Masters Challenge

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.



8 Responses to “Masters Challenge”

  1. Deb Auer Says:

    You know, the part that really caused my jaw to drop was the run around the end of the weave poles while the dog continued to weave. I wish I could run the video in slow motion, too, to catch whatever it is that Robert uses to send the dog around to the back of the fourth (or so) jump from the end.

  2. Jean Magee Says:

    Hi Bud
    You posted a YouTube of Robert Michalskis run and very good it was too. However, here in England more and more of these courses are being set up. Now here’s the thing, the vast majority of competitors are middle aged or older. I myself am 70 with bad knees and like you I have tried to teach my dogs to work away, but it is impossible to run these courses unless you are very fit and very fast.
    More and more the bread and butter of agility is becoming discouraged from entering competitions. Now the powers that be have tinkered with the timing and unless you are a four minute miler its impossible to get a clear round rosette because of time faults.
    As more and more of us bow out the powers will be left with a very small base and the clubs will not put agility shows on because they wont make any money.
    And on an entirely different note whatever happened to dog training? It doesn’t take much training ability to get a dog to run as fast as you. These super speeders should take up a running sport and leave dog sports to those who actually like training dogs.
    And on another note its now the fashion to get one of these super speeders to run your dog while you look on from the sidelines. Sometimes experienced fast handlers can run more than 12 dogs in a day.

    Jean Magee (North East England)

    • budhouston Says:

      I hear you Jean! The new age of agility agility demands athletic ability of both members of the team.

      It’s all pretty wicked. The only real answer is for about 90% of us to break away from the organizations… and find something new. I’ve been trying for years now to put together an organization that works on a very different level. What’s the chance of a following in England?

      Bud Houston

  3. liz Says:

    Very interesting Bud, I look forward to reading your future/continued notes on the subject.

    In class a few weeks back, I ran that EO course you posted, well we did the first 2/3rds or so. It was brutal. We worked through it, and you needed some serious understanding of handling to even walk the course, let alone run it. But, I find that level of challenge enjoyable, and even attempting to run a course like that enhances my skills on a “regular” AKC or USDAA course.

    RE Jean, I have to say I bristle at your comment that those of us who enjoy these types of courses don’t “train” our dogs. Running fast will do you nothing if your dog doesnt understand why you are going where you or going or have any independent obstacle skills. I truly hope you watched the video posted–if you see nothing else but the entry and exit handling of the weave poles I would hope you could recognize the sheer amount of training it would take to get a dog to understand not only that brutal entry, but to stay in the weaves while the handler pushes up past them and across their line. No training? *shakes head*

    I do understand why some people are feeling left out with how course design is moving. In the US, I think the bigger organizations are doing a good job of separating out these types of courses so that those of us “crazy” ones who want them can participate. I can’t speak to how it works in England, but maybe you are lacking equivalent associations to CPE where course design seems to stay more “straightforward”.

    “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
    – Leo Tolstoy

  4. Mary Mackenzie Says:

    I showed at the Sky Blue trial in Indianapolis in May, and was thrilled to Q in your Masters Challenge Jumpers course with my 9 year old ADCH dog. As an almost 60 year old handler who had a hip replacement last year, I figure I should be realistic about my goals and expectations — yet I still enjoy pushing the limits, and when we succeed, it sure is a rush! I look at the Challenge courses as icing on the cake. I do my best to meet the challenges, but certainly don’t expect to Q. But if it happens–WOW!! Really enjoyed showing under you at that trial, by he way. Nice courses and nice atmosphere.

  5. Cassie Schmidt Says:

    The video of Rob Michalski and his awesome dog is a perfect example of why international challenges SHOULD be offered in the US. Why should teams like this be limited to competing on the same courses that the average competitor is routinely successful on?

    Rob was a member of a carefully selected team that represented the United States at a high level international competition. He didn’t show up in Belgium and get “surprised” that the course was hard. My guess is that Rob spent hundreds of hours training his dog for the challenges of this course, and that Rob is dedicated to his own health and fitness. My guess is also that Rob is more dedicated to our sport than the average competitor.

