Archive for the ‘Course and Sequence Design’ Category

Using the Front of the Ring in Course Design

March 28, 2017

The purpose of the Course Design College topics is to share design tips with all of our judges. Making the teaching point one judge at a time is useful. But sharing with all of our judges is practical.

After a long road trip I’m catching up on TDAA course reviews (and other work as well). I’d like to share with you an important observation about course design for the TDAA.

I got this course for review in an upcoming trial:


Aside from small technical notations, what really jumps out about this course is that the designer pretty much disdained the use of the front of the ring, thereby making a small space even smaller. It’s not really a bad course concept, but the back of the ring feels very cramped. The course designer is asking the handler to demonstrate some fairly technical skills with barely enough room to work.

Don’t you know, we design for some pretty small spaces in the TDAA. A design flaw when you have 10K square feet can be forgiven. Make the same mistake in 2K square feet and the compression can be awesome and unforgiving.

I’m going to redesign this course and barely tweak the placement of the equipment to demonstrate how using the front of the ring might alleviate the compression:


The intention was to demonstrate how using the front of the ring distributes the flow and frankly results in a smoother more balanced design. Note that borders have also been applied to the course map, and course numbering was changed from baseline to Cartesian.

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Agility Dreams

November 17, 2015

I spent the weekend judging a USDAA trial in Camarillo, CA. You know, I showed my long gone Sheltie dogs Winston and Kelsi there circa 1991. I used to know all the folks that played in agility in southern California. I half expected to see a bunch of my old cronies. But it wasn’t that way at all. I did see Marq Cheek; and of course Karen Moureaux was host of the trial.

It is inescapable that agility is the same thing today that it was 25 or 30 years ago. I’d say that the average competitor is basically the same kind of creature that we all were back then. The better handlers and dogs are possibly a bit better than they used to be. But on average, it’s the same sport.

I put up a Masters Challenge Jumpers course that came to me in my dreams. I was quite nervous about it because it demanded skills that aren’t routine at all. I’ll share it with you:


The design premise is basically a “cluster”; an arrangement of obstacles that create multiple entry and exit possibilities. In my dream I envisioned contiguous hexagonal shapes. What I discovered about the basic design principle is that it created a variety of transitional distances. From the dismount of the weave poles through jump #11, for example, the dog is working in full extension. Jump #11 through jump #13, however, is a very tight pinwheel in which the dog must be held in collection.

While the qualifying percentage on this course was quite low, it was not by any means a skunk of the class. Dogs qualified at about every jump height… demonstrating then that it could be done.

The biggest design challenge ever in the Masters Challenge Biathlon courses is giving the dog plenty of room to work at full extension and at full speed. If a class is skunked on account of time, then it means that the course demands too much in the way of collection.

The Demands of Judging

You know, people don’t really appreciate the work of an agility judge. I spend a minimum of three or four days designing courses. A weekend assignment usually requires a couple of grueling travel days. And, you get to stand out in the sun and rain all day long collecting a $buck a dog as the sole compensation for the work. Yep, it’s pretty close to minimum wage. And frankly, it was a $buck a dog 20 some years ago.

The part of this that I really like is course design. I’m not one to recycle courses. And, while I might obsess on a type of challenge over time, I’m constantly exploring new kinds of challenges that test the handler’s analytical abilities.

I have a variety of rules for design that are my own, and not the dictate of the respective agility organization. I’m a big fan of nesting. I believe in designing appropriate to level. And I’m very sensitive to the separation of control positions on a course (I’ll be damned if I’ll design a course that only long legged kids can survive).

The physical demands of judging are getting to wear on me a bit. Sun burnt and sun struck and chasing damned border collies back and forth on contacts are the relentless demands of a weekend of judging. All the while you’re expected to have a mind like a steel trap. I’ve learned to forgive myself when the trap is a bit rusty.

People don’t jump in and help like they did when I was coming up. They complain a lot and want to be served. Jesus… what’s that about?

Speaking of Dreams

The weekend took a lot out of me. And I’m trying to wrestle down a variety of thoughts. I probably sound like I’m contemplating retirement. That’s an illusion. I don’t know how to quit or stop or retire.

I’ve been working on agility league play for years now. In 2016 I’ll promote it in earnest. I’m not a salesman or anything like that. I just want an outlet for competition that isn’t based on the same old tired “rational” model for the sport… you know what I mean, the grind for titles.

