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Masters Challenge: What's the Challenge? Part 1

A look at preparing for Masters Challenge courses. By Stuart Mah.

Although the Masters Challenge (MC) classes (both Jumpers and Standard, occasionally known as "fancy jumpers" or "fancy standard") have been around for almost three years now, it wasn't until the end of 2012 that there was an upsurge in the frequency of this type of class being offered at USDAA events. Originally based on the IHC (International Handling Challenge) courses, Masters Challenge provides American handlers the opportunity to experience "overseas" challenges not commonly seen here. It also provides a way to select teams to compete internationally. With the advent of the new Biathlon tournament for Cynosport 2013, it was decided to incorporate the design elements found in Masters Challenge courses for that tournament. This is the reason for the dramatic increase in the Masters Challenge courses. 

So, now that we know where it came from, what is different about it? Time? Challenges? Obstacles? Handling? How about all of the above!

The times are certainly much tighter. For handlers running several seconds under course time, it is sometimes shocking for them to find that they are now running over time. The yards per second rate for 22" dogs in MC standard, for example, is 3.75-4.25 yards per second (yps) as opposed to a regular Masters standard class, which is 3.00-3.30 yps. Masters Challenge Jumpers classes for the same height has a yps of 4.25-4.75, an increase in a half yard per second over regular Masters Jumpers. Depending on things like yardage and number of obstacles, the dog now needs to run at least 7-10 seconds faster than before. 

Although only part of the picture, handling challenges are what most handlers tend think of as what makes up MC courses and also what makes them different than regular Masters Standard or Grand Prix. To make it short, just about any challenge within reason is allowable. For example, while we might occasionally see a threadle in a Masters Standard class, it isn't uncommon to see it with a high frequency in MC class (often more than one in a course). In addition, we can see challenges like widely varied spacing (anywhere from 15' to 30+' between obstacles), backside approaches, pull throughs, bypassing close obstacles, and compound challenges (two or more challenges stacked on top of each other). Now it isn't as easy to get through a course cleanly since both the dogs and handlers have to be more on top of things. 

Obstacles and their performance criteria are the same as Masters Standard. But in Masters Challenge, the question is, how many times are the obstacles are performed? Maneuvers like back-to-back performance of an obstacle are seen with frequency. Likewise, wrapping a jump to take it again is common. 

In addition, the judges are not limited to 20 obstacles maximum. Instead they can use up to 25 obstacles on course. So, if we are used to running 20 obstacles in Masters Standard, we now are running 25% more than we are used to. A course of more than 20 obstacles will have the obstacles arranged in combinations similar to what we might see in Snooker. Use of combinations in both Standard and Jumpers courses also require a different way of judging combinations. This means the handler and judge need to be more aware of what is going on in the course since faults like run-outs and refusals are handled differently in combinations as compared to an individual obstacle.

Lastly, handling...what we would do on a Masters Standard course may no longer be sufficient in MC courses. For example, if a handler had to front cross to keep a dog tight in a turn, the handler might find that as she gets behind the dog more physically, she can't necessarily get into as good a position to execute a clean front cross. The result is more off-courses and wider (time consuming) turns. Handling alone isn't good enough to get through many of the MC courses.

It is possible to fly without motors but not without knowledge or skills.... (Wilber Wright)

When comparing Masters Challenge to regular Masters Standard classes, the Masters Challenge courses are the equivalent of going onto graduate school after finishing undergraduate work. To be good at undergraduate level, you need to study hard and put the time in to do the work. To get into and to do well in graduate school, however, not only do you have to do the work, you have to be smarter than the average undergraduate student. Being smarter means that you have to have a better understanding of the subject, be quicker at figuring things out, and also have more skills to draw from. You can't study in graduate school the same way you did as an undergraduate and expect to do well. For agility handlers, this translates into: a faster dog, a faster handler (at least mentally), more intensity in handling, longer concentration, and better understanding of course designs. With all this comes more of a concern that dogs could be injured or that the courses shut down the dogs by decreasing motivation. 

