Archive for September, 2014

The Essence of Gamblers

September 30, 2014

I have an up and coming TDAA Judges’ Clinic. One of the participants writes to me: “I don’t have a confidence that I can design an appropriate game for all three levels. I admit that don’t do very many gambles in any of my aspects of agility. I haven’t taught my dogs (or been taught myself) how to do them.

She correctly assumes that experience is the best teacher. Inasmuch as I’ll be leading the judges’ clinic, I will endeavor to be the second best teacher. (The clinic and subsequent trial are in Lynnwood, Washington… October 9-12. Are you going to be there?)

A Few Quick Notes

Working a dog at a distance basically means that the dog has been taught his job and doesn’t require the handler to always be forward and always “dragging” the dog through every performance. The dog should be taught his job for every obstacle with no requirement that the handler be embedded in the context of the performance.

I’d be delighted to write a primer on the subject. That’s too big a job for this one blog. So the following is hardly comprehensive. I will write more on it and put it all together in the fullness of time.

The Handler’s Job

The handler’s job is to direct the dog. An important part of the distance riddle is how the handler provides direction. The easy answer to this is that the handler provides focus, verbalization and movement to frame the objective obstacle.

Focus is what the handler is looking at and pointing at. Note that pointing is not really a wagging finger. It is more defined by the set of the handler’s shoulders, hips and toes.

Verbalization is the verbal command or imperative annunciated by the handler to cue the dog to the objective obstacle.

Movement rightly belongs at the top of the list. The pressure of movement surely gives the dog his directional cues. The handlers movement tells the dog both where “we” are moving, but how quickly we intend to get there.

The Dead Away Send


If it’s true that movement is the most fundamental cue to direct the dog, then we’d have to assume that sending the dog straight away (the “dead away” send) is the most difficult kind of distance challenge. In a gamblers’ class the judge will draw what’s called the “handler containment” line. The gamble/distance challenge is negated if the handler steps over that line.

In this drawing a 10′ line and a 19′ line are shown. Obviously the 19′ line is the greater challenge. How does the line not remove movement… the most important directive or cue for the dog to continue on working?

I should love to leave that question just hanging out there. An answer would actually be better. Let me give two answers, actually:

  1. The handler’s movement should be calculated to arrive just short of the line at about the moment the dog is arriving at the objective obstacle.
  2. All skills are earned through training and practice.  At the bottom of my blog in that little section “Questions comments & impassioned speeches” I routinely point to series of books I’ve written on distance training. If you need a series of exercises that lead to amazing distance skills… read and do the exercises in the 5 volumes of The Joker’s Notebook.

Parallel Path


A typical kind of gamble that appears in distance classes of every sort is the parallel path. In this drawing, after the initial send, the dog and handler work for some distance in parallel. The course designer has to determine where the handler’s containment line should be, relative to the obstacles being performed at a lateral distance. Dogs at different levels might do the same series of obstacles, but at distances appropriate to the level of players.

Technical Obstacles


The parallel path gamble is made more challenging by the use of a technical obstacle (contacts and weaves) at the parallel distance. This is probably not an appropriate challenge for Novice/Games I players. But surely, Advanced/GII players can show off their training with this simple distance challenge.

One of the real complications in terms of the handler’s movement (required to direct the dog) is woven into the context of the handler’s application of that movement to assist the dog in the performance of the technical obstacle. Without careful training, the dog mightn’t understand the movement at any appreciable distance.

When a technical obstacle is used dogs should be judged by performance rules and faults appropriate to their level. In a numbered sequence the A-frame, in this example, is eligible to earn the dog a refusal fault, which would negate the gamble.



The course designer can raise the caliber of the challenge a bit by giving the dog a discrimination challenge in the performance of the technical obstacle at a lateral distance.

Change of Direction


This distance challenge begins with a “change of direction”  challenge at an appreciable distance. This is a fairly tough kind of challenge, to be reserved for the Masters of our sport. Not only does the gamble feature a change of direction, but also a technical obstacle at a distance, and a discrimination challenge. It’s hard to get much more evil that this.

The Masters/GIII challenge doesn’t have to be anything more than a change of directions (at a distance), or a discrimination challenge (at a distance), or the performance of a technical obstacle (at a distance). The course designer really doesn’t have to do all three in one gamble!