The National Dog Agility League finally has some traction. I do believe that Australia is coming on board shortly.

Today success in agility demands micromanaging the agility dog. I believe that agility can be something amazing and spectacular. The game should be open and inviting to anyone who wants to play. It should be inexpensive. It should be fun. That is the model that we should strive to create.

I’m aware that the agility small business operator wants to make a living. And so the model should nearly exclusively reward that person/business who takes all the risks and does all the work… with an appropriate income. And so the model should do exactly that.

This is tricky business. And it’s the perfect opportunity for the early adopter.

Jumping in to the League

If you have interested in jumping into League Play, the November workbook for the first game of the winter series can be downloaded HERE. We’ll be accepting results for this event through the end of the day, November 30th.


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Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. You’ll find in the web store The Book of Agility Games, an invaluable reference to clubs engaged in league play.

TDAA Small Dog Agility Excellence

June 29, 2015

The mission of the Teacup Dogs Agility Association has ever been to create challenges for the small dog that are comparable to the challenges presented for big dogs in other venues. The emerging challenges from international style of play are gradually being insinuated into TDAA coursework.

This is intended as a primer for the design of those international-style challenges, with a nod to existing course design guidelines.


A pull-through is a sequence that requires the handler to draw the dog past two perfectly good obstacle choices to the performance of an obstacle through the gap.


This sequence features two pull-throughs. The first is from jump #2 to the “hidden” entry to the pipe tunnel. The second is the transition from jump #4 to jump #5. This second pull-through is a threadle, which is by definition a pull-through in which the jump just taken becomes a wrong course option.

Design Notes: Between jump #2 and the wrong course A-frame, the course designer must allow a minimum of 12′ for the handler to work his magic. In the transition from jump #4 to #5 the gap between jumps must be generous enough for both the dog and the handler to move through.


A back-side can first of all be defined as an obstacle approach that is hidden to the dog and must be managed by the hander on the flat.


This is an illustration of a hard backside, meaning that the wrong side of the obstacle is presented to the dog as a logical choice, though it is a wrong course option.

Design Notes: A minimum of 12′ must be left to the handler after jump #2 to avoid the wrong course option.

A soft backside is a managed approach that does not explicitly present a wrong course option to the target obstacle. By definition a 270° turn is a soft backside.


The backside is not limited to jumping sequences. You’ll recognize that this is a hard backside.

Design Notes: A minimum of 12′ must be left to the handler after jump #2 to avoid the wrong course option.


A cluster is an arrangement of obstacles with multiple entries and multiple exits. The classic Hobday Box is surely a cluster.


A cluster is an arrangement of obstacles with multiple entries and multiple exits. A dog entering the cluster faces multiple options to exit. Aside from offering a variety of wicked challenge possibilities, the cluster allows a lot of action in a small space.

Design Notes: For the cluster to do its work to enhance sequencing possibilities in a small space, all of the obstacles in a cluster should not be used up in a single pass. If you think about it, the dog should be able to move through the cluster two or three times without much reuse of obstacles. And so for a fixed footprint, the course designer can raise the obstacle count and reuse fewer obstacles.

En Passant

An En Passant is an arrangement of obstacles that requires the handler to move the dog around an obstacle on a curve to a hidden approach.


The en passant is an excellent example demonstrating that many of the International-Style challenges create unusually long transitional distances between obstacles. This is expected and acceptable. The long transitions give balance to the arduous technical bits and micro-management.

Finishing Thoughts

The real difficulty with the International-Style Challenges in any venue is the degradation of the dog’s working speed to solve challenges which call for some degree of micro-management. It is truly an art form to create a course that flows and for the most part allows the dog to work at his top speed while presenting the dog and handler with wicked technical challenges along the way. Avoid any course design with relentless technical demands. A Superior/Masters level course should feature no more than two or three such challenges. Outside of these the course designer should endeavor to build speed and allow the dog to mostly work with an open stride.

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Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. You’ll find in the web store The Book of Agility Games, an invaluable reference to clubs engaged in league play.

Curing the Em

April 3, 2015

This is a dog agility course design discussion. I’ve been reviewing something like 200 courses a day, for a couple of days now… just getting caught up on my course review duties. I’d like to pause to share with you the discussion of the basic “Em” design for agility courses. I’ll use a sample course to demonstrate my point.

