Judge's Debrieing: UKI U.S. Open Masters Series Final
By Lee Gibson
The U.S. Open is the national event held each year by UK Agility International. This year's event took place on November 14-16 in Fletcher, North Carolina. There are 5 national championship events held during the weekend: UKI Open National Championship, Agility Biathlon, Games Challenge, Speed Stakes Challenge, and the Masters Series Final. The competition is open to any level dog and no pre-qualification is necessary except for the Masters Series Final. Masters Heats are held around the country during the year. In addition, a "last chance" Masters Heat is held at the U.S. Open. Qualifiers compete in a round of Jumping and then move on to an Agility course.
Judging at the UKI U.S. Open was a huge honour and something I was excited to be a part of. The whole event was well run and efficient, pitting many of the top US handlers against each other over a selection of courses. The Masters Series Final course was one of my favourite courses of the weekend.
I have a few key principles that I always use when designing courses. For many years I have seen a "dumbing down" of agility courses in the UK, coinciding with a view of safety. This is a flailing argument. The real issue is that a large percentage of judges can't build a safe course using the equipment at their disposal.
In the UK many judges won't use a flat tunnel (chute) or a tyre, for example. There is nothing wrong with the the equipment; in fact, we have some of the safest equipment around with several top manufacturers striving to make safer equipment.
When I design a course, whatever level, I will use all of the equipment at my disposal, and I place it safely within the context of the course. I always start and finish with a jump hurdle, and I won't use the tyre at the start or finish, but rather place it safely within the course.
I feel this is for the greater good of agility. If judges leave tyres out of their courses, for example, then training clubs look at course plans from the weekend and practice courses without the tyre in. Over time dogs (and handlers) get less exposure to the variety on equipment. Their skill level will lower on that piece of equipment, and subsequently when dogs (and handlers) are faced with these tests, they are less prepared and more likely to fail; or worse still, more likely to be injured.
You will notice on all of my course plans that I have a range I equipment in them. I did request a wall jump as well, but this didn't show up at the event! (Click a link to see all the courses from the UKI U.S. Open: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.)
I knew that the Masters Final would be a tense affair. I also knew that the class was the finale of the US Open and would fascinate a potentially large worldwide audience on the live stream. This course had to blend skill, strategic decision making, and speed while testing nerve at the same time!
The start combination, #1-#5 offered the obvious discrimination test (dogwalk/tunnel), but also a choice for the handler on jump #4. Handlers could turn the dog right and have a straight line to the dogwalk, or they could bring the dog left on jump #4 and physically straighten up the dog onto the dogwalk. There was ample room to do the latter; however, some handlers over-corrected the dog's path and actually put the dog back in the tunnel.
The choice handlers made on jump #4 probably also had something to do with how much they trusted their down dogwalk contact. I had placed the #6 pipe tunnel around 120 degrees right of the end of the dogwalk. Irrespective of what contact method one is using, control and exit is being tested here. I would say I called around 30-40% of the contacts on the dogwalk. I expected this would be a test, and given the high pressure of the final, I wasn't surprised with the results. The combination tested all contact performance methods. It also have the handler the choice to front cross or collect and scoop the dog into #6 tunnel. This choice also depended on their choice on jump #3 (how much time they had to execute the front cross).
Once into the tunnel the dog needed a 90-degree right turn out the tunnel to find the weave entry at #7. Again, I expected a split between 1) handlers front crossing the tunnel exit and keeping dog on right, and 2) directing the dog away and into the weaves.
The next section of the course, #8-#13, was the speed and ultra-nerve-racking section!
Out of the weaves the dog jumped the long jump at #8 and on landing dropped onto a straight line for the flat tunnel at #9. Out of the flat tunnel the dog had to maintain his current line between the jumps #18 and #10, and then turn left 180 degrees back onto a line for jump #10 and the tyre at #11. If running this I would have kept my dog on my left through the weaves and long jump and the flat funnel, collect at end of the flat tunnel, and then direct the dog away to the left (almost as a "go around"), giving me time to accelerate ahead.
