Can Technical Agility Handling Still Be “Fun Agility” Handling?

Posted on 11/19/14 22 Comments

Every so often on Facebook I see threads where one person posts an agility course they just ran and cries how “unfair” courses are getting today.WAO 2014

The thread often goes on to question the sanity of the judge who designed the course, before deciding that those challenges are either stupid, unsafe, unfair or all of the above.

Here is the thing…

All courses can be “unfair” if you and your dog are not prepared. Take someone who has never run agility before, even better what if they have never seen agility before. Give them a trained agility dog and have them run a novice course.

Even though it is a novice course, which would present very little challenge to most of us experienced with agility, and even though the dog is trained…it would be difficult to watch…it would likely be a bit of a train wreck. If you didn’t know the background of the dog or handler you may decide either;

1. That dog is reckless …he seems to want to go anywhere except the correct obstacle.


2. That course is unsafe, why would a judge put up a course that doesn’t have flow?

 When the truth really is; that team is unprepared.2014 EO Swag Susan action1

Think back to your time as a novice…how many times did your dog land on his shoulder because you surprised him with a sudden turn that he wasn’t expecting. It is preparation (or lack thereof) that makes a course unsafe… more so than the design.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some things that we just shouldn’t see; unsafe approaches to A Frames or tires, back sides on wingless jumps, tight turns out of a closed tunnel… to name a few. But most courses, if you are prepared, do have “flow.”

Take a look at this Masters Challenge course I ran at a USDAA regional this summer. People were not happy walking this course…even less so running it. Getting the dog from 6 – 7 was the biggest complaint. In the 22″ and 26″ class less than 20% of the dogs qualified. Many of the runs were “ugly” to watch as people heeled their dogs around 4 to try to get to 7 which left them out of  position for 8 – 9 -10. Swagger and Feature were fast and smooth on their way to winning their height divisions. It was a fun course to run…thank you judge Lynn Sigman :).usdaa ri

Some times a small tweak can make all the difference in the world. It may be difficult to tell with the videoing of this course but Swagger drove from 6 -7 without question. He knew, without a doubt, that jump 4 was not to be considered.  The difference was my confidence in my verbal cue which told my dogs “come into reinforcement zone (my side) and don’t take any obstacles until further notice”. It happens so fast you really shouldn’t see a hiccup in my dog’s action. It is like jump #4 is not even there. That is when a course looks smooth and easy rather than  “unsafe” or “unfair.”

Some of you may be reading this may think “I don’t want agility to get this technical, I don’t want to be an international handler.” I just want you to consider for a moment that what may be talking is your “comfort zone.” I promise, in anything we do in life when we try to step outside of that comfort zone it voices it’s opinion. LOUDLY!

I set up International courses for my students routinely. My sixty-something year old grand mothers that attend my class each week LOVE to run them! Regardless of your goals, if the dog is prepared well and you understand the execution of the handling, these courses are fun for everyone and any dog!

Don’t give in to the voice of that comfort zone. Life may be more risky outside of it …but the rewards far sweeter and that is where all growth happens!

I leave you with two more Masters Challenge classes. These were from the recent USDAA Cynosport Championship in Morgan Hill California.

Yes they “appeared” tough, but wow, where they a BLAST to run! Take a look at the course maps before watching the video. Decide first how you would  choose to handle each course? What if, like me, you were sitting in first place with a National Championship on the line going in the the Jumpers run, would that change anything for you?

 Feature Masters Challenges Standard 

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 3.00.59 PM


I got one of the greatest compliments of my agility career after running this next course. Someone I have admired and respected for a very long time as a friend, agility competitor and esteemed International judge Marq Cheek told me,  “Your run with Feature was the run of the weekend…maybe the decade!”  

It is a thrill to run courses like these. Even if you don’t see them that often at a trial, if you practice at this level it makes your weekend trials far easier for both you and your dog!

Feature Masters Challenge Jumpers 

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 3.08.21 PM

Today I am grateful for judges who push us to train outside of our comfort zone by coming up with exciting challenges to our training and handling!


  1. Lee-AnnC says:
    Tuesday, December 16, 2014 at 3:09pm

    Although I am late to the conversation, I want to add a cautionary note about wing and wingless backside approaches. Not all venues have what I would consider “safe” construction standards for jump wings. Some allow very heavy, even attached assemblies that pose a significant risk to the dog if they come into contact. As a judge, I will often design a course with a wingless backside because the construction and weight of the standard (for that club) is 100% more forgiving than a wing.
    I’m in agreement that the a winged backside approach is more fair from a jumping perspective, I beg people to consider all factors before casting judgement.