So where does that leave us? How can we be successful at MC courses, keep the dogs motivated, and also keep them safe? One word: Plastics? No that isn't it. It is SKILLS. Skills both on the dog AND on the handler. For example, in Masters Standard, we might not be concerned if we throw the dog over a jump and he has to turn quickly, as long as the dog gets to the next obstacle correctly. 

Figure 1

As a handler, we might elect to do a front cross to get a tighter turn between #11 and #12. Now change the scenario just slightly. 

Figure 2

If we add the triple prior to #11 and change the angle to #13, we end up with a much more difficult scenario. Now we can't just handle through the sequence and expect it to go well or run clean. The turn from #11 to #12 is now a little more acute. Handling alone won't cut it. Additional skills are needed here. Why? For one, the triple puts the dog in extension more than the previous course using the table. Second, the distance between #10 and #11 is way more than average, allowing the dog to really get moving by putting the dog in an extended stride. The front cross alone may not be sufficient to get the dog to turn tightly and safely if the handler isn't there in a timely fashion. Also, with the jump turned at #13, it is going to be harder to get the dog to take the correct side due partly to the angle being closed rather than open to the dog as previously. The off-course jump, while not a major factor (most dogs won't go out that far to take it), is still providing the dog with a focal point that draws the attention off the correct obstacle. We can probably front cross again to #13, but if the handling isn't perfect, the dog's path isn't either. This results in the dog slowing more than we would want from #11-#13. 

What else in terms of skills are needed? For the dog, what about collecting up on the stride so that he doesn't jump way out past the jump? This should cut down the distance on landing. However, this isn't the only thing. What about getting the dog jump from the rear and not from the front? Many dogs can't do this. Instead, they just throw the front end over and the rear trails. Even with the dog collected, he can still jump from the front end. To be efficient in jumping, in this case the dog needs to be able to take the rear end and bring it up underneath to allow the dog to lift vertically more and provide a closer landing. What about changing the dog's way of propulsion? When the dog is in extension, he also is running from the front end to cover ground more quickly. To turn tightly, the dog has to stop moving with the front so much and start using the rear to propel itself forward. This means that the dog shouldn't carry out so much but still be able to provide power to jump or run. Mechanically, all this allows the dog a better opportunity jump safely and tightly rather than being extended and landing far away from the jump and possibly falling down in the attempt to turn tightly as it hits the ground. All these changes result in a dog that "softens" its way of movement to turn tight, clean, and safe. Just trying to out-handle the dog and screaming "Come" isn't going to cut it any longer. 

Is this all that is needed? Probably in a perfect world you could say "Yes." However, in the agility world, things are rarely perfect. What if the handler was on the left side of the triple going to #11? What if the handler was trailing the dog from #10? Now the handler can't use handling and motion alone as a cue to get the ideal turn. Instead, the handler needs to develop additional cues (such as body or verbal cues) so that when she can't handle perfectly, she can still feed the dog information about what he needs to do. Verbals might be something like an "easy" cue to collect or it might take the form of a directional. A handler just needs something that provides more information about what to do in a timely fashion so that when the handler isn't perfect, the dog can be. In this case, the dog would not only need to interpret movement, but also verbals to collect as well as directionals to let him know which way to turn. 

Click here for part two of this article!

Stuart Mah has been one of the nation's leading and most innovative agility personalities for almost two decades. He is also considered one of the foremost authorities on course design and course analysis. Stuart has been a 9-time member of US international agility teams. He is also a 16-time USDAA Grand Prix of Dog Agility and Performance Grand Prix finalist and 6-time AKC finalist. His dogs, which have included Shannon (a mixed breed), Alley Cat (a Pembroke Welsh Corg), and Qwik, Leia, Recce, and Ares (all Border Collies), have earned the highest titles in several agility organizations including 6 ADChs, 3 MACHs, and two Lifetime Platinum Achievement awards, as well as multiple national and world championship titles. Stuart writes for agility magazines and he is the author of several books on agility, including "Fundamentals of Course Design for Dog Agility" and "Course Analysis for Agility Handlers."


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