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On the Road to Digital Agility


     Supporting agility dogs with specialist lifetime cover

It’s been a great journey!

June Richardson was there in the early days when Agility was a strange cross between fast-paced heelwork - it was all done on the left - working trials and show jumping. All breeds, sizes and abilities were mixed together in one class. If your dog could jump 30inches (760mm), then you could take part, and some of the smallest dogs did remarkably well. There was no Internet, no PCs, mobile phones or Sat Navs. The stopwatch was cutting edge technology. Now look at it! June Richardson, founder of Agility Aid, looks back at how agility came into 21st Century.

In the beginning in order to find a show, we had to scour Dog Training Weekly which was a magazine more orientated to Obedience but it was the closest thing we had. Once we found a show, we had to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope off to the Show Secretary and then wait for a schedule to be posted back to us. We then had to complete a lengthy entry form, post it back again with a cheque or postal order to cover the fees and then wait again with great excitement for the post to arrive. We had to assume our entry had been received.

A truly ‘random’ draw
Upon receipt of an entry, the show organisers would record the names of dog and handler and assign the next ring number to them. I don't know if all clubs were the same, but my club (Tunbridge Wells) would put a cloakroom ticket with that number into a 'hat' – one 'hat' for each class entered. Cheques and postal orders – and sometimes cash – would be banked. Once the entries had closed, the tickets in each 'hat' would be shuffled and then withdrawn, one by one. This created the running order for that class. The list of ring numbers in running order would be written out by hand to be pinned up at the show, and later to be used as a calling list.

On the day of the show, eager people and dogs would arrive at the field or riding school in all sorts of transport, ranging from open-topped sports cars to taxis and family saloons. The equipment in the rings was mostly home-made equipment and usually there was a liberal spattering of manure. We had to queue at the Secretary's tent to collect a card with our handwritten number on it and would then queue again to find our ring number on the pinned lists of running orders so we could make a note of them on the back of the ring card.

We would all sit in chairs round the ring to watch and wait for our turn. If it was raining, we could still watch the ring from our car, parked round the perimeter of the ring. The aim would be to go clear so that you could then run again against the clock to find a winner. We were timed with a stopwatch, and our details and faults were recorded on a scribe sheet. Timers became the best-known people in Agility. Jimmy ‘in your own time, young lady’ White was loved by everyone. Scores were written on a huge sheet of paper by ring number only, so the identity of the winner was usually not known until the prize-giving.

As the sport grew, it became necessary for the competitors to be categorised by ability in order to keep class sizes under control, with only Starters (Grade 1 and 2) retaining the joy of running off clear rounds, although that soon had to be abandoned, too. Equipment and courses got more professional and challenging, and handling got more technical as class size continued to grow, but the paperwork and system remained largely the same.

The start of ring paperwork
It was in 1985, whilst jostling for position in a huge crowd of competitors around a minutely written calling list for a Spillers Knockout competition, that I thought 'there's got to be a better way,' and the seeds of Agility Aid were sown.

At the time, PCs were available, but they were very expensive. That year, however, Alan Sugar produced the Amstrad Word Processor as an MS-DOS-based machine and suddenly it was affordable. It became so instantly popular that software companies provided packages and languages for it, including dBase which I was very familiar with.

So I went out to purchase an Amstrad. I loaded dBase and by early 1986, I had completed the design and programming. My club bravely allowed me to trial it at their show. They retained the manual process, too, home computers still being considered a bit new-fangled! At this stage, I was just processing the running orders for the show, but with handlers and dogs details entered and running orders created, I was easily able to print off any number of the lists required, thus easing congestion round the boards at the show and producing the start of the ring paperwork.

I thought the system would only be used at my Club's shows, but Downlands approached me afterwards and asked if I would do it for their show, too. Agility Aid was born, the first ever computer processing service. The journey from paper to pixels had begun.

Holding the dog/handler/running order information on computer opened up all sorts of possibilities and the existing show paperwork soon started to look very different. Mostly the difference was in the amount of information that could be provided. Score sheets had the biggest change, going from a huge sheet of just ring numbers by column, depending on the faults, to A4 sheets by running order. Suddenly you no longer needed to know your score to find out your score, you just needed your running order.  It seems obvious now, but it took a bit of explaining to people! Scribe sheets retained their design but got pre-populated, and together with Score Sheets could be tailor-made to suit the competition. In those days we would have gamblers, knock-outs, snooker, take-your-own-line, etc, and there was paperwork designed to match.

Agility Aid's popularity grew as the sport grew and more and more clubs were using our services. I went full-time, and then husband Paul joined me. Worcester Club asked if I had considered taking entries as well as processing them and Agility Aid moved on into another phase. In those days all entries were made by post and the postman loved us. We were his only stop, as our bag would fill his weight quota. Kate Austin and then Lisa Greenhow joined us to help receive entries.

