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Is your son or daughter safe at agility shows?

Tamara Hollands has been involved in agility for years, but then she found herself with a child in tow. She saw no reason why having a child should interrupt her enjoyment of agility, and was very lucky in having a long-suffering circle of friends who help her at the shows. However, up until the recent discussions regarding this topic she had never really thought about her safety at the shows.

I had thought about the possibility of undesirable people possibly being present at the more public shows (and obviously taken relevant precautions), but never really addressed her safety regarding the hyped-up hounds that she is surrounded by week after week. Having now given this much more thought, I would like to share my opinions with the rest of the agility fraternity.

It is a fact of life
With agility having risen in popularity over the years and the influx of weekend and week long shows, it is realistic to expect that children will always be present at these shows. After all (unfortunately) we can’t leave them at home to fend for themselves, and in the case of my daughter, she loves coming to the shows. I am obviously keen to feed her appetite for agility shows because then she hopefully won’t be expecting me to give up my weekends so she can do dancing competitions and horse riding! Many of the children you see at the shows nowadays could be champions of the future so we should encourage and support them. It is going to be a very brave person who suggests that children should be banned from shows, so I think that it is safe to say that they are here to stay.

Obviously the parents are responsible for their children’s behaviour, and likewise the owner’s are responsible for their dogs. It is up to us parents to educate our children in how to behaviour at agility shows. They should be taught that other people’s dogs are not necessarily used to children laughing, shouting, shrieking etc., and that this behaviour should be confined to their ‘exercise area’ (more about this later). Owners should be equally responsible and ensure that if their dog is likely to be at all aggressive (be it towards children, adults or other dogs) then they take relevant precautions.

Round the rings
Ideally, children should be banned from being around the rings unless they are competing! However, in the real world this is just not possible. I can not just leave my five year old in the car/caravan on her own whilst I go and walk the course or compete - especially when some of the rings are miles away from the cars / camping areas! Believe me – if I can get out of taking her with me then I will! It is very difficult to concentrate on the complicated Senior/Advanced courses when you have this permanent fixture behind you saying 'What comes after 15 Mummy?' and retrieving her from walking up the dogwalk.

When you are walking courses, children just get in the way. Annoying – yes. But not necessarily dangerous. However, when you are queuing to compete, trying to control your hyper dog, desperately trying to remember the course and how you are going to handle the six pull-throughs that the course demands, it is very difficult to keep a young child attached to your side as well!

It is with this in mind, that I personally feel that if I, as a responsible adult, have chosen to put my child in a potentially hazardous environment (as realistically queues, and start/finish areas are), then it is my responsibility if anything happens. Hopefully, if my child has actually listened to everything that I have taught her (e.g. stand away from the start/finish, keep still, don’t shout/screech/laugh) then everything will be okay.

Obviously, all dog owners have a responsibility to everybody to ensure that their dog is kept under control, but with all the best will in the world accidents do happen. Unless a dog was blatantly aggressive, and should never have been in that environment in the first place, I would consider that any incident involving my child around the rings would basically be my fault for having put her in that situation in the first place. So, I better make sure I teach her well.

Helping around the rings
This is a bit of a tricky one. With shows getting so large nowadays, organisers are crying out for help organising the rings. If I were to volunteer to help at the ring, then most of the time I would have to have my daughter with me. Children get bored easily so you start looking for things for them to do.

  • Lead collector
    I personally would not even consider this job for a child under about ten years old. Even older than ten, I would only entrust a child that I felt was responsible and understood that dogs want their leads at the end of the run! When I was judging last year, during the class I noticed that the ring party had changed and the lead collector was now a teenage girl (who was probably new to the sport). She was standing at the finish with the lead in her hands. I went and explained to her the danger of this and, thereafter, she made sure she put it on the ground in plenty of time. Even an adult doing this job with a young child in tow is fraught with danger (but I have seen it, and possibly even done it in the past.)
  • Runner
    Depending on the location of the score table to the queue of dogs, this is a possible job for children of most ages After all, their legs are younger than ours! However, the child needs to be well disciplined enough that they know the ‘rules of the ring’, and sensible enough that they don’t just wander off with somebody’s precious score pad in their hand! Obviously if the person doing this job had to pass the noses of the dogs in the queue, then an adult would be a far better choice!
  • Pole picker
    I always thought this was quite a good job for children (probably not as young as 5, but she has helped me when I’ve been pole picking). However, during the recent discussion regarding children at shows I heard that a child allegedly got bitten whilst pole picking in the ring. Now, I obviously don’t know the details regarding this incident but if my child was sitting on a chair at the side of the ring and a dog that was competing in that ring just ran up and bit her, then justifiably I would be none to pleased. I would consider that that dog was of an unsound nature and should not be competing at all. After all, hasn’t everybody got a right to be safe in this environment?
  • Caller
    Not exactly in danger from the dogs perhaps – more from the competitors!

