Wild West Pinball

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 Houston.Bud@gmail.com. The web store is up and running. www.dogagility.org/newstore. 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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