Establishing Gamble Time


I’ve softened the previously drawn gamble challenge (considerably), mostly to talk about how times are assigned for performance of the gamble. In general the judge would take the wheeled distance of the dog’s path and then add 5 to 7 seconds to allow the handler to move the dog into position to begin the gamble.

Using this logic this gamble would be in the range of 13 to 15 seconds for dogs with 3 YPS (three yards per second) rate of travel. The course designer should acknowledge that turning the dog degrades the dog’s rate of travel. So we might add a second for the two turns that initiate the gamble.

Technical obstacles also degrade the dog’s rate of travel. So for each contact obstacle you might add 2 seconds. For the weave poles, add 3 seconds.

Designing for the TDAA

Please note that the sequences I’ve designed here are “big dog” distances. The distances between obstacles would be considerably tighter in the TDAA.

If there is an error that TDAA course designers make (too often)… it is in not giving adequate room to work. Interval distances might be opened up just a bit at a distance. But in general we subscribe to the same kind of spacing that we would use in any standard course. By definition:

  • 8′ in the straightaway
  • A minimum of 12′ to solve wrong course options, or on the approach to a technical challenge, or when requiring the dog to turn.

The TDAA course designer should also give the working dog credit for some distance working skill. I’ve reviewed courses in which the “distance challenge” was no more than 18”. That’s not really a distance challenge.

Yard Sale!

I’ve been loading thing up for a couple weeks now for a yard-sale at my in-laws place down in Williamstown, WV. Click HERE for details!

TDAA Judges’ Clinic and Trial in Lynwood, WA

Oct  9 – 10, 2014  TDAA Judge’s Clinic

Four Paw Sports Center, LLC
Lynnwood, WA
Clinic Presenter:  Bud Houston
Contact:  Robin Carlstrom
Indoors on rubber matting over padding
Clinic Application

Oct  11 – 12, 2014  Trial  T14005-9
Four Paw Sports Center, LLC
Lynnwood, WA
Judge of Record:  Bud Houston (judging will be done by judge applicants, who may also enter the trial)
Contact:  Robin Carlstrom
Indoors on rubber matting over padding


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.

Pinball Wizard

September 22, 2014

Pinball Wizard is a game invented by Margaret Hendershot, played for the first time at a TDAA trial in Washingtonville, OH in July, 2009. The game seems a bit like Dare to Double, but with some important differences that the canny competitor should appreciate.



The goal is to accumulate as many points as possible within course time: 50 seconds for big dogs and 55 seconds for small dogs.

The start obstacle is the dogwalk; in either direction. After successfully completing the start obstacle, the team continues to accumulate points by completing obstacles of the handler’s/dog’s choosing.

  • Jumps – 1 point
  • Tire, tunnels (other than the bonus), and weaves – 3 points
  • Contacts (other than the start) – 5 points

All scoring obstacles may be completed twice for points; triggers and bonuses can be taken many times. No obstacle may be taken back-to-back. The table is always live. If the dog touches the table it is a tilt and play ends.

Once the start obstacle has been completed, the triggers become active. Triggers open the bonus obstacles allowing the dog to triple all points earned. The bonus is the two tunnels marked bonus, in any order and any direction.

The bonus may be earned three times during play. The successful completion of the bonus triples all points accumulated each time it is completed.

To reactivate the triggers after completing the bonus, at least one point must be earned. A whistle sounds at the end of point accumulation. The dog should be directed to the table to stop time.

If a fault is called, point accumulation continues, but the triggers becomes dormant. The dog must do the dogwalk/start again to reactivate the triggers. Faults include the usual performance faults like: knocked bar, missed contact, starting the weave poles without completing. These special faults also apply:

  • taking a bonus tunnel without taking one of the triggers first;
  • taking an obstacle between the trigger obstacle and the bonus obstacle (including back-jumping the trigger);
  • jumping the trigger when it is not active.

Knocking a trigger bar means that trigger is out of play for the rest of the game. The remaining trigger may still be used.


Pinball Wizard is scored Points, Then Time.


Games 1: 50 points
Games 2: 100 points
Games 3: 150 points


It’s true that this game feels a lot like Dare-to-Double as the dog gets to multiply points previously earned multiple times. An important difference between the two games is that the dog is penalized for any fault in Pinball Wizard by having to repeat the time-consuming/zero value start obstacle (the dogwalk).

