Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

A Fun Steeplechase Course

 Here is the Round 1 Steeplechase course from the 5/16 trial, designed by Scott Lovelis.  He was surprised that it “caught” so many people.  The number of eliminations (for off-courses) was quite a bit higher than he had anticipated, I think.

The first decision handlers had to make was how to perform the opening.  The three most prevalent plans were to do a lead-out pivot of some sort, to run with the dog on the left and rear cross the weaves, and to run with the dog on the left and front cross after the weaves.

The next section, 4 through 7, is where the majority of the off-courses occurred.  People coming into this section with the dog on the right had  a bit of an advantage in getting to this section, but not in staying on course, apparently.  Numerous dogs took the off-course tunnel after 4.  Handlers were trying to race their dogs from the weave poles to the landing side of 4 to do a front cross, which cued the dogs to continue going forward on the angled path straight into the tunnel.  People who kept their dogs on the right had to be able to run with them past the broad jump, or they ended up going off course to 17.

Steepplechase 5-17

The angled entrance to the weaves caused a few problems as well.  Handlers were consistently behind their dogs after the long 8-9-10 backstretch, so many dogs took the handler’s arc around 10 as a signal to move to the right, causing them to miss the entry.

One off-course that I didn’t see as I was walking the course was dogs taking the tunnel rather than the A-Frame at 13.  I believe that was the cause of an E for at least two dogs.

The last long loop, 14 through 20, was fairly straight-forward.  There were a few mistakes when handlers pushed too hard coming around the pinwheel and caused the dog to take the #9 tunnel, and a few dogs came back toward their owners at 8 rather than taking 17.

May 20, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Course Strategy | , , , , | 1 Comment

USDAA Trial 5/16 & 5/17

We had an amazing weekend at the Pueblo USDAA trial hosted by ACAT.  After missing 80% of his contacts last weekend, Maxx hit all of his contacts this weekend except one dogwalk, including three A-Frames in Snooker.  He qualified in 9/11 runs and got second place in PSJ round 2.  I had start line stays too.  Best of all, he *finally* got that last SQ for his APD (performance ADCH)!  Now he has a championship title in all three venues we participate in.  We have had a hard time getting those SQs both because he is the smallest dog in the class and because we have a heck of a lot of (inter)nationally known competitors with dogs in that class. 

This was a “double games” trial, so we had double jumpers, gamblers, and snooker.  It made for long days, but was a lot of fun.  I had not trialed under either of the two judges, Dave Hanson or Scott Lovelis, and they are both very nice judges who created good, challenging but doable courses.

The snooker course from Saturday created by Dave Hanson is below.  It is the one Maxx got his SQ on.  We did two 7s and two 6s in the opening and made it all the way through the closing.  This was an interesting course for several reasons.  As you can see from the map, competitors could attempt three OR four reds.  Anyone with a relatively fast dog attempted four.  The #6 combo (A-Frame and jump) had to be taken in a straight line.  There were several people – like myself with Storm – that pulled the dog too far around the red by 6b and ended up with the dog taking 6b from the A-Frame side, which negated that sequence.  The #7 combo of three jumps was interesting as well, because although all the jumps were bi-directional, you couldn’t take it the same way twice in the opening.  So if you took the red in the bottom corner and then 7b, you could not take the red on the top left and start with 7b – it had to be 7a or 7c.

There were a lot of different plans, which was fun to see.  A few people started with the bottom right red and ran across the front of the ring to take 7 before taking the two reds on the left followed by 7s and then the red on the other side of the A-Frame and a 6.  Some of the more conservative people started with the bottom left red, followed by 7, the top left red followed by 5, the top right red followed by 3, and the bottom right red followed by 2, 3, or 6.  A lot of people had the same plan as I did with Maxx.  Bottom left red-7c-7b-7a-top left red-7b-7a-7c-bottom right red-6b-6a-top right red-6a-6b-closing for 57 points.  I don’t remember anyone successfully getting four sevens, but I didn’t watch every run.