First I’ll share with you a note I have sent now to several of our judges / course designers:


I want to pause for a moment and reflect on what I see in your course design. The basic problem is the “M”. The predominate concept in the design of too many of your courses is a down & back – down & back design premise. You’ll recognize that makes an em. The problem with an “M” on a field that is only 40′ or 50′ wide is that inescapably you must track four parallel flows locking you into very narrow channels.

The real secret for designing for a space like this is making your flows serpentine… going back and forth across the ring as you make your way back. It will change everything.

Back to our scheduled program.


Here a sample course from which I can illustrate the point I was making about the Em and using serpentine flow to cure it:


This is the course as submitted. I could draw the background Em for you… but I think you can see it if you follow the numbers. There’s a little loop de loop from #11 to #15, but this is a not very interesting device for getting up the obstacle count. And still, the obstacle count probably falls short of what it should be for Superior level by about 3 obstacles. [Add to that one of my pet peaves… there are five tunnel performances in this 17 obstacle course. The designer should go easy on the tunnels.]

Truly the secret for designing in a small space is in the repetition of obstacles. Note too that the course designer pretty much disdained the use of the front of the ring.


At the risk of sounding downright unscientific about the process, what I’m going to do is throw away everything… but hold onto the placement of the A-frame and dogwalk. Then I will draw a whimsical line. The next step will be to position obstacles on that line in equally whimsical fashion. Be mindful that the required obstacles for the class need to be included.

This is what I came up with… took me nearly 10 minutes to design:


I’m pretty sure that the “Em” design will allow more dogs to be successful. The Em design simply does not / can not challenge handlers and their dogs appropriately who are competing at the Superior / Masters level. The whimsical course that I designed includes several compelling challenges: A very tough approach to the weave poles; a counter-side tunnel discrimination; a strong wrong course option; a modest backside; and a threadle to backside. Now we’re talking!

Not a Condemnation!

I want to make it very clear that this is a matter of education and is never intended to be a defining/condemning kind of criticism; (though, to be sure, I can be blunt in my course reviews). In the last few days I’ve been working on a suite of courses for an upcoming USDAA trial that I’m judging; and I know that I’ll be going through the course review process. Don’t you know… the USDAA course reviewers are still taking me to school, and I’ve been designing courses for something like 25 years now.


The whimsical line approach to course design isn’t new at all. This methodology was clearly documented about 20 years ago in Stuart Mah’s Fundamentals of Course Design. I couldn’t find the book on the Clean Run webstore… but I did find it here:

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Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. You’ll find in the web store The Book of Agility Games, an invaluable reference to clubs engaged in league play.

Intensity Agility

March 9, 2015


Here’s the course. It’s somewhere between icy and muddy outside, so I set the course up in the training building. The 3/4″ mats are shrunken, cold and hard. But our dogs are used to the surface and move in a collected fashion. I expect about anybody running on grass or on one of those Astroturf surfaces will have a clear advantage.

We filmed my run with Kory:;

and Marsha’s Run with Phoenix:

Phoenix actually ran first you can see where the wild man broke one of the weave poles. I had to go down in the lower field and grab several poles from my pound-in-the-ground weaves to fix the set.

To be sure, I am attempting to demonstrate the Back Pass as an important movement in the sport of agility. This short course features at least two threadles and a pull/push through. I used the Back Pass for each. You’ll note too that Marsha made use of a couple of Back Passes… she does train with me, after all.

An important attribute of the Back Pass is that the dog drops out of obstacle focus and into handler focus, allowing the handler’s position to constitute the corner of approach to the course. Once you start using this movement it will be an invaluable part of your agility repertoire.

Incorporating the League Course into Agility Classes

I ran a league at Dogwood for something like eight years. That was 150 students a week. So I would set the league course on Sunday and base all of our classes on that set of equipment. We were pretty serious about everyone running the same course… so it was necessary to mark the position of equipment on the floor (or on the field) so that if it got kicked around a bit, we could continue to nudge it back into position.

We’re starting now a series of classes for a very small family of students with the earnest intention of training them to masters level skills. Each week will begin with the league course and have a special topic for study and practice. And, each week, there will be homework. Please note that an instructor always knows who is doing their homework…and who is not.


  • Back-Pass in both directions
  • Weave Poles with progressive oblique separationThis is a simple concept. As the dog weaves the handler will gradually increase his/her distance from the dog. At first the angle of dismount is at a modest angle. But over time the handler should increase the oblique angle until it is virtually 90 degrees.
  • Weave Poles with handler at high energyCompetition should not be the first time your dog sees you being excited and agitated. Practice the weave poles while pushing energy with the dog.
  • Weave Poles with a variety of approach angles; and practice rear crossing the entry.

