Archive for August, 2013

Pinball Jumpers

August 28, 2013

I think I’ve invented a new game. And I’m calling it “Pinball Jumpers”. The game is directly owed to two basic facts… One, I’ve got the dogwalk in the lower field and don’t feel like schlepping it off nor, for that matter, do I feel like dragging other contact equipment down to the field. Two, this game will allow me to practice and proof my contact training protocol in the context of a game. I suppose I should also thirdly mention that Marsha has mowed the lower field (while I’ve been out of town) and may want to be rewarded for the chore by having some sequence work set up so she can play with her dog (Phoenix).

The “pinball plunger” is represented by the two red numbered obstacles. This part of the course is un-timed, but faults from this un-timed beginning will be added to the dog’s overall score. It’s a Time, Plus Faults game.

The contact training protocol to which I referred above is a simple matter that I expect my dog to stay in a finish position on a contact obstacle until he gets a verbal release from me. I suppose I should design a half dozen or so training sequences using this opening so that I can give it a good work-out.


This entire course is about “cluster” work. A cluster is a multi-sided box or arrangement of obstacles. A dog enters the cluster on a side, and has multiple dismount options from it. In this course, if you do a bit of counting, the dog’s path passes through 11 cluster challenges. Amazing!

I’m sorry I have to drag out a big important-sounding scientific term… but the word for the day is “discombobulation.” One of the hardest things about cluster work is losing one’s bearings or GPS and in clumsy fashion sending the dog out of the cluster in the wrong direction. On this course, owing to the stereo quality of the passages through the clusters the likelihood of a discombobulated handler is heightened to a significant extent.

This course is has the intentional design element that it will not favor the young handler who can out-run his dog. A barely ambulatory handler with good directional skills should probably be able to direct his dog from the 5 jump cluster after solving the opening, through jump #4.


Because it was hot as hell outside with humidity to match, our Tuesday evening class featured this set of obstacles. You’ll note that this set also features two adjoining clusters.


Pinball Jumpers is surely a variation of Power and Speed; and bears a striking resemblance to Louganis as well. I’ll have it in the growing draft of The Book of Agility Games within the week. I’ve struggled over time with the differentiation between primary game and variation. When does a variation become a game of its own and not a footnote of the primary game? A good example is the relationship between Jumpers and Jumpers With Weaves. I actually have an answer to this question so it isn’t completely rhetorical.

I’ll put this game up as a Top Dog game (Secretary’s Pick) within the next few days.

I’ve just come back from yet another TDAA Judges’ Clinic, way up in Knife River, MN. I’ve done a series of these now, and I’m completely exhausted by the work. We have focused to a large extent on the quality of our judging corps and the principles of course design. It is a work in progress.

This weekend Marsha and I are heading up to attend the 2013 OCTA competition of community theater, in Dayton, Ohio. Imagine that! We’re doing something that isn’t doggie related!


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.


August 16, 2013

I took the MCJ course that I started in my blog Proofing the Skill and kicked it around a bit as I grapple to completely understand the Course Design Requirements for the Masters Challenge classes. 

The objective of my edits to the course was to incorporate four and five obstacle clusters. At the same time I wanted to minimize the number of times obstacles are repeated.  I’m afraid that repeating obstacles is completely ingrained in my psyche as I often have to design full course work for a 60 by 100-ish area (the size of my training building). Repeating obstacles is the real secret for designing courses in a small space. However the MC classes follow a European standard which minimizes the repetition of obstacles in order to maintain a granularity of scoring. If a jump is taken three times and the dog drops the bar on the first pass, then we’ve eliminated the possibility that he might drop it on the second pass, and maybe on the third as well.



You can think of a cluster is a four-sided or five-sided “crossing pattern”. The good old fashioned Hobday Box is a four-sided cluster, by definition. In the illustration above I’ve designed a five sided cluster. Note, by the way, that in this short sequence the dog enters and exits the cluster twice.

N Pattern


I also determined to put into my MCJ an N Pattern just to see if I could do it. This illustration is intended to draw a nice clear “N” so you can see why it’s called an N Pattern.

Masters Challenge Jumpers

BLOG916_03I’ve preserved the push/pull-through on a curve (en passant) from jump #2 to #3. I took out the second instance because it smacked of beating a dead horse. I needed weave poles on the course anyhow; and while the approach isn’t terribly evil, I was happy to put a threadle to jump #6 on the dismount.

Now comes the N Pattern, from jump #7 to jump #11.

From jump #10 to #16 I’ve allowed quite a romp with the dog at full extension. Two of the jumps, #14 and #16 are rotated subtly to close the approaches and increase the potential for run-out refusals.

