An Open Letter Regarding the Collapsible Tunnel

[Original post on June 2016 – since that time, organizations around the world have suspended the use of the “chute”/collapsible or “flat” tunnel; however it still pops up at World events on occasion and has not been formally prohibited in Canada.]

Over the past few years, the collapsible tunnel (a.k.a. chute) has been receiving more scrutiny because of issues arising with its safety. This has always been the least safe piece of equipment due to entanglement, and the safety issues were often taught alongside the equipment: “If your dog gets tangled, this is what you do…” Over the years, the Agility Association of Canada (AAC) and other venues have taken many measures to reduce the safety risks. These include: improve traction of the entry, prohibit heavy and black chute materials, include weights at the bottom at the exit to minimize the flip-up, shorten the length of the fabric portion, prohibit the use of the soap barrel, and regulate course design to ensure a straight approach to the obstacle and sufficient distance around the exit for a safer exit due to blind exits. All of these changes are commendable and have been made in good faith, and should be applauded.
The purpose of this letter is to highlight some issues that are systemic to the obstacle itself, question its inherent safety (or lack thereof), and its purpose in the sport of agility. I first address the latter and then conclude the letter with the former issue.

Performance Evaluation / Objectives Assessment

Agility is defined as “Dog agility is a dog sport in which a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course in a race for both time and accuracy. Dogs run off leash with no food or toys as incentives, and the handler can touch neither dog nor obstacles” (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_agility, with support citations from the rule books of AAC, AKC, NADAC, UKC, USDAA, CKC Agility).
When looking for the official AAC definition of what agility is, and its objectives of the sport, there is no specification of that in the AAC documentation (website or Rulebook). However, there is the Association’s Philosophy and the objectives of the offered classes that together depict the critical components of the sport.
The Philosophy of AAC is “Agility is a challenge and a competition to be enjoyed by handler, dog and spectator. The main elements of the sport are good sportsmanship and fun for the dog and handler. Nothing may be included in agility that could endanger the safety of the dogs participating, the handlers or the spectators” (Section 1.2, pg. 2015-06, AAC Rule Book). In addition, there are objectives of the sport which are defined by the different classes available, which are the following:
  1. The object of the Standard Agility Class is to demonstrate the dog’s all-around agility skills. The dog must demonstrate its’ ability to perform each of the AAC’s sanctioned agility obstacles safely and correctly, in accordance with the obstacle performance standards…. A qualifying Standard score for all performance levels is defined as no faults, and within the set course time. The dog with the fewest faults accumulated (course and time faults) shall be declared the winner in the class. In the event that dogs are tied in faults, the dog with the fastest course time shall be declared the winner of this class (2015-06, §3.2., p.14-15). The chute is a required obstacle for this course.
  2. The object of the Challenge class is to provide a Standard course that tests the speed and handling skills of the agility team at an International level (2015-06, §3.5., p.19). The chute is required.
  3. The object of this game [Gamblers] is to demonstrate the handler’s strategy and dog’s ability to work at a distance from the handler…. To be successful in Gamblers, the dog and handler team must: a. Earn the minimum required point total in the Opening Period… b. Perform the final gamble sequence in the prescribed order and fault-free… c. Complete the final gamble sequence within the time allowed….. If all these criteria are met, the team will receive a qualifying score. The dog with the highest number of points in their height or division will be declared the winner (2015-06, §3.6.1., p.20). The chute is optional.
  4. The object of the Jumpers Class is to demonstrate a dog’s natural jumping ability and the dog and handler team’s proficiency at maneuvering a course sequence at speed…. To qualify, the dog must complete the course fault-free within the standard course time (SCT)…. The dog with the fewest faults accumulated (course and time faults) shall be declared the winner. In the event that dogs are tied in faults, the dog with the fastest course time shall be declared the winner (2015-06, §3.7., p.23-24). The chute is optional.
  5. The object of this game [Snooker] is to demonstrate the handler’s strategy and the dog’s versatility and obstacle discrimination skills, as they work together against the clock to accumulate as many points as possible in the opening and closing sequences. … The dog with the highest number of points shall be declared the winner (2015-06, §3.8., p.24-25). The chute is optional.