One memorable weekend we received, processed and posted every agility run in the country! Class sizes were getting enormous and I had to re-program the paperwork many times, to allow for four digits in the running order, split classes, new grades, new sizes etc. At the Hemel Hempstead show one year, the running orders for the Olympia Pedigree Chum qualifier went over 1000 and the competition continued from the Saturday into the Sunday, all with the same judge who, I think, was John Gilbert. At that time, qualifier classes were not allowed to be split. When are you running? 'Tomorrow' was the silliest answer to give.

The original Agility Aid team
The DiN results team
June Richardson, Alyson Martin, Paul Richardson and Eve Leach

We also tried to do at-show results, starting with Tunbridge Wells show. Laptops were not available yet – at least within budget - so this entailed taking a PC and printer, with batteries and an inverter. We continued to do it for Tunbridge Wells for a while, but it wasn't really practical and we didn't have the time to attend other shows, so could only offer post-show results. All except Dogs in Need, where for over 20 years we moved our entire office to the Showground, where electric hook-up made the results service possible. I would dearly have loved to set up a central results area with a constantly updating monitor, but wireless wasn't available then.

As more and more information was provided to competitors, more and more was required. The backs of ring cards became crowded with information, to help competitors know where in the huge shows their runs would be. Ring cards were posted out, with ring plans, show information, helpers lists, etc. The Agility Aid offices resembled a major post room, and for big shows 'stuffing' could take two days. Show paperwork could take up to four huge archive boxes. I felt as though I killed a small forest for every show! Fortunately there were other processors now on the scene, but still the workload was enormous.

In 2001 Foot 'n Mouth struck in Britain. Suddenly there were no shows to process, although lots to cancel and rebates to make. But an ill wind, as they say…. Internet access was starting to improve, and things really started to happen. There was still no broadband, but we had moved on from dial-up and modems. Technology was starting to speed up, mobile phones were becoming affordable, SMS was able to be used across providers.  Competitors needed to know what was happening with shows, and show secretaries needed to let competitors know – sometimes at very short notice. Agility Aid set up an email notification system providing information to competitors on what was happening with the shows they had entered.

Agilitynet, which was launched in 1998, really came into its own then. It went on to be the go-to site for all Agility information, and now covers a huge variety of topics in more than 1000 articles and information for and about Agility. It is still arguably the only website to cover the whole Agility spectrum of information.

Taryntimers brought in electronic timing, the first real sign of technology reaching the show venues, albeit with taped down wires everywhere, but it was a major leap in the sport. The digital journey was reaching a corner, I finally had some time to think and another idea was beginning to form.

The first ever online entries
I approached Kate Austin and her partner Dave Jolly with my idea to see if they wanted to join my husband Paul and me, and iSS was born. Instead of people posting their entries, which we transcribed onto computer to be processed, why not let them enter online, where it could be checked and mistakes rectified before processing. Unbeknown to me Fosse Data were creating something similar for Breed shows, and we launched almost simultaneously.

Dave managed to convert my rather mad idea into a fully functioning website and our new venture was launched at 2002 Dogs in Need. We held a large meeting at Dogs in Need to explain how it worked, but people were still very wary. At that stage, the newly formed company wasn't able to offer credit card payments, so I came up with the idea of the iSS Bank, allowing competitors to pay into their own account. Basically we were asking people to trust us with their money!

Very bravely Gillingham (Dorset) DTS agreed to be our first customer. As with most new things, initially it was greeted with great scepticism, but soon the benefits to competitors and show secretaries alike became obvious and iSS really took off.

Although iSS was launched from the strength of Agility Aid I wanted to keep them as two separate companies. iSS received the information and Agility Aid did the processing. As two separate companies it meant iSS could receive entries for anyone – they didn’t have to be Agility Aid customers – and Agility Aid could process entries for anyone – they didn’t have to have online entries. Subsequent processors perform both tasks, and Agility Aid now does both as well, but it was a split that worked well and benefitted everyone.

Between the four of us, we were able to produce more of the paperwork more quickly digitally for many shows. Ring cards could be downloaded, together with the show information paperwork – ring plans, helpers lists, etc. An online processing system was added for Show Secretaries who were happy to do that work themselves.

As technology improved, mobile phones got better and cheaper so handlers could subscribe to SMS messages providing information on shows going live and closing. The iSS Hotline, a phone service for important show announcements such as last minute cancellations, etc. was introduced. It received KC approval as the means for Show Secretaries to inform competitors of urgent problems, and the number was added to most schedules as the one central contact for that information. Before then Show Secretaries had to contact competitors individually, often from the middle of a field.

