Course Reviewer

As I prepare for the TDAA Judges Clinic in Washingtonville, Ohio in the upcoming week I must sit down and collect my thoughts on goals and objectives for the clinic. Aside from teaching and testing new and current judges, I’ll be working with two current judges to join our Judge Advocate Corps. This is a new designation for a panel of judges, whose responsibilities shall include, among other things, attending to the course review process.


This is a drawing Nancy Krouse-Culley did of me about a dozen years ago or so of me standing out there as a judge. She never really tried to make me prettier’n I really am. And the scary thing is that I ain’t getting any prettier.

I have assigned homework to the two judges who are applying for the last two Judge Advocate chairs. They are to review a suite of courses for upcoming TDAA trials. This is real work that has to be done. I’ve asked to look at their comments before they send it back to the respective judges.

In the following discussion I’m switching voice to talk to the TDAA course reviewer as the Audience of this document.

Code of Conduct

Over the years I’ve worked with course reviewers in many agility organizations and have a fairly clear idea of what makes a magnificent course reviewer and what makes a horrible course reviewer. And since I get to define the process for the TDAA and provide oversight, then I reckon I have some obligation to steer our course reviewers towards the magnificent and away from the horrible. Eh?

Be a teacher not a micromanager

Our judges can not learn if you do everything for them. Please avoid ever redesigning a judge’s course or game. Try to use phraseology like “Consider doing something like this” if you want to draw an example of a sequence.

Gently remind the judge of adherence to the rules, or safety issues, or appropriateness of challenge.

Don’t be rude

Oh boy I could tell you some stories about monstrous behavior on the part of course reviewers. Let me make this really simple for you: if you are rude and over-bearing to our judges you will not continue to represent the TDAA as a Judge Advocate. The judges are our life blood. They do a lot of work and frankly deserve respect and kindly treatment.

Be clear about your expectations

Put a MUST FIX notation on a course if it has to be fixed. Give the judge a timeline for redesigning courses. Tell the judge if you want to see the courses again and when you need to see them. Just be clear.

Have an open mind

Oh boy I could tell you some stories about some of the great course reviewers I’ve had over the years. Stuart Mah comes to mind. He told me once on a course I submitted to him. “That’s kind of interesting. It’s not something I would have considered doing. Let me know how it goes.”

The key thing to remember is to allow the judge and course designer to be creative and have a style of his own. Don’t insinuate your own bias for challenge and flow on the judge’s design. The delicate issue here is challenge. Is the challenge really too soft or too hard?

Objectives of the task

You need to be very clear about one thing… the clock is ticking. The judge needs to get his courses to you in a timely manner so that you have ample time to review his courses and return them so that he has ample time to make whatever revisions you require. Notice the repeated use of the word “ample”.

The trial judge relies on your expertise and your canny eye to flag anything that needs fixing. Here’s a very straight-forward list of your high-level objectives.

Documents the Judge should provide to you

  • Trial Premium / Running Order – You must know what games are going to be played at the trial and the order that they are being played. Otherwise it’s impossible to know whether the courses are adequately nested. Note that sometimes the trial premium does not provide the true running order. Try to be very clear on this point.
  • Equipment list and facility drawing – This is information that should have been provided to the judge by the host club. And the judge needs to share it with you. Please note that it’s not enough to say “dogwalk” in an equipment list. You should also know the dimensions of the dogwalk. While the TDAA prefers equipment of the diminutive TDAA dimensions we do allow the full-size big-dog equipment used in other venues so long as the equipment can be adjusted for TDAA slope requirements. The judge will be embarrassed by the use of a dogwalk 8′ in his drawings when the club has actually provided a dogwalk with 12′ planks.Take note of the raw count of jumps and pipe tunnels. This basic information should be in the back of your head as you look at all of the courses for the weekend.
  • Courses – Ideally you will receive by email attachment courses in .cdr (Clean Run Course Designer) format. Try to steer the judge to a file naming convention that reflects running order, level, class, and date of running. For example: 08SupStd021509.cdr should contain the eighth class which is Superior Standard run on February 15, 2009. You’ll thank me for this advice later.
  • Games Briefings – Every game played will require a briefing. This is your opportunity to see if the judge actually understands the game he is going to be judging. More on this, below.

Flow and Challenge

These elements of the course are described in some detail in the TDAA Judges Guidelines. You should be familiar with this document as it is your essential resource for understanding the scope of your review duties.

