I have for a long time been a student of this game. And I’ve pretty much developed an eye that can discern from a snapshot picture of a team a considerable amount of information related to type of dog; training foundation; and handler skill. Yes, from a single snapshot I can typically recount much of the background movie.
There is a specific formula to the World Class team. And trust me the top players in dog agility are very well-versed in each of these elements. Otherwise, they could not be top players at all:
Great dog – It is a poor workman who blames his tools. But it is inescapable that in order to compete at a world-class level the dog must be a world-class athlete. The dog must be structurally sound; mentally keen; incredibly driven to work; and built for the work of cutting and turning.
An excellent training foundation – It probably doesn’t matter how good the dog is if he has not been trained to understand his job. The elements of training should include: independent obstacle performance; obedience for agility, and a system for cuing performance.
A savvy handler – The handler’s skill is the final and decisive element of the great agility team. I write exhaustively about what constitutes good handling. But given the first two elements of this short list, the great handler will be quick, timely, economical, bold, and well-rehearsed in the qualities of his movement.
In watching any top flight competition, whether it be FCI World Team or the USDAA Nationals, what distinguishes those who make it to the winners circle is typically the keenness of the handler.
I’ve considered from time to time shopping me a world-class dog (or three). It just about doesn’t matter that I can have the second two elements of the formula if I don’t have the first. But I have resisted. While the number of players seeking to satisfy the formula for World Class play is constantly growing, the vast majority of dogs playing agility are the family animal.
While I could certainly coach a world class player to play his or her best game I’m more and more reconciled to the notion that my place in the world is teaching the majority of players in the world how to get the best out of their play. I reject the notion that a dog is merely a tool and the necessary requirement for my validation in the world.
The schism in dog agility between world class and family animal is a deepening chasm. I’ve worked fairly hard this past year on the paradigm of the recreational player in my contribution to the development of C-WAGS agility rules. While most agility organizations pander to the top 10% of players; we need venues that are designed specifically for the other 90%. We won’t actually get the other 90%; that’s for sure. A healthy percentage of players in dog agility fool themselves on a daily basis, not understanding that they need the three elements of the formula (great dog, an excellent training foundation, a savvy handler)… or not realizing that they don’t actually have all three.
Dancing on the Head of a Pin
I was challenged by the recent TDAA trial in Racine, WI to design a suite of agility courses that fit in a 40′ by 80′ space. While this course is kind of fun and challenging, it really isn’t a great design. The biggest error that I made was the start and finish on the same jump, which turned out to be a major drag on the conduct of the ring. I actually knew this when I designed it, but I pictured myself judging a couple dozen dogs and figured we’d work through the design conflict with bare notice. Boy, I was wrong about that.
Can you spot another error in the course (TDAA judges)?
After the trial I had a conversation with one of the exhibitors who noted that the TDAA doesn’t seem to attract top players in our sport. I agree. It’s frankly too hard for them. The little errors they make on courses designed for big dogs can be corrected in the fast expanses of real estate between the obstacles. In the TDAA, however, they’d just better be spot on, otherwise they can’t succeed.
When I come back from a weekend of TDAA play my game is ultimately sharper. It’s a terrific warm-up that puts a keen edge on the handler’s timing and sense of movement.
On or Off the Shelf?
I’ve been guilty lately of getting too technical in my lesson plans. I have to acknowledge that I have some rather intermediate students coming up. So my curriculum should not be designed for the top 10%. I played with this rather technical sequencing as an idea for upcoming lesson planning. But I’m not too sure that I’m actually going to use it.
One of the things that I’d really like for my students to understand is basic pre-cue information for a dog to do the tight and twisty turning bits that we’re often called to do in agility. Consider for example the opening of this sequence. If we rely on physics alone a nice working dog will have a terrific wobble in the aggregation of wide turns on the approach to the weave poles at #4; however, if the handler effectively pre-cues the turn at jump #2 the dog will come up over the jump bending into the turn into a nearly flat line of approach to the weave poles.
There are plenty of other lessons to be learned from this overall sequence. I return to my original premise though… this is just too big of a leap for my intermediate students.
Okay, I’ve gentled it up here a bit just with the rotation of jumps and some modest renumbering. I don’t need tricky serpentines, pull-throughs, options, angled approaches and so forth to challenge intermediate players. Heck, the weave poles will give them all the grief they’ll ever need.
Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: BudHouston@hughes.net. And Check out my new publication the Idea Book – Agility Training for a Small Universe available at www.dogagility.org/store.