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Course Design - Handling Challenges vs. Dog Challenges

Rachel Sanders discusses Masters Challenge course design, taking into consideration challenges to both the dog and the handler.

Let me start by offering my thanks to all the judges who stand on their feet all day, watching people attempt their courses, sometimes without much success. I know that you often hear the muttering that the course is too hard, too easy, has unsafe obstacle approaches, that the judge, made a bad call, etc.

I appreciate that a judge must design a course to satisfy so much more than just the handler and dog running an obstacle course. Some of the factors to be considered are:

  • Entry and exit to the ring, it should be easy in and out to save time;
  • Nesting to save course building time;
  • Judge's path so you can be where you need to be in order to judge effectively and not running all over the place so that you are exhausted by lunchtime;
  • Satisfy the organization's requirements for equipment usage, number of obstacles to be performed and challenges presented;
  • Produce a course that is challenging, fun to run but not easy/boring;
  • Add to this, a course where I and my fellow competitors can try out our new found handling moves.

This is no easy task and I don't envy you.

Obviously it is much easier to set up a challenging course to teach on. It doesn't matter if I miss seeing the up or down contact, or wondering if something is a refusal, because if the run doesn't go well the handler receives handling advice and starts over. 

I have started to look at course design as it pertains to the courses my fellow agility instructors and I use when we teach and the typical courses we compete on in the U.S. I look at a course from two perspectives: what is a handling challenge and what is a dog challenge. I believe that there should be a balance of both, but currently I think there are more "dog challenges' in our courses than "handling challenges."

A handling challenge requires the handler to put the dog on the correct line so that he makes it to the next obstacle. Whatever handling move the handler chooses and how well that move is executed defines if the dog is successful. Handling challenges require choice on which way you take a dog around a jump, turning a dog out a tunnel to the backside and backside jumps to name just a few. To be successful the handler needs to choose the right handling for the challenge and have decent timing. However, in order to design this sort of course, I think that the person designing the course should be current with today's handling choices.

Dog challenges are angles and spacing of obstacles. If your dog has good jumping scope, this type of jump placement and course challenges have very little to do with handling. Courses where the course is better executed if the dog has independent weaves and contacts are also dog challenge courses.

In the example below, can the dog turn tight enough to make the dog walk approach but not break open the tire?

Courses that contain few handling challenges and more dog challenges are often awkward and without flow for the dog.

Gone are the days where our only handling moves were front and rear crosses, serpentines and the occasional threadle. Where once a course might have posed a huge "How do I get my dog around that?" question, today we have so many more handling moves to choose from that the question rarely arises. More often it is, "I have several choices, which one would work best?"

Courses can be considered technical without disrupting the flow of the dog. For example, taking a jump from the backside can facilitate better course flow and/or can create a better approach to a contact/chute/tire, etc. It may even be easier than taking the jump straight on.

I believe this is an example of this - #14-17 where #16 would have produced better course flow if it had been the backside. In addition, there were a few cases of judging path and handling path collisions - myself included! 

Approach angles to the collapsed tunnel and contact obstacles are often only a dog challenge, i.e. no matter what the handler does, the dog will still have to be skilled at entering those obstacles safely. When asked about obstacle placement I have heard judges reply that the position of these obstacles is safe as long as the handler handles them correctly. Course design should never be unsafe because of handling errors.

Unfortunately handlers will always make errors and with this logic the dog may end up paying the price for the handling error on these obstacles. Safety is why we now have displaceable jump standards, breakaway tires, four-and-a-half foot minimum bars, and encourage flat bottom chutes.

In the example below the placement of the teeter from the #4 jump was a handling challenge. It required that the handler recognized the dog could miss the up contact if the turn from #4 was taken too wide, however the challenge only effected one height class - 26 inches.

It is the course design at our shows that will improve the standard of agility in the U.S. In a recent conversation with Dave Hanson, a senior USDAA judge, he talked about his Arizona Masters Challenge Standard course from a few years ago and suggested that if he set that up today, we would not have the same problem running it. I agreed that challenging course design improves handling.

By the way, the atmosphere around the ring that evening was awesome with all levels of competitors struggling to get through his course. We cheered when someone got through the first major challenge, cheered louder if someone made it through the next and laughed at our struggles. I didn't see one handler get upset at her dog. We all knew the errors were from our handling mistakes. This is not the case when the course only contains dog challenges. 

I was faced with this handling challenge during my recent trip to Finland.  

It's actually quite easy when you know how. Since my return home I have used it in several training exercises. I ignore the, "No way, you're kidding, right!" comments and guess what? Only a couple of dogs out of many have gone into the tunnel. Each time the off-course occurred because the handler was moving towards the jump after the dog exited the weave poles. The rest of the dog and handler teams did this challenge easily and with enthusiasm. It didn't demotivate the dogs and they maintained speed throughout the sequence.

My point is, that if I hadn't seen it done, I would have thought it almost impossible but for the few dogs who move slowly around a course, or those who don't like tunnels. I'm not suggesting you set this up in your next Masters Challenge course, but you could - my students can do it! I am suggesting that without attending that handling/teaching event, I would never have known that it was so easily accomplished.

Perhaps if we were to see such challenges in our weekend courses, the success rate of the challenge at the IFCS WACs in 2015 with the tunnel/weave discrimination would have been higher.

If top level agility instructors would attend judging clinics and agility judges to attend handling clinics, we would all gain a better understanding of the challenges judges face when designing courses and judges a better understanding of how to design courses that have both challenge and flow with safe obstacle approaches for our dogs.

Rachel and her dogs have been USDAA Cynosport finalists, in either Grand Prix, Steeplechase or DAM, first in 1996 and then every year since 1999. Podium placements include 1st place 12 inch Steeplechase and 1st place Grand Prix in 1999, 2002 and 2003. She was a member of the 2008 IFCS World Team with her Border Collie Fable and has been the USDAA IFCS World Team coach since 2012.

In addition to competing with her own dogs, she is the author of several DVDs, teaches agility to all levels of handlers and dogs and is a popular camp and seminar presenter. She can be reached through her website


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