Friday, February 17, 2012

Course Design, Learning from Failure and Hooligan Dogs

I completed my judges course in 2000... no I am not that old, I just had the opportunity to attend the course at the age of 16.  Of course in this backwards country I was only allowed to judge at the age of 18 in 2002, but I have been judging since the first day I could.  On top of that it is common knowledge that I have this little thing called insomnia, often during these restless (well that is supposed to sound mysterious and deep, but actually it should read BORED) hours I design courses.  I have literally designed thousands of courses, 90% of which has never been run and might never see the light of day.  In the beginning I bought books and books of graph paper from my pocket money and used a loaned agility stencil and pieces of thread (to measure accurate of distances of course), eventually, once I was over the whole 'poor student' phase I EVENTUALLY bought one of these clever course designer program thingies...  Now take on top of that, that I have run a million courses in my life with a very wide variety of dogs for the last 15 years.  So needless to say I am pretty opinionated about courses.  Funny enough NOT about Grade 3 courses (FCI, so Grade 6/7 KC, Excellent AKC etc).  While I will tell you that I can be a bit whiny as some courses suit me and others don't, it is Grade 1 (entry level courses) that can bug the living craps out of me.  As long as it is not dangerous, I kind of feel that an advanced dog should negotiate (or try to) anything that is thrown in his path... you do of course get slightly unreasonable challenges (an of course jump 1m after a straight tunnel for example) but so be it.  But for entry level dogs...  I have a firm belief that you should only test obstacle performance and pure basic handling.  That means no tunnels under contacts, no off course jumps staring dogs right in the face, no hard pole entries, no pull through's, no go rounds... you get the idea.

The problem here is that because we are a rather small community, one judge will ALWAYS judge all the grades (and height categories), which of course means nested courses (which are not that easy to design)... well actually that part is not a problem.  The problem is lazy judges that will not even move one single jump or change one angle.  Okay but now I am veering off the original point I wanted to make again... Well not a point really, but two observations.  The first is that I find non-competing judges tend to struggle designing Grade 1 courses.  What appears very easy to them is in actual fact NOT... us competitors know this, because we actually run dogs and get caught in a million 'traps'.  My second observation comes from several discussions with A LOT of judges that dare make the comment... 'in grade 1 I wouldn't give that fault'.... erm, excuse me ladies and gents but rules are rules.  If it is a refusal in Grade 3, I promise you it should be a refusal in Grade 1 too.  And in general those comments are made about those exact sequences that shouldn't be in grade 1....

Moving on, I have noticed again and again that very few people in this world share their failures (with regards to Agility).  So few agility bloggers and agility addicts post their 'bad rounds'.  I try to share all my rounds, although I won't deny that I LOVE making super pretty videos of my dogs doing super fantastic things, to awesome inspiring music...  I guess you all knew that already with the amount of videos on my youtube channel....  But I DO share my bad rounds as well, because not only do I learn from it, get feedback from others, but maybe, just maybe someone can learn from my mistakes as well!  I would really like it if others would do the same.  The one thing I repeat to my students SO many times is that 'training is not training without failure'.  Partly it is because actually, physically training people I think.  I REALLY miss it a lot... but then that would mean an entire set of equipment (= lots and lots of money, since I am not prepared to move my own equipment to another venue) and seminars by fellow South Africans are not even remotely popular here...  It is something I am looking into, but not getting my hopes up.

The next subject is related to both the other topics of my post.  I am the first person to stress safety for dogs, however regardless of how safe we make life for our dogs... they are dogs and if your dogs are anything like mine, they are complete hooligans.  Life happens.  Sometimes they get hurt from these hooligan moments, most of the time they don't.  Sometimes they get hurt doing something completely safe and normal, mostly the don't.  SO many people are too afraid to make these 'bad, unsafe' habits public, even when it is obvious that it is not due to trainer fault etc.  I don't baby my dogs, but I don't risk their lives either.  I am working hard on Volt's contacts at the moment.  He is a super high drive enthusiastic dog, sometimes his mind and his striding don't agree on the terms before the sign the contract.  From the below video you will see that Volt's slightly over-enthusiastic A-Frames lead to... hmmmm... some stressful moments, but that is part of him being a young dog.  By the time we get out there and compete for the Big Time, this will all be sorted, but I am not afraid to tell you all that this happens.  I know Volt is smashing down on his front quarters a bit too much coming off that A-Frame at the moment (since I increased to full height), but isn't that all the more reason to improve it and fix it?  Yes, if you knowingly allow your dogs to continually do wild child, dangerous moves without improving it, you deserve a big time smack and to be banned from owning dogs.... but a little bit more reality would be appreciated in the dog world.

By the way, this video was made with a super cool nice song, but even though I never intend to infringe coprights... Youtube has to do their job.  So enjoy the silence.  It is golden.


  1. Thank you for the insight (an, indirectly, encouragement).

    I've been assisting with a level one class and it has been my job to put the courses together.

    I go out and set stuff up on the fly, but then I run my dog through it to 'proof' it. As a baby course designer, I've still put together runs that didn't play well in class (we want the team to succeed, too many refusals is MY FAULT not theirs!)

    I'm learning so much. It's amazing how much there is to think about when you are out there just putting a few jumps and tunnel down.

    Love reading about your dogs and challenges.

    Jenn, Phoenix Arizona, USA

  2. Thanks! Really glad you enjoy the blog and my (sometimes insane) ramblings! Those beginner courses really are the hardest to get right!