Made in the USA

The electronics industry is constantly bombarding us with amazing new gadgets. There are so many choices these days! Joe Public is easily enticed by hype and its not difficult for the clever techno geek sales guy to make Joe believe that the latest, greatest new gizmo, with all the bells and whistles, is something he can’t live without. The techno geek skillfully demonstrates all of the cool functions, and Joe becomes convinced that indeed he must have this device. Of course the gadget Joe already had was working just fine for him and he didn’t really need any of the new features, but he is sold.

By the time Joe gets home with his fancy newfangled device, he has forgotten what the techno geek showed him and he cannot make it perform even the simplest functions. Joe could perhaps read the instructions, but hey, this fancy gizmo is supposed to almost think for itself! Joe realizes that none of his existing accessories are compatible with his new toy. And finally, once home, Joe hears that soon his new toy will soon be obsolete because the newer, “improved” model is coming out. After muddling a bit, Joe learns how get his device to do most of the tasks he needs, which of course his previous device did just fine. But, he still cannot get any of the fancy features demonstrated to him to work to his satisfaction, and certainly not as well as the techno geek performed them. Joe concludes that his device is faulty. So, when the next greatest gizmo hits the market, Joe is the first in line, and the cycle repeats. Of course he never needed any of the fancy functions and was getting along just fine without them. But, the hype and peer pressure made him believe he did. Now, Joe is an average Joe. His buddy Elmer, who is very techno savvy and talented, had no problem adjusting to his new toy and Elmer is able to take full advantage of the new and improved features.

Is this beginning to have a familiar ring to it? Similar scenarios are played out in dog agility all of the time. Joe Handler enjoys a comfortable level of success at trials and his goal is to maintain his qualifying rate and acquire titles. He competes locally at ABC* trials with his smaller sized dog. But, he hears about a seminar where the big name presenter will be teaching. Since he has seen all of the “top handlers” doing new “moves”; he assumes these must be the magic bullet he’s been looking for (was he?) and thus he decides to attend. Of course Joe does not stop to consider whether he or his dog will actually benefit from the new moves. Nor does he consider whether they are consistent with all of the foundation training that he’s done and the handling he is currently doing. Even if he does, does he have the knowledge to successfully integrate the new “moves”? Joe Student Handler should always consider his personal goals when seeking instruction, and be sure what Joe Agility Instructor is offering will actually help him meet those goals.

Several years ago I was the first to offer an international skills seminar in the USA. I coined that term because I wanted it to be clear that those that did not expect or want to encounter certain course challenges probably would not benefit from the skills being presented. I have never understood why I was required to have so many calculus credits as a prerequisite for veterinary school. Algebra and geometry I still use, but calculus? Was learning that material really in my best interests as a future veterinarian? Doesn’t it make sense to teach material that your students need and will use?

A student of mine, who might be considered a “typical” USA handler, watched the 2012 FCI AWC live stream last fall. She commented to me afterward: “Boy, what they are doing and what I am doing is not even the same sport. I hope that AKC courses never get like that”. To be honest, I agree (read on) and I think a large portion of “typical” USA handlers would as well.

If I am teaching handlers that primarily compete in ABC, my drills are slightly different than if I am teaching handlers that aspire to do international** courses. But my material does not change… i.e. I still focus on how each student can combine cues to most consistently, effectively and logically communicate with his dog. When I wrote Developing Handling Skills (DHS) I tried to be sure it 1) was appropriate for all dogs 2) adaptable for all teams no matter how mobile the handler was or type of course they were running, and 3) would be able to stand the test of time. Having an understanding the general concepts (how the dog relates to motion, natural vs. trained cues for example) is the basis for agility handling everywhere, no matter what system you use, or what country you are from. So, when I teach at seminars I try to help the participants apply the concepts no matter what type of dog or handler it is, nor what type of courses they are running.

