What Does Internationalization in Dog Agility Really Mean?

Today is the first “Dog Agility Blog Event for 2013” and the topic myself and other dog agility bloggers are writing on is  “Internationalization.”  When I first saw the topic I thought to

Attending my first ever World Championship as a spectator in Finland in 2000.

myself, “oh cool, Steve (our blogger ring leader) is making up new words.” But then I googled it (speaking of new words) and my bestest internet source “wiki” showed me Steve didn’t make up a new word at all, he just used a word no one knows the meaning of!

From Wikipedia:

In economics, internationalization has been viewed as a process of increasing involvement of enterprises in international markets, although there is no agreed definition of internationalization . . .

So, we can have it mean whatever we want. In agility terms I would have to say most of the cool course designs and moves have originated “internationally” (which when you live in Canada can mean the USA but really in agility terms in means “from Europe.”)

Obedience More Exciting Than Agility?

So yes I think it is fair to say agility course designs has been driven by the Europeans. I started competing in dog agility in 1989. I went to my first “international” competition (in the USA :)) in 1991. Back then the course complexity could be summed up by if you had to change sides with your dog or if there was a “pinwheel” in the course design. That was your adrenaline rush for the day. Are you going to do the front or the rear (we actually had no clue we were doing either). I found agility boring back then. It took a back seat to my other dog sports of choice; flyball and obedience. Yes, in the early ‘90s I felt obedience was more exciting then agility.

I remember well the drama of the first time anyone tried to execute a “serpentine” on a course in flow let alone what to do when the dreaded  “threadle” (having to pull the dog between two jumps) appeared on the scene.

Crack or Chasm?

Today double or triple threadles or push through and back sides of jumps have taken over the challenge of the course designs and yes it still seems that these changes initiate from the other side of the ocean. There is no way of knowing for certain why the “gap” between agility in Europe and here in North America continues to grow but when you see video run of each we are getting close to doing two different sports. I mean with more and more of us spending time competing at events in Europe (like FCI, EO & WAO championships) and with the internet making it possible to watch European events as they happen and have the course maps to run the sequences soon after, you would think that “gap” would be moving towards a “crack” wouldn’t you? But I fear that gap is on it’s way to being a “chasm.”

So why? Why does it seem that the Europeans take the challenges of course design their judges throw at them all in stride while over here cries of “unfair” or “unsafe” and “this is not fun for us”  can be heard if the same course challenges were to show up?

It is a dilemma, and I am unsure if there is an obvious compromise, but there is give and take with every benefit; a drawback. Lets face it, every agility challenge is “unsafe for a dog” if the dog is not prepared for the challenge. A novice competitor can make a front cross unsafe for his dog if the dog is expecting something else. A well prepared handler can make every challenge look effortless and smooth so it is not really the challenge that is unsafe is it?

Is Different Always Better?

So what does the European agility scene have that North America doesn’t have and are all these “differences” actual “advantages?” I am going to weigh in on what I see as two (really 3) major differences between these two agility scenes.

Difference #1:

A “win out” system in Europe where dogs must win or place in a class in order to earn the right to move up to the next level. In North America we have a “title” based system; when a team gets a clear round under a certain time, they earn a leg towards a “title”. All dogs move up to the next level of competition with the accumulation of titles. There is a certain status associated with the collection of these titles to many people, thus the qualifying rounds . . . regardless of how pretty or fast they are become highly desired.

Advantage or Disadvantage?

The win-out system encourages people to focus on the drive and motivation of the dog in order to bring out as much speed as possible which often means the training is more “fun” for the dog.  Risk as a handler is automatically built in because if you “go for safe” around a course you are not likely to win and move up to the next level.

The advantage of a “titling” system is that all dogs of all breeds can have success. This coupled with the choice of 5 or 6 different jump heights to choose from over here (compared to 3 or 4 in Europe) means you see all breeds of dogs enjoying the sport in North America whereas in Europe you see far less variability in the type of dog competing in the sport.