MC design rule #5 is the single rule most overlooked in the MC courses I’ve seen out in the world. The rule says: The dog must be able to perform the majority of the course in extension.  Extension is defined as: “the continuation of speed as a dog approaches an obstacle. An obstacle allows extension when a dog would normally be approaching at speed and there is little-to-no turning at the exit of the obstacle such that the dog can remain at approximately the same speed when continuing on the most efficient dog path.”

After jump #16 comes the last truly wicked moment in the course. From #16 to #17 is a wide-open threadle with a wrong-course option (jump #7) confronting the dog.

And the course finishes with a fine cannon shot through the pipe tunnel.


From the onset I want you to know that I’ve designed this course with a specific sensitivity to the handler who cannot keep up with his dog.

I’ve gotten a lot of comments recently on this blog from people who have absolutely no compassion or care for the barely ambulatory handler whose dog is considerably faster. The nature of the comments goes on to say things like “life ain’t fair” and “of course the faster handler can (and should) have the advantage.”

The real question at hand is the definition of our sport. Is dog agility a test of the handler’s athletic prowess? Or, is it about the dog?

Until an agility organization publishes without ambiguity that it is indeed an equal test of the handler’s athletic ability, then I will continue to design courses that are a test of the dog’s agility skills.


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.

Call of the Wild

August 14, 2013

Clearly the USDAA Masters Challenge class is a beckoning call to a class of exhibitor owning canny skill at the sport and a playful competitive nature. I’m going to spend a bit of time working through the Course Design Requirements published by the USDAA. These requirements will drive the design of the courses and will suggest how enthusiasts of the class approach training and practice.

You can find a comprehensive discussion of course design requirements for the Masters Challenge classes on the USDAA website in the Forms & Documents Library; specifically refer the “Judges’ Briefing”  Volume 1; so far with three parts published including an amazing exploration of course design by Janet Gauntt.

There’s a bit of new terminology that we all need to wrap our minds around: closed approach, backside approach, push-pull through, n-patterns, extended spacing, double performance, combination obstacles, the five-sided crossing pattern, and compound challenges. There’s more. But this is a good place to begin.

And wrap your mind around this one, it’s now any anything goes approach to course design.

For the next several days I expect to explore some of the challenges which are defined in the course design requirements by the USDAA for the Masters Challenge classes. I claim no particular expertise. I’m approaching this as a student of the game, endeavoring to understand the craft of course design as applied to this special and interesting class of competition.

Presented in no particular order


If you’ve followed my blog you know that I’m especially interested in a thing I’ve called the en passant, which is basically a push/pull-through on a curve. The transition from the collapsed tunnel at #9 to the weave poles satisfies this definition. In the performance of this movement the handler is faced with keeping the dog off of no fewer than three wrong course options.

This movement also features an extended spacing transition from #8 to the weave poles at #9. So I guess I should get over thinking that I invented it, since it’s in the list of challenges published by the USDAA.


By moving the #7 to the backside of the jump this sequence now presents compound challenges. The blind/managed approach to jump #7 is defined by the USDAA as a backside approach. I expect I’ll just call it that, from now on. Because of the backside approach, the transition to jump #8 is now a threadle; which by definition is a pull/push-through. (Note: the threadle is by itself a compound challenge, as the pull/push-through is followed by a closed approach to an obstacle in close vicinity.)


Had I really wanted to be wicked in this already evil design, I might have made the collapsed tunnel and weave poles a combination obstacle.

As a handler/competitor there is something you must really understand about the combination obstacle. If the dog earns a refusal on the second element of the combination, the handler is required to return the dog to the first element before continuing on. Oh I admit this is very evil and probably something I would not do in this particular sequence. I just wanted to give you a thrill.

I will resume the discussion tomorrow.

Top Dog Secretary’s Choice


This is the game we’re playing in league this week. We’d be proud and pleased if you’d play with us. You can download a scoresheet here: Numbered Course.


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.

Proofing the Skill

August 12, 2013

We’ve been having an interesting discussion about the (evil?) challenges that have been emerging in our sport. The emerging dichotomy in the discussion contrasts the handler’s athletic ability with dog trainer’s skill in preparing the dog for independent performance.

Those who enjoy and occasionally solve the “Masters Challenge” caliber of agility course riddles resent the implication that the athletic handler doesn’t require a well-trained dog.

I’m especially interested in the blind approach jump (managed/back-side approach). I submit that this skill is largely a matter of micro-management/handling and obviously easier for the athletic handler to get into position to do that micro-managing.

Just to cut to the chase, I’d offer that it’s very easy to test a dog’s training for performance by putting together a simple proofing exercise.

I can be proven wrong!


Here’s the proofing exercise. The handler remains behind jump #1 while sending the dog down-the-line. The handler must give the dog a command to take jump #3 from the blind side. I have kindly nudged the #3 jump to the side so that the dog can get to the back-side with nearly a straight line.

