Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Improving Agility Organizations - Suggestions not Criticisms

This is the quarterly Blog Action day, where agility bloggers across the globe share their ideas on a designated topic.  This list of links: Improving Agility Organizations, will no doubt be read by the various agility organizations and maybe they'll glean some new ideas.

First, for family and those unfamiliar, there are many dog agility organizations.  In America, there are 5 major organizations.  Outside the US, there are many others, whose activities include setting up rules for holding matches and trials, establishing titling criteria, training judges, helping local clubs get organized, etc.

Agility is rapidly growing in popularity, and rapidly evolving.  Rules and equipment are changing in response to safety concerns, keeping the game challenging, attracting new handlers, providing a stepped program of incentives and titles on the way to championship, considerations for uniformity of equipment across all platforms, etc.

Here's my Lucky Lucy, a 4 year old
Southern Black Mouth Curr, a breed
as yet unrecognized by AKC, but an amazing young
athelete working her way towards MACH.
That said, my only extensive experience is with AKC and I think they do an incredible job!  I train 2 purebred papillons, but am most grateful that AKC has begun to allow All American Dogs to register and compete for the same agility titles as AKC's recognized breeds.  I think it will shortly be proved that breed recognition, or pure breeding, has little to do with any atheletic dog's ability to participate in and excel in our great sport.

With that great big proletarian "thank you" on record, I have only a few more concerns or ideas to share in the spirit of evolving AKC agility, which may apply in some measure to other venues as well.

  1. Masters vs. MACH -
    I've never understood why dogs with 9 Q's under their belt and just admitted into the Master's Standard (or Masters Jumpers) category of competition, should compete for placement with MACH 1 dogs, who have earned 20 QQ's!  Or MACH 6 dogs with 120 QQ's.  It's obvious to me that there should be some additional layer of difficulty added once a dog becomes a champion, and they should be judged within their own group. This might not require any additional course setup, but maybe shave off the SCT by a few seconds, with book keeping no harder than how Preferred is handled vs Regular -- same course, different designation on paper.  Or to make it more interesting maybe yes, introduce more international handling, an extra trap, tweeking the angle of a jump or two to require tighter turns, a harder entry, a longer serpentine or threadle, an extra jump or two at the end requiring more stamina.  Nothing too hard on the ring crew nor taking much time to adjust.  No moving heavy equipment. Judges could design courses with just a little tweeking in mind.   I look forward to the day when Champions compete against each other, leaving the greener teams to compete amongst themselves!
  2. Matches -
    In my neck of the woods, matches are hard to find, maybe one every 2 years or so.  This is a new trend because when I got started in agility 4 years ago, many trials held a match, and we were all advised to enter as many matches as possible to get our green dogs used to being in the ring, yet able to motivate with toys and treats.   About 2 years ago it came to pass, no doubt because handlers would spill treats or intentionally throw them on the dirt and dogs competing the next day would be distracted by the smells, allowing treats in the ring fell out of favor.  Not so good for dogs with no tug/toy drive, but better than nothing.  And now that I can't find a match anywhere, I've been asking various Trial Chairmen about this and got these responses:

    "Matches are too much trouble" . . . . . .  Gracious sakes, I read the AKC Regs on holding matches, and they are way too much trouble!  If AKC's purpose is to teach new clubs how to hold trials with a few dry runs first before holding a real trial, the Regs make perfect sense.  But once that's done, fun matches are all we need and these rules should be relaxed.  Why, for instance, is there a rule that only club members can participate in a club's non-sanctioned "fun match"? People attending the trial from several states will happily come in a day early to practice their dogs in an arena situation.  Why can't they?  What's the point of this rule?  I do, maybe, see the point of limiting fun match participation to dogs that aren't champions. Champions with all their experience don't need so much proofing against distractions.  They don't have ring jitters. It could be argued that champions might gain an unfair advantage being prematurely exposed to a club's peculiar equipment before the trial begins.  Going in cold is an added level of difficulty that could be required of champions, but not so much with greener dogs.

    "The club looses money on matches" . . . . . I think the obvious answer is to charge more. Everyone knows arenas cost money and the cost has to be covered. The going rate around here used to be $5 for 2 minutes in the ring.  I'd gladly pay more to give my dogs ring experience.

    "It's too hard to find staff" . . . . . finding perks to draw 5 or 6 core staff shouldn't be too hard -- free match runs, ice water and a few cookies would do it for me, free trial entry fees would be even better. We have to quit expecting core volunteers to slave away for free.

    "Matches aren't necessary, just enter and run your dog at enough trials and they'll get used to it" . . . . .  the people saying this are experienced competitors who trial often and have little need for matches themselves.  They are also the ones staffing the trials and don't want the extra hassle.  But I feel they've lost sight of the needs of the newcomers, and the advantage of training green dogs in an arena situation.  I wrote AKC a few months back wondering what they might do to encourage clubs to add matches to their trials, at least once a year.  I haven't heard back yet.
  3. See Saw Flyoffs -
    We have all witnessed, time and time again, dogs not faulted for obviously leaving the board before it hits the ground, presumably because judging the see-saw accurately is so extremely difficult that the norm is to cut every team some slack.  BUT

    AKC judging rules are very clear: To properly perform the seesaw, the dog may not exit the plank until the elevated edge hits the ground for the first time  . . . . . . . . . Exiting the plank before its elevated edge hits the ground is faulted with an "F" for a flyoff . . . . . . . . the dog must still be in control and have touched the contact zone at the same time or after the plank touches the ground.

