Posts Tagged ‘Agility Course Design’

Running in the Rain

July 7, 2015

The shape and angulation of the pipe tunnel tends to regulate the speed of a dog’s movement. An elongated pipe tunnel is an accelerator that will have both dog and handler on a dead run; while a u‑shaped pipe tunnel slows the dog down modestly and allows the handler who was firmly behind the dog as the dog goes into the tunnel to be magically forward as the dog comes out.

Team Jumpers

This was a ripping fun course that ran very very fast.


On the 4th of July we played in the rain at Sugarbush Farm. The twisty and technical opening of the Team / PVP Jumpers had a handler or two losing their footing.

On this course the opening was like drawing back the hammer on a pinball machine. As the dog turns around at jump #6 the ball is released and the handler had better have on his track shoes. In the turn off of the spread hurdle at #11 The #14 pipe tunnel mercifully allows the handler to gather up his dog, and finish with a flourish.

It’s a bit ironic that the gathering bit in this course probably caused more faults than the technical opening. Prematurely cuing the turn at #11 set up opportunity for dropped bars and refusals (especially if the handler is well behind and not encouraging the go on). Then, coming out of the #14 pipe tunnel, both of the next two jumps were candidates for refusal. The handler needs to see the change of directions on the dismount of the tunnel, giving a clear path to the #15 jump.

Oh, and an interesting note, the turning radius of fast long-striding dogs tends to create a unique consequential path for the dog. Make of this picture what you will.


A Word Aside

The threadle opening of this course was a deliberate attempt to limit the grind of the lead-out. Many handlers will take as long to do a lead out as they take to run a course. And most of it is just plain flawed science. The opening should be step… step… release. The ploy was more of a suggestion than a demand. It’s amazing how many handlers will lead out and then mindlessly come to a stop. Really? You want to get caught flat-footed on a threadle?

What Did You Learn Today?

Judging a trial on courses of your own design demands that you are a student of the game. There are lessons to be learned in the conduct of every turn and sequence. The night of every trial I am scribbling notes and attempting to balance what I’ve observed with my conceptual universe of the game we play.

One of the notes I wrote on Sunday night… that trick at the start line, where the handler has the dog come up from behind and between her legs; the handler should be wearing slacks, and not a skirt.

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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.


January 30, 2013

I got a course for review that had a start that looked something like this:


The course designer needs to cultivate an understanding of the dog’s path. The comment I usually make goes something like this: “The dog’s approach to a jump dictates the dismount. So the approach to the dogwalk is not square, not safe.” To me the statement is simple & pure. But I have this gnawing intuition that the simplicity and purity is pretty much in my mind and not easily shared.

To put it on other terms… the dog’s path is like Pong! You remember that game, right? It was like the first ever computer/video game.


In Pong the lines are clean and straight and predictable. You’ll note that after the tire I see only one corner and no curves. And under the rules of Pong the approach to the dogwalk is fairly dreadful. I’ll get argument from course designers on my Pong analogy; the argument being that “as a handler” they know how to bring the dog around square for the dogwalk; or their dog will swing wide on the turn, or will square himself for the contact by training.

Bear with me on this point… the course designer should anticipate the dog’s path in the strict terms of Pong without prejudice to handling, training, or any other unpredictable variable. The designer’s vision should be pure.

That is not to say that the course designer cannot intentionally make a test of handling skill or training. And they often do. In the illustration here, however, the course designer is obligated to create the square and safe approach to a contact obstacle. We do not make “can the handler do this without hurting his dog” a riddle on the course.


The fix I suggested in course review, by the way, was something like this. By changing the direction of the turn thru tire and jump #3 the dog is brought around adequately square to the approach to the dogwalk. The fix doesn’t completely preserve whatever challenge it was that the designer was contemplating… and, in fact, builds into the opening a Jump-Dogwalk discrimination riddle that did not exist in the original design.

After the Review


I played around with the opening a bit more. There might be a variety of fun and fanciful things the designer could do to begin the course.

What worries at me from a philosophical POV is starting a course with a technical puzzle. It’s kind of like… where do you go from there? It’s an open invitation for the course to be relentlessly technical. And you know, those kinds of courses aren’t necessarily fun to anybody but the high-strung Anorak.

What I seek, as a course designer, is a central challenge, or riddle. And I’d very much like to place it mid-course. Too early in the course creates an imbalance, and sets you up for an overly technical grind. Too late in the course disturbs the possibility of a sweeping finish, which I find highly desirable.


So, what if the opening were a wind up, rather than a grind? Think of it like pulling the shooter back on an old pinball game; you pull it back good and tight against the coiled spring; and when you’re just ready… you let ‘er rip.  

Winter Lessons for an Arizona Boy

Well you know, it’s been an interesting winter. I’ve already told you that my old computer crashed & burned. Turns out it was not a hardware fault at all. And now that the hard-drive has been wiped and restored to factory new condition… I have another stand-by production computer.

At any rate I’ve moved on to the new world of Windows 8, complete with new tools and a very different touch ‘n feel. I restored my web page to a view that might have come from a “Way Back” machine or something… For awhile I gave that over to Top Dog in an ugly display of text. But I’ve moved all that functionality over to WordPress which serves more than adequately as a web presence (with nowhere near the cost):

In other news, about ten days ago the weather went south, dropping well below a freezing temperature. You expect very cold weather in the Winter in the northeast. Anyhow, Marsha warned that the heater had gone out in the upper cabin. And so I went down and restarted it. And so the next morning I went back down to check the cabin.

I walked in and found a geyser of water shooting up into the cabin. The mainline coming up into the cabin had burst. The consequence of turning on the heater was to unfreeze the pipes and so release the disaster. We turned the water off at the main, and called the plumber.

Count this as another lesson learned by an Arizona boy. I was aware of the peril of frozen pipes. Until now, I’ve never had the pleasure to live through it. Picture me getting sopping wet struggling with shutting off the water inside the house… and turning into a popsicle in the freezing weather outside.


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.