By Amanda Ennis
It’s a glorious day for agility, not too warm, not too cool, and a gentle breeze wafts through the car window as you turn into the parking lot. The gravel crunches under your tires as you pull into a parking spot, and the other handlers wave and greet you by name. You set up your dog’s crate under the shade of an apple tree and grab some snacks set up on a nearby bench for everyone to nibble on. You crunch and chomp appreciatively as you head for the ring to walk the course, where an iPhone connected to a speaker blasts out well-loved agility tunes like “Jump” and “Life Is A Highway.” You swap course strategies with everyone else as you walk, talking a lot and laughing even more, and the judge hums and sways with the music as she makes a few final tweaks.
Are you wondering who puts on this fantastic trial so you can mark it on your calendar for next year? Surprise! It’s my own club’s Bee League, a weekly agility league, and you can replicate the same wonderful experience anywhere, indoors or out, winter or summer.
We had a lot of fun with our league, and you can create the same fun in your area by following a few basic tips:
- Know whom you want to attract, and define rules and performance standards that are appropriate for that group.
- Write an insanely detailed handbook outlining everything you can think of about your league. Then condense it to two pages.
- Be ready to make changes based on handler feedback and your own observations. Be flexible and adjust your rules, courses, and performance standards if necessary to maximize the fun for your handlers.
- Get help. Seriously, GET HELP. Trying to get a league up and running all by yourself can only end in tears.
- Keep it simple, and most importantly, make it fun! Get goofy, add some creative touches, and make your agility league an event your handlers look forward to each and every week.
What Is a League? Why Should I Care?
In the United States, the term “agility league” generally denotes a group of handlers and dogs who form teams of twos, threes, or fours to run on courses specifically built for “league night” over a specified period of time, such as six or eight weeks. Standings are compiled weekly and the teams are ranked, with the winning teams often receiving prizes and/or bragging rights at the end of the league’s “season.” A league can be officially registered with a specific organization, as in USDAA League Play or JFF League Play, or it can be an entirely local endeavor following whatever rules the administrators define.
Build It (and Publicize It!) and They Will Come
So now you’re lost in visions of what your team T-shirt will look like and hearing the cries of delight over your famous triple chocolate brownies. The very first question you need to ask yourself is: Whom am I trying to attract? A league set up for teenage 4-H kids will run very differently from one for ADCH and MACH handlers. Students still learning basic obstacle skills and sequencing are not ready for a league, which leaves you with three possible levels to choose from: Not Ready For Prime Time (running full courses, but not quite ready to compete), Beginning/Mid-Level Competitors (Starters/Advanced handlers), and Agility Mavens (Masters/Excellent handlers). However, you may have to completely ignore these categories if you’re in an isolated area and need to reel in everyone within an hour’s drive, or if you’re working exclusively with junior handlers. It is critical that you know whom you’re building the league for before you even think about anything else.
No matter how brilliant your league concept is, no one will sign up unless they know you’re out there. At least three months before the planned start date, create a flyer with key information:
- Intended level of play
- Predominant “flavor,” if applicable (USDAA, AKC, CPE, etc.)
- Number of weeks of play
- Dates, times, and location
- Sponsoring club or individuals
- Number of dogs per team and maximum number of teams
- Fees and discounts, if applicable (multi-dog households, early signup or referral discounts)
- Signup procedure (fill out form incorporated in flyer, on-line signup, signup via e-mail)
- Signup deadline
- Contact person for questions
Put flyers out at agility trials (with the host’s permission), seminars and run-throughs, and other events where agility enthusiasts congregate (Rally, herding, flyball). Be sure to cover the Internet as well: post your league announcement to all relevant on-line mailing lists, Yahoo! Groups, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and always include a contact e-mail for people to ask questions and get more information.
Make the Rules, But Be Prepared to Change Them
Once you’ve figured out who will be coming to your league and gotten the word out, you must make rules that are suitable for your target group. If you’re targeting Not Ready For Prime Time handlers, don’t even think about setting up AKC Excellent courses or imposing tough USDAA Masters fault schedules. You’ll frustrate and depress your players, and your league will die a gruesome death. Likewise, MACH handlers will quickly grow bored with courses requiring only one change of side. But remember that people who are having more good runs than bad will smile, laugh, and have more fun, so once you decide what level of challenge is appropriate for your target handler group, soften it just a smidge. “Challenging but fun” should be your mantra.
