Agility along the Seigfried Line

Stella & JessAustralian Matt Tovey met his German wife, Stella Moeller, on his travels while she was holidaying in Australia. They lived together, first in Germany and then in Rhones-Alpes region of France. They've now moved back to Germany. On the way, they discovered agility. Matt explains in an Internet interview.

Q. How did you and Stella get into agility in the first place?
A. We got Jess, our Border Collie bitch, as a puppy about three years ago. I'd known other BC's in England and Australia, and simply loved the breed because they are so active. Both her parents herd goats up in the Jura, but it's been a long time since Jess was anywhere near a goat. She'll try her luck on the local animals, but the cows and horses don't seem impressed.

It was our vet who suggested that we try agility as a means to give Jess more work to do. We visited a small local dog club in France, and all three of us loved it immediately!

Less than a year later we entered our first competition, and we've been competing now for about two years. In France only pedigree dogs can compete in the primary competitions, so we have not earned any 'titles' with her.

We got Asterix, our second BC (male), so that we could both run courses at competitions. Asterix is now just over one year old. Our next dog will probably also be a BC. But we do agility because our dogs love it, and not the other way around.

Q. How is agility organised in France vs. Germany?
A. There are no titles in either country. Classes at competitions here include Agility, Jumping and sometimes other games. Agility is sub-divided into three classes of ability, which are named differently in the two countries, but correspond to Novice, Intermediate and Advanced. The only indication of your ability is what class you're in - that's as close to a title as they get.

In France, most dog sports are restricted to pedigree dogs. However, French agility has some classes (e.g. the 'Open'), where non-pedigree dogs may compete.

French agility caters for dogs of all sizes from A (very small) to D (very big), while German agility divides dogs by sizes into Mini and Standard.

Only France offers an 'Espoir' class for trainers under 14 years of age.

Q. Where did you train in France and where do you train now. How did your chose your present club?
A. Club Gessien d'Education Canine (CGEC), our French club, was situated in the Pays de Gex, France. It was a typical generic dog club, which meant lots of German Shepherds and it focused on Obedience.

Probably because we lived in a rural area, the club was quite small. There were about six of us hard-core agility enthusiasts, and another five or so who also trained less regularly. Over summer we'd attend competitions nearly every weekend, each of which is quite a social event. Everyone seems to have family living around the area, most of whom also had dogs and competed. No French agility competition is complete without a sunshade, some bread, meat, cheese - and, of course, wine!

Q. How did you find a new club when you moved to Germany?
A. When we decided to move to Germany, we researched agility clubs on the Web, and came up with a 'pure' agility club near my work. We've only just recently found our long-term residence, and found another dog club nearby. It's a lot closer to our house than the first club, and also does some obedience, so I think it's going to suit us better.

Q. How do your two clubs compare in things like their facilities and equipment, grounds, cost, distance to travel, instructors, social events (if any) and whatever else is relevant?
A. Whew! I'm afraid I'll have to compare three clubs...

Our club in France didn't have a lot of equipment. We had only one of most of the larger obstacles. Instruction was informal, and apart from some individual obstacle training for beginners, it was composed pretty much of setting up a course, and running it a few times. As I remember it, it cost about 300 FF (30 pounds) per year. We did agility training twice per week, and obedience once a week.

The club was very convenient. It was literally just around the corner, opposite the Val Thoiry shopping centre near McDonalds. There was a clubhouse but no hall. I can tell you that agility training in the Jura foothills (near Geneva, Switzerland) in winter can be cold! Geneva is not as cold as you might think. Northern Switzerland and Munich are much colder! Training, however, goes on every week, regardless of the weather or holidays.

Our first German club, on the other hand, was a pure agility club and in contrast, is very organised. Lessons are divided into size and ability of the dogs, and the ground divided into two rings. We've found the club quite expensive - 150 DM (50) for 10 one hour lessons. I don't know what this club does over winter. We have one lesson per week, and I would estimate that about 60 dogs train agility at the club in total.

Our second German dog club is more local. It has a large terrain, divided into three fields. The club uses an equestrian hall in the winter. (From previous experience of competitions held in such halls over winter, I'm expecting it to be dry, but very cold!) One area is used for obedience, another for agility and the last is used for the clubhouse which includes a dog-socialising area.

Perhaps one of the most visible equipment differences between these larger German clubs and France is that Germans make use of the training slalom (one that can be separated into a chute, and has wires and angled poles). Our club in France taught the slalom the hard way!

Inky on the slalomQ. How does 'dog socialising' work?
A. That's a place where the dogs can run together off leash. To some degree, they are allowed to establish their rank within the pack. Water hoses are kept close at hand, however, to separate any scraps that start. This communion of dogs was quite a shock to both Jess and Asterix, but they're adapting to it very quickly, and it seems to be a wonderful idea.