Not too long ago I was at a trial outside my local stomping ground (where I think the handlers are accustomed to seeing me crash and burn as I experiment with new cue combinations :) ). I
could tell my handling was under intense scrutiny (because, after all, I “wrote the book” on handling :) ). Naturally they wanted to see DHS in action. Waiting for my turn, I watched as an older handler (older than me, anyway) turned to face her dog to perform a {insert name of your choice here} move. No doubt she had learned this move at the latest seminar, or she got it as a trickle down skill from her instructor who had gone to the latest seminar. It made me sad, because her somewhat hefty medium sized dog trotted up to the jump and stopped dead. She waved her arm behind her and said Jump, and eventually convinced her dog to pop over the jump behind her. She waited for him to come around the wing and then she moved off to cue the next jump with him. I felt badly for her because no doubt she had been convinced that this was somehow the best way to cue a turn. Now if she had just been taught her about how to balance cues appropriately for her dog and how to use motion effectively, she might have chosen a more appropriate option. After watching her run, the rest of the weekend I chose more standard cue combinations, rather than experiment, because I felt a sense of obligation to set a good example.

Unfortunately, when teaching, many agility seminar presenters and instructors are like the techno geek sales person. They seem to feel they must always offer something “new” or “improved”. I admit, even when I teach, I feel pressured to present something new. But, is that really in the best interests of the typical USA handler? Are we doing our students justice if we teach skills we know they will be unlikely to ever use? Or, if we teach skills knowing the students do not have the appropriate foundation to use them effectively? Of course I could go off on a tangent discussing what exactly the “typical” USA handler is, but I am pretty sure we would all agree it is not a 22 year old, svelte athlete with a high drive Border Collie and lots of time to train, that aspires to compete with the best of the best.

When a new student comes to me for a consult, I always ask what his or her goals are, for that lesson and for future competition. As seminar presenters and instructors, we have a responsibility to be aware of the needs and goals of our students. We should not focus on teaching various moves unless we are sure that the student has the foundation skills or knowledge necessary to successfully incorporate the skills into his current handling system. Nor should we teach moves that we know are not necessary, or even desirable, for the typical USA dog and handler team. Frankly I’m not sure some “moves” currently being taught are needed even by the most accomplished handlers. Last year the USA Large Dog Team placed first in Team Jumping at the 2012 FCI AWC using “meat and potatoes” handling…i.e. good old American style with no fancy moves. It was a spectacular effort.  USA handlers Marcus Topps (medalled twice individually in Large in FCI and multiple times in IFCS), and Ashley Deacon (medalled in Medium in FCI Individual and Team) used what some might now consider “old-fashioned” handling by today’s standards. These handlers accomplished these feats despite essentially zero practical experience on international courses in competition, while most of their competitors saw the challenges on a weekly basis. Last year when I went to the European Open it was clear that the sheer comfort level most handlers had with the challenges far exceeded ours. Challenges that were still unfamiliar to us had been performed so frequently by the European competitors they required no more thought to execute than we might give a forward send. Most of the time the actual cue combinations are not much different. Is there a magic bullet? I am not yet convinced. What Europeans (and other handlers that run these courses all of the time) have that we don’t is the trust that their dogs will commit to what has been cued, freeing them up to move ahead on course.

Now, Joe Handler may not know what he needs or what his goals are. He may come to a seminar thinking he needs new moves and then realize that they really aren’t needed based on the style of course he runs. I asked a popular European seminar presenter how to apply the moves she was teaching on the types of courses I see here, and her response was “USA courses are boring”.  I admit I don’t understand the current trend toward inviting so many different non-USA handlers here to teach when we have so much talent right here in the USA. Yes a very small percentage of handlers here may enjoy what they have to present (myself included!), but the vast majority of handlers would benefit more from homegrown instruction provided by those that compete and succeed on USA courses on a regular basis.

