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Yes, it can be quite difficult...

There has been a lot of debate in the agility magazines recently about the suitability of courses for a particular type of class. Some competitors are quick to criticise when things are not right for them, but very rarely give praise when things go well. Judges too, can misunderstand what their objective should be when designing a course. Barrie Harvey, Chairman of The Agility Club, puts forward his point of view and says go with the flow.

I am sure some of you will disagree with what I have to say, but then that is what makes us all different. I believe that there are a few rules to observe when designing a course, some of which I list below.

1.     Type of class i.e. Starter, Novice, Senior etc.
2.     Number of entries
3.     Time pressures
4.     Responsibility

Type of class
This is generally where most judges make their mistakes. It is very difficult until a judge has some experience to know just how to pitch the level of difficulty. My advice to the inexperienced judge is to err on the side of simplicity, rather than make it too complicated. There are many books published that deal with this subject - and I would recommend you read them - but I will tell you how I work.

I believe that ALL courses should flow. By flow I mean that the sequence of obstacles should be fairly logical. With each different class there should be at least one part of the course that requires handling carefully, and also at least one change of side. All that the judge needs to do is to increase the amount of handling and change of sides, as the class categories increase.

To illustrate - on an Elementary course, the jumps should be approached straight on in a logical sequence, whilst on a Senior course by changing the angle of the jump you can increase the level of difficulty. Now before you all start shouting at me - I am not for one minute suggesting that a Senior course will be the same sequence as a Starter course, it obviously will not, but we really do not have to make courses so difficult that they are almost impossible to negotiate.

How can you tell if a course is good or bad?
Just listen to handlers on a course. If they are shouting at the dog after every obstacle to change the dog's direction, it is probably a bad course. Good courses work well, look good, and are terrific to judge. Bad courses, are a nightmare to handle, are no fun to watch and whilst they may be easy to judge you will know by the handlers and spectator reaction that it is not going well.

As a judge, it really beats me how anybody can get any satisfaction from eliminating large numbers of handlers. You expect some to be eliminated, but if more than 50% of the runners get eliminated, I would suggest that the course is wrong.

The other consideration when designing your course is - how are you going to judge it? By this I mean, where does the judge need to be to judge the obstacle. I once saw somebody judge the weaving poles from the other side of the ring, with the handler between them and the dog.

Number of entries and time pressures
Two of the key pieces of information you need to know is how many dogs are there in the class and how long have you got to judge them? With the increasing class sizes, many shows have to schedule two or more classes in a ring during the day. There may be another judge following into your ring once you have finished or at lunch time. If you have 300 dogs to judge in one class, and you have all day to do it, you could design a course of 20 obstacles. Alternatively, if you have 300 dogs to judge but there is another class in your ring after you, you may decide to design a course of only 17 obstacles. The other factor to build in is a split start and finish that will speed up the changeover process.

As a general rule of thumb with Novice or higher classes - and if you take no tea breaks during the class - you can judge 60 dogs per hour for Jumping and 50 per hour for Agility on an 18 obstacle course. For Starter or lower classes, you should work on 50 per hour for Jumping and 40 per hour for Agility. This is no reflection on Starters etc. It is simply a fact that Starter handlers and dogs are less experienced, and it takes longer for them to get ready and to negotiate the course.

So using these figures 300 Novice jumping dogs will take five hours to judge, and 300 Novice agility dogs will take six hours. One other fact to remember in a class of 300 running, about 10% will not run.

So how do I design courses?
For Agility classes I put the prime obstacles in first, (i.e. A-frame, Dogwalk, See-saw, Weaving poles). I work out where I need to be to judge them, and then fill in the other pieces to give me time to get to the position I want to be.

Each course should have a 'handling' section. The way I work is to have this section towards the middle in a Novice class and at the beginning and end of an Intermediate/Senior class. For Starters I DO NOT put it at the beginning of a class, the reason being that you can demoralise them even before they start. By having it later in the course, if they make a mistake, at least they feel the got most of the way round the course before the encountering a problem.

Don't let anybody kid you that course design is easy. It is difficult, and nobody gets it right 100% of the time. Your course very rarely comes out the same in the ring as it did on paper, so be prepared to be flexible. Please bear in mind that the course you put up should be enjoyable to work, watch and judge.

My favourite class to judge is Seniors. If you design the right course it is very exciting to judge and to watch. You must build in some good handling parts. In my experience, if you give them a course they can really have a go at, it makes a very exciting competition for everybody, including you.

Your responsibility
As a judge you have a number of responsibilities:-

1.   To the club that asked you - You owe it to them to do the best job you can.

2.   To the handlers and dogs - After all it is them who paid to enter this class, and they expect to be given a chance. Remember safety is paramount primarily to the dog, but also the handler

3.   To the sponsor - They trust you to do the very best job you can.

4.   To yourself - Remember, one day you are the judge the next you are a competitor. Nobody wants to get a reputation for doing a poor job. I have known judges who put up bad courses just so nobody else asks them to judge. Come on, have the courage to say NO in the first place.

Judging and course design is a serious business. Accept your responsibility, and do the very best you can. Design a course that is fair and will test the ability of the dog and handler. You will never get it right 100% of the time, and you will never please everybody who is entered in your class, but make sure that the majority have a good chance. Good luck with your judging and if you want individual advice or help, just contact me at shows.

About the author
Barrie Harvey
has been competing in agility since 1984 and has been judging classes since 1988.The Harvey family all handle dogs and they own five dogs between them all competing at different levels.

He is chairman of the British Agility Club and has been involved with the club for 15 years. He is a founder member of both Mid Downs and Crayford agility clubs and can be found almost every weekend at a show somewhere in the UK. 

Credit: Clip art thanks to Danny Clarke

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From Mick Chambers...
Fortunately I am still at the stage where I am not bothered about what the course is like. Variety is the spice of life and it would spoil agility if you could predict the courses. Our performance is not related to the type of course, I have done well and appallingly on similar tests. I thought Barrie Harvey made sense in his article on Agilitynet about how courses should vary according to the class. (30/10/01)

From Caroline Griffin...
Enjoyed the article gave a new insight to courses. Run some horrible ones so I can understand the hard bit!! (10/10/02)



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