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Thoughts on Tunnel Safety

Internationally successful agility competitor Lori Michaels takes a look at how to make tunnels safer on course.


Obstacle safety has been a very hot topic the last few years in our sport. From breakaway tires and rubberized contacts to shorter chute lengths and the move to eradicate metal jumps/cups, it is clear we are moving in the right direction to avoid injuries as a result of obstacle design and construction. With all these strides forward, I feel that there is one area still grossly overlooked; proper placement and securing of tunnels.

There was a brief period of time when the subject was in the spotlight after the 2013 Junior European Open when a dog died after supposedly hitting an ill-fitting tunnel support. Unfortunately, after the initial shock and sadness, I feel that it eventually got chalked up as a freak accident and everybody moved on, being a bit more careful not to overly snug the tunnels between the ribs. This is not the only (or biggest) safety issue I frequently see with tunnels. Regardless of surface or what tools are being used to secure them, here are a few points that judges, course builders and competitors need to be better aware of when designing, building and walking courses with tunnels in them.

1) Excess Slack: This is when the full length of the tunnel is not stretched out so it leaves enough slack to allow for excess movement and displacement when the dog is running through it. Often times, a basic "C" shaped tunnel becomes an "S". When the dogs hit the curve, it moves with them until the tunnel shape is deformed. Usually this results in a crook just near the end of the tunnel that will catch the dogs as they try to exit.

Tunnel1Tunnel2

Quite likely, this is because the judge has tweaked a course and has placed the entrance and exit of the tunnel in specific spots, but doesn't use the entire length of the tunnel. This is often caused by a 20' tunnel being substituted for a 15'. I do not believe that this issue can be solved by adding more tunnel bags (unless changing the shape to stretch out the tunnel length, but this would likely also change the angel of entrance and exit from what the judge may want). There will still be spots of excess tunnel length that are unsecured and will loosen as dogs run through it.

2) Insufficient number of bags/tie downs: The days of putting one bag on each end of the tunnel and one in the middle (if curved) are long over. That simply won't cut it anymore with the increased speed of dogs going through them. In my mind, there is no such thing as a tunnel that is too secure. Depending on the type of bag, snugger, [and so on], I feel that there needs to be four points of security at the very least. A good example was a C-shaped, 20' tunnel at a regional event I attended this spring. It was secured with bags on the ends and at one point in the middle. By the time my 26" dog ran, the tunnel had become a "V" and dogs were hitting the acute angle in the middle very hard and either took much longer than usual to exit or came back out the entry. More bags and support in the correct places would have avoided this.

Tunnel3tunnel4


There was a similar issue at Cynosport this year. Apparently, the facility would not allow sand in the tunnel bags (they used water instead) and the metal plates used underneath the tunnels had to have the grips taken off to protect the turf. In the warm-up class, I saw the tunnel move so much while the dogs were in it that one dog came out of the tunnel into the ring fencing (they had a dedicated person to move it back after each dog ran). Thankfully, these issues were quickly addressed by the organizers and the equipment supplier who worked hard to find a solution that still conformed to the facility's requirements.

3) Proximity to walls: This was a concern I had with a course I ran today. The tunnel was the 3rd obstacle and while it wasn't initially a concern being too close to the wall, because it wasn't properly secured it had moved considerably from the time I ran my 26" dog to my 20" dog. The entrance and exit points needed to be marked on the ground so that the ring crew could have seen it was moving and reset it properly.

FullSizeRender (2)

4) Placement under contacts: Ah, the lovely contact/tunnel discrimination! The actual challenge makes me cringe much less than worrying if and how the tunnel will interact with the contact itself. This was a very serious problem on a course I ran recently. The tunnel was not properly secured and had excess slack which allowed it to shift when the dogs ran through it. Here is what the tunnel looked like from our side:

FullSizeRender (1)

The primary concern was with the exit of the tunnel being way too close to the dogwalk support. An extra bag was placed on this side of the upright to buffer it from the dogs hitting it (which always amazes me... why put it so close to begin with?!). Again, you can see only one bag on each end of the tunnel (obviously not securing the tunnel very well by the looks of how it has moved) and significant slack in the middle (note the ribs closer to each other). Here you can see how it moved from the back side when a larger, faster dog would run through it:

FullSizeRender

Wow. Very scary, right? By the way, there wasn't a dog running through it when I took this photo.

Another thing that can be avoided is the issue when the judge has a course design like this:

tunneldw

Only the dogwalk is designed in such a way (think Max 200 supports) that it would end up like this if set correctly:

tunneldw3d

Oops! That won't work! As chief course builder for a group that has this kind of dogwalk, this is one of the most frustrating and time consuming issues to run into. Now the judge has to decide how to alter the placement of the tunnel, which at our last trial resulted in a 20' tunnel being used with not nearly enough bags available to make it safe, in my opinion. When giving judges a list of available obstacles, they also need to know what kind of supports the dogwalk has so they can plan accordingly. Also, if the trial will have two rings and two judges, they need to know the number and lengths of tunnels available in their ring. I have worked at trials where there were two 15' tunnels and two 20' tunnels and both judges designed courses using two 15' tunnels in their rings. One judge had to alter to allow for 20' tunnels, but it did cause issues with distances and angles.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure this doesn't happen? The judge? The course builder? The [competitors] focused on walking the course? The answer is all of the above! The solution lies in awareness and education. Those hosting trials need to have sufficient equipment to secure the tunnels safely. Clubs should give the judges thorough equipment details so they can design courses consistent with what is available to them. Course builders should be educated on how to secure the tunnels properly so there is no shifting or possibility of it hitting something else. Judges need to be more cognizant of these issues while tweaking course and flexible to adapt appropriately. Lastly, handlers need to also be aware and bring up any safety concerns before the class (if possible) and not hesitate to speak up if they notice something during a class. What you say just might save a dog's life or keep them from sustaining a major injury. If you do that before my run, THANK YOU!

An avid dog training enthusiast since childhood, Lori Michaels has been dedicated to the sport of agility the last 14 years with her Shetland Sheepdogs and Border Collies. Lori and her dogs have appeared in final events at Cynosport (Grand Prix, Performance Speed Jumping, Steeplechase and Dog Agility Masters Team) 16 times, as well as earning multiple regional championship titles. Lori and Solei have represented the US in international competition four times, including being members of the 2014 IFCS Team (medaling in two events). Beyond being an accomplished competitor, Lori has gained respect in the agility community for her devotion as both instructor and coach to local and long-distance students. Her greatest satisfaction comes from helping others meet and exceed their personal goals with their own dogs. Lori can be reached through her website at http://www.allstaragility.net/about.htm.

This article first appeared on https://allstaragility.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/thoughts-on-tunnel-safety/ and has been shared with permission.

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