The Border Collie Effect on Pipe Tunnels

More than a dozen years ago I started a collection of writings on course design for dog agility (under the working title “The Border Collie Effect on Pipe Tunnels”) It never coalesced into a finish product. But now that I pick it up again this writing is surely amusing fodder for my long ignored web log. I’ve been working recently on designing courses for my own upcoming judging assignments and have been reviewing a ton of TDAA courses. Course design is always a good topic.  

What I thought I might do is present the drawings and associated text and then update the script with current thinking (See “Time Capsule Review,” below.) Twelve years is a long time in a young sport like dog agility.

The working title of the piece: The Border Collie Effect on Pipe Tunnels might have evoked obvious associations a dozen years ago, but stretches the imagination today. To be sure only a dozen years ago pipe tunnels often were not adequately bagged and bound. When a dog with tremendous inner combustion got in, the tunnel would get banged around pretty good. Often the pipe tunnel that you saw when you walked the course didn’t much resemble the pipe tunnel you came upon when you ran your dog as the tunnel likely had a new GPS address and was shaped differently.

These days most pipe tunnels in competition are bagged by about a ton of dead weight, to the extent that they actually pose a hazard to the dog with too much energy and too much trust.

Designing for Flow

April 1, 2002

The most important obligation of the course designer is to create flow for the dog. In order to do so we must understand how dogs move. Without that essential understanding it is unlikely that the designer can create a course that is safe and fair.

The dog nearly always moves in parallel with the handler. If the dog is ahead of the handler, he will curl back to the handler’s position.


In the course segment shown here you see a long line from the end of the seesaw through jump #11. If the dog is at all faster than the handler, it is unlikely that the dog will reach jump #11 without an off-course penalty, or a refusal, unless the handler has a superb Go On (continue in a straight line) directional. Remember that the contact obstacles, and often the weave poles dictate the starting position of the handler. Most handlers will closely attend the dog’s performance of the teeter, to see that the dog hits the contact. Most significantly, that means that the handler has no advantage in real estate, forward of the dog.

This is an error in course design. Most typically this error appears on Novice courses, as the designer does not understand the curling-back effect of the dog working ahead of his handler. The designer thinks that he’s giving the Novice dog a nice straight line with no awful turns. When in fact some gentle turns would be a blessing for the dog and handler team.

It would be easy enough to redesign this opening to accommodate the dog’s tendency to curl-back to the handler. This might mean readjusting the balance of the course. But there is no sense in including any long outruns in a course that doom most dogs in the field to failure.


A better design would be to make the opening line curl naturally, for the benefit of the dog, as in this illustration. The dog’s flow will naturally follow the path the handler must take.

Unfortunately, in fixing the dog’s line we’ve presented a rather difficult challenge for the Novice handler and his dog. Obstacles #8 through #10 require the dog to work on the handler’s right side. For obstacles #11 through #14, the dog should be on the handler’s left.

So we’ve left the handler with a very technical turn. Coming off of a double spread-hurdle with the dog on the wrong side, the Novice handler is not likely to have the requisite skill to affect a cross behind the dog. Most will try some kind of ugly Back Cross at the double, risking a bar down, or a refusal. This is too much of a challenge for the Novice dog and handler, but probably fine for Open/Advanced or Masters/Excellent dogs and handlers.


For Novice teams the best way to soften a difficult corner requiring a change of sides is to use a pipe tunnel. In this illustration the pipe tunnel is presented so that the handler can do a Front Cross or a simple Post Turn to get the dog into the tunnel. The tunnel allows the handler to set up for the dog-on-left performance of the balance of the sequence.

The double-bar hurdle is usually a required obstacle. So the course designer needs to find some other place to put it. In this case the double was moved to follow tunnel, providing a nice straight approach and not grinding the dog into a hard turn after.

Time Capsule Review

Back to present time… I have several misdoubts about the initial writing. What really reaches out to grab me is how sympathetic I was to handlers without much skill or training foundation for their dogs.

The proposition that a long straight line is killer remains true today. For the designing judge this might be a very core riddle to his course design. Does the handler understand the risk of being behind in the line?

Also, in the initial illustration the sequence begins with the teeter. What I said then is true today. Many handlers will be glued against their dogs in the performance of the teeter or any other technical obstacle, putting them sorely at risk in the riddle to follow. Looking at the first drawing I can guarantee you that today I’d be positioned somewhere around the #10 jump while my dog is finishing up the teeter. At least this would be true in the ideal / “I trained my dog” world.

More on course design tomorrow.     


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.

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