So when is your dog ready? Each dog is different just like each human being is unique in their own way. This is a team sport so both sides of the team must be ready to show. Have you ever had to get up in front of a crowd and either give a presentation or talk on a topic that you are relatively new to? Performing in a trial setting is much different than class. The energy is high, there are many barking dogs and your dog may have to wait a long period of time in between runs.
Preparing for the ring starts as soon as you get your puppy or dog. You socialize the dog. You may bring the dog to shows before they are entered and work with the dog outside the ring. I like to work heeling, attention and even playing with toys in the trial environment. My goal is to teach the dog to maintain control and focus before they ever enter the ring.
So now what? Your puppy / dog has been taking agility classes and maybe even performed in a match that you were able to use food or toys as rewards. Fido is now the magic age that he is allowed to start competition. At this point I would evaluate a number of things. I would want my dog to have a solid start line stay in many different locations and settings. Fido must be able to perform each piece of equipment from around the clock. I personally do not want to put my dog in a show for the first time unless I am 100% confident that Fido can do his contacts to the criteria I have determined with distractions and on many different equipment. The see saw is not exactly the same for each place you compete. I like to put a weight on my see saw at home and vary the position so the dog can learn that it doesn't matter how slow or quick the teeter drops, you must maintain the criteria. I want my dog to understand patterns like pinwheels, 180's, serpentines, 270's AND be able to take a line and understand what that is. I want Fido to be clear that when my hand comes to my side that it means come into me. I want collection and acceleration understanding. In other words I want Fido to be able to perform at the excellent level before I even enter him in a show.
OK, you think your dog has all the criteria? Now can your dog do this in front of a crowd? Maybe so. Some dogs stress up and some dogs stress down. If your dog is leaving you to sniff the ground or refusing obstacles to go visit the judge or maybe even alarm bark at the judge, most likely your dog is stressed out. Maybe your dog can't hold the start line in a show or flies off the contacts and crashes through jumps. Maybe your dog goes in the ring and gets the zoomies. These are all signs of stress in the ring and can be dealt with in a variety of methods.
Most new to agility or young dogs should not be entered all 3 days or 4 days of an agility show. I think it is better to start slowly with either one day of a couple of runs and use that ring time to maintain criteria. Some areas have ASCA or CPE where you can train in the ring or enter at a level with less obstacles and just work on ring behavior.
If I have learned anything about this sport, I know that it never should be about the Q or the ribbons. Do I love blue ribbons and titles? Of course I do. Do I have performance goals? Sure do. But I have found that my best runs are when I enter the ring with goals like contact performance, start line and in a case like the stress down dog, just having fun and running. This helps take the pressure off and relaxes the energy so both dog and handler can perform much like they do in their own back yard.
As a handler are you confident that your dog will stick with you and perform pretty close to the way he has in practice? Do you understand the rules for the venue you are competing in? Have you developed a pre-run ritual before entering the ring? Are you confident that you are able to memorize the course and show direction to your dog?
The last thing I like to teach my students is conditioning of the dog and handler. Your dog should not be overweight. You should be able to clearly feel rib with slight padding. Your dog should have daily exercise and not be expected to jump and run when they have been a couch potato all week. These same rules apply to the handler. You certainly don't need to be a Barbie doll to play agility but you should try to eat healthy, stretch before you run, and have some type of conditioning yourself . Lack of these things are the result of injuries to both dog and handler.
Regardless of whether you are just doing agility for fun or have more serious competition goals I guarantee you will have more success and lots more fun if you are prepared to enter the ring!