The Mental Game

It would be fairly easy to lose heart on any fault, knowing that your strategy has unraveled and your dog probably won’t be able to earn the points to qualify.

Your dog will not be the only dog to fault in Pinball Wizard. There will be a bunch of faults out there. What differentiates the field of players at the Petit Prix is the ability of the handler to pick himself up and go on. The fault wasn’t crushing. Melting down on a fault is crushing.

Simple Math Strategy

The key to a dog’s choice game is that it should be resolved to a plan as clear and precise as any numbered course. Plan to run without fault.

Two Bonus Strategy

The game might be approached with the simple math to achieve a qualifying score:

17 * 3 = 51; + 1 = 52 * 3 = 156

This strategy requires the dog to do trigger and bonus only twice. The dog needs to begin with a minimum of 17 points to get to a GIII qualifying score.

15 * 3 = 45 + 5 =50 * 3 = 150

Three Bonus Strategy

Three bonuses will surely yield more points than only two. The burning question shall be… how many points should be scored before engaging in the bonus strategy.

6 * 3 = 18; + 1 = 19; * 3 = 57 + 1 =58 * 3 = 174

In this strategy the dog begins with only six points, and picks off a single point before returning to the trigger and bonus. Note that this can be done with a fairly economical 12 obstacles, raising the possibility that the trigger and bonus might be approached a fourth time.

12 * 3 = 36+ 5 = 41+ 3 = 123+ 3 = 126 * 3 = 378

This strategy is a bit more ambitious. Not only does the dog begin with 12 points, but gets more transitional points between trigger and bonus performances.

The Finish

There is no good reason to run for the table as soon as your strategy is exhausted. There is no real downside to getting to the table after the whistle has blown to end point accumulation. You might take another shot at trigger and bonus. Or, at the very least, continue accumulating points for the simple performance of obstacles until the whistle blows.


I wrote the following bit way back in July of 2009. Apparently we played the game in League to give it a workout:

* * *

It’s a funny thing. I went into this pretty much imagining that I had figured out the killer strategy before the first dog had run. Here’s my logic… since it takes 150 points to qualify at the GIII level… then it makes sense to collect pretty much precisely just enough in the opening salvo so that it would add up to a qualifying score if tripled only twice. That would be I figure 16 or 17 points.

And then, as we diligently pursued this line of reasoning… all of our dogs timed out smack in the middle of the third tripler.

We sat and pondered this for awhile and arrived at an interesting conclusion… It would be considerably better points-wise to go into the bonus period with a more modest accumulation of points, say 10 or 12. That will allow time to get the third tripler. That means instead of having a score hovering just above 150 points… the dog would have a score more in the range of 350 +.

Now, what you have to take into consideration is that we were not running on a TDAA course. We were running on a big dog course. So had we all scored our third tripler using the initial logic… then our scores would have been more in the vicinity of 450+ points.

We learned some other interesting things as well… like why it doesn’t pay to melt down when the judge calls a fault.

This was a very cool game and likely a keeper in the TDAA.


  • Pinball Wizard is often confused by judges/course designers with Wild West Pinball. So it will appear in the world with elements of the latter game utterly distorting and obscuring the original Margaret Hendershot game.
  • Timing Variation ~ time begins when the dog dismounts the dogwalk… rather than when the dog commits to the dogwalk.

Premium Blurb

Pinball Wizard a dog’s choice point accumulation game with on-the-field bonuses that triple all of the dog’s points. The game starts with a performance of the dogwalk; rather like pulling back the plunger on a pinball table before releasing the pinball onto the table and racking up points.

Homegrown Tomatoes

Courtesy of Kory Kruckmeyer: “Guy Clark on an old old Austin City Limits, with “Home Grown Tomatoes”, his 2nd most famous song.”

Do tell… what’s Guy Clark’s most famous song?

Homegrown Garlic

This is heirloom garlic given to me by Cookie Nee.


She gave me something else that I’ll always remember. She says, “In the ground on Columbus Day, and harvest on the Fourth of July!” This is like old farmer timing wisdom… and is easy to remember. The timing has always been a complete mystery to me.


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.