Snooker 5-16-09 APD

 Aside from the common faults of knocked bars, refusals, and missed contacts, the fault I saw most frequently was taking the red jump after 5 in the closing.  I’m pretty sure they were closer as built than they look on paper, and a lot of dogs overshot 5.  The handlers were at a full run from 3 to 5, which indicated extension to the dogs.  Successful handlers either got close to 5 at the same time as their dog did and were able to direct the turn, and/or used deceleration to indicate to the dog that a change in direction was coming.  Another common fault was the dog taking the bottom left red after 7b.  Those were also closer as built, I believe, and handlers that couldn’t get a cross in or pull to 7c suffered the heartbreak of seing their dogs drifting out to the red instead of completing the last element of the combination.

I hope all of you had a wonderful weekend as well!

May 18, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Course Strategy | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Standing Up For Your Dog

It’s always disturbing to me when I hear about damaging things instructors have “made” students do.  Disturbing not only because an instructor is telling a student to do whatever it is, but also because students are blindly obeying, even when they think it is not the right thing for their dog.  At times, students don’t fully understand why an instructor is doing something, but when in doubt, ask!  It is your job as an owner/partner/teammate to protect your dog from being hurt either physically or mentally.

From an instructor’s standpoint, I hate the word “can’t”.  I don’t accept “My dog can’t do that” or “I can’t perform that cross” as an answer.  My job is to push students to stretch their abilities, to help them and their dogs gain skills to make them better, and to teach them how to do things they never thought they would be able to do.  To me, “can’t” is almost always a substitute for “I haven’t learned that yet” and can be changed.  However, I am not perfect, or all-knowing.  I encourage my students to speak up if they have a concern or don’t understand something.  While I am very careful not to introduce things too fast, and to avoid doing anything that could give the dog a negative association with agility, I am not the one who lives with the dog every day and knows them the best.  Occasionally, there is a valid reason for a student not to do something I am asking them to do.  In that case, we find an alternative method to teach the same thing without it being detrimental to the dog.

Unfortunately, not all students are bold enough to question an instructor or seminar presenter, or confident enough to disagree with something they are told to do.  Not all instructors are open to being questioned about what they think are the best methods.  I’ve heard of people being told to drag their soft dog by the collar into the contact zone if the dog wasn’t getting there fast enough, to let their shy puppy participate in a play group with rambunctious, rough-playing dogs, to use a shock collar to reinforce stays, and dozens of other things that the student *knew* they shouldn’t do with their dog, but weren’t confident enough to say no to.

So, today’s “message” is to believe in yourself and stand up for your dog.  If there is something you are worried about doing with your dog, say so!  Ask your instructor why you are doing it and let them know what your concerns are.  Maybe their explanation will allay your fears, or they will reconsider and agree that your dog shouldn’t do it.  If they aren’t willing to listen and explain, go somewhere else, or if it is a seminar, skip that exercise.  There are so many methods to teach each skill that an alternative can always be found.  You know your dog best and that makes it your job to ensure that training is a fun and rewarding game, not something to be dreaded.

May 15, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Teaching Agility, Training | , , , , | 4 Comments

USDAA Trial 5/9 & 5/10/09

We went to a USDAA trial this weekend.  It was a trial fraught with injuries, including my dog and myself, unfortunately.  On Storm’s first run Sunday, she slid coming off of a jump and pulled a muscle in her shoulder.  She was lame the rest of the day, although she appears to be better today.  While I was lifting her out of the car, I felt something give in my lower back.  Oh joy, I couldn’t move Monday.  I’m guessing she will heal faster than I will!

Our weekend was fairly successful.  Maxx qualified and got first place in both Gamblers and Jumpers.  He Qd in pairs and won $21 in Performance Speed Jumping (2nd place).  Storm didn’t play on Sunday because of her shoulder, but on Saturday she Qd in Grand Prix and Qd in Advanced Pairs with a 1st place.

The PIII/Masters Jumpers course was interesting.  It presented several handling challenges to solve and could be run a variety of ways.  The yardage on the course was 142, and SCT was 37 seconds.

Masters Jumpers 5-10-09


The opening was pretty straightforward, with a serpentine into the #5 tunnel.  The serpentine was a bit straighter than it looks on paper.  Handlers were split between running it with the dog on the right and crossing between 2 and 3. 