My original vision for iSS was to offer more than just receiving and validating entries – hence the name of internet Show Services – but the service became so popular and technology improved so quickly there was little time for anything other than continued development of the digital possibilities. I still had visions of continuing the digital path to the shows themselves, finally keeping the whole process digital, but there was still no decent connectivity in the middle of fields. Electronic timing already meant the area was criss-crossed with wires and adding to them was not an option. A few systems were tried by others but they all came down to the wire – literally!

Fortunately, others started to take up the mantle, and there is now a healthy number of companies combining the two roles – receiving and processing. Connectivity has improved as well, and with fresh faces and ideas on the scene, the digital world has finally reached the show venues themselves with real time results and full web access. Seeing that early dream finally coming true, albeit more than 30 years later, gives me great joy.

In 2016, Agility Aid was transferred to James Greenhow who was already running Red Dog Processing. It was a timely move as it was just as the show venues were turning digital. James has been able to take Agility Aid to the next level, and now it is providing the full digital service – receiving online entries and providing at-show scoring and results – as well as processing. I'll leave it to James to complete that story. In 2017 Kate and Dave left iSS, transferring the on-line entry business to their new company Agility Shows Online (ASO).

The iSS Show Hub
With the increase in the number of shows and online processors, competitors seemed to be struggling to keep up with who was doing which show. I realised there was still something missing. We were so busy travelling the digital road we forgot to check behind!

Back in the early days of agility, there were not so many shows. They were all Kennel Club (KC) and took place mostly in the summer. In 1998, we (Agility Aid) published the first Agility Diary, designed to provide details of UK agility shows in one place. In October, I would contact the Show Secretaries for information about their show for the following year. The Diary was printed in November and would be sold out by January. But as the number of shows have multiplied throughout the year, the Diary soon becomes out of date. A printed format cannot compete with the flexibility of the new technology.

After splitting with Kate and Dave, I found myself with the time and the opportunity to fulfil my dream of a free internet service for agility show organisers and competitors.

I came up with the idea of the iSS Agility Show Hub, a single website dedicated to providing information about agility Shows, regardless of type (KC, UKA, Independent, etc) or processor. Show Organisers can log in to their own free account and post their show details, advertise their shows with descriptions and images, post their schedules and show news. This creates the Show Diary, which displays in the same format as the printed one, but digital and, therefore, always current. Closing dates, newly available schedules and urgent show news all appear on the front page of the site, so instantly accessible to everyone. This information is also copied to the Agilitynet website so show secretaries only need to post once for it to be out there. Rather than emailing bulky schedules as attachments, they can be uploaded and a link is passed on to Agiltynet.

For competitors, it provides a single website where, regardless of the show, show type or processor, they will have instant access to show dates, availability of schedules, and urgent show news. All this is free to everyone and provides a central Show Information Hub which is always current and available on PC, tablet and mobile.

Competitors can register with iSS for free, to join the iSS community, and this will provide them with an area for keeping information on their dogs, keeping track of their wins, etc. They can also keep photos on there and nominate one to be available for the ever-changing Front Page. And when the worst happens they can let people know on our Rainbow Bridge, which is for all our dogs, not just the super stars.

The Hub also provides an Interactive Diary which is available on subscription but is free for seven days to new registrations or returning iSS registrants from the online processing days. Competitors can view full information on shows, download schedules, click through to the processor and use it on a mobile as a Sat Nav to the venue. People can personalise their own Diary by colour coding shows of particular interest and they can add their own dates – birthdays, MOT, booster jabs, anything, and have the option to view the full Show Diary, a filtered Show Diary, or just My Diary. The full Show Diary, the filtered Show Diary and My Diary can also be printed, providing a hard copy.

So that completes the digital path. The iSS Hub begins the Agility show journey, where show organisers can use their account to work on, store and post their Show information, creating the free Show Diary and Front Page notice board. From there the Interactive Show Diary provides the link straight through to the processor for entering, processing, scoring and results. A complete path - and hardly a bit of paper in sight.

About the author...
June Richardson started in agility in 1984 with her Labrador Klute (Midnight Klute). Not having followed the normal route to agility – via obedience – she naturally started handling on the right and was able to beat the collies. Together they reached Advanced (Grade 7), Olympia (before ABCs), Crufts and many other major finals. She became much sought after as a trainer, particularly for right hand handling.

As well as creating Agility Aid and iSS - and most of the paperwork used - June was responsible for some other things we take for granted: dedicated gardens when camping (orange fencing), Veteran classes (Golden Oldies) and Any Size classes (Agility Aid Allsorts). The popularity of Klute at Olympia, with a few hints and suggestions from June, caused the sponsors Pedigree to seriously start thinking about ABC qualifiers.

Having survived breast cancer in 1998, June stopped competing in 2008 when struck with Transverse Myelitis. If paragility was more available then she would probably still be competing now, but she feeds her agility obsession by immersing in the iSS Hub.

First published 15th December 2019

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