Monday, November 15, 2010

Our System... Part 1

I would like to do a short series of posts about the challenges that face in Agility in South Africa.  Mostly I am referring to the standard of Agility here compared to international levels.  To start off I will quickly explain how our system works (I will keep this as short as possible):

1.  We are a very small community, if I had to guess we have MAYBE 200 handlers nationwide, roughly 300 dogs.  I live in Gauteng where we arguably have the largest contigent...  in 2010 we have had 85 handlers that entered shows, with 120 dogs (81 large; 16 medium; 23 small).  This includes all participants, those that attended one show and those that attended all of them.  The largest entry being 50 dogs (over all grades and height categories) and the average entry being 35 dogs.  Of all these competitors, roughly 150 dogs nationwide entered the AWC/SA Champs trials.

2.  Our system for qualifying for the national championship and the AWC try-outs are as follows:

-  Between November and March, four trials, consisting of one contact round and one non-contact round (this is the equivelant of Jumpers) each, are held regionally.  The national course co-ordinator selects the courses and forwards a copy to each provincial co-ordinator (baseline co-ordinates are used), each province then determines their owns dates and run the selected courses.  All dogs are eligible to enter the trials, as long as they are older than 18 months.  This gives you a total of eight rounds, of which two scores (the lowest contact and the lowest non-contact round) are dropped.
-  The point system works as follows:  A dog with a clear round is awarded 10 points.  If you are 2-3.99 seconds under the SCT, you are awarded 1 bonus point, 4-5.99 seconds = 2 bonus points, 6-7.99 = 3 bonus points and so forth.  Furthermore 0.01-5 faults will earn you 8 points, 5.01-10 faults = 6 points, 10.01-15 faults = 4 points etc.  The national winner in each height category earns 1 bonus point.
-  The speeds for the courses are determined by using the average speeds at the previous years AWC.
-  Once the trials are completed and the scores calculated, the top 40 large dogs (with the next 5 on standby); the top 10 small dogs and top 10 medium dogs (with 2 dogs each on standby) are invited to compete in the finals.
-  At the finals, 2 judges (one from the host province and one international or out of province judge) set up one contact course and one non-contact course each (that gives you four rounds) over two days.  Points are awarded the same as the qualifiers and your final score is calculated using 1/3rd of your qualifying points and 2/3 of your points at the finals.  The top 9 dogs qualify to compete individually (as far as the rules allow, seeing as each country is only allowed 6 entries per height category at the AWC) and the top 3 dogs in each height category qualifies for the team event.

3.  Although our rules allow for two seperate events, because of the small number of dogs and serious financial considerations, the National Championships and the AWC Qualifiers are always run in conjunction (well it has been since 2000 as far as I know).  Although the speeds for the SA Champs are slower, using our 'championship' system's speeds of 3.5m/s for contact and 4m/s for non-contact.

4.  Just as a note, this system originated in the late 90's, even though it has been tweaked a bit since then.  It has produced two gold medals in the large team event at the AWC, as well as a dog that won the small agility round and about four top ten placings over-all.

5. For the AWC qualifiers only (not the national champs) In 2010 the top large dog qualified with 85 points, medium with 46 points and the highest small dog had accumulated 75 points.  Sadly the lowest qualifiers all had 0 points... yes it is true, the entries for the AWC qualifiers were small enough that it did not even fill the entries.

6.  Due to the financial implications of the trip (it is a huge expense), which I will discuss in another post, only 4 small dogs, 4 medium dogs and 13 large dogs could pay the deposit to secure there eligibility.  So in all fairness, we had a pool of 21 dogs to choose a squad of 12 dogs.

The problem with this system is that it does not promote perfection, it promotes safety.  An example to illustrate:  An average course is 160 meters, if it is set at 4.5m/s, the SCT is 35.55 seconds.  A dog that is running at 5m/s, but drops one bar, can earn the same amount of points as a dog that is running 3.94m/s.  A dog that goes clear running 4.5m/s can also earn the same points as a dog that is running 4.76m/s.  0.26m/s in agility makes a world of difference.

