How to Make Most of Your Agility Walk-Through
Before your first full-fledged qualifying round, visit several competitions as a spectator. Watch the dogs and handlers in different classes, running a standard course. Study the process of competition personally, from the arrival and registration up to the prizes and titles awarding. Watch the handlers tactics and strategy, talk to them, measure your dog to determine its height of jump. You should get a clear understanding about this trial under real circumstances. Such fan’s visits will give you a lot of impressions and a wealth of information for reflection and conclusions. You will experience the very atmosphere of agility. You might be surprised to learn that some handlers fail to reach finish smoothly, many of them are very nervous, tangled and lost on the course.
Without prior visits, you risk to arrive at the first competition in complete confusion, being unaware where to settle down and how to proceed. Double anxiety and excitement can muddle you up harder. Finally, when you realize what's what, time to review the course and to work out the handling strategy will be irretrievably lost.
Review of the agility course map
Thus, armed with a pencil or pen, you should draw the path lines from one obstacle to another on a course map, finishing them where the dog will supposedly come down after each obstacle. Fig. 1 indicates what exactly you need to do. By following the drawn lines define each hidden trap on the course, as well as the obstacles arranged in a straight line. Specify your own way along the ring, choosing the shortest distance. Note, where you suppose to go after the start. Your position at the lead-out is very important in order to guide the dog.
Specify the places where the course direction is changing. In these places your previously drawn lines will be crossed. In such places think carefully how to specify a turn in advance. Basic rule in agility - handler should be on a closed course path, inside the imaginary obstacles circle, and must always run a few steps ahead of a dog. It is based on the considerations of efficient handling, as dogs, on the average, move two times faster than men; therefore handler should hold the shortest path within the course. Running along the outer side of the course is often fraught with collisions with the dog, and additional penalty points.
Sides changes (or crosses), i.e. which side of the dog you should take approaching a particular obstacle is the same important. For optimal run handler does not necessarily always have to be inside the circle of obstacles. His maneuvers might be different (see Fig. 2 and Fig. 3). Decide for yourself, which changes of position you will apply – where blind, front, back crosses or reverse flow pivot should to be done (for example, which way dog should turn before jumping the crossbar). Find the course points, where you may have two or three crosses at once (before and after the obstacle). Consider how to use hands changes, when the movement reverses, define methods for performing the remaining turns, where hands changes are not so efficient. Sometimes it is better to use voice instructions, side shifts or shoulders twists.
Remember every position, on which you suppose to stay, when the dog will take the next obstacle. Note the positions, which you are going to take until the dog will go through the tunnels, contact obstacles, weave poles, long jumps alone. Find the sections where obstacles are positioned close together, where the dog can go through independently, and the places, where you cannot do without layering. If have detected certain obstacles located illogically for the dog, find out which maneuvers will make it move in the right direction.
Do not waste your time; learn the course by the diagram you received. You can start to memorize it in parts, by repeating to yourself - "crossbar, tunnel, weave pole, along the curve to the left, three jumps, pinwheel, to the right, tunnel, ramp, around the circle, seesaw, zigzagged jumps into tunnel", etc. You may learn a course sequence from its middle or from the end. Try to put all obstacles numbers together in a complete picture. Planning the dog’s handling strategy is reasonable only after analyzing the whole course entirely.
During the course walk-through, take a good look on each number; put notes in to your diagram which side of the obstacle it is disposed. Compare the real course with the diagram you received. If you still have time, supplement your diagram with all changes or adjustments you have noticed, to analyze them again after the warm-up.
When you are first time through the course, follow exactly the dog’s path and look over the hurdles through your dog’s eyes. Step over the jumps and crossbars. Of course, you don’t need to climb the A-frame, seesaw or dogwalk, but you should come to their end points, stand at the bottom and remember what your dog will see there, running down. At the exit of each tunnels get down to the dog’s level, walk out the end weave poles as your dog will run them out. As you go, try to see and remember every detail that will appear in front of your dog’s eyes. Look for probable off-course places, traps and refusal planes, which you will definitely miss, following the handler’s path. This is the information upon which you should build your handling strategy.
Imagine the position of your dog when it comes down from a particular obstacle. How quickly your dog in response to your moves and commands depends on which turns it is generally capable. Tricky complex venues on the course are the main meters of your ability to control the animal.
