AGILITY MILESTONES (by Peter Lewis) USDAA. Dog Agility Report, year-end review 2000 pp.33-34. Abridged
On recent travels to another country I was discussing the origins of agility, as what I had written for the Dog World Millennium issue (a European magazine) was still somewhat fresh in my mind. During the discussion I pointed out one or two early occurrences that could have changed the sport, some quite dramatically, and it occurred to me that agility followers might like to know about them.
As regular readers will know, the first official rules that were made were quite minimal and this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it allowed custom and practice to develop. Some of that custom has since been incorporated into the rules. On the other hand, if at the beginning additional rules had been made to cover every little point, then what subsequently developed as practice may never have become an accepted part of the sport. So what might have occurred that would make the sport look very different today?
One major milestone that sticks out in my mind is a big event at one of the permanent showgrounds early in the first official year. Memory grows a little hazy and I cannot remember if we had qualified to be there of if competition was by invitation. However, there were so few of us in the country that nearly all handlers were present and I guess that was 20 of us. Think about it, just 20, and now across the world the numbers involved in agility might make a calculator go mad. Naturally no one wanted to be the judge as all involved were far more interested in handling. That being so, the organizer, in desperation, decided that if he could not get an experienced agility person (experienced didn’t have any bearing then for such a term could not really be applied to any of us) then he would appoint what he considered to be the next best thing. That was a Working Trials judge. After all (he must have argued) working trials have three jumps just like Schutzhund does. The fact that the rules were totally different, the working trial handler has time to position the dog and that dog has to jump under strict control mattered not. So when we saw who was to judge we immediately felt apprehensive about his decisions.
I was drawn first and, being an economical kind of guy with a strong working trial and obedience background, in my already-adopted style, I told the dog to wait at the start while I moved towards taking up position behind the third hurdle. I had only just passed first hurdle when the judge, standing close to it said, “Where do you think you are going?” Although I knew the judge very well, the tone of voice indicated that this was not a lighthearted comment. My reply was that I intended to go to the far side of the third jump and then call my dog over the first three. In the USA, the terminology is to “lead out”. His reply was that I could not do that. I said, “Oh yes I can.” And he replied, “Oh no you can’t.” This went on in pantomime fashion while my very obedient animal waited for further instructions from his driver. He kept his feet still but was clearly leaning forward in anticipation of the thrill of the chase. After all he already knew I needed a start on him and despite that he usually beat me over the finishing line. “Poor old fellow,” he must have thought. “Perhaps I should give him another few hurdles start.” While one would not categorize the debate between judge and handler as an argument, I was not to be persuaded to return to the start line. After three or four rounds of verbals, the ringside judges were declaring this sparring as a draw when, to my delight, the handler to follow me joined in saying he intended to do the same thing.
Now matters started to move in my (and subsequently the sport’s) favor as the punches were really sinking low. Go for the knock down I thought. “So you tell me where the rules state that I can’t do it?” Having been part of the rule-making body, I knew every word we had written for you could almost get it all on the back of a packet of ciggies. What we had not written was going to be of far greater importance. He caved in at that point and off I went to subsequently pull off a clear round in the planned manner. Mind you with a wounded judge I had to be certain that there were no iffy decisions. The following handler also led out and so history was made. Why! Just imagine what may have occurred if that judge had had his way. At that point nearly every handler worked their dog in the accepted heel position. Just a couple of us would take advantage of not running where a leisurely walk would do the trick. At that time I was the only person often changing handling sides during a round. Now we all know one of the most efficient ways to do this is to change side behind the dog and for this to occur we need the dog to work ahead. How that judge came to terms with the fact that, during the run, I was switching handling sides at will I shall never know but I suspect that having been defeated in the debate about my starting position he decided not to make up any more of his own rules.
It was a major event of its time and a precedent could have been set that would have drastically changed what we have today. After all, obedience purists would say it is harder to keep the dog at heel, but we agility people know that we have developed a sport where the skill to work the dog away from the handler is often greater than that required to super glue him to one’s side! I wonder if the same vast numbers of people training for agility around the world today would have occurred if everyone had been forced to do some kind of boring heel work mascarading as agility! It was then that I started to use the terminology for agility of freedom for the dog and handler. Forget the practices of obedience for this was a whole new ball game! The difference being that we substituted dog for ball.