After the tunnel, handlers picked up the dog for 6 and 7, and then had to decide how to handle 8 through 12.  Some fast handlers front crossed between 7 and 8, between 10 and 11, and again between 11 and 12.  Most of them did not manage to get all three crosses without getting in the dog’s way at least once.  Others crossed between 6 and 7 and pushed the dog out to 9 before crossing again between 10 and 11 and rear crossing before 12.  Since 12 was a triple, a few bars came down with the rear cross.  I was the oddball and picked Maxx up on my right at the exit of 5, pushed him ahead of me through 6, 7, 8, and 9, and crossed next to 8 while he was moving to 10.  I then picked him up on my left for 11 and 12. 

Jumpers 6 thru 12

Jumpers 6 thru 12 2

Jumpers 6 thru 12 3

The next section was 13 through 18.  Everyone had their dog on their left when they got to 13.  The choices after that were to front cross between 14 and 15 and again between 17 and 18, to rear cross between 15 an 16 and pull hard to 18 before rear crossing to get to 19, or to combine the two for one rear cross and one front cross.  There were a few refusals at 14 when handlers tried to cut across to 15 too aggressively and the dogs missed the jump.  Many dogs went long at 16 because the handlers were too far behind to cue 17 well.  The rear cross between 15 and 16 went well for some, but for others it caused a spin after 16 when the dogs saw jump #4.  I was the oddball again, and sent Maxx from 12 to 14 using distance.  I cut straight across from 12 to the landing side of 15, front crossed between 15 and 16, and front crossed again between 17 and 18.

Jumpers 12 thru 20

Jumpers 12 thru 20 2

Jumpers 12 thru 20 3

All in all, a fun and challenging course!

May 12, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Course Strategy | , , , , | 5 Comments

Which Program Fits Your Team?

Participating in agility trials presents an abundance of choices.  Deciding which venues to compete in will probably be your first task.  That will depend on what is available in your area, the type of dog you have, and your preferences.  (See my Venue Comparison).  After you have chosen a venue, it falls on you to determine which program is right for you and your teammate.  USDAA, NADAC, DOCNA, AKC, CPE, and TDAA all have programs designed for teams that do not want to or cannot compete in their championship division or at their normal jump height.  In addition, most of the venues have a veterans program.  Exactly what the veterans and/or performance, skilled, preferred, etc. programs entail varies by venue, but they all have reduced jump heights.  Some take the spread jumps and doubles out, and USDAA changes the height of the A-frame to soften the angle.  There are a number of factors that should impact your choice. 

Conformation.  Very straight-shouldered, long-backed, or heavily-built (not fat) dogs might benefit from the reduction in height that the performance/preferred/skilled division offers.  Well-built dogs in good condition should have no problem with the higher jumps. 

Health.  Obviously, you should not be playing agility with an unhealthy dog, but for dogs with manageable health problems (kidney disease for example), or dogs that have had successful orthopedic surgery, the performance division might be the way to go. 

Speed.  If after extensive training to learn how to tighten your lines and get your dog motivated, your dog is still missing course time by fractions of a second, and you are interested in tangible rewards (which most people are), the extra time that the preferred division offers may allow you to earn those Qs.  Speedy dogs usually have problems with off-courses or missed contacts rather than difficulty executing full-height jumps or making time! 

Height.  If your dog is a fraction of an inch over the cutoff for the next height division, you need to decide if your dog’s best interests would be served by putting them in the performance division so they can jump at a lower height.  Jumping higher may not be detrimental to your dog (no studies have proven that it is or isn’t), but it is definitely more physically demanding. Conversely, for a dog that is comfortably over the cutoff, the lower jumps might encourage them to jump flat, causing more concussion on the landing.

Goals.  If your goal is to be successful at the national or international levels, or you are determined to earn an ADCH rather than an APD, you will have to participate in the championship/proficient/competition division.   If your goal is to play with your dog and have a good time at local trials, you may choose the slightly less stringent standards the performance division offers. 

