By Lee Foote, The Labrador Retriever Club, Inc., from the April 2016 AKC Gazette

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. —Seneca, Roman dramatist, philosopher, and politician, 5 B.C.–A.D. 65

We all know dog-handler teams who train brilliantly but somehow aren’t capable of putting in a stellar performance to match their rehearsal. While stress often plays a part in a disappointing performance, another facet to consider is the team’s preparation.

Staff bull moving Bermuda 2006sm

Some preparation begins days in advance. Your canine teammate needs to be in top condition. Getting that ear infection under control can make a world of difference as to whether a dog stays in the agility weave poles or gets distracted during an obedience routine. Toenails need to be trimmed; perhaps anal glands need to be expressed.

On the morning of competition, one of the first things to consider is when and how much to feed the dog. Dogs who need extra motivation or are prone to a sensitive stomach might be better off with something less than a full breakfast.

When to arrive at the competition and when to begin working toward the start also need to be thought out. A young or sensitive dog might focus better if he has plenty of time to walk around the venue and take in the sights, sounds, and smells before he is asked to perform. On the other hand, a lower-energy dog might be better off arriving just before competing. Very keen competitors might be best kept some distance from the event until just before they are to go in, lest they get too wild. Where you crate at a trial or park your car at a hunt test is part of good preparation.

Girl w Sheltie Nat Agility Ch 2016sm

A competent handler in any venue will have the equipment necessary to keep the dog comfortable in extreme weather. On long days, maintaining a dog’s hydration is also critical. It can help to lace water with canned dog food or a canine sports drink.

A regular warm-up routine is as useful in getting the dog mentally ready to perform as it is in ensuring that the muscles are properly tuned. For conformation, a last-minute grooming is usually in order, and no dog will have that “give me the ribbon” attitude if he needs to relieve himself. Part of good preparation for tracking means sheltering your dog’s nose from car exhaust and giving him ample exposure to the local conditions.

Handlers need preparation, too. At a retriever hunt test, anyone who foregoes the opportunity to witness the test dog and hear the judges’ expectations is compromising their preparedness. There is no excuse for a handler not knowing where the blinds are planted and the birds are to land.

Ret hunt test 2007sm

Walking an agility or rally course adequately is critical for a smooth performance. Successful obedience competitors go into the ring knowing the order of the exercises and the heel pattern. Observing others who go before you will not only reinforce the course, ring pattern, or bird locations but also helps to expose any challenges that might have been missed on the initial assessment.

Lastly, keep in mind that preparation means understanding the rules and guidelines. Exhibitors sign a statement on all AKC event entries saying they have read the rules and agree to abide by them.

Dogs thrive on routine. The more they can anticipate what is going to happen, the better they (and you) will be able to overcome the stresses of performance day. The best way to be prepared for the event is to develop one’s own preparation routine and stick to it as much as possible. With a set ritual, you can be confident that you have done what you can to optimize your team’s performance. All those little elements of preparation should sway luck more in your favor.

—Lee Foote