But I should say that this takes place well away from the ring. I would not train at a club where this was permitted to take place on the course. As an aside, every dog owner has a responsibility for their dog's actions at all times. In France we watched dogs very carefully when they were off leash - especially some of the males. Here they all seem to work it out.

Q. What about training?
A. At our local dog club the training is done a little differently. The instructor sets up a course and runs a mix of obstacle training and sequences, starting with short sequences and working up to a full course.

People are free to go off and work on other obstacles in the mean-time, which I haven't seen elsewhere. This club is a little larger than back in France with about ten people training agility at a time. The price is comparable - roughly 50 per year.

At the agility club, Jess participates in a more experienced group. They set up a course and then run various longish (about 15 obstacles) variations of the course. Asterix went into a Beginner's group, where basic obstacle training and some very short sequences is done.

Personally, we make extensive use of clicker training. But that's just what I've picked up from the Internet. I've yet to see anyone else using a clicker here in Europe, although I've created some interest in the clubs. Asterix will work very hard to get his click!

To get an agility license in Germany you must be a member of a German dog club which is registered with the FCI. You must also have passed the Begleithundepruefung, which is a reasonably difficult obedience test. That's what we're working on that at the moment!

Elfe on the A-frameQ. What did you like best about French agility? Ditto Germany agility.
A. Leaving aside the fact that both we and our dogs love agility in general, the French have a wonderful social atmosphere. Newcomers were always welcome, either to have a go, or just to have a look. We were accepted very quickly into the club, and some of our best friends in France come from the dog club, and remain in close contact with us. Everybody had a lot of time for their dogs, and also loved contact with other dogs.

In France the CNEA (umm.. National Association for Education & Agility) has free software available which calculates the classifications, prints the pre-formatted result sheets for each entrant, and compiles a diskette of the results to be sent back to the CNEA. Nice, huh?

On the other hand, I think that the Germans have some innovative ideas with regards to training methods, but what I see as 'new' could be old-hat to others! I also like the structured training, and think that the Germans can be very good at being structured, yet flexible.

At our French club's last trial, for instance, I was very happy to be sitting out by the ring-side, entering the results directly into the software, courtesy of my (very old, very cheap) laptop PC. Between events I'd duck over to the clubhouse, plug in to the printer, and print out the results. This year I'll run a network cable instead and maybe connect some giant TV screens. Or maybe not. Seriously, computers sure do make light work of handling all that data.

Q. What do you like least about each?
Caveat: Moving countries always results in some culture shock. It's real, and difficult to adjust to. I have, therefore, tried to avoid forming opinions too quickly.

A. In France we sometimes found the informal training methods frustrating. In Germany, it has taken us much longer to be accepted, and I can't say that we've yet (it's still early days) formed real friendships within the clubs.

Q. Did anything surprise you about German agility when you first started. Have your first impressions changed?
A. I work in IT, and tend to think quite logically. German agility clubs were quite a shock coming from France, I can tell you - they're so organised!

One of the things that has always attracted me to the German culture is the element of efficiency and structure in it. When I first started in Germany, I was both pleased to see that this was applied to dog training, but also concerned that, misapplied, it can be inflexible. I'd hate to see a short-term visitor to Germany prevented from doing agility because, for example, they didn't have the right papers for their dog, or because the club rules couldn't accommodate such an idea.

I have now seen examples of both, and I think that just as our informal training in France had its pros and cons, so does the German's structured style.

The breeds doing agility here are pretty much the norm - many BCs and Shelties as well as a few Aussies and Beardies which is quite different to France. We seen a couple of Belgian Shepherd, too. All the obstacles are the same, however, the Germans don't mind having two tunnels in succession, and the table seems to get very little use.

We have yet to see what competitions are like here, but both Jess and Asterix will have to get an obedience certificate before they are allowed to compete. Also, there's no discrimination against mongrels here - hurray!

German dogs in danger
You have probably heard in the news that here in Germany we're now suffering from an incredible backlash from the public in the wake of another 'Pitbull-kills-child-in-playground' scandal. People in our club (including us) have been abused by strangers in the street simply for owning dogs. You can simply not afford to be negligent when it comes to your dog in public.

Hope this gives you an idea of some of the things which could be interesting to other agility people especially since British handlers are sure to be  moving about now that the quarantine regulations have been eased. BTW is there further relaxing of the British quarantine? I remember being not particularly impressed when the 'dog passport' originally came out - it was really too expensive to be of use for us. I'd certainly love to be able to bring our dogs to Britain for holidays.

I hope I've had something interesting to say! If I've inspired more questions, feel free to ask them.

Matt & JessMatt Tovey and his German wife Stella moved to the Rhone-Alpes region of France in 1995 and lived there until recently. In 1997 their first Border Collie Jess joined them.

Since then their circumstances have changed a lot. They are now expecting their first child, and have relocated to Munich. They hope to see some more of Europe before they (eventually) all move back to Australia.


 Copyright Agilitynet