Age.  It is difficult to think about your dog being a veteran, but in order to let them play the game comfortably, you have to consider making things easier for them.  If your dog is a veteran, you can take advantage of the veteran or performance divisions (and sometimes both).  For dogs that have been playing for a long time, the performance program can be a way to ease them from the full-out physically demanding form of agility to one that is made a bit easier by lowering the jump heights, removing spread jumps, and easing the angle of the frame.

 For the record, both of my dogs are in the Championship or equivalent division of the venues I participate in except USDAA.  There I have one dog in Championship and one dog in Performance.  My performance dog measures 16.25” – ¼” over the height cutoff to jump 16”.  Rather than make him jump 22” in only one venue, I decided to put him in performance.  He still has to compete with the Border Collies and he’s got the shortest legs in the class :-), but I did not want to ask him to jump higher than his head.  With some of the top handlers and dogs in the country in my area putting their older dogs in performance, that class isn’t any less competitive than the Championship class!

Choosing a division or program should not be based on intangible things like whether it is “respected” or not, or what people will think about you as a team.  Consideration should be given to the factors outlined above.  Priority should be given to making the game safe and fun for your dog.  At the end of the day, it is up to you to decide which division is best for your team.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Agility Venues | , , , | Leave a comment

Tip Of The Day – Feeding Before Trials Or Classes

There are many varying opinions on whether to feed or not before trials or classes.  Dogs are individuals and the decision should be made based on the dog, not the “conventional wisdom”.  My preference is to feed my dogs half of their normal ration.  That way they have some “fuel on board” but they aren’t running on a full stomach and are still motivated by food.  The other reason I do this is because there are some dogs that become SO focused on food when they are hungry, training sessions become unproductive.

May 7, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Training | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Comparison of Agility Venues

Every competitor has their favorite venue.  Usually, it is the one they are most successful in.  Some people train skills specific to a particular venue, and therefore favor it.   I firmly believe in a balanced agility dog.  I want a dog that has the skills to compete in any venue, whether the courses are open and flowing, or tight and technical.  We don’t train “for AKC” or “for NADAC”.  We train for every conceivable course configuration students are likely to encounter.  When students ask which venue they should compete in, the answer is never quick and easy.  It depends on their goals, abilities, and personality, along with the personality and ability of the dog.

I don’t disparage venues that I don’t compete in.  Every venue has its pros and cons.  Some people classify venues as “harder” or “easier”, but my opinion is that to excel in each venue, you have to possess a specific set of skills.  Those who criticize particular organizations either dislike the way they are managed, or do not possess (or want to possess) the skills to be as successful there.

In our area, AKC, NADAC, DOCNA, and USDAA are popular; UKC and TDAA are also available, though less popular.  The first four venues are the ones I have first-hand experience with and are therefore the ones I will be comparing.   I know that in other areas CPE and ASCA are popular.  Maybe I’ll research them for a future post.

I’ll start with the venue I am most familiar with, which is NADAC.  NADAC offers open, flowing courses, a relaxed atmosphere, and numerous games.  Typically, a club will offer five or six runs per day.  Course times are very tight, and there is an emphasis placed on speed and distance.  For example, at the elite level, in the distance class, dogs are expected to work up to 30’ away from their handlers.  Teams that are fast, energetic, and can work at a distance will excel here. 

Pros:  Generally, trials are friendly and relaxed, competitors are helpful, there are no long waiting periods between classes, and dogs love being able to open up and really run.  All dogs are allowed to play, including mixed-breeds and some physically handicapped dogs.  Divisions are offered for those who cannot or do not want to jump full height and for veterans. 

Cons:  There are very few handling challenges in the courses aside from getting fault-free performances at speed, and some dogs are not able to maintain their energy or focus for that many runs per day.  Some people feel that it is difficult to “rein in” a dog once they have learned to run extended on open courses.

Necessary skills:  Teams must have independent obstacle performance, be able to find weave entries at high speed, and need to maintain contact criteria when running full-out.  In addition, the distance game requires the dogs to work further away than other venues.  Discriminations are a common course challenge.  Finally, dogs must be able to safely perform obstacles and judge jumps when running at high speed. 