Tag 10

September 21, 2014

There are agility handlers who have difficulty with so-called “dog’s choice” games because a path has not been clearly plotted for them. It seems a bit unsettling to randomly and haphazardly commit the dog through the performance of obstacles.

The key to a dog’s choice game is that it should be resolved to a plan as clear and precise as any numbered course.

Games of the 2014 Petit Prix

We’ve played this game before, at the Petit Prix. It was the 2008 Petit Prix Semifinal Game, on October 10, 2008, judged by Diane Jensen,

The following rules for Tag 10 are a preview to those that will be used at the Petit Prix being faithful to the inventors’ (Martin Gadsby and Lisa Brownschilde) original vision of the game.


Small dogs will have 60 seconds, Big dogs 55 seconds for each team to accumulate as many 10-point sets as possible.

  • Jumps  2 points
  • Tunnels            3 points
  • Contacts          5 points
  • Weave poles    5 points

Play starts with a “tag” (performance of a tire) and ends with a “tag” after the time whistle blows.  The logic of the game is simple:

  1. After the initial “tag”,
  2. the team gathers a 10-point set (exactly 10 points),
  3. then “tag”,
  4. gather another 10-point set (no more, no less than 10 points),
  5. then “tag” and so on until the whistle blows
  6. at which time the team should quickly “tag” to stop time.

Each 10-point set must be unique.  The team may not repeat a sequence—either forward or in reverse.  Dogs cannot take the same obstacle back-to-back.  They can take the same obstacle twice (and only twice) in a sequence as long as a different obstacle is taken in between.


Tag 10 is scored points then time.  Time is a tiebreaker only.  Each 10-point set earns the team a score of 1.

If the team “tags” after a non-unique set, the judge will call “COPY” which means that set does not count.

If the dog Tags with more or less than 10 points, no points for the set shall be awarded. The judge may call “TAG”; but it’s not the judge’s job to do the math. The score-keeping table will sort out the bodies.

If the dog is in the middle of accumulating a set when time is called, the points earned in that set will be converted to a decimal score. For example, 4.6 points are earned for the fourth attempted set in which 6 obstacle points were accumulated. If the team does not stop time by “tagging,” they will keep their points but their time will be 999 seconds.

If a dog faults an obstacle, no points are awarded for that obstacle. The dog must perform another obstacle before repeating the faulted obstacle. If a bar is dropped the jump is out of play.


Games I           Two sets (at least 20 points)

Games II         Three sets (at least 30 points)

Games III        Four sets (at least 40 points)

Sample Course


This is not the actual Tag 10 course that will be run at the Petit Prix.

Tag 10 requires the dog to score in books of 10 points. It is a good idea to immediately understand how to put together ten points:

  • Technical obstacles (contacts and weave poles); So, two technical obstacles = 10 points;
  • Jumps = 2 points and tunnels = 3 points; So, two tunnel/jump combinations = 10 points.
  • Putting together the first two: A technical obstacle and a tunnel/jump combination =10 points
  • Five jumps = 10 points.

You can’t make five points with jumps alone.

You can’t make five or 10 points with tunnels alone. If you score three tunnels, you are in a pickle. There’s nothing else to do but Tag away the tunnels (even though you lose all the points). Don’t waste time standing in the middle of the ring pulling your hair out.

Strategy of the Game ~ A Smooth Road

Your strategy for the game must be to find something smooth that delivers up blocks of 10 at your dog’s best working speed. Any fifth grader can make combinations of obstacles that add up to 10 points. It is the master handler who recognizes those that are quick business.

Two things to take into consideration in a point accumulation game like this will be the economy of the path and the relative difficulty of the obstacles on that path.

Take the fastest smoothest books of ten first. There is no sense in going after tough tens with there are quick tens to pick up by the bushel basket.

The thing to do, then, is plot as many unique 2-tunnel and 2-jump sequences as possible as the opening gambit. When these are exhausted look for a technical obstacle paired with a jump and tunnel. And finally look for two technical obstacles.

Given this strategy, we’ll use the sample course to visualize what the dog might do in 55/60 seconds.


On this course are three tunnels. The entry to the collapsed tunnel/chute is so far removed from the rest of the action it should probably be used only once during the 2-tunnel & 2-jump part of the strategy. One of these two paths might be the smoothest opening of the course.

Be aware that the transitional distance between these books of ten, to and from the tire, may decide the winning score in Tag 10.


