Posts Tagged ‘Stuart Mah’

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.