Walking through the course second time, follow your own – handler’s path. Initially, determine where to place your dog at the starting line and which position you will take, opening the course sequence. Then, go through the track, moving past the easy parts faster, saving the time for places, where you will need to come up with more complicated strategy - at the points of face, back crosses or where you should make a pivot around the jump instead of jumping through it, etc. If the course includes sites on which you found it difficult to determine how to proceed, go two - three obstacles ahead and work out a scenario where you and your dog would want to be when you finally get there. Then, work your way back to that difficult part. Often with such approach, it is getting clear which particular actions need to be done.
Walk around the course for the third time, now looking for long straight paths between the groups of obstacles. These are sections to pick up speed and gain time. Build your handling strategy the way your dog would be able to follow such stretches successfully and take these straight lines as fast as possible. Take a look at the end of each straight stretch. There are often places where the judge has organized unexpected off-courses, traps or put a contact obstacle. Recheck once again your handling strategy at each end point. Will your plan fall apart if your dog will run far ahead? Are there places on the course, forcing the dog to fly off the obstacle and miss the contact zone? If you found them, now is the right time to think how to guide your dog through these high-speed zones carefully!
The green arrows on the Fig. 4 indicate the direction your dog will hypothetically go, if you miss the moment to indicate the turn or a straight path, and how close you need to be by your dog. From jump (1) the dog will not pay attention to seesaw (2) unless you lead it out in this direction immediately after the start. You can see an empty field after the seesaw (2), so tunnel (14) or double barrier (20) might be the next on your dog’s way. The dogwalk (13) or tunnel (14) will go after the jump (3); jump (10) and tunnel (11) follows the 4th frame; 8/12 comes after the jump (5); table (17) after the weave poles (6); from the long jump (7) even the exit of the tunnel (11) is able to draw away; if to be late with a turn, your dog will get to the barrier (9); from the 9th obstacle back cross to the jump (10); here 2 directions are possible at once; from the 11th tunnel the path leads directly to the springboard (7); after the crossbar (12) – to the weave poles (6); 13, 14 are arranged on a straight line, but it is likely to get to the wrong hole of the tunnel (14); after the tunnel (14) your dog can go back to the dogwalk (13); from the crossbar (15) - jump (18) or table (17) are very close on the way; from the 16th obstacle – weave poles (6) may be entered in the opposite direction; 17-18 – lead to the field; tire (19) is not visible from the springboard (18); and finally from the 19th
obstacle your dog can get into the tunnel (14).
Focus on the areas where you need to slow down the pace, areas where acceleration is needed. Practice once again the sequence of hands, train, which of them to use, always keep in mind the next maneuver. In situations where, for example, you urgently need to make a front cross between (17) and (18), your previously conceived reverse flow pivot from the crossbar (16) to the table (17) might not work. Initially here is important to take the final decision, and then to work out the appropriate maneuvers. If the course has areas, where your dog may run in two ways (for example, a jump (10) on the diagram), better to stick to the Greg Derrett technique:
Where have you been before
Which place you are you going to
Which distance will be the shortest?
Calculate the shortest way and decide how to lead your dog through it. Check again, if the course contains points, crossing with the dog’s path, for instance, when you run around the seesaw or tunnel. Take a look at the other handlers’ technique. Maybe you have made a "discovery", being the sole handler, which is going to run the selected path?
Now go back to the points where you need to take a particular position to perform some complex maneuvers as front or rear crosses. Memorize a visual cue in details, thus you can move through the steps exactly as you planned. Imagine that you are already running the course. In the places of front/blind/rear crosses, remember, what the jump stanchion (or tunnels, weave poles exits, etc.) looks like in each point, where you are going to execute your rotation for the cross, to use this image and unmistakably find this same position later, when you will have no time to think. In general, this is one of the most valuable tools, which, despite the step by step timing for crosses, proved to be effective on the course. Such strategy was conducive to multiple clean rounds and titles, including the highest awards in agility.
If you still have time, go back to the course and walk it several more times, training your handling turns and moves, double check how well you remembered the course flow. Leaving the ring, do not forget to register with the steward at the entrance and clarify your turn to run. Watch the handlers running ahead of you to view the traps that left hidden.
Use the time while waiting for your turn to work out the course. How to do it? Find a quiet place, close your eyes, and imagine the beginning of the course. Now, start your mental run, performing all handling moves physically.
Take an imaginary round, talking out all words, repeating all moves over and over. Mentally visualize every motion of your dog and your proper position at this time.