The judge has a mind like a steel trap and will call “COPY” if you repeat a sequence either forward, or in reverse.

On the sample course envision at least four unique combinations for the two-jump & two-tunnel strategy after the opening. The plan must insist on conducting all of these, because these will comfortably produce the points required to qualify at the Games III level.


At this point you have all of your fast and easy books of 10. Now you plan to work until somebody blows a whistle.

In your plan, visualize the books of Ten with the longer path and using the technical obstacles. Failing to have a plan will leave you flat-footed and feeling silly (in front of God and everybody).

When they blow the whistle… head for a last “Tag” of the tire. Don’t dawdle in this last moment. You can bet a lot of dogs have your dog’s exact score… and time is the tie-breaker.


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.

Cedar’s Journal

September 21, 2014

We’ve taken a new dog into our home. The dog is 7 weeks old (and a couple days now). This event immediately launches a variety of structured activities and responsibilities.

If you have the opportunity to look at a litter you might take a bit of time doing temperament testing to find just the right dog for you. The bigger the litter the better the odds, I suppose. But we took this girl sight unseen and trusted to the gods in this luck of the draw.

I’m happy to report that this girl is bold and curious and appropriate. She can also be loud, by the way, something I attribute to the Sheltie genes in her.

Filmed Cedar this morning demonstrating that she’ll be toy motivated and probably will like a good game of tug (as a reward for the brilliant training moments she will have.)

Cedar’s Tug Video

A rational person might question whether you really want to teach a young dog to tear up your socks. We’ll make sure that she has ample access to more appropriate playthings as we go along.

Cedar comes to us with this interesting story. Marsha Houston writes in her Facebook: “Dam has been feral in the woods near Fairmont, WV, long enough to have 2 litters of puppies. This litter was discovered at 3 weeks of age, were secured and bottle fed (mother still couldn’t be captured) and raised for 3.5 weeks with a family. Several were sent to rescue and one was kept by the rescuer who decided she really couldn’t keep her. As the rescuer was walking the puppy into the humane society, our friend Sheree was there to pull dogs. She took the puppy, got her vetted, and posted her pic 9/19. By 1:30 we were picking her up. This is the same rescue group I adopted Phoenix from. They trust us and we trust them. Win-Win-Win!”

Naturally, since this dog is alleged to be a Sheltie mix, I had to drag me out a Nobel Growth Chart and begin tracking her on a week-by-week basis:


As you can see, she appears right in the middle of the grey area at week 7. I’ll measure again on Week 8… and then measure every two weeks as the chart suggests. The conformation range for a Sheltie is between 13 and 16 inches. 16 can be serendipitous because it’s the cut-off in the USDAA between big dogs and small dogs.


I feel no real pressure with this girl to make her into anything that approaches an ego boo. This is important from the onset. I do not need a dog to validate me. Que Sera Sera!

What most fascinates me is taking her through the distance training methodology that I fine-tuned with Kory when he was a pup [documented in the pages of The Joker’s Notebook.] The dog trainer should be very conscious of the differences between dogs. And one of the chief differences in Cedar is that she will have a brain no bigger’n a walnut. And so I will have to be more meticulous and granular in my approach to training. It’s easy for the Border Collie trainer to convince himself that he’s a friggin dog training genius, when it’s truly the keenness and compensatory nature of the dog that has all the genius bits.

At any rate, I want a young fast dog who understands her job while working a magnificent distance from her old arthritic person.

Marsha has objectives for Cedar as well. She’ll be meticulous in applying her two-minute-dog trainer magic.

Visit Cedar’s Facebook page.


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.

Meet Me in Latrobe

September 16, 2014


Here’s a picture from our front porch that I took a couple days ago. Fall has arrived with an abrupt turn in the temperature, chilling just enough to scare the tomatoes and make the humming birds consider the southern horizon. It’s a beautiful view and begs for sitting on the porch in the morning with a hot cup of coffee, wearing your robe a bit longer into the day than most people do.

Petit Prix

Hey, I have a couple events up and coming that will take me to Latrobe, PA. Obviously, there is the 2014 TDAA Petit Prix my very favorite agility event. That’s like six weeks away. For two days before the Petit Prix we’ll be doing the warm-up workshop. I get to work with canny competitors to gear them up for the tournament and give them a competitive edge in understanding the strategies of the games we’ll be playing. There might be a couple working slots still available. Contact Marsha for information.

