It’s that time again for Agility Blogger Action Day, where all us dog agility bloggers get together to have opinions about the same thing, like talkative synchronized swimmers (but with dogs), for your enjoyment.
Full disclosure: I have been competing for less than a year. Before that I liked agility, but certainly wasn’t versed in it beyond “Dog goes over jumps and ramps and stuff and I WANT IN ON THAT.”
Since then I’d say my knowledge has increased greatly (i.e. I am addicted and I can’t stop thinking about this stuff). I’ll mostly be focusing on the Agility Association of Canada (AAC) as that is the organization under which I compete exclusively. I have never competed in anything run by the CKC, and at the moment there are no other organizations running competitions in my home province.
So I certainly have some ideas, but I really can’t tell you much about what has changed over time, aside from what I’ve heard second hand. Also, I come from a showjumping background, and that has influenced my opinions a great deal–for good and for bad.
If there is one thing that showjumping has over agility, it is that it has been around for a very long time. As such, people have expeienced everything that can go wrong with poorly designed equipment. And since horses are so much larger than dogs, and jump larger compared to their height and body-mass, the likelihood of injury is far greater. Where I am located, and, it seems, in a lot of places, most agility jumps are built as one solid piece, with the jump cups permanently fixed in place. I remember looking at jumps like that for the first time and wondering why on earth they would make them like that. If the dog hits the upright they can easily cut themselves on one of the jump cups (blunted edges won’t necessarily save you if your dog is going Mach 9 and/or wrapping around the pole like Gumby after yoga class). Also, since everything is made of one piece, if you’re dog hits it the whole jump moves with them, which is considerably scarier than one pole or just one standard coming down, especially if you are just practicing and failed to remove their collar and it gets caught. Here’s a video of Raafi at a fun-match last weekend. As you can see, the practice barn has these types of jumps exclusively, and in contrast to our fantastic start, Raafi got a shock when he ran into one.
Thankfully he wasn’t injured, and I think I was more put off by it than he was (before our round he actually leapt the wall from a standstill because he wanted to go in the ring so bad, and after our run I took him outside to chill for a few minutes, and when I came back in he tried to jump in again).
At home I use my own pvc jumps made with unattached bases. They really aren’t that hard to produce, they are becoming more and more widely available for purchase (Cleanrun and Launch the Dog have some nice options), and they are infinity safer (and lighter, and portable!). An article on AgilityNerd’s blog seems to have created a lot of interest in this particular issue, and it appears as if changes are underway. I’ve heard talk of local clubs working to use the money made from competition to change the jumps over to the “new” style, and I think that’s fantastic. Financially it’s not something that will happen over night, but hopefully we can keep the momentum until the change is complete.
One place where I still find this equipment evolution a bit lagging is in the jump cup department. FEI rules insist on breakaway style jump cups, which means if the rail is hit hard enough to come down, the cups will fall with it. While this has made it a bit easier to knock bars, it is far better than the alternative. Admittedly the rails on a jump for a horse are heavier than for agility, but I think with a little ingenuity someone could find a way to implement this on a smaller scale. It might not seem to make that much of a difference, but if it saves even a handful of dogs from injury, pain, or even trauma from getting tangled in a bar as it comes down, than it’s worth it (and, frankly, jump cups aren’t nearly as expensive to replace as the full upright). Also, with breakaway cups, if the dog lands straight on the jump, the bar will fall out from underneath them, instead of them possibly getting hung up on it.
Another change I would love to see is in how jump heights themselves are determined. I’m in a position where it doesn’t make much of a difference, but I selected both of my dogs with sports in mind, and in Raafi’s case, agility in particular. I wanted larger as well, and have lucked out and gotten two dogs of a perfect size to jump at the tallest height offered in AAC competition (26″), and of a correct body-mass to do so without undue stress. However, if my next dog is as tall (or taller) than they are and is, say, a Rottweiler, I would likely special it down to 22″.
