Working trials might not be the best known dog sport, but it can still be challenging and fun for you and your dog, as Dr Jacqueline Boyd explains.
I always remember the first time I came across training for working trials at my local dog club. I was barely a teenager, desperate to learn as much as I could about dog training, and was handling a friend’s Labrador Retriever. I was like a sponge; watching, listening, and asking too many questions about the what, why, and how! I was fascinated to see dogs working in utter harmony with their people, scaling tall obstacles, jumping over long jumps, and all the time showing absolute control and steadiness.
Working trials combines a variety of key exercises to test the skills of dog and handler, from athleticism, to nosework, obedience, and teamwork. Physically and mentally demanding, working trials offers you the opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your dog while also having fun, whether simply training or aiming towards championship standard.
If you are looking for a sport that challenges you and your dog across a range of activities in the outdoors, then working trials might be worth exploring.
What is working trials?
Working trials is an activity that was originally based on the training and expectations of police and military dogs. The first working trials championship in the UK was held in 1927. Since then, the sport has seen a number of amendments, but the key concept and principles remain. Working trials comprises three sections that dogs and handlers undertake — nosework, agility, and control. Within these sections are different tests, depending on the level of dog and handler. These tests will include obedience work such as heelwork, nosework to find hidden items, and agility over specific obstacles.
Competing in working trials
Working trials competitions involve dogs working through different levels called ‘stakes’; these are at either open or championship level. Success at each level allows progression to the next stake. If you are new to working trials, it would be a good idea to attend a competition or even volunteer to help. This will give you a great insight into how the competition works and what is expected.
It will also allow you to make valuable friends and contacts who can support and advise you further. The lowest and entry level stake is the ‘Introductory Stake’ intended for anyone new to the discipline, followed by ‘Companion Dog (CD)’, then ‘Utility Dog (UD)’, ‘Working Dog (WD)’, ‘Tracking Dog (TD)’ and finally ‘Patrol Dog (PD)’. In order to progress through the competitive levels, your dog needs to achieve a minimum of 70 per cent of available marks in each exercise group and at least 80 per cent of the total overall marks to qualify and move to compete at the next stake level.If you enjoy competing and progress through the levels successfully your dog can even gain titles after his registered name to highlight his success in working trials.
What exercises are involved in working trials?
Depending on the competitive level, exercises will differ in complexity and expectation. However, key exercises include:
- Nosework — where your dog will follow a pre-laid track (at UD and above) and find and recover placed items. The search square exercise is also included, where your dog locates and retrieves items within a defined area.
- Agility — this is tested via three obstacles: a hurdle jump, an upright wooden scale, and a long jump.
- Control — these exercises include heelwork, retrieving, sit and down stay, send-away, ‘speak’ on cue, and steadiness to gunshot.
How can I start out in working trials?
If competition is your aim, or you simply want to train and enjoy the challenge that working trials offers, basic obedience training is a great start. If your dog is already experienced in other disciplines such as agility or scent work, then those skills will be useful too, as will basic skills in heelwork, steadiness, stay, and retrieving. A solid recall and the ability to work freely in the vicinity of other dogs and people are also critical, because working trials involves exercises that will be undertaken off -lead.
How can I take part in working trials?
If working trials takes your fancy, the best place to learn more is at a local training club or group. Because working trials tends to be a little more specialised than general dog training, and involves specific skills and equipment, it is recommended that you find a trainer or group deeply familiar with the discipline and its requirements. This is essential for your dog’s health and well-being, as well as making sure you are fully aware of what the discipline entails, especially if competition is your goal!
You might find some aspects of working trials are not ideal for you or your dog, but this doesn’t preclude you from being involved, or doing training in the sections that are more appropriate. For example, with one of my small Cocker Spaniels, we trained in all the obedience exercises, search squares, and tracking, but never undertook any of the equipment. The club we trained at fully supported this and never made us feel any less involved. In fact, the camaraderie and enjoyment of spending time with our dogs was one of the great things about working trials training.
Look out for local groups and clubs
While working trials might not be as well-known as some other canine activities, there is a great network of friendly and supportive clubs and groups offering training support, and running classes and competitions. Some clubs even offer training holidays and camps where you can hone your skills in specific exercises, as well as enjoy some quality time away with your dog.
The Kennel Club website has a helpful resource section providing more detailed information about working trials. There are also independent groups and clubs that offer training and support in the various skills, which might be a good option to explore. If you speak to local dog groups and clubs, it is likely that someone will be able to recommend a trainer or suggest sessions that you can attend.