I believe that blind crossing/front crossing after the long jump before the flat tunnel was quite risky, not because of the back of the jump to the left of the flat tunnel, but because in this section of course momentum was absolutely key. I saw numerous handlers do a side change before the flat tunnel, but make a fatal mistake and check their speed on the pick up out of the front cross. Any slight hesitation at this point (I would interpret) meant the dog was getting a command to turn. As the handlers lost momentum for just a split second, the dog fired through the flat tunnel and cut in on the handler (turning left) and facing straight toward the wrong side of jump #10.
I deliberately placed the jump #12 close the the entrance of the flat tunnel to encourage an early and fast line to the flat tunnel. If handlers switched off here, there is a distinct possibility that the dog would sail off over the back of jump #12. I believe the choice to go through and change sides between the long jump and flat tunnel blocked that jump, but in doing that the handlers seemed to collect their dogs at the entrance into the flat tunnel. This was all it took to get behind the dog. I think on reflection many of the handlers who ran the course in May, would run it like I suggested and have the flat tunnel on their left if they had another chance.
I also believe some handlers felt uncomfortable doing the go around left turn out of the flat tunnel without being on the inside; however, this is a specific skill that the individual handler needs to work on.
The go around on jump #12 was also done at high speed. For me, the obvious route was around the top of the jump as the flow and path of the dog was smoother than a front cross after the tyre and going inside of jump #12 as some did.
This particular section was designed to test the dog's ability to be as close to the handler as possible across the bar. As this was a generally big course, I needed to get a couple of close sections in there!
The exit from jump #12 (in close proximity to the flat tunnel; and yes, one dog did dive back in there!) was on to the A-frame. Anyone who watched the live stream would have seen that I place my contacts so that I am judging from one side and the handler should be on the other side. This was the case for all three of my contacts in this class because it allows me to judge as accurately as possible.
Off the A-frame was a left 90-degree turn over jump #14 before returning to the first pipe tunnel again (#15). This was designed to test the dog's ability to commit to the back of a tunnel early and get a fast entrance. A couple of dogs ran wide off the A-frame and around jump #14, mainly due to the handlers rushing away to the back of the tunnel or a poor A-frame method.
Once the dogs were into the tunnel they exited over jump #16 and onto the seesaw at #17. Many handlers front crossed between the jump and the seesaw. I would have done the same thing. This enabled them to have the dog on left onto the seesaw.
Once exiting the seesaw there was about a 70-degree turn to the last three-jump combination: #18, #19, and #20. Unfortunately I can recall at least three super runs that met their destiny at this point, each doing seesaw, jump #18, and jump #20! This was caused by possible fatigue on the part of the handlers (switching off and thinking the hard work was done), an over-enthusiastic shoulder rotation into #19, or even the dog heading for his leash and the finish jump.
I would have left my dog on the seesaw a little more, allowing me to get away and in between jumps #18 and #19 in order to get a smoother collection between the two jumps. Those handlers who went close to the seesaw had to (by default of their positioning) run past #18 and, if only for a moment, toward jump #20. In some cases this created acceleration toward the finish jump.
Overall I was totally satisfied with this course and the way it ran. I thoroughly enjoyed judging all the events at the UKI U.S. Open alongside Becky Dean (the other judge). My goal was to bring a flavour of the UK, with some of the European influences I use in all my courses. I wanted to test the best of America's handlers on my courses, and I think overall they did a superb job. It truly was a privilege to be judging that weekend.
I would like to extend my thanks to Greg and Laura Derrett for inviting me out to judge, and for organising such a superb event.
I know that some of America's World Agility Open win-on spots were decided that weekend also, so I would like to extend my congratulations to all those who made Team USA.
I hope to return soon to America to judge again and, hopefully, to do some seminars and course analysis days as well. I have more courses where those came from!
For information on participating in the 2014 UKI U.S. Open, which will be held in Fletch, North Caroline again, please visit www.ukagilityinternational.com.