    There is a strong contingent of American agility competitors who are seriously committed to training the skills to be successful with these types of challenges. Why can’t we appreciate and encourage fellow competitors who have the drive and abilities to compete at the World level instead of trying to homogenize our sport?

    THERE ARE MANY AGILITY ORGANIZATIONS AND DIFFERENT FLAVORS OF AGILITY IN THE US. There are still plenty of options available for enthusiasts who prefer more flowing courses. “International” challenges are not a threat to the average competitor. Vive la différence.

  6. Sue F Says:

    The types of challenges that the Europeans face (at least on the courses that are available to view online) are beyond the abilities of the “average” US handler for one main reason – folks here in the US play it safe to get the Q toward titles. There is little incentive for the vast majority of handlers here to learn “balls to the wall” handling because they are not going to be on a World or EO or whatever international team. They are going to get their title, then work on the next title. They don’t want to take the risk of losing the Q because the titles are all they have to work toward. So the techniques used on the international style courses are not worth it to them.

    While I like titles too, my incentive in running agility is a little bit more than that. No, I don’t aspire to World Team status – that is too much pressure and would then make agility more like work than like play, which is what I want it to be. But I like to meet the challenge of a given course. Sometimes that’s just running clean, or even running part of it clean if it’s a tough course. On the strategy games like FAST or Gamblers, it means going for maximum points. And sometimes it’s cutting the cleanest, most efficient line, getting into the zone with my dog. That is the coolest.

    The Masters Challenge courses in USDAA have been pretty tough so far, because most of us are not used to those sorts of challenges and are still working our way through how to handle them. I do enjoy them with my older, more experienced and driven dog, who can handle the start-stop nature of the courses. I won’t, however, run them with my younger dogs – at least not yet – because they would be very demotivating at our level of ability.

    But I think the key for the MC courses is to be sure that the really tough aspects of these courses stay in these courses, at least for now. I really don’t want to see MC challenges in regular USDAA courses. That’s demotivating for those people who don’t aspire to the MC level of challenge. Masters needs to be Masters level, yes, and can have one MC level challenge, but not several per course. I ran a Masters Jumpers course not too long ago, and by the time the dog was at obstacle #8 we had done 6 front crosses – out of necessity! That’s too much. Keep Masters and Masters Challenge separate, please.

  7. Rebecca Says:

    Bud said “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.”

    Yes! Bring it on!! My experience of masters challenge is that it IS fun … lots of fun.

    My take on it is that what may look, on paper, to be a ‘demotivating’ course with ‘stop/start’ turns and requiring ‘impossibly technical moves’ is often, in reality, not too much dfferent from the familiar fast/furious games of fetch, frisbee, chase the hose water etc. we already play with our dogs in the backyard.

    In the backyard you throw the ball and then run the opposite direction … your dog ‘gets it’, grabs the ball and chases you … and the game is on! Masters challenge classes have the same basic ingredients … fast intuitive moves, sharp turns, split second timing … and the thrill that comes with joyfully (and very physically!) being on the same page with your dog.

    Re: agility, I’m 70, my dog is 5… I’m limited in what I can do, but still I LOVE masters challenge. My compromise is to play it more like backyard tag than ‘agility’ per se. Forunately my dog ‘gets it’ as a game and knows that I’m not going to help her very much … I am not going to help her decide whether to put in a collection stride etc.

    Her favorite thing is acceleration … and the wonder of it all is that she has matured to realize that our partnership is just as much fun. She’s a fierce competitor in her own right and I’m blessed that the challenge she sets for herself these days is to follow the course I indicate (not an easy task!) … and she can still throw in her beloved acceleration briefly wherever she can.

    For some handlers the fun of agility is in the technical execution, for others it’s in the speed. For all of us it’s also playing with our dogs. For me, age has pretty much reduced my agility to playing with my dog and simply running the best I can!

    What a gift to us that judges have worked through agility long enough to produce masters challenge courses!

    My thinking is that if they can write it, the least we can do is try to run it!!! The courses are tough, but it’s not about looking good or doing well, it’s about exploring and strengthening your relationship with your dog.

    So GAME ON! (and PLEASE don’t click this link unless you first promise you’ll laugh!!!)

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