    If it is impossible for a human to accurately judge this (as in recent discussion about Masher, the 8" papillon who won at Nationals, whom some witnesses claim dismounted the board a fraction of a second early), I hope some kind of electronic sensor can be developed.  This would encourage handlers to train a solid dismount more vigorously, since they could no longer hope to squeak by without it.  This is mostly for the safety of the dog, but also, of course, in the interests of fairness in who Q's and who doesn't.  Some kind of proximity sensor strip embedded in the contact zone?  A touch pad under the rubberized surface that sets off a red light on the side of the board if the dog looses contact before the board hits the ground?  I don't know, but surely someone out there is clever enough to design an economical solution.
  4. FAST classes -
    Few clubs and few judges have wireless mikes, so the scribe often can't hear the numbers 1-10 called out by the judges (each obstacle taken adds value to a cumulative score).  Sometimes judge's heads are turned away, other times the judge has a soft voice, or loud fans overhead, or a barking dog behind the scribe table makes it impossible for the scribe to hear.  I've timed enough FAST classes to witness scribes missing calls or guessing calls to know that FAST scores aren't all that accurate.  I think AKC should require judges to purchase wireless mikes and bring them to all the FAST classes they judge.  An adequate system costs around $200, and judges could bump up their compensation package by a few bucks a day to cover the cost.  I also think that judges should be required to provide the scribe table with a course map showing the value of each obstacle, so if the scribe can't hear a number, she can glance at the map and tell what it is. 
    Of lesser concern is the lack of electronic eyes measuring when to start the timer.  Depending on a person to press a button when they think the dog's nose crosses an invisible start line is inexact at best.  No human timer gets it exactly right every time, but it's probably not more than a second off . . . unless their finger slips or they aren't paying attention.  At novice levels it makes very little difference, but at championship levels, maybe it does.
  5. Agility Commentators -
    Sarah and Estaban, of Bad Dog Agility, working up and sharing their Power Score statistics in their AKC Nationals Preview article and publishing their podcast: Episode 33: 2013 AKC National Agility Championship Wrap-Up opened a Pandora's Box for me of what is possible.  Their sports analysis comparing various dogs'  and handlers' careers and runs was state of the art, in my opinion.  I believe it points to a more exciting future for our sport.  Like the way olympic figure skating has Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton in real time discussing and describing what we are watching --  the tripple lutz, the quad, etc., and every football game has a desk with commentators discussing the plays, the players, the coaches, bringing the viewers to a higher level of understanding of what they are watching, our sport needs that to gain in popularity.  For example, when I bring family members to an agility trial, they quickly lose interest after watching me and a few teams run, on the grounds that "they are all doing the same thing".  It takes a practiced eye to see the vast differences in handling, speed, extension, collection, tight turns, etc.  Which leads me to discussing the PA system at AKC Nationals.  I wasn't there in person, but why was the video commentary streamed by AgilityVision so garbled?  I could hardly understand a thing that was said.  Either the placement of the microphones, or the PA system itself . . . . something needs improvement.
  6. Scholarships to National and International competitions -
    I have suspicions and have expressed elsewhere my concerns that there are probably some top notch AKC competitors who can't afford to go to these expensive competitions.  So we never see them on the US team.  I was thus gratified to hear on the latest Bad Dog Agility Podcast: Episode 36: The 2013 EO and AWC USA Teams, that AKC does fund some teams to these events, and has a donation portal on their website for other donors to help finance certain teams.  I suppose some portion of our trial entry fees are earmarked for this fund.   I'm still not sure if the qualifications for funding have anything to do with financial need, but I hope that becomes the criteria in future. Not to sound too bourgeois, again, but money is no measure of atheletic excellence.
Okay, that's all I've got to add to this conversation.  I look forward to the rants, wise council and/or wild ideas of our other bloggers.

Men are never so likely to settle a question rightly
as when they discuss it freely.
Thomas Babington Macaulay

Upwards and onward!


nightowl said...

Thank you once again for your support of the Bad Dog Agility podcast. It is very gratifying to know that there are people that enjoy following the details to the same degree that we do!

Diana said...

As for as b-matches go, usually anyone can enter not just club members. So if they only allowed club members in, that was the clubs doing not AKC. We usually have our matches during our trial at the end of the day. It's a good money maker because the club gets to keep all the entry fees and there are no AKC fees to pay. So it can help pay for new equipment. B-Matches do take it out of you. It's hard to find people to work and since its at the end of the trail day , you're just beat!

Michele Fry said...

Diana, check out AKC's Match Regulations, Chapter 1, Section 3, which states:
"Once a club becomes eligible to hold AKC
sanctioned matches, it may not conduct fun matches
unless entries are restricted to members of the club.
Any event for which the club solicits or accepts entries
from non-members must be approved by AKC as a
sanctioned match." Sad but true!