Being prepared for you first competitions can mean the difference between you and your dog have a great time, and you and your dog have a not so fun experience.
Before I decide to enter my dog in his first show, I have a few things I want check on my preparation list.
Is my dog competent on all obstacles without aids? Can he do his contact criteria without a target plate? Is he weaving without wires? What's his success rate?
Have I practiced in the face of distractions? Even if you compete where you train, your dog will see a lot of "new" things at the competition - new people, new dogs, new sounds, maybe new equipment. Have I shown my dog how to focus and work together even around distractions? How many new places have you trained? Dogs need to learn to generalize agility equipment and criteria in many new places.
Have you taken your dog to a trial to socialize? Before entering your first show, it's a good idea to take your dog to a trial you aren't entered in. Get them in the building and play games, do tricks, work on focus exercises. Let them absorb the new atmosphere without the pressure of having to compete that day.
Have I practiced with no rewards? When we go to a show, our dogs have to chain many obstacle performances together without rewards (between 14 and 16 obstacles in novice). When our dogs are learning new skills and behaviors, we need to reward them a lot! As they become proficient in those behaviors, we need to make sure we randomize how often they are getting rewarded. If they are used to getting many rewards during practice, then they go to a show where there are zero rewards, that can be a confusing scenario for them. As trainers we need to systematically reduce and randomize how often we are rewarding before we go to competition.
Am I prepared to keep my expectations consistent with training? It doesn't take long for dogs to get "ring wise", and know that there are no consequences for not upholding their criteria on things like start lines and contacts. As a handler I have to uphold MY criteria. My expectations must be the same in competition as they are in training. If I expect my dog to stay in his contact position until I release him in training, I expect the exact same thing in competition. And I am prepared to make sure I communicate that to my dog in the show ring. Trust me - this is a MUCH easier problem to fix if you don't let it ever start...otherwise in a few trials you'll be saying - "why can he do it in practice, but not at a show??". Venues that allow training in the ring are a great place to have your first competition, so if issues do arise because of the new environment - you can have a plan to fix them.
Am I prepared to not get a Q in my first few competitions? As humans and an agility community, we want to succeed. We spend a lot of money and time going to these competitions, and darn it we want something to show for it. But trying hard to get a qualifying run, and being disappointed if we don't, can put unneeded stress on us and our dogs. If you happen to get a Q at your first competition, that is a great cherry on top. I want my dog to have FUN in the ring, and come out thinking that was a great experience. The Q's will come eventually :)
I have two goals with my novice dogs (well really, with any dog!!) - I want to uphold my criteria in the ring, and I want them to have a positive experience. My dog should know that I am going to have the same expectations out of him in the show rings as I do in competition. And he should come out of the ring thinking - "that was awesome, I want to do that again!". Which why it should be part of your end of run routine to make sure you dog is promptly and thoroughly rewarded after EVERY run!