Forgot the part of the course? Take one more look outside the ring and restore all the forgotten sections. So, have you been able to make your mental run-through at least twice, scrolling the entire course sequence in your mind and being able to commit your handling to memory? It sounds strange, but really you were exercising the visualization (sometimes called psychocybernetics or "air training"), often used by athletes in many sports, where executing a successful performance, is the key point of the competitions.
Bad idea to change your original plan immediately after leaving the course, unless you have found some gross errors. In general, well developed plan, successful or not, is better than more advantageous strategy, which you have not trained. Stop watching other competitors, step aside the track and focus entirely on your own strategy.
Finally, potty your dog; let it run for a while to warm up before the competition. Head for the starting line. Take a deep breath and go for it!
Running the course, manage to notice the places where your plan has worked well. Praise yourself for this and move on.
Unfortunately, the paper-based diagram is sometimes unavailable in the agility competitions. And time to make a detailed analysis, described above, is never enough. The ability to grasp and plan everything on the fly will come to you with experience.
To have a little additional time to analyze the course, come to the competition beforehand. Inquire about your running order, walk-through period, to come to the ring without delay. Study the course, while standing outside, using the obtained diagram. Make up the initial plan how to take a course before warming up.
If shooting is not provided by the agility show organizers, ask someone to film you on a video to analyze your faults later. Otherwise, filming copies should be available or in sale directly from the sanctioning club.
Before beginning the agility training, as well as after any event, schedule a vet check-up to ensure your dog has no injuries and it is physically fit for further participation. Breeds prone to hip dysplasia, dysplasia of elbow joints, or vision problems, should undergo regular examination.
Test the mental health of your dog. While the agility training strengthens the self-confidence of a dog, you should make sure the tasks performing is up to your pet if it is excessively shy or nervous.
Besides the general recommendations, you should accumulate you own experience by regular participation. It is important to practice your analysis and strategy development skills on various courses over and over again.
Most handlers are trying to analyze the course, to memorize it by map before entering the ring. The course flow seems quite simple and mostly straight during the training. But in the actual trials, dog by dog are running with faults with only few of them reaching the finish line clearly. Probably as a handler you will initially take it as a complete nonsense, this would seem unreal, because you have thought out everything in advance! However, look at the experienced handlers. No matter how complex the path could be, they are able to cope with any number of tricks and traps, doing it quite confidently. This is logical - the more the handler and his dog know, the better they are prepared for any difficult situation.
Although under some circumstances the experience can work against you. More trained dog may, acting in its sole discretion, lose orientation and miss the subsequent turn in treadle or pinwheel. After all, well-trained animal will try to run the course efficiently, without taking into account the handler’s instruction (see Fig. 1).
It usually feels that the course simply cannot go in a different direction. Look at the Fig. 2. Inexperienced dog, being unaware about the curve will allow the handler to lead the path in a manner the unnecessary jumps will not be on its way.
The point is no matter if your dog well-trained or not, you should be able to "read" it to predict the behavior. Analyzing each course, keep in mind what your dog particularly knows or able to do and how it usually reacts to certain combinations of obstacles.
Another important point in agility is the ability of an animal stick to the right path, to align its movement. Certain sequences, being easy in training, add complexity in the competition, as the dog is forced to transfer its center of gravity. In other words, If the dog is incapable to control the weight transfer, it is likely to be at fault.
Normally, all contact obstacles (table, A-frame, dogwalk, seesaw), as well as closed tunnel, weave poles and tire jump require weight balancing when entering or leaving them. Here handlers mistakenly expect the dog’s independent actions.
The course distance will become more complicated, if the obstacles are arranged along a straight line, one after another. On a straight path dogs tend to pick up speed, at high speed, weight transfer will respectively become more intensive.
Being aware of this, you will work on the following sequences carefully: A-frame – weave poles (see Fig. 3), long jump – weave poles, double jump - pause table (see Fig. 4), weave poles – tire jump and vice versa, closed tunnel - tire and vice versa, any tunnel – weave poles. The closer they are to the straight line, the harder to go through them, as turns, zigzags usually help the dogs to slow down and balance their weight. Long jump or crossbar forces the dog to accelerate and bring the weight forward, pause table, on the contrary, backwards.
How quickly your will align and stick back to the path, it depends entirely on its height, constitution, pace and developed speed. For example, breeds with a broad chest (Boxers, Bulldogs, Dobermans), coming down the frame / dogwalk, may be unable to balance their weight. The sequence dogwalk/frame – weave poles will add difficulty at a small distance between them.