Top Dog

This Saturday we’re doing a Top Dog league intro in Latrobe. I have no idea if anybody is actually going to show up. I didn’t take advanced reservations (because it’s not my league). But we’re going to film it with our vague notion of a reality show; and we’re going to play three games. It’ll be fun discovering who the Latrobe league team will be for the September Top Dog Challenge.

Now, if you’ve read down this far you’re actually reading my blog. I can loosen my tongue and not have to sound like I’m selling something. I have this vision you know, of an inexpensive/recreational approach to the game of dog agility. These are terms that easily slip off the tongue but don’t have much real definition in the world.

So let me put it like this, I’m a semi-retired man living in a cabin in the country. I have half a dozen continuing students. My wife and I run a small but very fun agility organization. And I subsist by the occasional seminar and selling ebooks for training dogs in agility. And you know, I can’t really afford to do dog agility like I want to. Agility trialing is like 10 times more expensive than a golfing habit.

I’m trying to create in Top Dog a model for play of the game that is as inexpensive and natural as a pick-up game of softball in the corner lot. Very few people really understand Top Dog. There’s plenty of information out there; I know because I’ve published it. But dang, we’re in the age of information over-load.  Being semi-retired I’m not in any hurry. I know that this new lonely outcast idea has to be built a brick at a time, a dog at a time, a club at a time.

Top Dog Challenge at Home

The weekend following the Top Dog intro in Latrobe, I’m going to invite a bunch of people to our place here in Watertown to run the challenge courses. This might be the last bit we can do outside this year.

Class Plan


I pulled out an old skills exercise for our class this past week. This set-up is used for teaching the Tandem Turn which, as you should know, is a form of the rear cross in which the handler crosses behind his dog on the dismount of an obstacle, or on the flat.

We filmed most of the exercises (I bought a new camera last month!) I’m thinking that I want to make a DVD though I have no experience or particular expertise at that kind of publishing. I do know how to teach people to be master handlers… and that is the bit I’d like to share. It seems like a lot of work and bandwidth to put it all up as YouTube.


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.

Business Model for Top Dog League Play

September 7, 2014

This discussion is intended for the dog agility professional engaged in training services as a business; providing training expertise, site, and equipment. The addition of agility league play to the business mix provides a supplementary income stream, attracts new customers, and enhances student retention.

This business model is intended to provide an overview of dog agility league play, its income potential, and the business owner’s relationship with Top Dog Agility Players.


Dog agility league play is intended to be a weekly competition. It can be (and should be) conducted in conjunction with agility classes. If the business has 24 students who will participate in league play, and they are charged $5 each week for their participation, in a year the business earns $6,240.

Note that this is supplementary income and is not based on the recruitment of new students.

If the business is a large training center the math can be extraordinary. If there are 100 students and they are charged $10 each week, then the annual income from league play amounts to $52K.

A League of Your Own

Putting together an agility league in the training center can be an interesting logistical problem. You might have a staff of instructors who all have a different vision for training objectives for their own students. And you have students who come and go throughout the week on different days, at different hours.

The simple approach would be to select a course or game and set the floor for the entire week with that layout of equipment. Give the layout to your instructors and challenge them to find their training objectives without moving equipment.

The league play competition could be sandwiched between classes. For example, you have a one-hour class that begins at 6:00 pm; and another that begins at 7:30. To introduce league play you ask the later class to come a bit early. Briefing begins promptly at 7:00 pm, then walkthrough, then run the game. The later class begins immediately after the last dog has run and will have its own full hour.

Top Dog Agility Players

Top Dog Agility Players features a titling program that measures the skill and development of both recreational and serious dog agility competitors. This program can be conducted at the host clubs site without many of the associated costs and requirements imposed by other agility organizations.

Top Dog provides incentive for your customers to participate in league play. Their achievements are recognized and celebrated by agility titles conferred for each dog’s performance in competition.


If you would like to participate in Top Dog Agility Players league competition contact Bud Houston at We will endeavor to help you get your league competition up and running smoothly.

How to Participate!

Anyone (club, group or individual) may set up any or all of the Challenge Courses. For results to be recorded for this event the courses must be run in the month of September, 2014, and results must be reported by midnight on September 30, 2014.

