Masters Challenge

For nearly thirty years now I have been an ardent student of course design. One of the most important themes of that study has been how to keep out of my courses the really evil stuff; moreover design challenges inappropriate to the level of the exhibitors. I beg forgiveness of the muses for the raw truth that the discovery of evil has been abundantly realized in courses of my own design.

As a course designer you draw something on paper; and you might think, okay that looks very interesting. If it escapes the canny vision of the course reviewer, it gets put up in the real world. It’s inescapable that the judge standing out there in the middle of the ring must endure every agonizing moment of performance for 100 or more dogs.

Over the years, the really evil stuff that I have managed to author gets stuffed into a drawer.

The Age of the Technical Challenge

A new age is upon us. A lot of new handling and dog training riddles are appearing in course challenges. Mostly these are concepts derived from play in Europe. These concepts can be extraordinarily technical. The easy thing to do would be to crawl under the bed and fervently wish for simpler days and hope all this craziness goes away.

There is a class of competitor that has risen to the challenge. These guys are solving the most wicked course riddles with both cunning and grace.

I just don’t have the words to really express and emphasize what I’m saying here. However, I have pictures. Here is a YouTube of Robert Michalski running a course in Europe. I think this says it all:

From everything I can gather, if I had designed this course, I would have had to go home and shoot myself. My squeamishness, however, is only subtext. The true lesson in this YouTube is that “impossible” is an adjective used by the guy hiding under the bed.

USDAA Masters Challenge

A fairly new class in USDAA agility competition is the “Masters Challenge” which comes in the form of both jumpers and the standard course. The course design guidelines calls for a variety of challenges and stipulation which I’ll attempt to enumerate below. With a new eye for the class, I’d rather think of it right now as a competition that differentiates the field, allowing those who are truly masters of our sport to demonstrate their skill.

All those tough technical challenges that I’ve been stuffing into a drawer get to come back out and will have a place in the world. This is going to be fun, I think.

Design Case Study

The USDAA “Masters Challenge” classes free the agility course designer to use amazingly technical challenges. Difficult and tricky things that the rational designer might have avoided or stuck in a drawer with an “I’ll never do that again” sticky note are now fair game and the order of the day.

I’ll share with you here a discussion of the course design process and, as we go along, a discussion of the types of challenges that are suitable for a Masters Challenge course. Please note that this is my course design method; and I cannot speak for other more rational designers approach the process.


I wanted to start this particular Masters Challenge Jumpers course with design element called a “cluster”. The cluster is like a box, with four or more possible entries and exits. So I begin with four jumps and the pipe tunnel in a cluster.

Note that the field I’m designing for has four padded columns indicated on the course-map as little blow “o” characters. I felt it rational to draw two of the jumps in the cluster against existing columns.

It’s worth noting that the reason we use clusters is not only to create amazing handling challenges, the use of clusters contributes to minimizing the reuse of obstacles. I’d very much like to finish this design without repeating any obstacle. That’s a very European notion.


Right off the bat I wanted to do something fun with the cluster. The little bit after jump #4 has the dog wrapping back into the cluster in a 270° turn. It is the nature of the cluster that the dog will have several wrong course options upon entry. The handler is compelled to be specific in the presentation of the correct option.

I’ve also prepositioned the broad jump so that a second cluster is formed on the course.

At this point I went through a variety of design ideas about how to get back into the cluster.



I settled on a very tough and technical handling sequence. After jump #8 the course features a “pull/push through”. The handler must neatly thread the dog between two perfectly good jumps without doing either to make the backside approach to jump #9.

After jump #9 the sequence threadles to jump #10 with the #8 jump offering a wrong course option to the dog.

The long transition to the weave poles at a negative angle on the entry side will have handlers calculating whether they should shape the approach or not, and how much they’ll have to shape, if they do.


I’m sorry that I was not able to finish this Jumpers course without repeating an obstacle. I’m sure I could have stuck some more stuff out there; but it would have made the course more crowded and probably would have added technical challenge to a course that is doing just fine on technical challenge.