The next venue to discuss is USDAA.  USDAA, in my opinion, is the most physically demanding venue for the dog.  They have the highest jump heights, the highest A-frame, the shortest contact zones, and relatively tight times.  Courses are usually fairly technical and an emphasis is placed on speed and precision.  They offer several runs per day, including strategy games.  Teams that are in top physical condition and that like a challenge will enjoy in this venue.  This is also the venue to compete in if the goal is international competition. 

Pros:  There are no long waiting periods between classes, the courses are challenging, and the games are fun.  Refusals at the higher levels ensure that a smooth run is required to qualify.  All dogs are allowed to play, including mixed-breeds.  Divisions are offered for those who cannot or do not want to jump full height or for veterans. 

Cons:  Some dogs are not able to maintain their energy or focus for multiple runs per day.  The courses can be overly challenging for brand new competitors with new dogs.  The atmosphere can sometimes be overly-competitive and intimidating for new people. 

Necessary skills:  Teams must be able to switch between extension and collection, must have the ability to turn sharply after obstacles, and the dogs must be in good physical shape.  Moderate distance skills are required for the distance game.  Good contact skills are necessary because of the shorter contact zone.  Discriminations are frequently used elements in USDAA courses, as are wraps and difficult weave entries.

I do not personally participate in AKC, but many of our students do.  AKC is known for highly technical courses, with generous times and moderate jump heights.  They offer two or three runs per day, with one strategy/distance game.  Teams who enjoy solving multiple handling puzzles will enjoy AKC.

 Pros:  The courses are technically challenging and refusals ensure that a smooth run is required to qualify at the higher levels.  Reasonable jump heights and times allow dogs who are not speed demons to qualify if they have the skills required to complete the courses.  The preferred division is offered for those who cannot or do not want to jump full height or for veterans. 

Cons:  The wait times between runs can be long.  Only purebreds are allowed to play, although AKC is changing that policy in 2010.   The atmosphere can sometimes be overly-competitive and intimidating for new people.  Trials are more formal than most other venues, which is a pro to some competitors.  Some people believe that AKC courses are unreasonably hard on bigger dogs because of the tight turns and changes of direction. 

Necessary skills:  Teams must be able to turn sharply after obstacles, run collected for sequences, and the handlers must have very good technical skills.  Discriminations are frequently used elements in AKC courses, as are wraps and difficult weave entries.  Threadles and 270s are fairly common elements as well.

DOCNA is a relatively new venue.  DOCNA combines flowing courses with some technical challenges in a relaxed atmosphere.  The course times are relatively tight.  Clubs typically offer 5 or 6 runs per day, including some strategy games.  Teams that enjoy challenges but don’t like the sudden turns and abrupt stops will enjoy DOCNA.

Pros:  There are no long waiting periods between classes.   The courses provide a good balance of flow and technical challenges and the games are fun.  All dogs are allowed to play, including mixed-breeds and some physically handicapped dogs.  Divisions are offered for those who cannot or do not want to jump full height and for veterans.

Cons:  Some dogs are not able to maintain their energy and focus for multiple runs.  The venue may not be challenging enough for those who like extremely technical courses. 

Necessary skills:  Dogs must be able to switch between running collected and running extended.  DOCNA courses frequently have contact to tunnel flips in them as well as discriminations.  They also use wraps, serpentines, and sequences that encourage the dog to build speed before having to collect for the weaves.  A moderate amount of distance is required for the distance game.

 Deciding on a venue is a very individual choice.  Each person has to determine what their goals are and what they enjoy.  Tastes can change over an agility career as well, with people desiring more technical challenges, or looking for a venue that will allow their veteran to play with minimal physical impact.  Hopefully this comparison will give you a starting point for your research so you can make the right decision for your team.  Happy trialing!

May 6, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Agility Venues | , , , , , | 14 Comments

NADAC Trial May 1 – 3

We enjoyed our first outdoor trial of the year this past weekend.  My son sprained his ankle, so I ended up running all three dogs on Friday and Saturday.  He hobbled through 4 of the 5 runs on Sunday with Emma.  I had a good time running his dog.  She is as fast as, if not faster than, my two dogs.

