Archive for the ‘TDAA Course Design College’ 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.

BLOG1213 Home

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit our web store: You’ll find in the web store The Book of Agility Games, a comprehensive reference to all manner of agility games played for competition and fun around the world.

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.

Blog1016 TDAA

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:

Blog998 TDAA

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Border Collie Effect pt 4

January 29, 2014

This is a continuation a discussion of how to create a course from a blank slate from my long ignored course design manuscript.  The scribbled line method in yesterday’s web-log is a tried and true method. And, by the way, it was discussed in Stuart Mah’s Fundamentals of Course Design, published by Clean Run Productions nearly 20 years ago.

Design from Core Constructs

Another approach I take to course design is to begin with a construct that I find particularly fascinating. You know in training with me that I spend a lot of energy in teaching the “Riddle of the Pinwheel”.


Here’s a double pinwheel. I’m not going to make it a training exercise. The obvious thing to do would be to run through it like a figure-eight. Actually, I should be able to visit the elements of the double-pinwheel without requiring everyone to do it in any overt fashion.


Next I’ll add a couple more jumps, to make “Hobday” boxes to join the two pinwheels. The box and the pinwheel are related constructions and I can play with the transitions between the two freely. I’ve also added a doodle drawing to frame the core challenge. Obviously I’ve got too much transitional distance in my “outside the box” loop. I can probably frame that with a tunnel or something.

I also need to figure out where the front of my ring is going to be. And I have to pay a bit of attention to the number of obstacles. Again, I’m shooting for something from 18 to 20.


Okay, I can introduce my core challenge with a simple serpentine down the side. The opening four jumps to the pipe tunnel present just enough challenge that the handler is likely going to be preoccupied with just getting started. So the course will be a great test of mental toughness. The handler must be able to respond to the course following the pipe tunnel.

I borrowed one of the side jumps from the box framing the double pinwheels on the left. I could probably scoot those opening five obstacles more to the right… which would make the off-course opportunity following the third jump more pronounced. But I’m not a mean man, so I won’t. You can bet the dog will see the jump. The handler will have to convince the dog in the turn to jump #4.


This came together rather easily. I added a dummy jump in the transition from jump #14 to jump #15. I also added a new jump and a pipe tunnel following jump #8. I could have done this with just a pipe tunnel. But frankly, I couldn’t get my obstacle count up to 18 without the extra jump.

I rotated the #18 jump just a little bit. It’s an illusion that may cost a few dogs an off-course over jump #11 after jump #17. Just because the #18 jump is rotated 30º sure doesn’t mean that it’s a curling line.

The closing, jump #15 to the end is pretty cruel, mindful that a dog tends curl back to the handler’s position when the handler is behind. The handler will have to either outrun his dog, or find another way to put pressure on the dog’s line on the final outrun.

“If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astonish ourselves.” – Thomas A. Edison

Time Capsule Review

Back to present time…

Okay, I really belabored the pinwheel without adequately exploring the variety of “core construct” possibilities. For example, this weekend I have a workshop here at my training center. I want to do some work with tunnel/contact discriminations and I have a requirement to put up a progressive sending exercise (exploding line of jumps); and some interesting jumping serpentines. Those are “core constructs” which will dictate the design of the floor.

Also in the course I created above I apparently intentionally included a “dummy” jump. Today I am completely opposed to sticking an otherwise unused obstacle out on the course just to give the dog and handler another opportunity to screw up. It’s a ham-handed design habit that shows little imagination.

And unfortunately, the course doesn’t include all of the required obstacles. Eek!

More tomorrow …

Blog931 – (Four days in a row!)

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.


The Border Collie Effect pt 3

January 28, 2014

I continue publication of my course design notes from more than a dozen years ago. Perhaps this will tantalize another reader to critique the writing without actually bothering to read it.

The design notes continue by focusing on different approaches to designing a course from tabula rasa to finished product.

Design from Drawing Lines

What I want to start with is a simple linear kind of progression. I have a line that goes straight up the center of the field. The course will square out to one side; then resume up the field, square out to the other side of the field, and return back downfield in the same fashion.


I’ll start just by drawing a line. I’m intentionally making the lines and loops very square. This isn’t a requirement of the scribble a line method. It’s just my approach this very moment.

The next task is to put in my technical obstacles for which I’ll need a judging position. This gives me an area to operate so that I don’t have to run up and down the field chasing a bunch of damned Border Collies to see if they get in the contact zones.

From the looks of this placement, I’ll probably want to get the performance of the A‑frame first, and then back to the dogwalk. That would leave the teeter as the final technical obstacle to be judged.

Okay, now I’m going to put some obstacles out to shape the dog’s path through the lines I’ve drawn, and to make transitions to the technical obstacles.


Okay, not really too bad. But I really don’t like the transitional distance from the tire to the weave poles, or from the dogwalk to the jump following.  I also only have 14 obstacles on the course. I need to pick it up to 18-20 and make sure I have the required obstacles. I need a table, and I need a collapsed chute.


Okay, this is a bit more like it. The placement of the table actually gives me a bit of time to drift back down to judge the performance of the teeter. I’ve also rotated the obstacles in the first leg diverging from the center line so that a couple of traps or options are opened up to the dog. In the transition from jump #3 to the triple there will be some dogs who take a hard look at the weave poles. The handler would be wise to Vee the approach to jump #2 to take the weave poles out of the picture and make a nice smooth transition.

In the turn from the tire to the weave poles jump #3 is presented as an off-course opportunity.

The transition from the weave poles to jump #8 I figure is a major handling challenge. Many handlers may be caught with dog on right for the performance of the weave poles. So they may have to cross behind the dog on the exit from the weave poles to turn the dog to jump #8.

Note that I’ve also rotated the jump between the A-frame and the dogwalk so that it is more fairly presented to the dog. Given that the dog is dismounting the A-frame and trying to get a safe approach to the dogwalk, I don’t think it’s a useful challenge to test of a handler knows how to make the transition “safe”.

The series of jumps from the table to the teeter is really a finesse jumping series. It’s a flat serpentine-like sequence. But off-courses beckon at the A-frame after jump #13, and at jump #2 after jump #17. It’s not terrible hard, but is certainly a suitable challenge to Masters level dogs.

Okay, all the course needs now is a start/finish line, field crew, and a bunch of exhibitors antsy to get a qualifying score. Will they see what was in my head when I designed it? Oh, that’s the least important thing in the world. Knowing your own capabilities and the strengths and weaknesses of your own dog are the keys to solving a course like this.

What I like to believe about the course is that the challenges discovered themselves, with a modest bit of tweaking and rotation of jumps. I did my bit in making the approaches to the contact obstacles, the triple and the tire fair and safe. But I kept to my lines and the challenges sprouted like summer beans. And I really enjoy the subtlety of the challenges.

Time Capsule Review

Back to present time… I don’t know that I ever actually put up this course anywhere. Now I’m kind of interested and would like to give it a try. I have maybe one dog in my household who was alive when I wrote that piece. And don’t you know, when you look at a course you’ll always view it through a “me and my dog” filter. In those days I was running my old boys Bogie and Birdie. They’re long gone <sob>. But naturally, I visualize solving the course with my boy Kory.

Frankly this course is a bunch easier than most of the stuff we’re seeing at the Masters/Excellent levels these days. Is that true?

Anyway… more tomorrow.

Blog93- (Three days in a row!)

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.

The Border Collie Effect pt 2

January 27, 2014

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

Safe & Square

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Dog’s Path Geometry

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


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


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


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

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

Time Capsule Review

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

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


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

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


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

More tomorrow, I suppose.

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

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The web store is up and running. I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.