Please share your YouTube videos in your comments to this blog entry. Of course I’ll expect to see dozens of videos (based on all the times I’ve heard “I’ve trained my dog to do that”). Until I see this proof I will refuse to believe this is a training issue.

En Passant

I wrote the other day that I’m not quite ready to say the European game has the intellectual lead on interesting course challenges. The course below has a very interesting bit that I’d like to put into a USAAA Masters Challenge jumpers course… the En Passant.


The concept is simple. The handler is required to turn the dog through a box with multiple options with the target obstacle blind to the initial approach. In this course the in passant occurs twice, from jump #1 to #2, and then again from jump #10 to #11.  

The course has other interesting challenges as well and should be approached with a sense of humor.



An important attribute of this challenge is that the transitional distance between obstacles is considerably longer than the usual distances found between obstacles in an agility course. With this in mind, it might be hard to get course reviewers to understand and approve the challenge.

USDAA News and Events

The USDAA web site has for some time featured interesting training bits. The hard working editor of these training bits, Brenna Fender, as selected several of my legacy exercises to put up on the page. You can visit here: USDAA training bits.

I’ve got a million of them! ~ Jimmy Durante


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.

Top Cat Course Review

August 10, 2013

An old friend of mine sent me this course. What I would like to do is review the course, understanding that it has never been put up in the world and that the review therefore hypothetical. I find this course illustrative of the types of challenges that face us in agility. My anonymous friend’s contribution to the topic is serendipitous.

Top Cat, I’ll call him, says in a note to me: “Thought I would share with you a sample of what I would love to design for my AKC courses!  Problem is 90% of the exhibitors would want my head on a pike!”

Let’s see if he still loves it when I’m done with my review.

This is the course design question of the day: Is our sport only for the young long legged kids who can outrun their dogs? And, if that is what the course demands, is it a huge design flaw?

Should those of who don’t fit the “long legged kids who can outrun their dogs” description run off to find a not-very-challenging flavor of agility where they hand out qualifying ribbons like pop-corn?

Anyhow, here’s the course:


I pretty much know that I will crash ‘n burn with my dog on this course; though I’d have fun giving it a go. Mind you I don’t play the same game that most AKC players do, with the dog tied at my hip, running from obstacle to obstacle like a game of connect-the-dots. I’m an older fellow though not real old; but I have arthritis in my knees and so must rely on “training my dog” to perform wicked stuff when I might be at a considerable distance.

I’ve annotated this course with three markers: A, B and C, in dark circles. These are what I consider “control positions”, which is a place on course where I must be in the picture near to the dog in order to solve the technical challenge at hand. I’ll explain each as I go along. But right now I want to point out to you that given my dog’s rate of travel there’s absolutely no way that I get from “B” to “C”. So I must choose which one of them I’ll have to attempt from a distance (whilst yelling out verbal directionals, crossing my fingers, and trying to hold my mouth right). I’m guessing that position “B” will be the distance try, which promises a failure likelihood up in the 90 percentile range.

Walk Through

The “A” control position is intended to solve the opening which offers a subtle “option” challenge.


The typical novice player might be a bit of a goober, making an approach to jump #1 too square (the red line), which would create a hard to solve option challenge after jump #2. The more advanced handler has the black line. This line too is uncomfortable. The net effect is for the dog to have a depressed angle approach to both jump #1 and jump #3. While I recognize that this is a common challenge I am nervous about the potential for injury to a dog for slicing into the sharp little jump cups on the standards. And it’s not as though this were a flat serpentine in which the dog could assume a natural turning radius to gain focus on each jump. The dog will power through the opening line with no turning radius whatever excepting a bit of a concave approach to jump #3.


This is my favorite part of the Top Cat course. From control position “B” I can pretty much verbally direct my dog from jump #4 all the way back to jump #11. There are two wrong-course options in this segment of the course (after jump #4 the #14 jump is the option; and after jump #5 the #8 jump is the option); but I’m confident that if I put enough urgency (and panic) in my verbal directives I can solve easily.


The difficulty really arises at jump #11. I have a choice of turning directions.

A turn to the left (black line) surely presents jump #2 as an option to a dog with considerable work ethic. To the left is the natural turning direction; but the handler needs to be there (in the “B” position) to affect the pull-through.

A turn to the right (red line) offers less risk but results in a longer and less efficient dog’s path. For someone who can outrun his dog, on the other hand, it probably presents a better opportunity to get to the courses chief technical challenge, in the vicinity of jump #14.


This is the wicked challenge on the course. We can for the moment overlook that the course designer stretched the handler between two control positions so that only the long legged kid who can outrun his dog can be at both places.