There was good and bad in not dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, for those of us responsible for the trends of the day informally discussed what to do about dogs that barked during the round. Some seemed to need to allow their dog to practice for what subsequently became flyball. After all, barking has to be a prerequisite for that game! I felt that while the odd bark would be OK, persistent ear benders should be subjected to the sight of a judge seeming to want to hail a taxi. However my view did not prevail.
Did I just infer that judges raise their hand, for it now reminds me where another change of sport’s direction might have occurred. In the beginning we had up to five judges. Whatever for, you might ask? Well in those days the fudge was lazy and stayed by the table on which he kept his pint of beer. Sorry about that one Peter M! (Reference to Peter Meanwell, innovator of the sport). I know, old friend, that you were far from lazy and, while you would have liked to keep a pint handy, you were always the model of sobriety. No, to be serious, at that stage none had worked out a logical method of one judge being able to see everything. What we had were the serious bits of equipment usually in the corners so at each one a steward would raise his flag to signal a missed contact but the handlers friends camped nearby would scream never. At the end of the run the handler would start to argue the toss with the judge who would call the steward over. Now the argument was between handler and steward with the inestimable and omnipotent judge impotent.
How we reached a position where one official could see everything was on an Agility missionary trip to Holland. I well remember that on the car ferry home Bill and Angela Chuter and I discussed judging problems at great length. It was during this discussion that the idea of obstacles being placed in suitable positions to enable a judge to see all of the contact areas became a seed that needed to be germinated. Now if the judge could always be close to the contacts and table plus also being able to move into the best position to watch the weaves, a major cause of disagreement could be eliminated. That is how the better judges judge to this day!
Up until this point judges had a secretary, or what we referred to as a scribe, follow them around the ring while whispering over shoulders the faults to deduct. It was clumsy and often looked as though judge and scribe were conferring. It also meant that spectators could never be sure if a fault had occurred. This in turn determined the fact that a commentator could not comment on a possible fault, being unsure as to whether the judge had or had not marked it. It was obviously the right direction for our all action fast new dog sport to develop. Suddenly it dawned on me that with a simple situation of 10 faults for a refusal or run past, and 5 faults for the rest, it would be easy for the judge to signal by raising a hand. I warmed to the idea immediately for it meant the judge must instantly communicate to a distant scribe, spectators and commentator that faults had been deducted. I pondered a little on how to differentiate between a refusal mistake and others, but quickly decided that an open hand and a closed hand would show the difference. So another agility milestone was passed.
There were many other less significant developments. The two-scribe pad system was a way of speeding competitors through the ring. In this case we had soon reached the stage where to handle the ever increasing entries, we had to judge at least a dog a minute. It was possible for a judge to do this but there was always a wait for the paper work. Having designed and started the scribe pad steward system in the first place, it became apparent that if the details were filled in on another pad while the previous pad was being marked by the scribe much time could be saved.
We had a rule that, while working a dog nothing could be held in the hand, yet we had relay classes which required a baton change. With the handler running around with a baton in the hand, we were having to make an exception to the rule and then someone very cleverly thought of what has been called an RBE. In other words a reverse baton exchange. This is where the first dog and handler sets off and the next handler to go holds the baton. While behind the start line the baton is then passed to the returning handler who passes it to number three so that they can pass it to the returning number two before setting off. This meant that we had overcome another small problem.
To start with, we quickly had the obvious difference of agility and jumping classes, but we wanted more. It was CC Guard who came up with the idea of a gamblers class and this is still a major part of agility. I am not sure who came up with the two dog relay but it might well have been John Wykes. My contribution was Snooker, which is not often used in the UK these days but still plays a major part of agility in the USA. This latter game went out of fashion in the UK when a class structure was introduced. With an agility and jumping classes being available at three different levels, there was little room in the schedule for less popular classes.
So the sport could have gone in many different directions. Some early enthusiasts visited the Crufts Dog Show and decided bring back agility to the US but changing some parameters to suit their own needs and without taking the advice of those the UK. Think how this could have occurred in many countries of the world until, with many different rules and obstacles, it became an impossibility to have international competition. However, USDAA held fast and true to the UK standards, properly introducing dog agility to North America and enabling them to become world contenders. There are still many variations throughout the world but none so great that we can’t all play together!