When we set up the Medina Swarm’s Bee League in Wadsworth, Ohio, co-admin Steve Bagstad and I decided to target Agility Mavens—handlers who had outgrown weekly group lessons and now practiced alone or with a few friends at home while pursuing a moderate to heavy show schedule. Masters-level challenges were clearly called for here, but the prospect of calling refusals on every obstacle and eliminating people over one off-course seemed overly harsh. We softened the challenge by offering Masters level courses judged under Advanced fault rules. This way, people had to omit an obstacle to E, and refusals were called only on contacts.
Once our league took shape, it included some handlers whose skills lagged our intended level of play. Fortunately, the Advanced fault schedule kept many of their runs from becoming Es. We also further softened the course difficulty as the weeks went by, ending with challenging Advanced courses rather than Masters courses in many cases. In retrospect, I wish we had adjusted the courses sooner to the level of the people who came to play rather than sticking stubbornly to an abstract standard of performance. So plan how you’re going to run things, but watch and listen closely, be flexible, and don’t be too proud to make adjustments. Solicit feedback from your players on everything – rules, courses, awards. Above all, you want the people who commit their time and money to your league to have fun and go home happy.
The Devil’s in the Details
Every league will develop its own unique personality. The league administrator must write an exhaustive league handbook to begin fleshing out that personality. Think of all the questions someone could possibly ask, from exactly what weather conditions will cancel league play and whether training in the ring is allowed to rules governing substitutes and precisely how league standings will be calculated and distributed. No item is too trivial. Someone reading the handbook should get a very vivid sense of what your league will be like without ever setting foot on your agility field.
If you are properly detail-obsessed, you will end up with an epic document—our official Bee League Handbook weighed in at 20 pages! Once you’ve finished the “dot-every-i-and-cross-every-t” version of your handbook, write a one or two-page summary of the key points and put it at the beginning. Many people will not bother to read the full handbook, but may at least scan the summary.
Don’t Go It Alone
Running an agility league is like running a trial that goes on for six to eight weeks, so under no circumstances should you try doing it all yourself unless you have no further use for your sanity. Ideally, the administrator’s position will be held by two or even three complementary people working together.
But even a bevy of talented admins at the helm does not a league make. Once the admins have set the league schedule and established which events will be played on which nights, you need someone to design courses for you—trust me, you will be too busy to do more than a few yourself. If you cannot find a course designer, you can go back through your personal cache of course maps or borrow some from friends, but as a courtesy, you should ask the judges for permission to use their courses before you do so. Of course, you will also need a judge. It is much less stressful on everyone if you have a dedicated judge who is not running a dog in the league. This is an ideal opportunity for a new judge who would like some more practice. Cast a wide net; approach the experienced competitors you always see helping show newbies and ask them if they’d ever consider judging—you might be surprised at the positive response. A local USDAA judge-in-training graciously offered to judge for us, and she was wonderful.
The other jobs are all the familiar trial jobs that require multiple people to work together: course builders, ring crew (timer, scribe, bar setters), and hospitality. Since we already had nine ready-made groupings of three people, our league teams, we instituted a feature called Worker Week. Each week, one of our nine teams was responsible for ensuring that the courses got built, the ring had a crew, and the bench was stocked with snacks.
Most of All, Make It Fun
When our league handlers were asked to name what they liked best on their evaluation forms, the top responses were “fun,” “camaraderie,” and “no pressure.” You want your agility league to be your handlers’ “happy place” where they can slough off their workaday stress and have a blast with their dogs! Get creative and add some “goofy” or “silly” features to your league. We encouraged people to anonymously turn in little blue forms about other handlers who displayed outstanding style and/or sportsmanship. During the following week’s announcements, we read off the comments and awarded a special bonus to the handler’s Standard score based on the roll of a die. Many of the forms praised items such as “[the handler’s] awesome turn into the #5 tunnel in Standard,” but we also got some really fun ones: “Smoothest fall and recovery – 10+, French score thrown out.” We ended our eight-week league season with a potluck picnic and award ceremony. Not everyone could snag the coveted red visors awarded to the top team (the agility version of the Tour de France’s yellow jersey), but everyone went home feeling like a winner.
Agility Leagues on the Web
Amanda Ennis has been competing in USDAA, CPE, ASCA, and DOCNA since 2003 with her two mixed-breed shelter dogs, Quincy (Golden/Collie/GSD mix) and Tika (Border Collie/Eskie mix). She and co-admin Steve Bagstad of the Medina Swarm Agility Club developed and launched the 2009 Bee League in Wadsworth, Ohio, where nine three-dog teams recently wrapped up an eight-week season.