Unlike larger dogs, smaller breeds usually have time to straighten out their path between obstacles due to greater number of steps. It may seem that smaller breeds do not have any problems with balancing.
However, they have problems, alien to large breeds. The most complicated combinations for them: frame / dogwalk – tire, frame / dogwalk – pause table, especially if these obstacles’ pairs stand on a straight line with a long running space between them. Classes of 40-50 cm experience difficulties most often while they are going down any contact obstacle, as the pause table and tire are usually at the dog's eyes level. In particular small breeds suffer from long distances in the absence of zones for fixation.
Dogs with longer steps, performing jumps to 60-65 cm, usually failed to take several obstacles at the same pace. It is important to realize on which part of the course it is likely happen. For example, dogs typically knock down the bars, trying to take three consecutive 60-65 cm jumps with a distance little over the half a meter between them. Fig. 5 shows an example of such course.
If two or more jumps are followed by an empty field and a turn to the pause table, be sure – the dogs incapable to slow down the pace will "fly" over the table (see Fig. 6).
Sometimes you just need to stop and ask yourself, do you know what does your dog actually see on the course? And how much attractive the things it has seen? In fact, for smaller dogs the tunnels are like big sucking down rides with awesome look (see Fig. 7), while large breeds may simply take no notice and miss the entrance. It is particularly possible if, as in case with the pause table, the tunnel is a little bit away from the group of consecutive jumps.
A serious problem if any jump is placed aside of a double crossbar or long jump. It is likely that a big dog will land behind the tunnel entrance, and will need to go back to enter it. Small dogs will notice the tunnel beforehand (see Fig. 8).
On the Fig. 9 serious traps are hidden at the tunnels’ exit. Smaller breeds can observe the objects, awaiting them further still being inside the tunnel, while larger breeds see the obstacles much worse. Therefore, jumps’ bars, at their closest position to the tunnel turn out to be knocked down or, at the pinwheel jumps sequence, dog may simply skip the first hurdle, as the scope from the tunnel is much limited.
The main postulate of agility handling – is to train the dog to look at its handler. However, on the course, if the dog runs in front of you, it will likely to behold to watch you and your commands. It complicates even a straight path.
In particular, on the Fig. 10 it is shown how the increased distance between the obstacles in their standard serpentine or pinwheel configuration can complicate the distance for smaller breeds. Typically, dogs in the class of 20-30 cm skip the jumps or get into them with difficulty (see Fig. 11).
Remember the earlier examples with weight balancing. This way, even a few tens centimeters difference could complicate or facilitate the path flow. For example, shortening the distance between the triple jump and weave poles for 30 cm increases the path deviation after the jump (see Fig. 12).
While walking the course, you need to catch the exact length of each obstacles configuration, whether it is short or extended, to calculate the distance and to know which effect it may have on your dog. In case of balancing, weight transfer, each extra pair of centimeters can ease running, help to recover or, on the contrary, can make it harder.
There are additional factors, complicating the course. Here are some of them:
course, starting from the center of the field - causes orientation difficulties, even to the experienced handlers
rough landscape - elevations on the course will add a few centimeters to the height of a jump, especially to double or triple jumps. Hollows, the other way, will provoke a longer landing, making a dog consequently get back the path.
rumble of fans in the stands around the ring, dogs barking, will your dog be able to hear your voice?
jumps, crossbars facing the fencing of the ring, or empty field
weave poles, contact obstacles, arranged in the same direction, exiting the empty field or the ring wall
the colors of the tunnel are also important - warm red and yellow colors are more attractive than the cold blue tints. Dark blue or green tunnels are often invisible on the field. However, the yellow tunnel underneath the yellow contact zone is often merges for a dog into a single whole.
unauthorized persons / items on the ring (operators with cameras during the finals, things thrown by spectators, workers inside the ring)
bright sunlight or poor lighting - dazzling reflections on the obstacles’ surfaces, rays of the setting sun, casting long shadows - all these factors are very distractive
weather conditions - heat, rain or wind gusts. On the wet grass, damp smooth surfaces your dog will skim as on the ice. Strong wind will lift debris and dust clubs off the ground. And overturned jumps stanchions, tangled tunnel’s fabric may cause a re-starting.
Judges are also factors of the environment, considering their movements on the field, position by the table or the clothing color. Though, in general, judges’ behavior affects dogs in rare cases.