Lesson Plan March 9, 2015

I shall probably have to return to these over the next few days to write a bit on each of the sequences to share with you what I learned in the teaching of them. You’ll note that because my floor is bigger than the published league course, I’ve added additional equipment and have incorporated that equipment into our lesson plan.







Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. You’ll find in the web store The Book of Agility Games, an invaluable reference to clubs engaged in league play.

The Finnish Line

December 19, 2014

The study of dog agility course design coming out of Europe can be useful. Most innovation in terms of challenge is spawned on that continent.

Following is a standard course by Timo Teileri of Finland played on December 12, 2014. I’d like to do a walk-through with you.


Note that no obstacle is repeated on this course, a European convention that demonstrates a fundamental difference from American course design[1]. It is important mainly at jumps, providing distinction of performance faults. If a bar on a jump is dropped by a dog, the course design won’t allow the dog a free pass over the jump without a new opportunity to drop the bar.

In the opening four obstacles the handler must be calculating a strategy that will allow dog-on-right into the weave poles because of the counter-side approach to the pipe tunnel at #6. The transition from the tire to the #3 pipe tunnel offers a real risk that the dog might veer into the wrong side of the tunnel. And then, after jump #4 the handler will want to draw the dog tightly into the turn so that the dog’s path doesn’t go wide and perpendicular to the entry to the poles. And then, like I said, the handler really wants dog-on-right through the poles to draw the dog back for the pipe tunnel. Note that the dog will be exiting the weave poles to the right, and so the handler must execute the hard-aback turn without sticking the dog back into the weave poles.

After jump #7 the dog enters a “cluster” with two or three wrong course options open to the dog. The handler needs to tighten the turn to line up nice and square for the long jump. After the long jump the dog has a blind approach to the #9 pipe tunnel. But surely the handler’s mind is on what follows. A back-side performance of jump #11 follows the teeter. The handler may have in mind to change sides to the dog while on the teeter. It’s either that, or the handler will have to do the back-side presentation while on the side away from the turn. Note too that the back-side jump is in a pocket framed by two wrong course jumps. The handler will have to draw the dog around neatly for the presentation without losing him to a course more logical than the one the judge actually numbered.

An interesting threadle is featured from the dismount of dogwalk to jump #13. This may be problematic for a dog with running contacts. The dog enters the “cluster” again after jump #14 with at least two wrong-course choices before getting his nose around to the A‑frame. The handling choice after jump #14 will be dictated by the side the handler wants the dog on for the A-frame performance. With dog-on-right the handler will have to get ahead to bend the dog away to jump #16. With dog-on-left the handler will have to show a nifty Tandem-on-the-flat in the transition from jump #16 to #17.

Note that if the dog approaches jump #17 with a too acute path, he’s subject to a refusal at jump #18, running past on the right.

It looks like a fun course. The tough stuff is kind of in-your-face. But these obvious bits are framed by subtle challenges that might be overlooked or miscalculated.

On a Personal Note

I don’t know about you, but I’m not capable of looking at a course map without visualizing what I might do to solve the riddle posed by the judge. What strikes me about the Timo Teileri course is that control positions are corner opposite positions. For example, the transition from the weave poles into the pipe tunnel has the dog and handler at one corner of the ring, with the back-side jump approach to #11 is in the opposite corner of the ring.

Speaking as an arthritis inflicted handler (which is to say, not a particularly impressive runner) I find this considerably challenging. But it’s not undoable and so, in my opinion, not completely bloody-minded. I will have to rely on my dog’s independent performance and distance directional skills.

My boy Kory is a terrific distance working dog. That proclamation should go along with an important disclaimer. Distance handling looks magical and amazing when it works. In today’s very technical dog agility game, distance work is like throwing cards into a hat on a windy day. It’s a tough way to make a living.

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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.

[1] That being said, sometimes the Europeans do design with this one-time only per obstacle purity. Sometimes they aren’t so pure.

Snooker ~ Petit Prix Warmup

October 7, 2014

This is part of a continuing series, Games of the TDAA’s 2014 Petit Prix. Today I’ll talk briefly about Snooker, a familiar game in our agility culture.

