The Border Collie Effect pt 2

I continue my publication of notes on course design that I made something like a dozen years ago.

Safe & Square

Spread hurdles, contact obstacles, and arguably the tire should always be presented squarely to the dog, especially in the Novice and Starters classes to be fair, and safe.

The course designer should always visualize the flow of the dog to present the contact obstacles and the spread hurdles safely and squarely. Don’t assume that handlers will have the skill or forethought necessary to correct the dog’s path to make an approach safe for the dog.


This is a segment of a course found recently at a NADAC trial. It was in the Open ring, and caused many dogs to NQ because the handlers did not have the requisite skill to jog the dog immediately to the right after the spread hurdle in order to create a straight approach to the A-frame.

Most dogs were pushed directly by their handlers towards the A-frame. Something like 30% could not make the ascent, and came off the front end, some of them near the apex of the A-frame. Frankly, it’s the judge’s job to make a course safe for all dogs, no matter how experienced or inexperienced the handlers. This judge complained that the field was smaller she’d been told was available. So she just scrunched down her course until everything fit. She did not have the benefit of an experienced supervising judge to point out to her that she’d made an awful mistake. And so this was the result.

For future reference, the judge is the ultimate authority on the field. An experienced judge would have demanded that the local crew actually move the ring rope so that the course would fit. If the dimensions of the ring are fixed (by hard walls) the judge would have to do an on the spot redesign to make everything safe, and fair. Designing a course on the field takes a lot of skill. All the judge really has to do is walk the course, once set, to see the approaches to all obstacles from the viewpoint of the dogs.


The presentation of spread hurdles to the dog should is also an issue of fairness and safety. This illustration shows a presentation of the spread hurdle that requires a skillful manipulation of the dog’s path to create a safe approach. The course designer should not put dogs at risk when the handler does not have this skill manufacture a good approach to the spread hurdle.

Don’t mistake this design for challenging. It is merely ugly.


In this illustration the approach to the spread hurdle has been improved simply by giving the hurdle a rotation to the approach. The dog and handler team are still challenged by the sequence, without a hint of ugly or unsafe. The pipe tunnel is a terrific off-course possibility. The entry to the weave poles begs the question “does the dog know how to make the entry?”

This is clearly advanced design, providing challenge at dogs’ speed, but inappropriate for novice dogs (because of the wrong course option).

Dog’s Path Geometry

Squaring the dog’s approach for a spread hurdle really requires the course designer to understand the way dogs move. It is always a mistake, either as a handler or a course designer to be beguiled by the geometry of the course.


This illustration shows the spread hurdle presented to the dog in a straight approach from jump #3.  Square and fair, right?


The problem with this line is that nothing on an agility course moves in lines like these excepting maybe the occasional judge’s measuring wheel. If you see a judge measuring a course like this, you can be certain of two things: 1) the standard course time (SCT) will be improperly set, and too low; 2) the judge has no vision of the way dogs move.


This drawing more realistically depicts the path of the dog. And in this case the illustration more properly reflects the path of a sharp turning Border Collie (and not so much the more reaching path of the bold working Doberman Pincer.)

While this was a bit of a dramatization, we see more subtle variations of the geometry problem all the time.

Time Capsule Review

Back to present time… I guess I got to poke fun of a NADAC judge who didn’t really know how to fit her course into an area smaller that it was intended to fit. But you know, NADAC judges don’t design their own courses. And so their course design skills are going to be a little retarded.

I still hold by the principles I was attempting to illustrate here. Understanding the dog’s path is a science to which both the course designer and the handler should subscribe. When I do handling clinics there’s a bit I often do to entice the handler to understand the dog’s path. The concept is simplified in this illustration:


It’s a straight line through jumps #2 to #4… right?

This is an example of on-field geometry that might beguile the handler (and course designer) into failing to understand the dog’s path. In truth:


It’s not a straight line at all. It’s a wild zig-zaggedy line.

More tomorrow, I suppose.

Blog929 (Oh my! Two days in a row!)

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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6 Responses to “The Border Collie Effect pt 2”

  1. Karissa Says:

    NADAC does not have spread hurdles — ever — so your example above could never be true/accurate. I’d be surprised to ever see a similar sequence in a NADAC course, with or without the spread. Perhaps it was ASCA? In which case you can knock an ASCA judge who was unable to tweak her own course design on the spot?

    I do think it’s a little rude to make a wide sweeping comment that implies that all NADAC judges have “retarded” course design skills. Numerous NADAC judges also judge for other organizations — AKC, ASCA, CPE…. Weren’t you, yourself, attempting to become a NADAC judge not so long ago?

    I’m not arguing any of your illustrations or points — but you are quite unlikely to find any of these scenarios on a NADAC course.

    • budhouston Says:

      Actually, it was a NADAC course. Like I said it was over a dozen years ago. Cannot swear to the spread hurdle… If what you say is true, I got at least one detail wrong. OTOH, a large number of dogs dumping off the up-ramp is a detail remembered quite clearly.

      I was a NADAC judge back around 1993 or so, for a couple seasons… one of the original NADAC judges.

      “Retarded” isn’t meant to be a derogatory term. It simply implies that a skill that is never practiced cannot grow or flourish.

      Bud Houston

  2. Chuck Says:

    That first course was not that difficult, if you back cross the 4 jump and put the dog on the A frame off your right side. Why do handlers love to over complicate a course? By the way, where are you finding all of the NADAC trials in Ohio?

    • budhouston Says:

      Didn’t say that it can’t be done. However, a judge shouldn’t pose such a riddle “Do you know how to do this without killing your dog?” Not an appropriate challenge.

      The trial was long time ago, when NADAC had a strong following in Ohio.

      Bud Houston

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