The moment at jump #14 begins with a blind/managed approach to the jump followed by a virtual threadle from #14 to the weave poles at #15. The black line represents a perpendicular approach to the weave poles which will, I guarantee, result in a 50%+ NQ rate in a class of Masters/Excellent players (who on some level believe they have trained dogs). The red line represents a managed approach to the weave poles in which the handler will micro-manage the dog around to square up the approach and hope upon hope that the over-zealous judge doesn’t see a refusal in the solution.

Note that the blind/managed approach to jump #14 is constrained by the #5/9 jump which leans in applying compression against the real estate afforded the handler to get the job done.

A final observation on this course is that the two jumps which require hard-aback turns, jumps #11 and #17, are both designated as wingless single-bar jumps. Both of these attributes lower the visual acuity of the jumps and raise the likelihood of a dropped bar or refusal caused by the dog just running past it because it didn’t stand out to him.

Can this course be saved?


I’ve tweaked the course subtly (not so subtly, maybe). I wanted to maintain the challenges envisioned by the original designer. But I really didn’t. I took out both of the hard-aback turns, preferring instead to allow jumping sequences in which the handler can release his dog to work, rather than be in the picture, micro-managing the dog’s work.

I’ve moved the blind/managed approach challenge to jump #13 because it’s easier for the handler to be in position to solve.

I also took out that silly threadle to the weave poles and replaced it with an ugly-butt approach that will allow the dog to demonstrate his understanding of the performance. I’ve actually replaced the threadle approach with a blind/managed approach; which at least provides the handler with adequate real estate to do whatever it is he needs to do.

Note that I got the obstacle count up to 20.


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.

Masters Challenge

August 8, 2013

For something like 20 years now I have been an arduous student of course design. One of the most important themes of that study has been how to keep out of my courses the really evil stuff. I beg forgiveness of the muses for the raw fact and simple truth ~ which I cannot duck ~ that the discovery of evil has been abundantly realized in courses of my own design.

Here’s how it works. As a course designer you draw something up on paper; and you might think, okay that looks very interesting. And then, if it escapes the canny vision of the course reviewer, it gets put up in the real world. The inescapable thing about the being the judge standing out there in the middle of the ring is that you must endure every agonizing moment of performance for 100 or more dogs; with everyone in shouting distance knowing that you were the author and designer of the challenge.

I show my own dogs in agility. I’m thankful when another judge and course designer puts up something truly evil and so further my education in course design.

Over the years, the really evil **** that I have managed to author gets stuffed into a drawer.

The Age of the Evil Challenge

A new age is upon us. A lot of new handling and dog training riddles are appearing in course challenges. Mostly this is stuff that comes to us from Europe. And it’s all really really evil. The easy thing to do would be to crawl under the bed and fervently wish for simpler days and hope all this craziness goes away.

But here’s the deal, there is a class of competitor that has risen to the challenge both as dog trainer and handler. These guys are solving the most wicked course riddles with both cunning and grace.

I just don’t have the words to really express and emphasize what I’m saying here. But… I have pictures. Here is a YouTube of Robert Michalski running a course recently in Europe. I think this says it all: I apologize for posting this on my blog without permission.

From everything I can gather, if I had designed this course, I would have had to go home and shoot myself. My squeamishness, however, is only subtext. The true lesson in this YouTube is that “impossible” is an adjective used by the guy hiding under the bed.

By the way… nice job Robert. I’m impressed beyond amazement.

USDAA Masters Challenge

A fairly new class in USDAA agility competition is the “Masters Challenge” which comes in the form of both jumpers (with weaves, btw) and the standard course. The course design guidelines basically calls for a variety of challenges which I have formerly deemed “evil”. With a new eye for the class, I’d rather think of it right now as a competition that differentiates the field, allowing those who are truly masters of our sport to demonstrate their skill.

What it means to me is that all those evil challenges that I’ve been stuffing into a drawer, get to come back out and will have a place in the world. This is going to be fun, I think.


I’ll begin here, and share the ongoing design with you as I put it together. The starting bit, jumps #1 through #4 is kind of a deadening start. Frankly I considered putting #2 on the back side rather than the straight approach. Both the wrap and the blind approach are unique riddles.

The back-to-back performance of jump #6/#7 is something I’ve been trying to get into courses for years; which more often than not gets nixed by some baffled course reviewer. It’s not really all that tough though. Most exhibitors do this very thing on the warm-up jump. It’s my intention before I’m done to present a wrong-course option in the transition from jump #6 to jump #7.

En passant

Phooey to the notion that we’ve ceded the intellectual leadership in course design challenges to the European game. I see a lot of bloody-minded stuff showing up in American courses that I know is of European influence. In practice these designs are too often ham-handed clumsy things that disturb flow and deny the dog the opportunity to move at speed or to be released to work without constant micro-management.

We can do better.

Catching Up

I’ve been running around like a blind dog in a meat-house for several weeks now. I’ve made plenty of notes though. And I’ll try to get these written in the next few days.


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.