We do not have arbitrary set-points for a given number of challenges or number of types of challenges required at any level. Agility organizations that approach the problem in this manner wind up with rather ham-handed kludges that are unkindly to dogs and handlers. Instead we will seek a zen-like gestalt in which the judge gets to explore his own inner riddler.

At the same time it is your job to ensure that the judge does not take it upon himself to create rather ham-handed kludges that are unkindly to dogs and handlers. In these manners you will provide direction.

Flow in general can be defined as releasing the dog to work at his best speed. Events that choke back on the dog’s speed are: use of technical obstacles, the table, and turns. The extent to which a dog’s speed is choked back is compounded by degree of turn. For example a 15° shift in the dog’s path requires almost no brakes; but a 180° will require the dog to either put on the brakes, come to a full stop and turn back, or range very widely in his turning radius.

Issues of Safety

Be constantly mindful of course design events that might be unsafe for dogs:

  • Angled approaches to contact obstacles or the tire
  • Jumping the dog into walls or other equipment that fail to provide adequate real estate to effect a safe turn
  • Presenting the corner of the table on the dog’s approach

Watch out for those TDAA judges. A bunch of them run dogs with legs that are only 4̎ long. They’ll put up toy box courses for dinky little dogs that have ridiculously small turning radii and can barely comprehend how much room a big our big dogs jumping 12̎ and 16̎ needs to turn. Gently guide them to putting a little air in their courses.

Appropriate to level

This is probably well defined in the TDAA Judges Guidelines. Please observe a caveat against over-meddling when approaching this task. Part of the larger riddle will be to have well-nested courses. So if you require the judge to move a bunch of equipment around to satisfy the litmus of appropriateness… then you’ve probably failed yourself and the judge in the nesting task.

Approach this task as though you were solving a puzzle. Find another line using the set of equipment. Don’t be too shy about giving an obstacle or two a rotation to accommodate a new line or to make the challenge appropriate for level.


Entry and exits should be well defined. It would be a great idea for the next dog on line to be able to approach the first obstacle in order to set up and be ready to go while the dog on course is finishing up. Avoid any chance of conflict between the two dogs. Please note that if the first jump on course is also a wrong-course option to the dog finishing course… then you really haven’t accomplished this task.

With certain games it sometime difficult to determine where a dog will finish or where the next handler wants to begin, especially when you’re using a common start & finish line. But if these things can be defined without sacrificing the integrity of the game (by limiting options, for example) then you should endeavor to see that the judge does so.

Required (and available) equipment in use

The equipment required at every level is specified in the TDAA Rules and Regulations. If you haven’t committed this to memory (are you kidding?) then you should have the list of required equipment at hand when you’re reviewing courses.

Please familiarize yourself with the available equipment as well. If the club has only 10 jumps then it would be a mistake for a course to have 12 jumps in it. Right?


Refer to my discussion of nesting in my blog post: This goes double true for the TDAA. It is not out of the question for a TDAA judge to put up 15 leveled courses in a single day. Clever nesting will make the day go faster.

We have an opportunity in the TDAA to do Perfect Nesting to a greater extent than other agility organizations. With games, for example, it’s completely possible to have every level run exactly the same course (and therefore you can brief them all at once and let them all walk… at once). You should endeavor to help the judge find these opportunities for perfect nesting.

Watch for failed opportunities for nesting between games and standard courses. There are many games that call for a “random distribution of obstacles” (This includes games like Gamblers, What’s My Line, Dare to Double, Group Choice… and a much longer list). So why would the judge move a bunch of equipment around to create the new game?

There’s an argument that if you play a game with the same set of equipment used for the standard course to follow, some players will use the game to practice the standard course. If you believe this, you’re really being too mental. In the first place, the strategy of many games will not allow the linear thinking of the standard course (consider Last of the Mohicans, for example). But you could also require the judge to rotate a one-directional obstacle like the collapsed tunnel or the teeter to thwart that very sort of thing.

Watch for the practice of some judges to remove the first obstacle or two, or the last obstacle or two to satisfy leveling and nesting. In theory it could work. But challenges mid-course might have to be softened if leveling down; or toughened up if leveling up.

Watch for the practice of reversing a course (ala NADAC) to achieve nesting. In theory it could work, and often does. Watch for safety issues that might be created. Don’t be shy about rotating some equipment…. Or even finding a new line..

