Background: Pain (physical discomfort) and challenging behaviour are highly prevalent in nursing home residents with dementia: at any given time 45-80% of nursing home residents are in pain and up to 80% have challenging behaviour. In the USA Christine Kovach developed the serial trial intervention (STI) and established that this protocol leads to less discomfort and fewer behavioural symptoms in moderate to severe dementia patients. The present study will provide insight into the effects of implementation of the Dutch version of the STI-protocol (STA OP!) in comparison with a control intervention, not only on behavioural symptoms, but also on pain, depression, and quality of life. This article outlines the study protocol. Methods/Design. The study is a cluster randomized controlled trial in 168 older people (aged >65 years) with mild or moderate dementia living in nursing homes. The clusters, Dutch nursing homes, are randomly assigned to either the intervention condition (training and implementation of the STA OP!-protocol) or the control condition (general training focusing on challenging behaviour and pain, but without the step-wise approach). Measurements take place at baseline, after 3 months (end of the STA OP! training period) and after 6 months. Primary outcome measures are symptoms of challenging behaviour (measured with the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory (CMAI) and the Neuropsychiatric Inventory-Nursing Home version (NPI-NH)), and pain (measure with the Dutch version of the Pain Assessment Checklist for Seniors (PACSLAC-D) and the Minimum Data Set of the Resident Assessment Instrument (MDS-RAI) pain scale). Secondary outcome measures include symptoms of depression (Cornell and MDS-RAI depression scale), Quality of Live (Qualidem), changes in prescriptions of analgesics and psychotropic drugs, and the use of non-pharmacological comfort interventions (e.g. snoezelen, reminiscence therapy). Discussion. The transfer from the American design to the Dutch design involved several changes due to the different organisation of healthcare systems. Specific strengths and limitations of the study are discussed. Trial registration. Netherlands Trial Register (NTR): NTR1967. © 2011 Pieper et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.