One of the big challenges we face is the fact that our National Championships is seen as a synonym for the AWC trials, since it is run over the same courses.  The majority of competitors are only interested in competing locally and have no interest in meeting international standards, they want their slower dogs to have a chance, which is all fair and well on a national level, but that is also the reason there have been so many arguments regarding our selection system.  Since they are indentical for both events, people have been kicking against changing one or the other.  In my eyes we have to face reality, and realistically, a dog that is struggles to run at 4m/s will undoubtedly end up with time faults at the AWC and even if you want to include such a slower, but consistent dog in the team event, I feel they should not have to take up an individual spot.

Another limitation that we have due to the financial implications and small 'non-competing' helpers, are the fact that each province has complete freedom over their trials, since we are not able to have a person or persons that can travel to each province to observe and advise.  I am sure that we are all as honest as we can be and the A/B co-ordination system of setting up the courses are the best we can do to ensure equal oppertunity, there are always small discrepancies that creep in.  Since some agility equipment have a range of legal measurements, obstacles in all the provinces differ, and may for example give an advantage to some dogs.  If we had a person travelling around the country trying to ensure that the standard is equal everywhere, this would go a long way to even out the field.

Another aspect is that the courses that have been used for the regional trials, have further promoted safety over speed.  In the last few years, we have seen more and more severly technical courses (often more difficult than has ever been seen at the world champs) being used.  And of course I agree that there should be a certain degree of difficulty that should be strived for when selecting these courses, but combined with a system that awards slower dogs, who accumulate time faults, points (as it is easier for these dogs to negotiate more technical, tighter courses with less hassle) I think these courses have been to our detriment.  Recently there was a huge (very public debate) regarding this matter, which made it very apparent to me that people might be missing the point.  I do agree that often the standard of course design at our weekly local shows leaves much to be desired, often Grade 3 courses are on the level of a Grade 1 course, some even pure speed circles.  On the one hand, this promotes the those that just wants a hobby for the weekends, which of course increases numbers, on the other hand the more serious competitors do not get a lot of practise.  But the courses that have been used for the selection process has been of a different level, quite acceptable in fact, it is just combined with our scoring system that it presents some problems.

Theoretically a dog can miss every single contact on the A-frame or dogwalk or have a fly-off in every single round and still qualify to represent South Africa at the AWC.  There are no minimum requirements, no selection criteria, it is merely a fact of 'getting around' and scooping up enough points to beat a handful of dogs.

My problem with the selection system is that it does not inspire perfection or competition.  It encourages people to 'just get around', which might be one of the reasons we are always three steps behind the rest of the world.  Despite the fact that a growth in numbers in South African Agility would certainly help the cause, I do feel that there are certain measures that we can take to encourage people to try and be the best.  Of course I am not only going to name the problems without giving some suggestions.

First of all I feel that there should be some minimum requirements.  At some stage the dogs that want to declare their eligibility should prove small things such as contact and weave pole performance.  There should be minimum speeds that need to be met.  This can be done at the finals, or the day before, it will not take up a large amount of time and does not need to be subjective.  We can have two judges that judge the obstacle and if a dog has a consistency rate lower than 75%, it is not eligible to put down its deposit.  There should also be a minimum speed requirement.  A dog should get at least 3 clear rounds (2 contact and 1 non-contact) through-out the trials and the finals, these can be used to calculate an average speed for each dog to ensure that we send deserving dogs to represent our country.  Consistency is also important, so we need to determine a certain number of mandatory clear rounds at the trials and the finals, this way handlers can also prove that they can handle pressure.

I am not trying to be negative with this post.  I am certainly not trying to take anything away from those that merely want to enjoy their shows every Sunday and fun with their dogs.  I am not insulting any of the dogs that have represented South Africa in the past.  I am just saying that we have to up our game.  The handful of handlers in South Africa that wants to end up on the podium or have good results at the AWC or want to make a stamp internationally, needs inspiration and motivation to WANT to be better, not 'get around'.  We have the potential, we have the dogs and the handlers, now we need to find the system to improve these handlers.

This is just one of the challenges, then there are financial and travel restrictions, breeding in South Africa and many more, but more on that later!

I would love some comments and suggestions to this post, not only from my fellow South Africans, but also from Agility people all over the world.

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