  6. The object of the Steeplechase Class is to demonstrate the dog’s ability to run and jump at high speeds while still maintaining control on the A-Frame and in the weave poles. … To qualify, the dog must complete the course with a combined time-plus-faults score equal to or less than the SCT set by the judge. The dog with the lowest combined time-plus-faults score shall be declared the winner (2015-06, §3.9., p.28). The chute is optional.
  7. The object of this game [Team Relay] is to demonstrate team spirit, strategy and sportsmanship, as well as a dog’s acceptance of another dog performing in the ring…. The team with the fewest accumulated faults (course and time faults) shall be declared the winner. In event that teams are tied, then the team with the fastest course time shall be declared the winner. A maximum of 5 faults shall be permitted for a qualifying score, and the two dogs must complete the course with a combined time-plus-faults score equal to or less than the SCT as determined by the judge (2015-06, §3.10., p.28-29). Chute is optional.
All of the above specify the objectives as accuracy and speed, and accuracy could also be called control. To that end, the obstacles that are included in the sport should be contributing to the test of these objectives. In other venues (like organizations and education), tests of performance (like performance evaluations at work, content examinations at school) are required to have measurement items that assess task-specific / objective-specific items. If they do not directly or validly test the objective then they are deemed invalid tests of performance. Similarly, tests must be reliable; done in one context with Jan and done another time/context with Jan (without any changes in Jan’s knowledge or behavior), the test should have the same result. Without reliability, the test is deemed invalid and should not be used. In agility, performance tests should be reliable and valid. It is clear what performance objectives the obstacle is testing:
  • Jumps: speed and accuracy (bar up/correct plane of performance/refusals/completion of all jump – no slicing through long or missing bar(s) of ascending)
  • Flexible tunnel: speed and accuracy (correct entry)
  • Weaves: speed and accuracy (correct entry and correct completion)
  • Tire: speed and accuracy (through the hoop, not under/around/over)
  • Table: accuracy/control (without the down criteria, speed of performance is no longer measured with this obstacle)
  • Contacts: speed and accuracy/control (contact zone performance) combined
  • Flat work: speed and accuracy
  • Start line: control
The chute could arguably measure speed and accuracy (refusal plane and correct exit). However, the chute is an unreliable measure as its performance varies significantly under different contexts (see the next section for more details).
The chute also brings in a significant “blind” component which the other obstacles do not; dogs’ feet exit the obstacle before they can fully see the exit. The flexible tunnel has no blind exit for the dog, at most, the first third of the tunnel has a blind exit, but the remaining 10+’ the dog can see the exit and grounds out the tunnel. The key “blind” component of the flexible tunnel is that the dog cannot see the handler while it completes the tunnel (except maybe feet and/or a hand depending on the handler’s performance). The wall jump also has a very short period of time where the dog cannot see the handler due to the wall pillars, and, at approach, the landing is blind to the dog, but the dog’s visual point prior to landing (exiting) the obstacle is clear at least at the half-way point, if not more. The chute disables the dog from seeing the handler, but it also makes the dog blind to the final exit.
Thus, this blind at exit is a significant test of trust and recovery of the dog. These tests do not validly test any of the listed objectives of the sport. Nowhere is there the objective that the dog must trust the exit and be able to recover from being blindfolded. Thus, the validity of the use of this piece of equipment needs to be seriously reconsidered. There are already two other available obstacles that test the “blind” component but do so in a much safer way, without the need of recovery.
The only classes that require the chute are the Standard (Starters to Challenge) agility courses. With the chute as a listed obstacle, and the classes’ objectives including the ability to perform all agility obstacles to performance standard, then it makes sense it is included. However, it is a tautological / circular argument, such that its existence as an obstacle requires it to be included. Furthermore, this same reasoning is not held for all obstacles in AAC since the broad jump and wall jump are not required obstacles for standard yet they have different performance criteria than all other jumps. Hence, AAC has the precedent with its own equipment list to justify making the chute an optional obstacle, if not the removal of it as an invalid test of agility performance from a sports-objective perspective.