Linking back to horses, there is no restrictions on what height you can (attempt) to jump your horse at. That is good in many respects, and awful in others. The responsible rider will start out as small as possible so that the horse can acclimatize to the show environment, or finish growing, before they are expected to move up. While many people rush and move a horse up faster than they are able, by and large the system works ok.
However, you can’t do that with your dog (outside of fun-matches, of course). You can go down one height, and that’s it. And if you special your dog at first and later move into regular, that is your only chance to jump at that height as you can only move into regular classes once during that dog’s career. So if your dog goes through a period where he looses his confidence, or if some of your local competitions are held in a place with less than ideal footing (especially for larger dogs), there is no option to simply switch to a lower height for a time. I can think of at least one local venue I may not return to, simply because I fear that Mufaasa will injure himself if he jumps there at full height due to the slippery footing. That or we enter FEO, but I’m not sure it’s worth it to go, risk bad footing, and not even have a chance to Q or pin.
It might be nice if instead of saying that a dog can only move to regulars once in their career, maybe say that a dog can move back down to specials as many times as they like, but if they move out of regulars more than twice, they are no longer eligible to Q, or that they can only make one move a year, or something to that effect. I haven’t thought of a sure system that I think would work, but something along those lines might be worth exploring.
Another solution would be to simply allow people to enter their dogs at whatever height they like, but I can see a great deal of potential for abuse if that were the case (jumping dogs too high, jumping dogs low simply to make earning Q’s and Titles easier, etc). The ideal system, then, would be one that takes their body-mass into account. A dogs’ scope (power over a jump), and lifelong endurance (that is to say, their ability to withstand jumping at full height at a regular basis without undue wear and tear), is hugely influenced by their body mass, not just how tall they are. A Boston terrier and a Miniature Pinscher could stand at roughly the same height at the withers, but the Min-pin is built much slenderer, and could easily break a leg jumping the same height. And as with the example I gave above, a Rottweiler will encounter much greater stress on it’s body than the average border collie, but for the opposite reason, as it is built much heavier.
Conformation also comes into play. I am not a huge fan of poorly structured dogs jumping. It’s fortunate that Pugs are so small, since they can be specialed to the lowest height available, though I’m of the opinion that they shouldn’t jump at all considering the state of their stifles (hell, let’s be honest, I don’t think pugs should exist, but that’s a rant for another day). But if your dog is taller and you just want the fun of running the course without the worry of them hurting themselves trying to make the height, and if your dog is already specialed and too young to be entered in veterans, you do not have any other options but to jump them higher than they are physically capable, which has probably led to many an injury, or frustration for owners who are put in a position of either not competing at all, or asking their dog to do something that is physically impossible.
Basing jump height on the dog’s stature is far too superficial–a measurement of body-mass, obtained from a veterinarian (with the added benefit of having a professional asses your dog’s overall health before you enter competition) should be required before a judge can then compare that to the dog’s measurements to determine jump height. Yes, getting a vet to look at your dog to make that determination will be an added initial expense, but a) no more expensive than the entry fees for a weekend trial where I come from and b) in the long run taking your dog’s complete physical profile into account before determining their jump height will prevent a lot of injuries down the road. EDIT: I had a thought to add to this. Conformation absolutely should be taken in to effect as well. So maybe a set of measurements should be done, and then confirmed by a second judge, that accounts for height, body-mass, and certain points of conformation. Each category is rated, and the dog is given their regular jump height based on that. Also, when I say conformation I mean objectively good conformation–it should not be breed specific. Your dog is either built for the rigours of agility or they are not.
I think that’s all I can think of for now (please excuse the typos, it’s late and I’ll fix them up tomorrow when I can read the screen straight). I may add to this then too if I think of something else. And if you’re interested in reading other blogger’s take on this concept, click here and get reading. EDIT2: And…totally misspelled “conformation” throughout this whole article. This is why you don’t blog at 1 in the morning, kids!