Sunniday Dog Agility Club      


Lin Bergan

How often have we walked courses and said ‘well this is too difficult’ or even ‘just a blast round with no thought given’? Let me tell you that it is very tricky to set a course at just the correct level to suit everyone in a class and to please the majority. Often a variety of types of courses e.g. flowing, handling etc. means that a greater number of people are catered for and over a season probably everyone has run their ideal course.

The sad thing in my view is at starter / novice level when young and inexperienced dogs are faced with too many areas of difficulty on a single course and make too many mistakes. Handler error counts for a lot of faults but when a dog just cannot do something it takes the joy out of the round.

Obviously the level must be taken into account when setting a course to judge, and there are a few unwritten rules here. In elementary maybe the handling is all on one side or with just one or two changes at easy to do places. (fig 1) The course should be flowing with no tricks or choices – that is each obstacle leading easily from the one before.

In starters I think that turns are needed with angles rather than curves in places to show that the handler can control the dog and the winner has skills not just speed. Bearing in mind that a lot of the class will be first time dogs or dog and handler in their first season I would still aim at a level where the majority of the class can be successful. That does not necessarily mean 100% clear rounds but an element of success for all is achievable. (fig 2)

Going on to novice classes the possibilities really widen out and in the last few years I have seen novice classes change from ‘up and down’ to very complex, angled and quite difficult combinations. I feel that novice courses should have one or two areas of difficulty but also allow for success on the whole. A handler and dog missing a pull through or a sharper weave entry can at least come off the course and say they only had 5 or 10 faults. The best dog on the day will win!

There are a lot of combinations which can be included at novice level – slaloms, pull throughs, boxes, sharper angles, call offs etc. but not all on one course. I like to either start with a straight part, put in some handling and then have a fast finish. Or handle at the start, go into a flowing section and then a controlled section later on. This tests the dogs ability to be controlled and to speed up and the handlers ability to understand and work with the dog. (fig 3)

At one show I had to judge novice, open and senior in one ring so set a course where no obstacles were moved, just some numbers. (fig 4) This was fun to set and to work out. I always set out my courses on my training field and run them myself, and recently I have been lucky to have a standard novice, a standard senior and an advanced mini to test the courses. I also try them out on my club members, provided naturally that they are not entered at the show in question!

Another thing which may or may not be taken into consideration when setting a course is the show. If it is mainly a starter show with just one novice class then most of this class will be starters. At a limit show the winner will not graduate to senior so the course again could be aimed towards a higher success rate. I usually feel pleased if about 20% or more are clear and under 25% eliminated. Less clear rounds probably means that the course is too difficult or that there are one or two problematic areas. More eliminations means the same thing.

When I first started judging a friend told me that the first 20 dogs were the worst and that still applies; what an awful feeling when 19 dogs have run and there are still no clears. Thank goodness for dog number 20.

An important factor in working out my course is deciding where to stand and where to move around the course. This especially applies on agility courses as I am not the fastest mover (!) and need to be able to see those contacts when Speedy Manic Dog flies over the dogwalk and is gone. I do like to move around when judging jumping too as standing in one place is more tiring, so I always plan my route depending on tunnel entrances, weaves etc and try not to get in anyone’s way.

I believe that generally judges should have experience and understanding of dogs of the height, type and level they are judging and can get this either by running them in competition or by training them. There are excellent all-round judges who have not progressed through the classes with their own dogs as there are very successful handlers who have maybe forgotten what ‘starters’ really means.

Finally I read and observe. I watch a lot of course at shows and sometimes walk those I am not actually running. There are a lot of good videos, web sites and magazines with a special interest in course building including the American magazine ‘Clean Run’ which has technical articles about building and running sequences and full courses.

I have a book with every course I have ever run or set and then some…I am waiting for the call to go on Mastermind…specialist subject ‘Agility Courses – The Last 15 Years’. At nearly pension age I am an Agility Anorak!