Equipment Performance Criteria

This brings me to the second lens of criteria: equipment inspection and standardization for performance and safety.
There are two consideration points for agility when it comes to dogs interacting with equipment: obstacle performance and equipment performance. Obstacle performance is the standard set by the sport which determines if the dog completed the obstacle successfully or incurred faults (see Rule book §5.1-5.8). Whereas equipment performance is the standard for the equipment; what it must be/do to allow the dog to safely execute obstacle performance.
Agility, as a sport, has two types of equipment: static equipment and dynamic equipment. Static equipment is equipment that is not to move or alter in its state when the dog completes the obstacle performance. For example, the A-Frame does not move or alter its state while the dog completes its obstacle performance. A flexible tunnel is secured as it, too, is not to alter its state while the dog performs the obstacle. Other static obstacles include: table, dog walk, all jumps, weaves, and start/finish line. Some static equipment have a safety feature that should the dog not meet obstacle performance standards (e.g., keep the bar up on a jump), the equipment would give way to prevent injury to the dog. Examples include: breakaway tire, jump pole, jump standards that are not connected, the top layer of the wall jump.
The other type of equipment is dynamic; it must move in order for the dog to be able to successfully complete the obstacle performance. There are two obstacles that are dynamic: teeter (must tip for the dog to successfully complete the teeter), and chute (must open for the dog to successfully exit / meet the obstacle performance standard).
All equipment must meet AAC’s equipment specifications for standardization and safety.
For static equipment, specifications include width, length, depth, distance, height dimensions with the +/- 10% allowances, and surface quality aspects (e.g., rubberizes, no safety hazards or disrepair, painted weave poles, color contrasting poles). These types of specifications allow for the standardization of the static surface with which the dog will be interacting. For static equipment which have safety features, these inspection criteria include depth of cups, edges of cups, diameter of bars, then when put together allow for sufficient standardization to guarantee a range of equipment performance for the safety component. One current exception is that the breakaway tire (which is not a required obstacle yet) does not have a performance specification for the safety feature.
For the teeter, there is an obstacle specification that standardizes the action of the teeter (a 3lb weight 24” from the end and a 3 second descent time). This test mimics the in-performance action of the teeter and helps to guarantee a standardization of the action of the obstacle.
However, there is no equipment specification for the action of the chute. Currently the chute is solely inspected on dimensions which are relevant to static equipment. There are several factors that will impact the performance of the chute opening, which include:
  • The length of the chute,
  • The weight of the material of the chute,
  • The composition of the material of the chute,
  • The size of the dog,
  • The speed of the dog,
  • The wet/dry conditions of the chute,
  • The wind conditions.
In order for the chute to move and achieve the equipment performance, several physics theories / laws come into play. These are: static friction coefficient of the chute (this determines the amount of force required to start the fabric to start to move from its resting spot), kinetic friction (this determines the amount of force required to move the fabric once it is already moving), weight of the fabric (again, the heavier it is, the more force required to move it, but the lighter it is the more at risk it is for movement from sources other than the dog), and the relative air pressure created in the chute when the dog first interacts with the fabric.
There is sufficient photographic evidence and physics theory that suggest with a minimum speed (around 4yps), a vacuum seal can be created at the exit due to the differentials of air pressure within the chute, preventing the appropriate action of the chute.
Most lightweight fabrics have low enough static and kinetic friction coefficients that even at lower speeds, the vast majority of dogs can initiate and sustain movement of the fabric. However, these coefficients change when the fabric becomes moist. The composition of the fabrics can also impact the extent to which the wet (or even moist) conditions impact these coefficients (e.g., water soaks into the fabric versus repelled). In these conditions, the small breeds may find the equipment performance fails even without sufficient water accumulation on top of the chute.
Under severe wetness, and the added weight of the water on the chute alter the amount of force required to initiate equipment performance and is known to be problematic for all dogs.
AAC has no way to appropriately test the equipment performance of the chute to ensure a sufficiently standardized performance of the obstacle under enough conditions (dry/windy/drizzle/wet) with the minimum and maximum ranges of dog variances (speed, weight and size) to ensure that this obstacle can be predictable in its performance. From an organizational health and safety perspective, when there is too much variance in the performance, then it either needs standardizing (for use under ideal conditions only), re-engineering, or it should be discontinued.

Evidence of Safety

There is a growing concern and a growing body of evidence, nationally and internationally, on the poor safety standards and equipment performance of the collapsible tunnel (a.k.a. chute, flat tunnel). Dogs are experiencing face abrasions/cuts, whiplash, sprains, and entanglement to name the main injuries, and equipment failure that prevents the dog from being able to be tested on obstacle performance (e.g., very small, petite dog unable to overcome the static and kinetic friction coefficients plus weight of a damp chute).
Despite the numerous changes made in attempt to address these, this obstacle does not validly measure objectives of this sport; it introduces an invalid test of performance (truly blind exit and recovery). It has a dynamic component that the regulating body cannot reliably test appropriately within the natural use state of the obstacle. The only argument I have heard to date is that it is used internationally for Worlds. However, I also hear similar complaints and debates internationally.
When the very guiding principle of AAC stipulates, “Nothing may be included in agility that could endanger the safety of the dogs participating, the handlers or the spectators [emphases added]” yet one of the required pieces of equipment does just that, we need to seriously ask “Why use it?”
It can be intimidating to be a leader and on the leading edge of development, but when we genuinely look at this obstacle that was made as a whim (along with the jump through a high window in a door – which you don’t see any longer in the sport) we need to ask, are we following the crowd and everyone looking to someone else to take the lead. This is called groupthink and is associated with very negative outcomes for organizations. Looking at the sport’s objectives and ensuring valid tests of those objectives, and looking at the organization’s ability to ensure safe protocols, and looking historical trends of safety records, it is clear that groupthink on the chute is the wrong action.
To that end, I put forward a call for the deeming the chute as an optional obstacle for all classes, at the very least, if not the removal of this obstacle. This will provide more course space for other, safer obstacles like the broad jump. It also opens the options for introducing a 10’ flexible tunnel as an option if the organization wants a replacement (which is already deemed a replacement).
If the Board is unwilling to make that decision on their own (which I fully understand and appreciate because it is a big decision and requires a leap of faith), then I request a referendum by the membership. AAC is proudly a membership owned and ran organization, and as such should make this decision by the membership because it is the membership’s dogs who are directly impacted by these decisions.
If AAC takes the lead, I would be very surprised if other organizations don’t start to follow suit. In the meantime, there are chutes around for those to train and use for World events. Selection events could include the chute in “Selection Event Course(s)” so we needn’t throw the baby out with the water as we step into the forefront.
Thank-you for your time and attention to this matter and thank-you for your service to this organization! Your time and commitment to AAC is appreciated and commended.
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