Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

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 | , , , , ,


  1. I think this is a very good summation and very helpful. This post just totally convinced me to not participate in a venue I actually thought I’d start in initially. Thanks.

    Comment by Jackie | May 7, 2009 | Reply

    • Really? It’s interesting that you put it that way. I was hoping to help people decide what venue they *would* like to participate or start in, not dissuade them from participating in a particular venue.

      Comment by lorriemaxx | May 7, 2009 | Reply

  2. A nice summary of those 4 venues. I’d add the following comments to each.

    Pro – Tunnelers for those tunnel crazy dogs. Slatless A-frame. No Table.
    Con – No strategy games. No teeter. Hoopers. Rules tend to change constantly. Championship courses/rules even more.

    Overall my third favorite venue.

    Pro – Snooker & Gamblers. You can actually win money in Steeplechase. All courses make you work to get a Q.

    Con – Running against 40 wicked fast BC’s in Masters 22″.

    Overall my second favorite venue

    Pro – None, only do 1 trial a year.
    Con – Just not as much fun as the other venues. Expensive.

    Overall my least favorite venue.

    Pro – Sort of a USDAA/NADAC mix.
    Con – No trials in the East.

    Overall – Good venue, but little interest in the East.

    Pro – If you liked the old NADAC, you’ll love ASCA. More wide open than USDAA with slightly more handling required than NADAC. Very laid back trials. PreNovice division for beginners.

    Con – Up to six runs per day, which is too many for some dogs. No Snooker. May not be many trials in some areas.

    Overall my favorite venue.


    Pro – Best venue for beginners. Can still Q even with multiple faults. Easy to get titles. At higher levels, courses are challenging.
    Con – Two many games. Colors & Full House aren’t the greatest stategy games.

    Overall my fourth favorite venue.

    My current dog has advanced titles in all six venues, however this year we’re doing mostly ASCA & USDAA trials with the occasional NADAC & CPE trial thrown in.

    Comment by Jon | May 7, 2009 | Reply

  3. Since Vega gets so excited when running and then we struggle to get reined in again. So after reading your post I decided Nadac probably won’t be the place I want to start with her since it has nice wide open running courses. I want to make sure she has control well in hand first before she gets to fly so now I’m thinking we’ll start with Docna. It seems to have a nice combination of the tougher handling courses and the open running courses. So I guess you did help me decide where to start by helping me decide where not to.

    Comment by Jackie | May 7, 2009 | Reply

    • Jackie,

      Be careful in your quest for control that you don’t lose the excitement. All you may need to do is to train Vega to be able to focus on you even if she is excited. The Control Unleashed DVD’s/books have some good information on training focus.


      Comment by Jon | May 8, 2009 | Reply

  4. I play in USDAA, CPE, ASCA, and DOCNA, and I agree with Jon’s comments about CPE and ASCA. Here in the Midwest, CPE is a very popular “fun” venue that is wonderful for new teams and people who value a warm, supportive atmosphere. And the wide assortment of games keeps things interesting. I enjoy playing in CPE, and it was an ideal place to start.

    I like ASCA because it is open and flowing. It doesn’t require as much technical handling skill as USDAA, but because course times are pretty tight, a flubbed cross or other error that makes you have to stop and regroup may well cost you a Q. Although refusals are not faulted, it is important to run smoothly to make course time. And their Gamblers courses tend to be more more challenging than CPE’s Jackpot class.

    I also enjoy DOCNA. It reminds me of CPE with tighter course times. I really love DOCNA games.

    I like all four venues, but I find myself gravitating a bit more to USDAA with my second dog because my skills and hers are improving, and I want to really challenge myself.

    On agility lists, newbies would often post asking “Which agility venue is the best?” but it’s just the wrong question to ask. The only foolproof way to find out whether a venue is a good fit and fun for you and your dog is to try it, or at least go and watch a trial!

    Comment by Amanda | May 7, 2009 | Reply

  5. What a great list and good information. I enjoy both AKC and USDAA (for different reasons). It’s funny, the USDAA only competitors tell me that the AKC folks are too snobby and the AKC only competitors tell me that the USDAA folks are too scary-competitive.

    Comment by Morganne | May 8, 2009 | Reply

  6. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Which Program Fits Your Team? « Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog | May 8, 2009 | Reply

  7. I am most successful in NADAC, but like AKC better. For those of us who can only compete occasionally, NADAC changes the rules far too often.

    As far as too many classes for some dogs, I do not consider that a con. If the handler cannot skip a class (even if entered) when their dog is tired or stressed,etc., the handler needs an attitude adjustment.

    Comment by Elaine | November 26, 2009 | Reply

  8. Great info!

    Unfortunately, I’m still undecided about starting in USDAA. I currently compete in ASCA and AKC and have had several people tell me we should add USDAA to our list of venues.

    I’m leery: I took a few classes when just starting out, with USDAA competitors who were not the most helpful, friendly people. This was in a class; I can’t imagine what they’re like during trials.