The bit I really wanted to play with here is the interesting pull/push through after jump #13 that has the long skip-a-jump transition to jump #14. Much like the long transition to the weave poles, we can expect in the Masters Challenge classes these long transitions.


I’m completely tempted to put the #9 on the opposite side of the jump, and say that this course has enough challenge in it. We’ll see what the course reviewer has to say about it.


Clearly the USDAA Masters Challenge class is a beckoning call to a class of exhibitor owning canny skill at the sport and a playful competitive nature. The Course Design Requirements published by the USDAA will drive the design of the courses and will suggest how enthusiasts of the class approach training and practice.

You can find a comprehensive discussion of course design requirements for the Masters Challenge classes on the USDAA website in the Forms & Documents Library; specifically refer the “Judges’ Briefing”  Volume 1; so far with three parts published including an amazing exploration of course design by Janet Gauntt.

There’s a bit of new terminology that we all need to wrap our minds around: closed approach, backside approach, push-pull through, n-patterns, extended spacing, double performance, combination obstacles, the five-sided crossing pattern, and compound challenges. There’s more. But this is a good place to begin.

And wrap your mind around this one, it’s now any anything goes approach to course design.

For the next several days I expect to explore some of the challenges which are defined in the course design requirements by the USDAA for the Masters Challenge classes. I claim no particular expertise. I’m approaching this as a student of the game, endeavoring to understand the craft of course design as applied to this special and interesting class of competition.

Presented in no particular order



I’m especially interested in a thing I’ve called the en passant, which is basically a push/pull-through on a curve. The transition from the collapsed tunnel at #9 to the weave poles satisfies this definition. In the performance of this movement the handler is faced with keeping the dog off of no fewer than three wrong course options.

This movement also features an extended spacing transition from #8 to the weave poles at #9. So I guess I should get over thinking that I invented it, since it’s in the list of challenges published by the USDAA.


By moving the #7 to the backside of the jump this sequence now presents compound challenges. The blind/managed approach to jump #7 is defined by the USDAA as a backside approach. I expect I’ll just call it that, from now on. Because of the backside approach, the transition to jump #8 is now a threadle; which by definition is a pull/push-through. (Note: the threadle is by itself a compound challenge, as the pull/push-through is followed by a closed approach to an obstacle in close vicinity.)


Had I really wanted to be wicked in this already evil design, I might have made the collapsed tunnel and weave poles a combination obstacle.

As a handler/competitor there is something you must really understand about the combination obstacle. If the dog earns a refusal on the second element of the combination, the handler is required to return the dog to the first element before continuing on. Oh I admit this is very evil and probably something I would not do in this particular sequence. I just wanted to give you a thrill.

En Passant

The course below has a very interesting bit that I’d like to put into a USAAA Masters Challenge jumpers course… the En Passant.


The concept is simple. The handler is required to turn the dog through a box with multiple options with the target obstacle blind to the initial approach. In this course the en passant occurs twice, from jump #1 to #2, and then again from jump #10 to #11.

The course has other interesting challenges as well and should be approached with a sense of humor.



An important attribute of this challenge is that the transitional distance between obstacles is considerably longer than the usual distances found between obstacles in an agility course. With this in mind, it might be hard to get course reviewers to understand and approve the challenge.

I took the MCJ course that I started above and kicked it around a bit as I grapple to completely understand the Course Design Requirements for the Masters Challenge classes.

The objective of my edits to the course was to incorporate four and five obstacle clusters. At the same time I wanted to minimize the number of times obstacles are repeated.  I’m afraid that repeating obstacles is completely ingrained in my psyche as I often have to design full course work for a 60′ by 100′-ish area (the size of my training building). Repeating obstacles is the real secret for designing courses in a small space. However the MC classes follow a European standard which minimizes the repetition of obstacles in order to maintain a granularity of scoring. If a jump is taken three times and the dog drops the bar on the first pass, then we’ve eliminated the possibility that he might drop it on the second pass, and maybe on the third as well.