Games Briefings

This is your opportunity to see if the judge really understands the game he’ll be judging. Remember our first rule: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Unlike other agility organizations who have comfortably practiced their tiny suites of games… the TDAA can play any game imaginable.

It will be impossible for me to be comprehensive on this topic in this space. I could write for 20 pages rather effortlessly, and not cover everything. Let’s boil it down to the basics:

  • Is the strategy made clear to the exhibitor? We look for the game briefing to be attached to the course map. The exhibitor should be able to fathom the game and work out his strategy in advance of the actual briefing. If the briefing is so unclear that a strategy cannot be developed, the briefing may be a long and tedious affair.
  • Is the qualifying criteria well defined? This should be made clear to both the exhibitor and to the score-keeping table. Your job will be to ascertain whether the qualifier is doable… and frankly that it is challenging enough to not give away the farm.
  • Can the game be perfect nested? Obviously it’s highly desirable to allow the game to stand for all levels without moving equipment around, doing three separate briefings, and three separate walk-throughs. Note that qualifying criteria, and time on course could be used to differentiate the levels.
  • Is the qualifying criteria appropriate to level? This can be tough to ascertain. Remember that G1 is a Beginner dog; his qualification should be based on his ability to work through about as many obstacles as he would in a Beginner course in about the same time he’d be required to do the Beginner course. Use the same logic for G2 (Intermediate) and G3 (Superior) and you should be fine.It’s not a bad practice to take the judges course and plot out your own strategy for solving the game. Do this for each level and you’ll get a good feeling for whether the judge’s qualifying criteria is reasonable.
  • Do we know how the game starts and stops? This needs to be clear to both the exhibitor and to the time-keeper. Be mindful of whether the start and stop criteria allows the efficient conduct of the ring.Be alert to unkindly use of the finish line. A judge might specify, for example that “the finish line is active at all times” (see variations, below). This is unkindly and not very thoughtful. In the game FAST the finish obstacle is unambiguous for a very compelling and thoughtful reason. If lack of ambiguity is the judge’s goal, then a similar convention can be applied (and frankly the finish obstacle might be avoided in the handler’s strategy like any wrong-course obstacle). Avoid having a big invisible line making a mess of the handler’s honest strategy.
  • What is the scoring basis? The judge must know and define how a game will be scored. A standard course, for example, is Faults then Time. A jumpers course might also be Faults then Time; but it could also be Time Plus Faults. Gamblers is Points Then Time. Twelve Tone Row is Points Plus Bonus Less Faults then Time. The scoring basis must be reported to the exhibitor and to the scorekeeping table.
  • How does the judge communicate with the scribe? The judge needs to be very clear on how he will signal faults, bonuses, points… anything that the scribe has to record. You’ll note that any game that requires the judge to call out anything… will be prone to scribing errors. Sometimes this sort of system is integral to the game; sometimes it can be avoided. A good example of this is What’s My Line. Some judges will assign a number to every obstacle and call out numbers as the dog runs his course. Scribing errors can have terrible consequence in such a game. Encourage the judge to use a mind like a steel trap system. This means he will report the overall score to the scribe as the dog finishes his run.
  • Is placement clear and unencumbered by tie-breaking snafus? Placement should be largely derived from the scoring basis. Be mindful that any game with a finite number of possible scores will result in ties in scores. So there should be adequate provisions to break the tie. Most games will have a “then time” provision which is recorded at the 1/100th of a second to help sort out the bodies.
  • If the game is a variation, does the variation add interest or is it arbitrary? One of the chief warning flags that a judge doesn’t understand the play of the game is when the game has drifted from the classic version of the game (if there is one). The judge will often explain “Oh, this is a variation”. Please note that any variation should add interest to the game. For example Dan Dege’s Cuckoo variation of Beat the Clock makes the closing of the game exciting, challenging, at just a bit risky. Many variations are documented in the Clean Run Book of Agility Games available at variations are simply lazy of mind. The judge should not change a game simply because they haven’t bothered to properly understand it.
  • Is the briefing complete for the conduct of the game? Remember that the briefing is not just an exhibitors briefing. You also want to see briefing notes for the time-keeper, the scribe, and the scorekeeping table.

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: And Check out my new publication the Idea BookAgility Training for a Small Universe available at


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