The disadvantage of the titling system is that goals are based on how many “perfect” runs you and your dog can have to go towards “lifetime qualifying scores” or “top titles.” When your goal is to be as perfect as you can, you will have to minimize risk as a handler. You will soon resent any change that create challenge for you. You will not embrace new course designs or handling that may alter your “qualifying rate” while you learn, in short, you will limit growth. Growth requires a person to step outside their comfort zone. Failure is a part of that and if perfectionism is more important then progress, the handler’s goal will always be to minimize risk in order to maximize the possibility of perfection.  In addition, in training the dog, more emphasis will be placed on “being consistent.” It is easier for a dog to keep a bar up or hit a contact if they are moving at a “moderately fast” pace compared to the flat-out-top speed that dog can go (what we refer to around here as “squirrel speed.”) When training emphasis is place on accuracy over speed many dogs are not as motivated by what they are doing and will shut down, leave the ring or find the sport less interesting as soon as you present a “tougher” handling challenge.

Difference  #2

Judges fees. In Europe the custom is for people to volunteer their time to judge where as in North America judges are paid by the number of dogs they judge in a day anywhere from $1.00 – $1.50 per dog, plus all of their expenses plus many are paid for each course they submit . . . and I don’t begrudge them a nickel of what they earn . . . well deserved if you ask me!

The advantage of not paying judges is that the judges will put up any challenges they can dream up without any major fallout. If they are not invited back because the courses were too tough, that is no big deal to the judge. You get more variability in design thus handlers are facing new and different challenges with every new judge they see, it really is up to the imagination of the judge! This style of course design prepares handlers to deal with anything they see and to be surprised by nothing.

The disadvantage of not paying your judges is that there will potentially be less judges and more variability in the quality of the judging. Judges here in North America all must be certified, pass judges tests, learn about course design criteria so there is more uniformity in what competitors can expect. When judges are paid there is potentially the “motivation to be popular.” Some judges are making more money on the weekends judging agility in North American then they can make doing their 9-5 jobs from Monday – Friday. If you as a judge want to be invited back to judge again putting up courses where many handlers can earn a “qualifying score” will help to make that happen for you. Putting up a course with new challenges that will lead to the club dealing with many complaints from competitors who can not “conservatively” handle the new challenge because  . . . it is “NEW” will be problematic. Since I am not a judge, and have the utmost respect for those who do judge, I can not say that anyone “consciously” designs courses in order to be “popular” but certainly the potential is there at least on an unconscious level, but a few years ago I asked 7 judges at a USDAA National Championships why they didn’t do more back sides and threadles on their courses throughout the year 4 of them said to me “I would never be invited back if I did that!”

Going For Broke Tournaments

Currently there are few competition in the United States that rewards any competitor for “going as fast as you can.”  There are always “legs” at risk which means people will want to “qualify.” With every new risk the potential of getting that qualifying score diminishes, so the system is built around minimizing risk.

I am thrilled that in Canada there is still a push to have more tournaments that “don’t count for titles.” Events like “Canada Cup” which offers up prize money and encourages people to take those risks because there is no “leg to lose” it is all about being as fast as you can. We now have two other similar events here in Canada and I can see a difference already in the calibre and mindset of the agility competitor growing from this foundation.

So often people criticize those of us that aspire to compete with the best in the sport claiming they don’t want that, as their goal is “only to have fun in agility.” The implication there is that handling those tough challenges at speed, risking it all by throwing in a high risk handling move in order to squeeze out an extra tenth of a second from the run is less fun for the dog or the handler then running the same style of course design you have run hundreds of times in the past and never trying something new for fear of “not qualifying.”

I beg to differ.

Although some breeds of dogs can be trained to be faster and execute challenges better at speed then others. The “joy” doesn’t comes from the breed of dog but rather the focus of the handler and how the foundation for those skills is created. If your style of handling is to minimize risk and focus on perfect execution, I believe the “joy” of the sport will be just as easily lost as the handler who puts all of their focus on “winning” at any cost.

So what is the solution?

Is it One or the Other?

Can we keep the great advantages of a “title based” system that sees soooo much diversity in the dogs competing yet still keep up with the fast paced advancements of the European course designs? Is it possible for a “title based” agility system to live harmoniously with a “win-out” system?

I hope we can, because that would be agility nirvana; a place where the joy of the dog comes first and foremost. A place were all feel welcome to play.  Is it possible to create a place where risk is embraced and not judged? Hmmmmm, maybe there is a reason it is called risk?

Your thoughts?

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