  2. Andie says:
    Friday, November 28, 2014 at 1:39am

    This is about my 10th time reading this article… what wonderful writing! I am finding inspiration from Susan Garrett each time I read this and watch her videos. I love the feeling that she portrays in her words; “but the rewards far sweeter and that is where all growth happens!”. This is going in my list of inspiring, confident phrases. These words for me describe agility. From the start of your training with a dog to even that sad, last day together; life together is far better when you break boundaries and learn instead of living a static life, agility or otherwise. These are amazing courses that I am going to be building at home. I love watching Susan handle her dogs… as my mom says she is a wonderful handler that has no frantic handling. There is a plan, and she and the dog(s) are able to communicate together. This team is definitely a wonderful duo(s) to learn from! I can’t wait to have such a communication with my boy in agility!


  3. Sharon Yildiz says:
    Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 4:09pm

    These courses will be great to try out in the backyard once the snow melts in 6 months or so! (I’m in Wisconsin).

    I have the opposite problem. My speedy Papillon (related to Quasi as approx. his half-brother) is fine with the international courses. We trained for them from the start, as I was living abroad when I first got him and started training.

    We love seeing AKC courses with the international stuff, but they’re few and far between. And we have big problems with more typical AKC courses: that is, with a long row of jumps that follow a gentle curve. After the dog is about 4 jumps ahead of the handler, the dog has the choice of continuing along the curve towards some off-course jumps, or (with no handler around for guidance) turn away from the handler in an acute angle to get to the correct obstacle. Those get us every time, but present no challenge at all to the slower teams.

    I would love to see if/how a course like that can be handled by fast dogs, as all the local fast dogs NQ them, just like we do.


    • Susan says:
      Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 11:15pm

      LOL Sharon, I like to think both of my dogs are “fast dogs.” 🙂


  4. KimC says:
    Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 1:20pm

    after seeing as much agility as I have over the last 20 years, having attended different WC events as coach, captain, competitor, competing in aac, usdaa, NADAC, ckc over the years I can say without a doubt Feature is easily the best dog in the world. And I don’t say that because susan has been a friend and mentor to me for close to 15 of my 20 odd years in this sport. I say it because I have seen a LOT of other VERY good dogs from around the world. A lot of very well trained dogs. And she is the whole package. Mentally, physically that dog is brilliant. She is always my “target” dog. I want to train a dog as good as Feature. I know she has had Susan and that gives her a big advantage but she is also an incredibly athletic and thoughtful ( might be training to some degree) dog. She makes any course look easy. She and susan make me want to get better, be able to tackle any course with grace and confidence. I do think that some people make these courses look terrible. But those are usually people who do not have the ability to gear up and gear down where it is needed on these courses. Race car drivers do not just push the gas pedal down and go.there is a finess to when you speed up and when you slow down. This finess is what I see missing a lot of time. It just becomes about go fast fast fast and try to outrun the dogs. That is not pretty to watch or safe for the dogs. Once you have trained all your gears you can use them to make even the most convoluted courses pretty. And it is safe for the dog which is to me 100% priority. And, in the end, is faster than the people trying to race the dog around. Always love to watch Feature run. FCI standard win in 2010 is still my fav of all her runs!!!!


    • Susan says:
      Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 3:36pm

      Thank you Kim, made me teary to read. Loved that run from 2010 as well 🙂


  5. Rose says:
    Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 10:54am

    I’m older and no longer capable of sprinting with my dog on course, and I absolutely love figuring out ways to get the job done on MC courses with my Aussies.


  6. Lesly says:
    Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 10:49am

    What great courses and runs by Susan! Such a joy to watch, so fluid.
    I admit I am one of those “whiners” that a course is too hard or unfair. But I now realize that it is just showing holes and lack of understanding for my dog in MY training. I recently came across a Starter Jumpers map my dog ran and “Q”d from a year ago. His time was way under standard course time and we now struggle to make time at the Masters level. As I looked at this map it was clear why we struggle now, not a single challenge, just two loops. I have a non barking Sheltie (a miracle!) but as the courses get more complex he barks at me as he does not understand what I want. My training coach commented “isn’t it nice to have your own critic!”


    • Lesly says:
      Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 12:45pm

      Hmmm…my last few sentences did not post……..I will be using these winter months to go back to Flatwork in H360 to fill in those holes that my dog is so clearly letting me know! Love H360!!


  7. Tin says:
    Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 10:15am

    Susan, a little off topic here, but in your article you mentioned “back sides on wingless jumps”….. I’m a little new to the sports and is from a country where we used mainly wingless jump….so the question is why it’s bad to do a backside wrap from a wingless jump?


    • Susan says:
      Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 11:18am

      Tin I just feel it is unfair on the dog. With a win the dog has a chance to collect for an appropriate take off spot. Say the wing is 18″ wide the dog can wrap the wing and then focus on the bar. But without a win there is no room for a dog to negotiate all that. He has to somehow organize all of his body parts and get over the bar…without taking it down…all at speed. Certainly it can be considered a “training” issue but it take a skilled trainer to educate a dog to do all of this. It is just too hard on a dog’s body to ask him to do backsides on wingless jumps.


