Agility for Fun and Competition
Cotons Excel at Agility
Michael Weintraub and his White Lightning have achieved a first in Agility Competition for the Coton de Tuléar. White Lightning is the first Coton to win a MACH (Master Agility Champion) title in the American Kennel Club. For a short video of Michael and White Lightning in their winning run, visit the ACC YouTube Video Channel to see White Lightening in action.
Cory Williams from the June 2006 ACQ
The first agility trial I ever watched I competed in. This is not the easiest way to learn! If you are thinking about competing in dog agility or, perhaps, just becoming an informed spectator, I would like to introduce you to the basic rules of the sport. In subsequent articles I will follow-up with training tips for small dogs. I am currently competing with three Cotons in various stages of training, two in the top level of AKC agility, and one in the middle level. In addition, I just started training my puppy. I own, train, and handle my own dogs and this gives me a unique perspective.
Cotons are natural athletes and very quick learners. They want very much to please their owners. This is a great combination for an agility dog. Whether you want to learn for exercise, fun, or to be a serious competitor, it is an enjoyable sport. Agility tends to be addictive, but is also a great way for both you and your dog to stay in shape, and a great way to bond. Agility is also very time-consuming and expensive.
There are several different organizations that you can compete in. Each has its own set of rules, and hierarchal levels of competition. For instance, if you compete in the top level of AKC agility, you have to start at the bottom level of another organization. The acronyms for the main agility organizations in the United States are: AKC, UKC, NADAC, and USDAA. I compete in AKC agility because there are a lot of trials in my area, but this varies depending upon where you live. Each organization requires you to register your dogs with them before competing. This article primarily deals with AKC agility, but the basic concept is the same for every agility organization, even though the types of courses may change for each venue.
When I first started training my dogs, I thought that when we reached the higher levels I would hire a handler, as it would be beyond my expertise. After watching professional handlers at trials, I quickly realized that they make just as many mistakes as I do. My opinion is that unless you have a physical disability that prevents you from running with your dog, it is more rewarding to train and handle him yourself. And, even if you do have limitations, it is still not out of the question for you to run your own dog; you will just have to work harder. I have a friend who has a bad knee, and she has trained her dog so completely that she directs him around a course from a few strategic spots. I have another friend who is deaf, and doing very well in agility. I have even heard of someone who competes from a wheel chair. This just proves that if you are really determined you can compete no matter what your physical limitations are.
My dogs and I are recreational competitors, meaning we compete in local trials for fun when they fit my schedule. However, if your objective is to win as many titles as possible, and have the best agility Coton, then you will most likely want to hire a handler who can compete every weekend. A growing number of adolescents are training and competing with their dogs. I love to see them at competitions, and so does the crowd, as the young handlers always have a big cheering section. If your youth shows interest in learning the sport, then by all means encourage them to do so. They will have a great time, and so will you.
Rules and scoring
Dogs run courses according to their height. Most Cotons will measure in the 8-inch jump height division. They need to be measured by an official before competing and they will be issued a jump height card, either permanent or temporary depending upon the dog’s age. They are then further divided into classes:
Novice A is for beginner dogs and new handlers; Novice B is for beginner dogs and experienced handlers; Open is the middle level; and, the highest-class levels are Excellent A, followed by Excellent B. The final type of class is the “Preferred Class,” in which you have the option of competing with your dog in a lower jump height class than they actually measure for. Many people do this who want to compete, but do not want their dog to jump high, which puts stress on a dog who may be older, or just doesn’t do well jumping at his measured height. The course times are also a little slower. At any trial, each dog will only be judged against other dogs in their same class and jump height.
In each class, a dog must earn three “legs” to move to the next level. A “leg” refers to a run with a qualifying score, which is measured by a different point system in each class. Additionally, Excellent B dogs can earn extra titles as they progress through that class, either a Master Agility Excellent title, or the top honor, Master Agility Champion, (MACH), which is a very hard title to obtain. If you are ever at a trial where someone earns a MACH, it is great fun to watch the celebration. The dog and handler run a victory lap with their “MACH bar” as the crowd cheers.
As I mentioned earlier, each class has a different set of rules and a different point system for scoring errors. When I first started competing, I was oblivious to most of the rules and competed blindly. It wasn’t the wisest thing to do, but certainly the easiest as the rulebooks for agility are only slightly less detailed than the US tax code. AKC agility rules can be downloaded from their web site.
To summarize how a run is scored, as a dog reaches each higher class there are more deductions and more points taken off for mistakes. You can lose points and be disqualified for literally hundreds of reasons ranging from running your dog with tags on his collar, to the obvious, missing an obstacle or running the course too slowly. I was at a trial recently where a handler was disqualified because someone in the audience yelled directions to them when they got lost on the course. They had no idea who that “helpful” person was, but they were disqualified anyway. Rules are rules, and sometimes a judge will even deduct points for things you did not do, and conversely, sometimes they miss mistakes. You just have to be a good sport, and not take it too seriously.
Types of courses
There are currently two different types of agility courses to compete in at every AKC trial: the standard course, and the jumpers with weaves (JWW) course. A standard course consists of the big equipment: an A-frame, which the dog runs up and down on at a steep incline; the dog walk; teeter-totter; and, pause table, in which the dog must either sit or lay down on while the judge counts down from five. These are referred to as “contact obstacles,” because if the dog does not make contact with the part of the obstacle that is painted yellow, then they are automatically disqualified. This is one of the harsher rules of AKC agility and the reason why some people won’t compete in AKC trials. In addition, the standard course consists of a one or more tunnels; closed fabric chute; weave poles; and many jumps.
The JWW course consists of everything listed above minus the contact equipment. This may sound easier, but it is not. The course time on a JWW course is faster, and it’s far easier to forget where you are going on a fast course. Beginning in January 2007, the AKC is adding a third type of course called Fifteen and Send Time (FAST). I do not know the rules yet for this course until I attend a training seminar this summer. Other agility organizations offer variations on the AKC courses listed above; some involve competitions that are less structured and more like games. For example, instead of running a course prescribed by the judge, you can run your own course and earn points for completing certain obstacles.
A handler needs to navigate quickly through each sequence of 13-20 obstacles on their course while at the same time being aware of their dog’s proclivity to err on a certain obstacle. They also need to be aware of where their dog is in relationship to their body and the next obstacle. Body language is important too as a slight unintended gesture may inadvertently cue the dog to go in a different direction than intended. Most importantly, a handler must have a well-trained dog.