If you would like to play, these are important resources for you:

Top Dog Pup Registration Form (it’s free);
Scorekeeping Package for September 2014 Challenge Courses (Excel file);
Top Dog Rules and Regulations (Our simple system for scoring performance)


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit the web store at: Please note that the web store carries The Book of Agility Games. This is an important reference for any club who plays the variety of games that we’ll play in Top Dog Agility Players.

Kickstarting The Agility Challenge Program

September 4, 2014

On a practical lark, I have initiated a Kickstarter project for The Agility Challenge Program. We are determined to create programming (internet streaming) for agility fans! Follow this link:


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.

Wild West Pinball

September 3, 2014

Wild West Pinball is the invention of Ilze Rukis one of the preeminent agility games inventors in the world. The game was designed as a qualifying game in the TDAA for play at Decatur Dog Training Club in Warrensburg, IL on April 12, 2003.

It is a game that is played today in the TDAA probably more often than the game deserves. Since it is a titling game I’m going to give it the rugged scrutiny that any titling game deserves. We should understand the game both from the course designer’s point of view, while helping the competitor understand how to approach the game.


A discussion of strategy and preparation rightly belongs in the front matter. But the briefing gives context. After you’ve read that part… take a bit of time to read the analysis.


The objective of Wild West Pinball is to accumulate as many points as possible within course time: 50 seconds for large dogs and 55 seconds for small dogs. The dog will start anywhere along the Start Line. A whistle will signal the end of point accumulation, whereupon the dog should be directed to the table to stop time. Until the time whistle the table is considered a part of the floor. It will become live after the whistle. (or when the handler is clearly making an attempt to end scoring by going to the table with his dog)

If a fault is called, a fault will not affect previously accumulated points earned but no points will be awarded to a faulted obstacle. If a bar is knocked, it will not be reset during the run, making that sequence ineligible for points.

Elements of the Course

All obstacles and combinations but the teeter combination and the collapsed tunnel are bidirectional.

  • Fort Ligonier, and Mr Rogers neighborhood are 50 points
  • Keystone State Park and 501 Avenue B are 75 points
  • Idewild Soak Zone is 100; this combination is not only bidirectional but any which way.  Just do the two tunnels one after the other, either entry, either tunnel.
  • Latrobe Brewery and St Vincent College are 150 points. St Vincent college is not only bidirectional, but may be started from either side; just ensure that the jumps are performed in serpentine fashion.
  • Arnold Palmer is 175 Points; the judge as stipulated that the weave poles must be performed as a continuous motion. If the dog pops out the weave poles need to be restarted from the beginning.
  • Latrobe Country Club is 200 points.

An obstacle that belongs to a “combination” can be taken for flow even though no points will be earned. If a dog drops a bar when taking a hurdle that is part of a combination, then the combination is out of play for the remainder of the dog’s performance.

Scoring and Qualification

Wild West Pinball is scored Points, Then Time.

Qualifying Scores:

  • Games I: 300 points
  • Games II: 450 points
  • Games III: 600 points

Analysis & Exegesis

On first glance this is not a very serious looking game. The original game used colorful terminology like “Dog Bone Bonus”, “Cowboy Cliffhanger”, and “Gold Nuggets”. As the game emerged in the TDAA the local course designers engaged in a tradition for renaming the challenges for local color. So all of the terms and expressions you see noted on the course map are indigenous color for the region in which the game will be played.

The point values assigned obstacles and obstacle-combinations are a bit on the wild side, and without much apparent logic. The exhibitor must look at this course map and feel a warning throb at the back of the skull as the brain gets ready to explode.

Preparing to Play

TDAA competitors are among the great agility games players in the world. With a well-written briefing the canny handler will plot and scheme a path for the dog that will deliver a qualifying score at least… or maybe even win the class if it’s an exceptional plot and scheme.

In this game you need to get your head right. Ignore the cute and clever labels and think about points. It’s kind of like playing Scrabble, (a game is not about spelling words but about scoring points.)

From the example course I did a bit of modeling to figure out what kind of dog’s path I’d need to qualify. Here’s an example:


This is a strategy that delivers 600 points, precisely what is required to qualify at the Games III level. The path measures 82 yards which makes the strategy doable even for tiny dogs with legs that are only 4″ long.

