Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

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

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