      • Kody says:
        Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 9:37pm

        Whoops, I have only practiced backsides on wingless jumps. Should I only use wings from now on?

      • Susan says:
        Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 11:14pm

        If you see wingless jumps in competitions you will of course have to train the skills you need. I have to as well…although I wish they were not allowed (as it is in Europe).

      • Tin says:
        Friday, November 21, 2014 at 2:20am

        Thanks Susan. Our local club uses wingless jump but so far we are lucky to not see backside of a wingless jump often unless it’s in a threadle….hopefully, over time they will see that it’s very unfair to the dogs and make some changes….

        No wonder i find it a bit of a challenge to train my dog with the Na-Na and La-La cues….

  8. Marquand Cheek says:
    Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 3:50am

    A world class blog post! Your words and actions inspire. Your compliments are kind. Yep, “run of the decade”; a great run looks flawless while displaying well-trained maneuvers, executed smoothly with perfect timing and communication. Tip of the hat and all that 😉 Giving thanks for you Ms. Garrett!


  9. Marjolein Hicks says:
    Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 12:10am

    Watching you run so smoothly with your dogs is inspirational. When I read your blog some of your comments really hit home.
    I am a 66 yr old widow, grandmother, type. I have enjoyed working my young PWD in agility foundations, but find myself questioning whether I am physically and mentally up for this challenge. My feet are slower, my reactions are slower, my energy less. I see the speed and the tight turns and wonder if I am able to move forward in agility. I love obedience and Rally O, look forward to some therapy dog work, and maybe some water work. I know that I feel intimidated by the many changes in agility. I am in the middle of this conundrum and question whether I move forward. I have to imagine that I am not alone in these thoughts/ questions.


  10. Anne says:
    Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 10:37pm

    Forgot to add the courses posted looked worse on the maps than from Susan’s video, they still looked achievable for a range of dogs and handlers with the skills to negotiate.


  11. Anne says:
    Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 10:34pm

    When I was instructing I was teaching my intermediate class a lot of these styles. Regularly the advanced handles would come over and say that it too hard for this level. My students did me proud week after week proving them wrong. Now they are in the advanced class they are going great guns, and even being allowed to handle many of the more experienced dogs, one not often given to others to run.

    With so much material around these skills can be learnt and no we may not all win at this stage we should still for the most be able to run, have fun and qualify. The learning journey excites me and what I learn I love to share.

    The main thing I feel needs to be remembered is agility should tremain open to dogs with an assortment of structures and handlers of varying age and physical prowess to continue. It is a great activity. For the most we just need to workout and learn what works for us and the dog we have. When course design / handling styles / times / etc take that away in day to day trials then it will be a sad day.


  12. Bill n Bella says:
    Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 10:27pm

    I have been working on getting to the next obstacle while my dog is in the weaves what a great skill have. I also use the leg slap to call Bella to me away from other obstacles. Your runs are just absolutely Awesome !!! Fantastic handling !


  13. Cathy Runninger says:
    Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 9:50pm

    Those 3 courses were fantastic. I love the challenges that are appearing more often. I have not reached that level yet, but hope to someday. My challenge is handling new dogs through Novice and Open. Each dog presents a different attitude and challenges me to really use body language and learn about each dogs ability to cover the same course. Love your posts.


  14. Lori says:
    Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 9:46pm

    Thank you for this! I remember that MC Jumpers course at the Regional. I was confident that I could get my dogs around this course and only worried in those sections where we lacked those skills. When I was able to negotiate both my pups through this course successfully, I was beyond exhilarated! (and also walked away knowing I had more work to do!). What a sense of accomplishment I feel on these types of courses. It makes me raise my game just a bit more.
    I absolutely love these new challenges from USDAA and other organizations and am conflicted when I hear such negative talk. Some people may not want to get that “skilled” with what they do. I suppose that’s OK for them. I just wish they wouldn’t make it sound like those of us who do are putting our dogs in harm’s way or something of the sort.
    I saw such a comment from someone about the recent UKI Open Championships and their finals course. This person was so turned off she didn’t want anything to do with the whole organization!
    It was a difficult course but watching everyone run it was clear this course exposed training weaknesses. Those who got around had the skills and training to make it look effortless.


  15. debra n Snap says:
    Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 9:31pm

    Love this blog, Susan. We’ve not done a trial yet, but to be able to understand these courses and master them before we compete is only sensible. I love to see how I would run them before watching the videos. My biggest fear is to have a brain fart in the middle of the run and forget where I am. You and Feature make it so smooth.


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