  After its run and it has received the love/rewards from its handler, then it’s usually fair game to share the love with the dog (unless the handler deems otherwise).
  • Speaking of dogs, it is of extremely poor etiquette to get down on your dog for a run that went less than your ideal.  Agility does not tolerate abusive behavior, and it is un-sportsmanly to reprimand or pout at your dog.  If there were problems, then that simply indicates a need for training in that area.  In all likelihood it was your fault anyway, so wait until your dog is in its kennel before you pout at yourself, lest your dog think you are pouting at it.  Best rule is to just forgive yourself, praise your dog and make note of your homework.
  • For the warm-up jumps, you may not move the jumps. Also, the dog who is second in line for the ring has the right of way (unless the next in hasn’t had a chance to do a jump).  If you are fourth or fifth in line, step aside for any competitors heading in.
  • Finally, it is poor etiquette to bring your own equipment and practice portions of the course on the sidelines (you can actually be excused from the trial for doing that).

Judge Etiquette

Given the special nature of the agility judge, here are some final etiquette rules with respect to the judge.

  • It is extremely poor etiquette to blame the judge for your poor performance.  If the course was challenging, then it was challenging for all competitors, not just you and your dog.
  • It is unacceptable to speak to a judge in a belligerent manner.
  • Challenging a judge’s call is also bad form.  There is no play-back.  If you don’t understand a fault that you received, the judge might be able to explain it to you, but you should only ask with the intention of learning for future runs, not for making them change their mind.
  • The judge cannot tell you what to do, but if you are truly lost in the ring, they might give you some facial cues as to what is next.  Be very grateful if that happens, but don’t expect it. J
  • If you Q with a judge or earn a title, it is appropriate to thank and celebrate with them afterwards.  Judges are approachable and generally want to help people learn the sport and enjoy it.  They also have a big job to do at the trial, so keep that in mind as well.

Concluding Thoughts

While all of this seems like a lot of rules to remember, they all follow the good old Golden Rule, “Do onto others as you would have done to you.”  Agility trials are a lot of fun and rewarding in so many ways. Remember, at the trial, you are actually only in the ring for maybe 7 minutes in a day.  The rest of the time, you are a member of Trial Team and Team Competitors.  If you take ownership of the trial and do all within your power to make it fun, efficient and safe, then the trial will be just that!  Also be forewarned, if you act as a customer or spectator, don’t be surprised if some trials don’t accept your entry in the future (which is a practice that started in the late 90’s in parts of Canada).

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