Dogs exercise area
Now, this is another environment that isn’t exactly suitable to take children into, but obviously sometimes we have to. To my mind, if a parent takes a child into the exercise area then we have to accept that the child may get knocked over (usually more often by their own dogs!) or other accidents could happen. After all, this is where we are letting the dogs let off their own steam! Sensible precautions by both parent and dog owner should hopefully deter any accidents. Keeping the child relatively close to you, not allowing them to run around screaming etc. should allow you to avoid any altercations.

Children’s exercise area
Okay. So far we have concluded that children should ideally not be around the rings at all, but if they have to be there then they should be kept quiet, still and completely under control. We can’t even find them jobs to do in the rings because it appears that they aren’t safe whatever they do! They can’t be allowed to run around the dog’s exercise area because that is probably the most dangerous environment of all. So where can our children move about happily and freely?

I strongly believe that adults and children alike should be able to move around the car parking areas and camping areas, without worrying about being attacked by unsociable dogs. Their biggest worry should be that they look for cars before crossing the ‘roadways’.

I have been shocked and horrified at dogs lurching out of the back of parked cars at people walking past, and don’t even get me started on people’s 'gardens!' If your dog is inclined to fly-out at anything going past their car or garden, then don’t leave them in the position where they can do it. It is frightening and dangerous for both adults and children. Plastic barrier fencing is not a sufficient barrier between protective dog and moving child!

However, I appreciate that dogs that are loose/tethered in these areas are going to guard their territory. I recall hearing of a child that was allegedly bitten by a dog that was tethered in an awning when the child went to retrieve his ball. In this instance, I feel that the dog was put into an awkward situation. The child should have been taught not to invade the dog’s territory. After all, dogs need their own space as much as our children do

I feel it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure that they teach their children to respect the environment in which they encounter at agility shows. Children should be kept under close control in potentially hazardous environments e.g. around the competing rings, exercise areas. Equally, dog’s owners have to appreciate that children will be children and need to have areas where they can do what children do. In the case of weekend shows I feel that my child should be able to play around her camping area in relative safety. I also feel that we should be able to move freely in car parks without having dogs flying out of the back of cars or out of open windows.

I do not agree with a suggestion that there should be one area for those camping with children, and another area for those without. One of the main reasons why I enjoy the shows so much is the social aspect of it all, and even though my friends are happy to camp with the small circle of children that we have between us, I feel sure that they would not like to be in area full of children! Perhaps a segregated area for those that want to get away from all children may be an idea?

I have to say that I do not feel that there is a 'problem' in agility. I feel that as long as I teach my child well, and owners of dogs continue to be as responsible as they have been up to now (on the whole), then there shouldn’t be a problem. But I am also realistic. Accidents do happen – even in the safest environments – and I think that we all have to appreciate this.

As I child / teenager my family were involved with horses, and I was constantly being bitten, stood on, knocked and squashed by horses at the horse shows! But this was all par for the course, and once you had wiped the tears away, you just went straight back into the same environment! Perhaps, I might have even learnt a few lessons along the way. I am just hoping that the Agility Liaison Committee et al do not feel that they have to start introducing more rules and regulations regarding the control of children. I have enough problem remembering the ones concerning the dogs.

About the author...
Tamara Hollands has been competing at agility since 1991. Her first dog (April Surprise) was a smooth-coated WSD which was poached from her Mum. Prise and Tamara started on a very steep learning curve and reached Senior level where she qualified for several major finals. Prise was very successful at jumping classes, but her touchpoints left a lot to be desired.

Tamara then acquired her very own dog (Touchango Tia) from fellow club members Karen Smith and Terry Felstead. Despite a slow start to success - it took about three years to get a clear round! - Tia and Tamara have managed to form a fairly successful partnership and qualified for Olympia in 2002, won the Pedigree Advanced Power & Speed Final the same year, and won the Burgess Agility Stakes in 2003.

Just goes to show that perseverance pays off! Tia has now been joined by Touchango Fizz It Tizz, who has a lot to live up to and is showing the same slow start as Tia! Same manic attitude - maybe it's the handler?

Tamara's constant companion is Erin, her five year-old daughter, who has been going to the shows since she was ten weeks old. Erin is making her debut in competing at Supadogs with Fizz - that's if she can be dragged away from all the entertainment! Tamara is extremely grateful to her friends and family who look after Erin whilst she is competing and judging.

From Sheelagh & Maynard Rea...
Thanks for Tamara Hollands excellent article on children at shows. Having just become an agility mum and dad (no chance of leaving the baby at home) is great to see such a sensible approach to this topical subject. We join with her hope that the Agility Council take a sensible approach to the matter. (17/04/04)


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