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International Handlers Challenge Jumpers Course Analysis

An explanation of the IHC classes through a close look at the Carolina Piedmont Agility 4-Star event IHC Jumpers course from 1/15/11. By Kenneth Tatsch and Brenna Fender

As competitors advance in our sport, agility tests sometimes don't reveal hidden shortcomings. The International Handlers Challenge (IHC) classes were designed to intensify focus on the finer points of training and handling that define competitive edge. These shortcomings particularly show up when handlers are confronted with multiple technical elements in a course that can disrupt timing and flow.  USDAA programs to-date have not incorporated these factors to the same degree as seen in many countries around the world. This has become particularly noticeable in recent international competition.

These technical challenges often fall into two categories. In one, a sequence of technical elements highlights the need to identify and maintain a well-defined line leading into and out of one segment in order to continue with flow successfully into the next, and on through the course.  If the handler has to provide too much attention to any one obstacle or portion of an element, it can throw off the timing and course line, often resulting in less-than-desirable performance results, or worse yet, elimination. It accentuates even the slightest weakness in response control when working with speed, a focal point being tested in the Masters level. 

A second type of challenge occurs when the flow or element includes abrupt turns and blind approaches which, if not handled well, result in lost drive (and time) or an off-course. Lost drive is the more subtle element, as a handler can direct a dog to perform a threadle or wrap and the dog will perform at a seemingly fast pace. Alternatively, the handler can be in the middle of the element and be a more interactive player in driving the dog through the tight wraps and turns in a manner necessary to optimize speed and accuracy.  The split second saved can be the difference between winning or losing. And in a course with three, four, or more such maneuvers, the results can be quite revealing. 

We see each of these challenges in current USDAA Masters level classes, but certain refinements are not easily identified unless multiple technical elements are presented on a course. The IHC Jumpers class offered at the Carolina Piedmont Agility 4-Star event clearly showed these challenges in several areas.

In the opening sequence, many handlers focused on avoiding the off-course tunnel at #4, but then some dogs took the turn from #5 to #6 very wide, wasting time. The #4 bar was knocked more often than most of the others as well.

More wide turns plagued the #8-#9 sequence, when dogs shot out of the tunnel and had to be called back into it. This move seemed to catch handlers by surprise, and at least one forgot it entirely, taking the tunnel just once and going on to 10a for an off-course and elimination. Some dogs caught sight of the #8 tunnel immediately after doing #7a and missed the second half of the combination entirely.

From #10 to #11, handlers were again very focused on making sure that their dogs did not swing out and take the #6 off-course. But breathing a sigh of relief after #11 wasn't a good idea. Without controlled lines from #11 to #12, dogs were more likely to take the #15 tunnel than the #13 jump. And then after #14, some dogs ran by the tunnel as their handlers found themselves too far behind.

The closing of the course, #16-#19, also posed a major technical challenge. Many handlers hung back as they handled the figure eight sequence, and some of their dogs lost drive and time in this area. Other dogs simply did not know where to go and seemed to assume that the sequence was a pinwheel, taking #19 after #17. Many who made it cut the turn to #18 too tightly, knocking the bar.

The training needed to master these challenges in many cases will include going back to basics. Trainers will need to take a broader look at the flow to set up the proper lines, and refine response control and handling maneuvers to take it to the next level.  Skilled dog/handler teams will likely need to add a wider variety of exercises presenting technical elements while working on increased response at speed. Additionally, handlers will need to train the dog to work through tight turns, pushing for more drive with the handler close by directing the dog through the course segment, restoring a true partnership in performance. 

The IHC classes instituted for this year's IFCS team qualification are a forerunner to a new program in coming months. One word of caution is in order for trainers and handlers - young dogs that have not developed confidence and speed should not be trying to incorporate these elements too early in their dogs' careers. Doing so can totally stress the dog out by throwing too much at them at once. The basic tenets of dog training still apply.  The IHC is simply the next step for those who want to take the challenge and see fun in testing their mettle in this more intense environment.


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