I don’t find NADAC as challenging as some of the other venues as far as handling is concerned.  However, it does take a different set of skills to be able to successfully complete a course when the dogs are running full-out.  Weave entries and contacts definitely become more challenging.  It is always fun to test our distance skills as well, since the distances in other venues are much shorter.  I stick with it because my dogs love it so much.  You can see how happy they are when they are flying through the courses.

Maxx qualified in 8 of 13 runs.  Our retrained contacts are definitely not trial ready, so I wasn’t expecting much.  He actually hit the yellow more than I thought he would.  

Storm qualified in 7 of 13 runs.  She finished her Superior Novice Weavers title, her Open Touch N Go title, and her Superior Open Jumpers title.  She had some smoking fast runs.  Both Maxx and Storm had jumpers and tunnelers runs that were 6+ yards per second.

I’ve linked to some video below.  There is one run of Emma’s, three of Maxx’s, and three of Storm’s.

Emma NADAC 5/09

Storm NADAC 5/09

Maxx NADAC 5/09

May 5, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Course Strategy | , , , , | 4 Comments

Balance For Beginning Agility Students

Instructors are faced with some difficult decisions when planning the curriculum for a basic agility class.  Every brand new student comes in with preconceived notions of what an agility class is.  Most people think the majority of the time will be spent teaching the dog how to navigate obstacles.  Many expect to be running courses within a few weeks!  They normally have no understanding of how important foundation is to having a successful agility career.  If students aren’t getting to play on the obstacles with their dogs, they may lose interest or go somewhere that will let them perform the obstacles without providing the foundation.  Knowing how important flatwork and relationship work is to the future, good instructors cringe at that thought.  The way some instructors solve the dilemma is by only accepting students that are experienced competitors or making prospective students take a flatwork or “obedience for agility” course before beginning agility.  Others are able to find a balance by incorporating foundation into the first session and continuing with it throughout all the class levels.

My first lesson for beginning agility starts off with a discussion of operant conditioning.  Our job is, after all, to teach the students how to teach their dogs.  I bring Maxx and a clicker out and show them how easy it is to teach something when you have a dog offering a million different behaviors.  I will ask what basic obedience behaviors everyone already has, and show them how to teach a sit, a folding down, and beginning stay if they don’t already have one.  Then comes the part everyone has been waiting for – we bring out the tunnel and in a very short time, the dogs are doing their first obstacle!  After more foundation, a couple of passes through the open WAMs, and an introduction to the ladder or buja board, the students leave the class with a sense of accomplishment and I get to set the tone for the rest of the 8-week session.  The students understand that we do some foundation work, review what we have done in earlier classes, and introduce a new obstacle or two.  At the end of eight weeks, they have been exposed to weave poles (WAMs), tunnels, the chute, a very low jump, low table, and the tire on the ground.  More importantly, they have learned a slew of “tricks” that are the basis of their foundation, played relationship games, learned how to shape a 2O/2O contact position, overcome any fear their dog has of motion and noise by “banging” the low teeter, and have begun to figure out how to truly communicate with their teammate.

With some thought and planning, beginning agility classes can offer a balance of foundation, relationship, and obstacle training.  Most students are willing to spend time on foundation if they are told how the “tricks” relate to their future handling.  Students that are impatient and want to jump ahead can be dealt with using good humor and solid reasoning, but the majority of students gain an understanding of the importance of foundation and patiently wait for the full-sized contacts, upright weaves, and long sequences.  With some effort on the part of the instructor, it is possible to change the expectations of the students without losing excitement and motivation, and to have a balanced beginning class.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Teaching Agility, Training | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tip Of The Day – Driving Through The Last Obstacle

Always make sure you drive through the last obstacle to the finish line.  One technique is to choose an imaginary point after the last obstacle to run to.  It is important because crossing the finish line stops the clock in games like Snooker and Snakes N Ladders.  Also, many dogs will drop the last bar if the handler slows down or pulls up short.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Course Strategy | , , , | 1 Comment