You can think of a cluster is a four-sided or five-sided “crossing pattern”. The good old fashioned Hobday Box is a four-sided cluster, by definition. In the illustration above I’ve designed a five sided cluster. Note, by the way, that in this short sequence the dog enters and exits the cluster twice.

N Pattern


I also determined to put into my MCJ an N Pattern just to see if I could do it. This illustration is intended to draw a nice clear “N” so you can see why it’s called an N Pattern.

Masters Challenge Jumpers


I’ve preserved the push/pull-through on a curve (en passant) from jump #2 to #3. I took out the second instance because it smacked of beating a dead horse. I needed weave poles on the course anyhow; and while the approach isn’t terribly evil, I was happy to put a threadle to jump #6 on the dismount.

Now comes the N Pattern, from jump #7 to jump #11.

From jump #10 to #16 I’ve allowed quite a romp with the dog at full extension. Two of the jumps, #14 and #16 are rotated subtly to close the approaches and increase the potential for run-out refusals.

MC design rule #5 is the single rule most overlooked in the MC courses I’ve seen out in the world. The rule says: The dog must be able to perform the majority of the course in extension.  Extension is defined as: “the continuation of speed as a dog approaches an obstacle. An obstacle allows extension when a dog would normally be approaching at speed and there is little-to-no turning at the exit of the obstacle such that the dog can remain at approximately the same speed when continuing on the most efficient dog path.”

After jump #16 comes the last truly wicked moment in the course. From #16 to #17 is a wide-open threadle with a wrong-course option (jump #7) confronting the dog.

And the course finishes with a fine cannon shot through the pipe tunnel.


In its most simple form the threadle is represented by two jumps set on a common plane, side-by-side with a small space left between them. Oh, and both jumps are intended to be taken in the same relative direction.

Simple threadle



It’s worth noting that the Threadle in itself requires a “backside” approach to the second jump in the combination. Backside approach is the emerging common term to describe a jump (or other obstacle) that is presented with no clear natural approach, preventing the handler from simply releasing the dog to work. It is also known as a “managed approach” and a “blind approach”.


A survival strategy for handlers with big dogs that don’t have tight & neat turning abilities is to turn away from the gap, rather than into it. Surely this strategy sacrifices a bit of time by increasing the distance on the flat. This approach also removes much of the risk associated with solving the threadle through the gap; but it introduces some risk that didn’t exist in the raw threadle. For example, it might be too easy for the dog to back-jump the #1 jump in this illustration.



A course designer might be pouty about any handler not following his prescription for dictated handling (as though the “big dog that doesn’t have tight & neat turning abilities” is some kind of a threat to the field.) And so they’ll engage in design conventions to defeat the around-Robin-Hood’s-barn strategy.

Here, for example, the course designer has rotated the jump introducing the threadle, making a left turn problematic and increasing both the distance of the transition and the opportunity for a back-jump of jump #1.



The course designer might use other tricks to defeat the alternate approach to solving the threadle. In this illustration the designer did two things worth noting. First of all, a wrong course obstacle has been placed to thwart a left turn and the angle of approach to the jump introducing the threadle has been set at an angle that invites the traditional handling of the puzzle.

Any Obstacle Threadle


A threadle doesn’t have to be a pair of jumps. Just about any obstacle might be a part of the course designer’s conspiracy. This illustration just scratches the surface. Note that in the transition from the pipe tunnel into the weave poles the “entry side” of the weave poles is offered to the dog; so unless the dog is an amazing creature who absolutely understands his job in the weave poles then the handler might consider a bit of shaping to make the approach (and so, execute the dictated dance of the threadle).

The transition from the weave poles to the jump begs the question… was the handler able to get to the weave poles with dog-on-right?

Soft Threadle



At first glance you’d have to believe that the challenge has softened in this combination threadle because the intro jumps have been eased back to take out a dimension of depth in the approach to each subsequent jump.

