By Carole Lynn Evans
Becoming an agility judge… People in the agility community don’t realize there is far more to the process then the “official” part. (The official part is also more involved then people realize; more on that later.) So I wanted to share my journey in writing.
Before I started down this road, I did a great deal of thinking about the pros and cons of being a judge. It was a long time before I even hinted to anyone that I had aspirations. Telling someone about this great new goal, even your closest friend, is like venturing to the edge of a cliff. Then, when you are comfortable being on the edge of that cliff, you tell a few friends, mention it to a field rep, and talk to a few judges you may know.
So what did I think about while I contemplated becoming an AKC agility judge? I will say I am an obedience judge; not very far along, but I still have a few experiences to draw perspective from. What stands out to me is the public nature of agility judging. The agility judge signals a missed contact, which is just fine except for the fact that the handler’s 20 closest friends are watching from a the stands (a significant distance away I might add, not within 15 feet of the contact like the judge) and they think that contact was just fine. Meanwhile the obedience judge scores this and that, but no one knows what was scored or when it was scored. Later a few folks will hear the total score, the breakdowns will be posted, and the exhibitor may ask for some feedback; but it is all so quiet and almost personal. Someone may grouse about the fact the judge didn’t take off for a sloppy retrieve, but it’s just not the same as the public judging of agility judges by the exhibitors.
Plus everyone reading this article can recall a trial where the entire Excellent class is up in arms and thinks the course was designed with malice and downright evil intent. Any of you who have taught an agility class have certainly experienced setting up a sequence that was intended to be an irrelevant means of getting from point A to point B, but that turned out to be an ugly, rotten, “mean” thing. A training class gets over it, Excellent B folks often do not.
Anyone considering taking this path needs to be aware that their judgments and calls will be questioned. Questions will come from handlers you respect and admire; you must have confidence in what you saw and how you called it. Probably one of my most challenging moments as an obedience judge came when my mentor in obedience questioned (politely) the fact I had qualified a particular team; I knew it was border line performance and I had scored it as such. But to this day I am comfortable that I called it on the qualifying side of that ever important line. Still the thought of the greater visibility of agility calls is ever so daunting as you contemplate becoming a judge.
I think it is important for agility competitors to remember that no judge in any venue has taken on the task of judging just to be mean or cruel; no judge goes out with the hope of NQing the exhibitors. Judges are giving of their time… the time taken to judge that weekend (which takes time away from their own dogs)… the time spent on their feet often from 7:00 am until 5:00 pm (we won’t even go into the weather!)… the time spent preparing for each trial and each class... and the years spent preparing to become a judge.
That’s enough on the thoughts. The process! At this point you have told a few people about your plans, but not too many. In testing for each level of obedience judging, you meet one on one with a Rep; few outside the process will know if you pass or fail. It is a very lengthy process—10-15 years—no intense build-up; just a matter of steady perseverance. Whereas the agility judge’s test/seminar defines intense build-up; the test is three days long and the homework is done months before. The test is taken with 30 people who have studied with you online. Then there is the part of having 200 of your closest and not so closest agility friends know about the test. They will all wonder if you pass or not. Wait? When did this become public knowledge? After all, you had only told some friends, a few judges you know, and a rep or two. Here is how it happens: You were at a nice local trial and a rep or a judge said, “Why don’t you go wheel that course?” Great! Except it was the Excellent course, and in the blink of an eye everyone knows... and, they are watching how you wheeled.
Next thing: Practice judge! Everyone watches you do this too. You have taught classes or watched your friends for years; you know an R, you know a missed contact. Sure you do! Now try to see it and call it while you run to get in the right place (without running into equipment or the handler or her dog). Now put up your hands to signal while running to and fro and not running into stuff—don’t just wave; you have to do it right: hold your arms up. Good luck with all that. Seriously, try it; it’s not so easy. Now try again with a really fast dog while you are attempting to remember if the call is R-W-F-F-R or really one F? The next dog is on the line…
Course design; how hard can that be? We know it takes time, but still? Well, first you need to learn CRCD 3, a computer program that is a must-have must-learn part of the process. Then there are the very important parts of course design that few exhibitors have any idea about. For example, people don’t understand how hard it is to get the equipment in a place where you can see the contacts, run-out planes, entrances, and exits. Then you need to design with the right approach angles for each class (you cannot toss something “icky” out and present it as a “learning” or “training opportunity”). You must present enough challenges, but not too many. You must design with safety for all in all parts; handlers tripping over the teeter can make for a not-so-good day (and ambulances at trials are never a good thing). The course design must also include efficiency in getting handlers in and out of the ring. Then there is the judging path to be considered; it is easy to mistakenly set up the course so that you walk a marathon just while judging contacts. And, most importantly: the course should be fun for the dog and handler; what you design should be something people are glad to do.
Probably most helpful in the process is the support and encouragement from friends, reps, and judges. Impromptu quizzes take place at each trial; usually the answer is known by the person doing the quizzing, and sometimes it is a friend with a tricky question and an answer that is elusive. For us “wannabes,” we have an email list where we quiz, we test, and we debate. The list has the support of judges and Reps who help us out when we get into a bind, mostly though they let us work through things. The list is pretty active, we emailed Christmas Eve and Christmas day. A few people on the list know each other, but many do not. We know each others names, but at this point that is all. When it’s time for the test/seminar, we will all meet in person.
When I decided to start down this road, I didn’t know what to expect. But at this point, I can truly say that whether I pass or fail, this has been an incredible learning experience and it will only get better in the next few months as we cram for our three-day, seven-test seminar where each test must be passed!
Since this article was written Carole has passed the AKC Judge's Test and is an Excellent Provisional Judge. Her first Excellent assignment is coming in June. Carole is also looking at testing for Utility this summer in Obedience.