The Nature of Pipe Tunnels

For many years now I’ve said that one of these days I’m going to write a white paper on pipe tunnels in agility. It is unique among the obstacles. Many dogs find the pipe tunnel just plain rip-roaring fun. And yet, it’s necessary for the handler come to a philosophical understanding of the Nature of Pipe Tunnels.

Following are routine points I make in my teaching about pipe tunnels:

  • A tunnel is a cannon. Consider the dog, like a cannonball, inclined to fire in the direction the cannon is pointed. When walking the course the handler should take careful note of where the pipe tunnel is aimed. If the pipe tunnel is aimed at an option / trap / wrong course the dog will see it while he is still in the tunnel; and should he have any obstacle focus and work ethic at all it will be the handler’s job convince him otherwise and redirect him on course.
  • The handler’s job is to show the dog the entry to the pipe tunnel. The dog finds the exit all by himself. I’ve never really understood why a handler on the approach to the pipe tunnel will suddenly break off and head towards the exit. While a handler will get away with this loss of discipline it makes no real sense to escalate the risk on such a simple and obvious obstacle.
  • Good handler movement is wasted on the dog engaged in the performance of the pipe tunnel since the dog doesn’t actually get to see it. If the dog needs to be convinced into a turn the handler should await the moment he sees his dog’s nose as the timing cue. Of course the significance of waiting to see the dog’s nose is that is the first moment the dog actually sees the handler.
  • A novice dog may refuse a pipe tunnel that curls away from the handler’s position. The dog wants to go where the handler is going. If the handler is on the dog’s right side but the tunnel is clearly turning away to the left the dog will feel a bit of separation anxiety and may flat refuse to get into the pipe tunnel. The dog’s trainer needs to train the dog through this misapprehension. However, the handler of the very novice dog should understand this phenomenon and endeavor to position himself on the turning side of the tunnel.
  • The pipe tunnel you saw during the walkthrough mightn’t be the same pipe tunnel on course when you run your dog. Big fast ripping dogs banking through the tunnel may move that pipe tunnel all over the field given a class of sufficient size. The pipe tunnel might very well not be pointed in the same direction it was pointed during your walk through. It’s a good idea during the conduct of the class to keep an eye of the tunnel to see if it has taken on a new shape or location on course.
  • Wherever there is a tunnel sucking dog there is a tunnel sucking handler. Often if the handler is apprehensive of the dog sucking into a tunnel he’ll give all the wrong cues to keep the dog out of the pipe tunnel. Just to use a bit of reverse psychology: what would I do if I wanted the dog to go into the pipe tunnel? Well, I’d face the pipe tunnel, giving it all my focus. I wouldn’t move in any other direction. And just to seal the deal I’d yell “Come! Come!”
  • A dog is inclined to turn to the side where he last saw his handler when he got into the pipe tunnel. This clearly puts the team at risk when Back Crossing a dog into the pipe tunnel. It might be useful for the handler to give the dog a verbal beacon while he’s engaged in the performance of the tunnel. Better yet, the handler should avoid gratuitously Back Crossing pipe tunnels. It always amazes me to see a handler standing still at a pipe tunnel waiting for the dog to get in so he can then do a Back Cross. (Let’s break that down… the handler standing still, waiting for his dog, to do fast dog handling). If you have time to slow down or stand still, you have time to change sides.
  • If a handler must move badly, it is best to do so while the dog is in the pipe tunnel and can’t actually see it. A Scoop is advised. Many dogs lose motive when the handler is too far away or when the handler is standing still or moving badly. Sometimes it’s better to slow down or even stop for a second while the dog is in the pipe tunnel in order to scoop the dog up at the moment of exit. So instead of being downfield and moving badly, the dog is nearby and full of acceleration.
  • I’ve made a solemn pact with myself… I will not let the easiest obstacle on course, the pipe tunnel, NQ my dog. Don’t take the pipe tunnel for granted. Don’t lose discipline. Let’s face it. The pipe tunnel is possibly the most unfaultable obstacle on course. There’s no bar to drop; and no contact to miss. But it also looms fairly early as an obstacle that the handler takes for granted. So the handler may engage in sloppy all-risk-and-no-reward handling. You know what it means when the judge holds up that fist right? It means… thank you for your money; you won’t qualify today.
  • The handler should always engage in a bit of analysis with the pipe tunnel. Should I scoop? Or, should I run like hell? The handler should take note of how the course proceeds after a pipe tunnel. If there is a diminutive bit of real estate the handler should be well advised to scoop the dog to lift the energy of performance. But if the course demands a long outrun to a technical moment, the handler would do best to run like hell. Often if the approach to the pipe tunnel is a tricky bit the handler will after getting the dog into the tunnel pause gratuitously to admire his work, and so get caught flat-footed as the dog makes his exit.
  • A tunnel always assumes its natural shape. Sometimes course builders will obsess on shaping a tunnel into what is shown on the judges course map, sometimes compressing the tunnel, and all too often putting hard heavy objects to shape a bend in a tunnel. Straight away, any compression will come unsprung and the tunnel will take on a wild shape based on the entry and banking corner (based on how the tunnel is secured at either end). Hard heavy objects are dangerous and will give a dog a concussion, and should be avoided. It is better to understand that the tunnel will take on its natural shape, and allow it to do so. Secure the two ends to make sure the entry is presented so and the exit is aiming so, and let nature take its course.
  • A pipe tunnel set at an angle to intersect the handler’s path creates the risk of dog and handler collision. This is often an error in course design but is just about as often an error in handler planning. If the dog’s path scissors across the handler’s path on the exit of the pipe tunnel the handler is at risk of colliding with his dog. Frankly the collision could be avoided if the handler understands the risk and takes steps to avoid it (by being at a distance, or by working the other side). You know that if you collide with your dog and it improves the dog’s approach to the next obstacle, it’ll make the judge’s two arms come up like a treat pez. You’re also at risk of hurting your dog, or making yourself a candidate for knee surgery.

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: And Check out my new publication the Idea BookAgility Training for a Small Universe available at

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