    I don’t honestly like the technicality of the AKC trials and would like to find something more open and flowing. I haven’t found that in ASCA, at least not in the Elite class. They seem to have the same sudden turns out of jumps as AKC does.

    We had one NADAC trial (quite a drive as they aren’t in this area anymore) and qualified. They would probably be my favorite, even with all the changes, if available.

    I’m looking for: flowing courses, reasonable jump heights, and friendly people. Not having to drive too far (I’m in the DFW area) would be a plus.

    Comment by Laurie | December 15, 2009 | Reply

    • You would probably really like DOCNA. I don’t think it has caught on much Texas yet, but when/if it does, be sure to give it a try.

      Comment by lorriemaxx | December 15, 2009 | Reply

  9. Very informative blog, found one piece from a google search and browsed ther rest to much benefit.

    Different jump height requirements of the venue can make a difference as to which one is the best choice.
    My standard schnauzer is just barely under 18 inches. In AKC over 18 and she would jump at 20 inch bars instead of 16. CPE would have still have her jumping 16 inch. I would be reluctant to compete at 20 inch jumps so if she had gone over for AKC I would have gone with CPE.

    Due to time and costs constraints I tend to focus my efforts on AKC that said I still do CPE when the home town clubs have a trial.

    AKC (my primary venue)
    pro – structured and well documented. Titles and rules fairly easy to learn and understand. Lots of trials available in the area (S.E. Mich.). I could easily trial twice a month most months without staying in motel. Novice and Open are fairly close to the same level of course challenge just fewer faults allowed.

    con – Breeders tend to be more serious about performance as it reflects the success/failure of their breeding efforts this changes the atmosphere. As mentioned before sitting all day for just a couple of runs. Exellent class is crowded, three Novice Q’s, three Open Q’s and the rest of your career is spent running that type of course in Exellent. Crowded to the point of doing walk-through as two groups. No day of show sign-up, typicallly you must plan a month or more in advance.

    CPE (my for fun venue, and where I started)
    pro – lots of runs! Always open trial with full house, great way to get the zoomies out as you plan your own course. Colors tends to be a nice short fast fun run. Very friendly atmosphere and diverse group. Placement ribbon even for non-Q which is nice for younger or first time handlers. Mostly the same equipment and faults as AKC so same training, except table does not require a pause in CPE it stops the clock, I just treat it as a pause while I walk to the leash. Has Class-1 which is easier than Novice AKC making it a good place for a successful start. Again lots of trials in my area, if my schedule won’t allow me to do AKC I can probably find a CPE event I can attend. Less expensive per run and tends to have reduced day or week-end rate for all runs. Day of tial sign up is often possible.

    con – confusing to learn all the game rules and title requirements. So in snooker…??? easily the most asked question after where is the bathroom or dog run. I can not put my finger on exactly how but the courses “feel” different, maybe a bit more flowing.

    double edged sword – Five classes allows more “even” competition and smaller steps up in challenge. But It takes a lot of Q’s and runs to move up into the next one of five classes. To clear all requirements of class three takes something like 30 Q’s on class three courses. I would actually put the number of games here too. Pain to learn them all but there are enough differences between the skills needed for the different games that you can focus on doing those that suit you and your dog the best, and work on gaining the skills for the others as you wish.

    Overheard at an AKC Agility trial – I like the way people are not all bitchy the way they are at conformation. So I guess it depends on what expectations one has or just the people in your area as to how friendly things are. I have found folks to be supportive in both venues. Just a little more serious in AKC.

    Comment by Roger | April 20, 2011 | Reply

  10. Thanks so much for this; this is exactly the comparisons I’ve been looking for. My dog and I have done DOCNA and NADAC so far, and we plan to do a CPE coming up. DOCNA is definitely my favorite. I would love to do ASCA, but there’s none in my city. I’ve been wondering about AKC and USDAA, but this article has made me realize I shouldn’t do either of them yet. My dog is still pretty green and a bit wild and inconsistent, and I appreciate the patience DOCNA has for beginners. I’m hoping CPE is the same way.

    For anyone out there wondering more about DOCNA, I highly recommend it to anyone fairly new to competing. They allow training in the ring, they always give you your full time, everyone is super nice and offers helpful tips to beginners, courses have a nice flow with a fair amount of handling challenges, and they have lots of strategic game classes, which are fun–like Gamblers, Strategic Time Gamblers, Snakes and Ladders, and Trigility. The only one I don’t really like is Jumpers, because in DOCNA Jumpers is jumps only (no tunnels, hoops, or weaves), and my dog finds this boring and I have trouble keeping his attention.

    Comment by Kristen | July 20, 2011 | Reply

  11. all the time i used to read smaller articles or reviews that
    as well clear their motive, and that is also happening with this piece
    of writing which I am reading at this time.

    Comment by Amber | April 19, 2013 | Reply

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