Posts Tagged ‘USDAA Masters Challenge’

Dr. Dolittle

December 20, 2013

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”. I wrote to some extent on this design feature of the Masters Challenge classes in my blog posting called Sensitivity. 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.


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.


December 19, 2013

I’m doing an end-of-year inventory of course design challenges. I have a couple judging assignments coming up early next year (USDAA). I’m delighted with the Masters Challenge class which essentially allows any evil thing I’ve ever imagined. Today’s topic is the threadle.

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.

Comments Invited

If you have anything to add to the discussion of the threadle, I’d love to hear about it and share with the readers of this blog. I know that I pretty much left out any discussion of handling; because mostly I’m interested in the design aspects right now.

I didn’t talk about the dismount of the threadle except in the limited discussions of combination threadles above. If you think about it, the dismount of a threadle is pretty much the same kind of riddle as the dismount of any obstacle or sequence. And so I didn’t give it the discussion that it might deserve.


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.


August 16, 2013

I took the MCJ course that I started in my blog Proofing the Skill 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

BLOG916_03I’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.


From the onset I want you to know that I’ve designed this course with a specific sensitivity to the handler who cannot keep up with his dog.

I’ve gotten a lot of comments recently on this blog from people who have absolutely no compassion or care for the barely ambulatory handler whose dog is considerably faster. The nature of the comments goes on to say things like “life ain’t fair” and “of course the faster handler can (and should) have the advantage.”

The real question at hand is the definition of our sport. Is dog agility a test of the handler’s athletic prowess? Or, is it about the dog?

Until an agility organization publishes without ambiguity that it is indeed an equal test of the handler’s athletic ability, then I will continue to design courses that are a test of the dog’s agility skills.


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.

Call of the Wild

August 14, 2013

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. I’m going to spend a bit of time working through the Course Design Requirements published by the USDAA. These requirements 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


If you’ve followed my blog you know that 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.

I will resume the discussion tomorrow.

Top Dog Secretary’s Choice


This is the game we’re playing in league this week. We’d be proud and pleased if you’d play with us. You can download a scoresheet here: Numbered Course.


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.

Masters Challenge

August 8, 2013

For something like 20 years now I have been an arduous 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. I beg forgiveness of the muses for the raw fact and simple truth ~ which I cannot duck ~ that the discovery of evil has been abundantly realized in courses of my own design.

Here’s how it works. As a course designer you draw something up on paper; and you might think, okay that looks very interesting. And then, if it escapes the canny vision of the course reviewer, it gets put up in the real world. The inescapable thing about the being the judge standing out there in the middle of the ring is that you must endure every agonizing moment of performance for 100 or more dogs; with everyone in shouting distance knowing that you were the author and designer of the challenge.

I show my own dogs in agility. I’m thankful when another judge and course designer puts up something truly evil and so further my education in course design.

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

The Age of the Evil Challenge

A new age is upon us. A lot of new handling and dog training riddles are appearing in course challenges. Mostly this is stuff that comes to us from Europe. And it’s all really really evil. 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.

But here’s the deal, there is a class of competitor that has risen to the challenge both as dog trainer and handler. 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. But… I have pictures. Here is a YouTube of Robert Michalski running a course recently in Europe. I think this says it all: I apologize for posting this on my blog without permission.

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.

By the way… nice job Robert. I’m impressed beyond amazement.

USDAA Masters Challenge

A fairly new class in USDAA agility competition is the “Masters Challenge” which comes in the form of both jumpers (with weaves, btw) and the standard course. The course design guidelines basically calls for a variety of challenges which I have formerly deemed “evil”. 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.

What it means to me is that all those evil 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.


I’ll begin here, and share the ongoing design with you as I put it together. The starting bit, jumps #1 through #4 is kind of a deadening start. Frankly I considered putting #2 on the back side rather than the straight approach. Both the wrap and the blind approach are unique riddles.

The back-to-back performance of jump #6/#7 is something I’ve been trying to get into courses for years; which more often than not gets nixed by some baffled course reviewer. It’s not really all that tough though. Most exhibitors do this very thing on the warm-up jump. It’s my intention before I’m done to present a wrong-course option in the transition from jump #6 to jump #7.

En passant

Phooey to the notion that we’ve ceded the intellectual leadership in course design challenges to the European game. I see a lot of bloody-minded stuff showing up in American courses that I know is of European influence. In practice these designs are too often ham-handed clumsy things that disturb flow and deny the dog the opportunity to move at speed or to be released to work without constant micro-management.

We can do better.

Catching Up

I’ve been running around like a blind dog in a meat-house for several weeks now. I’ve made plenty of notes though. And I’ll try to get these written in the next few days.


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.