The set of these jumps has introduced the real possibility of a run-out refusal. This challenge did not exist in the simple threadle because the dog had no capacity for approach to the subsequent jump and therefore the subsequent jump is not eligible for a refusal call before the dog actually turns back to the gap. However in the case of a (so-called) “soft” threadle the refusal plane of each subsequent jump is live before the dog actually turns back.

The threadle may be soft, but the heart is hard.

Obviously, from a handling POV the dog needs to be geared down through this series of jumps to draw in the turning radius.

Hard Threadle


This combination threadle increases the depth of the transition from the introducing jump to the subsequent jump. You might argue that this is no longer a threadle at all, but now a series of “back-side approach” riddles. But inasmuch as the solution calls for the Zee-shaped transition I’ll call it a threadle.



The next step after “hard” is “a whole bunch harder”. In this series threadle the dog will get a square look at the wrong side of both of the subsequent jumps. After drawing the lines (always a marvelous illusion!) it doesn’t really seem like such a hard thing to do.

Course Design Considerations


The course designer has a broad measure of control of the approach to the threadle challenge. And considerable attention should be given to the consequence of the approach. In the illustration the dog has a depressed-angle approach from the table. In general this disposes the dog to the right-turning through-the-gap solution. Though a more depressed angle will introduce to a greater extent the wrong course challenge of the second jump of the threadle.

Certainly the threadle challenge will be messy if the depressed-angle approach is from right to left. That means that the handler will be fighting against the natural turning direction while faced with doing a rather precise and technical handling thing.


Note that a threadle absolutely requires the handler to be in a control position. It is a challenge that requires micromanagement. The dog cannot be released to work. In the design of the challenge the course designer should understand that when two control positions are positioned with a fast transition between them, then only the young long-legged handlers who can outrun their dogs will survive the challenge. So if the course designer’s ambition is to thwart old men with arthritic knees, like me, then this is a dandy way to do it.


A pull/push-through is a course design feature that has the handler drawing the dog between two perfectly good obstacles both of which are wrong-course choices. This really reminds me of an old exercise I used to put up in seminar work (I believe I stole the concept from Nancy Gyes who ran a variation of the exercise):


The end goal of this handling exercise was to introduce the RFP as a control movement. What’s really cool about this old exercise is that it’s now fair game in the USDAA’s Masters Challenge class. Better get practicing.



The push/pull-through is as likely to be a matter of wrapping the dog pretty much as in a threadle. However the target obstacle will be beyond the gap, and not necessarily presented squarely to the dog. In this example the #3 jump is virtually a back‑side approach.


In this example the wrap doesn’t turn immediately to the push/pull-through. They are separate events so that the moment of the challenge resembles more the handling exercise I showed above.

What is most interesting about this example is the long transitional distance from jump #3 to jump #4. This will be a common feature of the push/pull-through.


This is a slightly more subtle application of the push/pull-through. The 270° transition from jump #2 to #3 sets up both the #1 jump and the pipe tunnel as wrong course options. The push/pull-through has the handler drawing the dog between the pipe tunnel and the #2 jump. It’s worth noting that the pipe tunnel itself constitutes a backside approach.

Background Color

The final example above features an obstacle “cluster”. These challenging classes will borrow from European course design conventions. One of the chief differences from traditional American design is that the Europeans seldom reuse an obstacle. I suppose this goes to a granularity in scoring. If a dog drops a jump bar the designer wants to be sure that the dog has another opportunity to drop a bar. And this opportunity is lost if the jump has been reused. The obstacle cluster is a cagey design feature that allows a gang of obstacles to occupy a small place in space.

The Oft Overlooked Guideline

An important course design guideline for the USDAA’s Masters Challenge classes is that the dog be allowed to move predominately in full extension (at full speed). The Standard Course Times for this class are very demanding. In respect to this guideline many Masters Challenge courses fail. Many of the challenges that are contrived for this class require the handler to gear the dog down which works against the demanding rates of travel. To be fair about this problem, we’re all just learning; so take heart. In time the class will strike a suitable balance between design challenges and rates of travel.


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