Torn by Conflicting Directives

I put up a Masters standard course on Sunday that gave me an awful feeling. I just didn’t like it. It frankly looked better on paper than it walked. But then, it ran better than it walked. Did you follow all that?

On the long ride home (about five hours of driving) I came to the conclusion that my angst was based upon the recent stint of judging—and course design—I did in DOCNA (a NADAC spin-off completely influenced by the Sharon Nelson school of flow and challenge).

DOCNA insists that the handler should not be challenged; the dog should not be asked to turn; and never ever ever asked to turn in the presence of an option (a course that makes more sense to the dog that the one the judge actually numbered.


From my own ideals of challenge I design with flowing twists that constantly provide line-of-sight misdirection, or options. The central theme of jumps (the inverted “Y” mid-left) in this course provided both serpentine movement in the dog’s path and the presentation of options.

As it turned out the Q rate on this course was somewhat higher than the Masters standard course on Saturday. Indeed several people approached me after the run to politely tell me how much fun the course was to run.

I sometimes forget, I think, what keen handlers USDAA players tend to be. They demonstrate constantly that turning the dog is not only “fair”… but it is a part of the game. They demonstrate that challenging the handler is not only “fair” but an important part of the game.

Don’t get me wrong. This course took its share of prisoners. What I learned (I already knew but had to be reminded) is that I don’t really have to dumb down courses for the top players in this game. No that’s wrong… I don’t mean top players at all. I think what I saw this weekend is that the typical journeyman handler in the USDAA is an equal match for terribly challenging technical courses. It does the heart good to see them whoop up on what I consider a course worthy of the Master Handler.

What this means for the TDAA

Okay, I’m pretty much driving the course design criteria for the TDAA (and soon enough, I expect, C-WAGS). I’m frankly torn by the conflicting directives between International-style agility and the NADAC (Nelson) style of agility. I would love to come to reconciliation between these conflicting directives.

I’m drawn back to something Kenneth Tatsch said at probably the first USDAA judging clinic I ever attended (and oh by the way, Sharon Nelson was one of the USDAA presenters at that clinic). He said (and I paraphrase, because this was something like 18 years ago)… “It’s good to put a technical challenge in a course. But you don’t need to put every technical challenge in your inventory into a single course. Pick one central challenge, and build the course around it.”

So what I would very much like to strive for is a course design philosophy that allows dogs to get up to full working speed; encouraging the handler to run, as well as the dog. I will not flinch from the technical challenge that tests the mettle of the handler.

The tough thing about course design in the TDAA has been that many of our judges run dinky little dogs. And so their course design is given over to toy-box presentation suitable only for Yorkies (and not terribly fast Yorkies, at that). So if I have a teaching objective it is to make TDAA judges understand course design for keen working dogs full of speed and terrific obstacle focus.

In C-WAGS we must design for full-size dogs. I will challenge the prevailing crazy attitude that there should be 22′ between obstacles in just about all of the other big dog venues. This is mistaken, it’s erroneous, it’s wrong. 22′ should be required only in a turn to take into account a dog’s turning radius; or, when an option is presented to the dog. In a straight-away a 12′ to 15′ minimum should suffice even for the very fast dogs. For example, a dog should be able to get over a jump into a pipe tunnel in a 12′ interval so long as the path is straight into the tunnel. Indeed, the dog should be able to come off the table and over a jump in the same 12′. Jump to jump… with a straight-away presentation, easily this could be a 15′ transitional distance.

Tell me I’m wrong.

What do it mean?

There was a lady once at a seminar I did somewhere, clearly with a strong NADAC influence, who continued to protest when I put short transitions between obstacles in the dog’s straight-away path in the exercises that we ran. After listening to her objections for about a day and a half, I pointed out to her that she had given her dog about 4′ to approach the first jump in every sequence that we had run (and her dog had dropped about half of the opening bars). She didn’t complain again… and I noted that she started giving her dog about 12′ the approach the first jump in the exercises. And her dog did considerably better about keeping that first bar up!

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


2 Responses to “Torn by Conflicting Directives”

  1. One of the course prisoners Says:

    Hi Bud,
    My dog and I were one of the teams who did not perform perfectly on that Standard course, but of course that was all due to our team’s usual handler deficiency (my dog was the JRT who tends to spin as much as a border collie because her handler often can’t get her act together!).
    I also just want to drop a line that it was a pleasure to run your courses…it is just plain FUN to navigate course challenges while running the course at the fastest we can go. I am still a relative novice at this sport, but I am already glad that there are so many course design “philosophies” to choose from, and that I can participate in venues that match up with my own ideas of fun and fulfillment.

  2. budhouston Says:

    Dear Course Prisoner,

    Well thank you so much, I’m glad you enjoyed. Play in the USDAA is about as much fun as you can have on a weekend without getting arrested.

    What I really like about what you wrote here, by the way, is your pleasure in “running the course at the fastest we can go.” That’s what agility is all about. People would have even more fun if they learn to let it all hang out there and go for it without a single conservative complaint holding them back.


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