On first glance, the closeness of the obstacles feels a bit daunting. In other agility organizations everything is spaced for the long-striding dogs who will cover 20′ or so in two or three strides. This gives us an opportunity to remember the Mission of the TDAA:

The purpose of the Teacup Dogs Agility Association is to provide a competitive venue for dogs of small stature without regard to breed or pedigree, and to encourage course challenges that are comparable to the course challenges which face large dog handlers in other popular venues.

So there you have it. There’s nothing easy about the TDAA. We have a high standard for performance and spacing between obstacles so that small dog handlers face the kinds of challenges that big dog handlers face on any given weekend of play… in the big dog agility organizations.



Snooker is a two-part game. Each part is played and scored on a different basis. The objective of the opening sequence (the first part) is to score as many points as possible by alternately performing all of the red hurdles; and scoring points from the numbered sequence. The objective of the second parts is to run a short numbered sequence without fault.

Time starts when the dog crosses the start line.  Time stops when the dog crosses the finish line after the horn sounds or after completing the closing sequence. 12” and 16” dogs have 45 seconds; 4” and 8” dogs have 50 seconds.

Opening Sequence:  The game begins with an opportunity for the dog and handler team to earn points by successfully performing red obstacles, always jumps, valued at 1 point each. A successfully performed red earns the team the right to attempt one of the colored (non red) obstacles on the course, valued at 2 to 7 points. The team earns those points if the dog successfully performs the selected colored obstacle.

This is a 4-of-4 red format. All four red hurdles must be attempted.

When performing the combination obstacles, both obstacles must be attempted before going on to the next red or starting the closing.  If the first obstacle of the combo is faulted, the dog must be directed to perform the second obstacle even though no points can be earned.

In the opening all obstacles are bi-directional in;  combination obstacles can be taken in any order or direction.

Closing Sequence:  After the opening sequence, the team will perform all colored obstacles in the numerical sequence indicated by their point value (#2, then #3, then #4, and so forth, through #7). The dog and handler team will earn the value assigned to each of these obstacles as long as the obstacle is not faulted.

In the closing, combination obstacles must be taken in the numbered order and direction.


Snooker is scored Points, Then Time.


  • Games I 35 points
  • Games II and III 37 points

Strategies of the Game

There are old pilots.  There are bold pilots…  There are no old bold pilots.
~ Chuck Yeager

There are two essential strategies of this game: Flow and Greed.



I’ve drawn here a basic/logical flow strategy. The circled numbers represent the value of the obstacles; the square numbers represent the intended sequence. I recognize that the wrap from the fourth red hurdle to the A-frame is a bit of a technical moment in the flow… but there’s nothing out there really for the dog to attack after that final red hurdle except for the A-frame.

This course measures about 80 yards. Note that I’ve included the transition from the last “non-red” obstacle to the #2 jump because that is an important part of the puzzle.

Note that in this strategy the dog will still have to do the first four obstacles of the numbered sequence to earn a qualifying score. Anything after that is gravy.

There are other flow strategies that might be contemplated. It’s important for the handler and competitor to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of his dog. Find something fast and smooth with as little technical churn as possible.  And, where you can be a little greedy, what can it hurt?


I had to share the old Chuck Yaeger quote above. I am always reminded of it when I thing about the “Greed” strategy. That being said, it is the greedy player who wins the game.

I will not endeavor to draw a path for the “Greed” strategy. The greediest opening would be all four of the #7 obstacles. Inasmuch as the approach to the A-frame is a problem from the two red hurdles to the left… maybe these can settle for a performance of the #5 or #6 (a combination).

Final Words

Remember that if you do the #2 jump after your last red hurdle, you’ll have to do the #2 jump again to begin the numbered sequence.

Let the judge be the judge. Don’t call faults on yourself.


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.

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.


February 1, 2014

I’ll share with you a snippet of the work we did in today’s workshop. I borrowed a central sequence from “The Letter W”, from Nancy Gyes Alphabet drills and wrapped around it the tunnel/contact discrimination work I’ve been wanting to do.

At any rate, my students got a good workout both with the weave poles and the tunnel discrimination.





Top Dog

I’ve spent the winter building initiative on a new direction for Top Dog. What I really want to do is produce a weekly dog agility digital video program. Being an old timer I keep wanting to call it a “television” program. But to be sure it’ll be web-based. We’re building a team of owners and directors for the initiative. I’ll explain more in the coming days. Of course, I haven’t finished with the course design topic. That just means I have plenty to write about.

Blog934 – (Seven days in a row! Now it looks like a pattern.)

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.