Editor’s Note:  The example course was designed for big dogs. A TDAA course will have shorter transitions between obstacles and might very well allow for a higher accumulation of points in a shorter amount of time.

Playing to Win

The downside of the strategy plotted above is that it begs for the minimum performance. The dog might easily get to the table with time still on the clock. Since there is no real downside to going overtime, the handler should endeavor to keep the dog on the field and score points until they turn out the lights and kick everybody out (or, until the whistle blows).


In this scheme and strategy I’ve repeated the very high scoring combinations at the back of the field. Once the dog gets through the second performance of the St. Vincent College serpentine, he has scored 825 points. Then he heads south to soak up points in the Idlewild Soak Zone until the whistle blows.

Inventory of Strengths and Weaknesses

The fun thing about games like this is that the handler can study to avoid those obtacles that are problematic for a dog.  If the dog is terrified by the teeter… stay away from the teeter. If the dog doesn’t know how to weave… stay away from the weave poles.

Judging Notes

There isn’t much logic to the names of the elements of the course or the point values that are assigned to them. This is a game that calls for a judge with a mind like a steel trap… or clever system for crediting the dog’s performance.

A system that might work is the use of numbered cones for the elements of the course. The judge wouldn’t have to keep track of either the names or values of any of those elements. He, or she, would simply call out the numbers in a linear representation of the dog’s performance. The score-keeping table would have a cheat sheet allowing the translation of those numbers into the arithmetic that makes up the dog’s score.

Class Plan


I had already laid out the floor for our agility classes this week. And so I superimposed the Wild West Pinball over this set of the floor, with some modest tweaking.

This short course features both sweeping flow and tight technical handling. Obviously (to me) there will also be an opportunity for good work at a distance.


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.


September 2, 2014

My older brother Travis Lionel Houston died eight days ago. I’ve been reluctant to share my thoughts and feelings on this. Some of those feelings won’t be shared. We’ll have to call them private demons.

When we were children Travis was my best bud. He was certainly my greatest tormentor and defender; which means that he would have beat the crap out of anyone who treated me like he did. And from time to time, he did just that.

Travis was the star of our family and the apple of my father’s eye. He excelled in athletics. He was a ladies man. He was a scholar. He had the world in front of him.

On the other hand, I was none of that. By all accounts I was the black sheep of the family. And so by the hand of cards we were both dealt you’d have thought that the future was a predictable movie script.

Travis demonstrated too early in his life a propensity for chemical dependency. You can call it a character flaw. I prefer to imagine that it’s a disease that he had no more chance of overcoming without proper care than the most malevolent cancer. For more than 40 years we hadn’t much to say to each other. He used to “borrow” a few hundred dollars from me every few months as his life moved from disaster to disaster. One day I cut all that off and I never again had much occasion to talk to him. He no longer had use for me.

So now Travis has died. It was liver failure. If I understand the diagnosis his liver was making or allowing to be made horrible toxic chemicals that choked away his life.

Here’s the thing about alcohol and drugs… none of it should be viewed as a “risk”. It’s like you’re abusing your body and you get to say silly shit like “well, it’s a risk. But my grandma drank… and she lived to 99!”

It’s not a risk. It’s a certainty. And you’re going to die a horrible stupid death before it’s actually your time to die. In the meantime you get to live in hovels and hang out with the worthless dregs of humanity… because they’re the ones who share your values.

I actually cried when I heard the news. I wouldn’t have called that. It wasn’t for very long, and it wasn’t for the man who died. I cried for the child I knew the brother my old best friend with so much promise that forever shall be unfulfilled.

Post Script

I’m oddly grappling with the artifice of the “Blog” which is shared out as unpredictable spam on “Facebook”. It’s a poor tribute to my older brother that the closest thing he’ll get to a eulogy is a social network sentiment that gets to compete with “I had a burrito for breakfast,” and “isn’t my cat cute!”


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 Dog Agility Players

September 1, 2014

We’ve just published the League Challenge Course for September, 2014. You can get all the details here:

There might be three new league host clubs joining us in the month of September. It’s a slow but fun start.

I’ve just returned from a three-day trial at B&D Creekside in Latrobe, PA.  It’s late, and I’m tired. I’ll write more 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.