Helen King wrote recently “not everything that comes to us from a foreign country is necessarily a good thing!”***. Since the “early days”, it has seemed that all a seminar presenter in the USA had to do was speak with an accent and he/she would be considered an expert regardless of his or her credentials. I think perhaps this is because the USA was not an instant success at the FCI WC. Because there were very few videos of international competitions, it was easy to assume it was simply because we lacked the skills and talent. I was at the FCI AWC in the late 1900s. I knew we had a lot of talent in the USA regardless of the results. (More on that in another post). Yes, it took 5 years before the USA Large Dogs won a medal (2001). But, did you know that from 2002 till 2011, the USA has the second best total number of individual medals? We must be doing something right :)

I remember back in 2000 at the FCI AWC, some handlers were amused when Linda Kipp stopped her dog in 2o2o during the team practices (“How silly, that wastes too much time!”). The next year Team USA won the gold medal, in part due to our ability to stop our dogs on the teeter (where many dogs incurred flyoff faults). After that, each year more and more European dogs were observed in the practice having 2o2o foundation training. :) At the FCI AWC in 2001 I used a rear cross on the flat to cue a turn at a point where many dogs were jumping long and in extension, then having trouble turning on the slick carpet. The European announcer said I had a “mistake” :) It was not mistake, it was very much planned shaping. But that was not skill used by Europeans at the time, so it was not understood. Now, of course, shaping is a common handling choice.

I have a lot of respect for handlers that are out there competing successfully on international courses on a regular basis. It is not easy. I love to watch the really super teams rise to the challenge; the timing and teamwork required can be awe-inspiring (watch the Jenny Damm video I’ve included at the end of this post). Those that are in the trenches, getting results, are definitely the ones worth listening to and I’ve made an effort to work with as many European presenters as I can. I think it is important to understand the rationale for what others are doing, not just blindly follow (pun intended :)).  It’s very interesting; each has developed a unique way to successfully communicate with his or her dog. Often similar cue combinations are being used, but they may have evolved differently and there may be different rationales for using them. Where I feel it would be beneficial to do so, I break down the various “moves” into the six basic cues to determine how to make logical combinations consistent with DHS. For better or worse, I’ve tended to trust my own instincts. I am always experimenting; my dogs don’t seem to mind being the crash test dummies for the good of the sport :). One must step outside the box if there is to be improvement; DHS was derived through observation and experimentation. Since I am no longer 22 years old nor am I svelte and athletic, but stubbornly aspire to compete with those that are, I expect to do a fair amount of experimenting this year. I want to determine if incorporating some high-risk cue combinations can help me (and interested students) successfully handle international courses. Does that mean I will be teaching these in seminars? No, not until I feel comfortable that the benefits outweigh the risks and only if the students share similar goals.

Internationalization? Yes, personally I would like to see more difficult course challenges incorporated into USA courses and even speed added as a requirement, but as a separate track from the titling. Leave the current the titling systems in place as is.  Titling is one of the wonderful things about USA agility!  It is a vast improvement over what some other countries are doing…. Titling, plus multiple jump heights and other factors, allow many more dogs and handlers a chance to compete and be successful. Lisa Frick was not even born yet when I started agility…I will not be able to keep up at this pace much longer and it is nice to know that I will always be able to enjoy this sport.

So, the point of this blog? To help fellow Americans consider that maybe we are actually doing some things right here in the USA. To suggest to handlers that before they jump on the bandwagon, make sure it makes sense to do so given what their personal goals are. To suggest to seminar presenters and instructors that they don’t always have to present something new, and that they should be sure what they are teaching is appropriate for the students being taught. To suggest that yes at the present time I personally would like to see a bit more variation and more challenge on USA courses. BUT I am not getting younger and I am not svelte. I am plagued by injuries and I know that my ability to run international courses is going to decrease. I agree with those that are happy with the challenges they see in ABC and other venues and I think USA titling programs are wonderful.

*Note: I am using ABC as a generic term to refer to any USA agility organization that is truly designed for all types of dog and handler with primarily flowing course design and emphasis on qualifying.

**Note: The term “international” is used in this blog to describe courses with challenges that are more typically seen on European courses vs USA such as backsides, push and pull-throughs, wraps greater than 180 degrees and so on. In the following video Jenny Damm does a beautiful job of demonstrating some of the skills she uses to succeed on “international” courses. Very impressive handling!

***Note: See Helen’s post here:


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