The first thing judges should make at the ring construction, – is to measure the distance between the obstacles. They pace through the course and know exactly how many steps will go into the standard lengths of: 5, 6 and 7 meters. You will get a great advantage by learning, like judges, to measure distances with your steps. Is important to know about every 30 cm, affecting the movement of your dog. Ideally, this should be done together.
Mark the start line, measure 7 m, mark the finish. Stand on the start line, lift your head and looking ahead start counting steps, move towards the finish line, keeping your usual pace.
The second person must count the number of steps you have done, which gets into 7 m. This method allows you to keep counting even in the search for finish line and will help to maintain a measured tread. Such measurements are necessary at all distances.
If you don’t have a second person, try just to walk, keeping your head straight, don’t look down and slow your steps. You can measure every 5-10 steps by dropping something on the ground. If you have lost count, return to the subject on the ground and check how much it has left to the finish line. This way you can count the total number of sections and estimate the distance from start to finish, and between each pair of obstacles. You can easily do it on the surface where traces are left visible.
There are many factors influencing the competition outcome, they are difficult to take into account all at once. The participation experience is the most important part, the more trials you have behind, the less problems will obstruct you on the course!
As you continue trialing in agility, you will realize how many facets it actually has, with many different aspects, where running with your dog – is only one of them.
Working as a member of the ring crew to organize the competitions is another aspect that will enhance your experience, providing new agility insights.
Here what the experienced agility instructor Rick Parry, which brought his both cardigan welsh corgis to the numerous titles in agility AKC and NADAC classes, suggests on this matter.
“My discovery began when I offered to work as a volunteer at a trial, the score runner - a person, which calculates the points for a Standard course. When I was in the ring, the time keeper, scribe, recording points, and assistant scribe often started talks about different teams and their strategies on the course. They discussed how smaller dogs run through the track differently than larger ones; how each participating team generates its unique solution to the course traps; how handles made mistakes in the position of their bodies; and how funny the judges positioned themselves to detect whether there was a contact, and so on. I could not believe which valuable information I have learned, just sitting in the ring, listening the stories and adjusting points on the score table by the score sheets.
On the other trials, I was a leash runner. People there, standing around the ring steward, were constantly discussing strategies - how to handle with some traps, a handler’s position after the start, at the lead out. They discussed how they were "going to arrange something wild and exciting" or "what a fun to watch for some teams, as, seemed, they were dancing, taking the course." It was another opportunity for education, where I could learn and ask whatever I wanted.
Armed with a little handler experience and instructions what to control on the field, next time I took up a position inside the ring, setting and adjusting bars for jumps. I witnessed a thrilling sight, watched handlers performing a blind pinwheel on the course of jumps, and I was "in the front row," watching them! I have seen handlers, which were layering "clusters" of closely spaced obstacles, trying to guide their dogs in the class of 20 inches and higher. Being in the center of events, watching the scene close-up, I have experienced a lot of emotions. It opened my eyes to the new possibilities, techniques and strategies how to solve the most challenging course combinations.
Looking back at my trialing experience, I deeply regret I did not spend more time visiting and working at trials before I began competing. Such approach would have made me to be much more informed about the trialing process!
A little later, I helped to build courses, working as a crew member. Talking to judges I was constantly getting new knowledge from all sides of the process. Working at a course is a part of the trialing skills. It helps the club to sponsor the competitions; it supports the sport and provides the education to beginners, which you will never get anywhere else. In fact, handlers at any level are capable to benefit from such interaction.
Today, I urge all those who have just started training agility, to find a couple hours and visit the agility event. I advise to talk to people outside of the ring, without disturbing those who are preparing to enter or exiting the ring. Watch the teams in different classes, the actions of judges, talk to everyone known or unfamiliar to you, especially those who are competing with the same type of dog you are training. At the first trial I cheated myself avoiding communication with the immediate participants of the trial. I should have asked more questions about how the whole process is arranged!
After visiting two or three events, consider a volunteer work in the ring before you start competing. Take a position, which will allow you to interact with others, working on a ring: become a timer, score runner, leash runner or course builder.
Of course, nothing can replace your personal experiences of participation, but you will be able to improve your preparation for the first round by taking advantage from all aspects of trialing.
Having the experience of visiting and working at trials, I would have been able to get a little sleep the night before the first agility performance. For sure, I would not be so much nervous. And as well I'm sure my first round would have been done well!”