Open Letter for Safety for Course Design: Analysis & Recommendations

I have been following along the discussions and debates about course design which have started around the time I earned my judge certification (in 2015).  However, my interest in course design and the implications of course safety predate this.

I have been involved in the sport of agility as a competitor and coach since 1994/95, and prior to that I trained and competed in equestrian sports (e.g., hunters/jumpers, show/road hacks, and dressage).  My riding coach, Elaine Partington, was meticulous on training us about finding the lines on course, ensuring correct lead, balance and stride for the courses.   Another bit of background information about me is that I also score off-the-charts in spatial perception (I tested at the 99.999th percentile of adult population – meaning 1 in 100,000 score higher than me in terms of their ability to interpret diagrams), so interpreting the spatial implications of a course map and visualizing different teams performing in that space is very easy for me.  Add to this my concern of enhancing safety while maintaining the joy and challenges in the sport I love, course design for safety becomes a natural extension.

Recently, I requested competitors to share courses with me so I may conduct an analysis on the trends that have resulted in safety concerns.  I have also reviewed the discussions in the sport regarding safety concerns in course design.  To be clear, the point of this letter is not to address safety of an obstacle in terms of its make, build, specifications, color; rather, the point of this letter is to create awareness and to propose some organizational / sport-based changes that will enhance the safety of agility courses as they are designed and the implications of the paths created by the design.

Before I proceed with the outcomes of my analyses, I need to disclose my key assumptions:

1) Newton’s First Law Applies to Agility.  Objects will keep the same trajectory and velocity until an unbalancing force is applied to them.  In terms of agility, this means, that a dog will maintain its speed and trajectory unless the handler applies force (physical via position, motion, actual contact with the dog, and/or verbal) to the dog’s path.  However, unless the handler physically touches the dog, it is actually the dog’s choice and response to apply internal force to alter its trajectory and velocity.  Obstacles (like the tunnel) may also apply a force to alter the dog’s speed and trajectory.

This can only be done when the dog is in contact with the ground or something.  Dogs cannot alter trajectory or velocity whilst in the air or mid-stride.  They can prepare to apply pressure, but Newton’s First Law applies whilst in air.  This also means that dogs require time to receive, interpret handler instruction and implement this force whilst on course.

2)      For a course to be deemed safe, it must assume a range of error and this range of error must meet safety standards.  In statistics, we call this the variance (or standard deviation).   For example, given a population of dogs (e.g., 20” Masters dogs), there is the average performance we expect a Masters dog to do on a course; however, within the population of 20” Masters dogs, there will be variation in terms of performance.   For example, take all Masters 20” dogs and the path over a single jump on course.  The actual take-off point and actual landing point will vary on the ground.  You can see this in sand rings where the resulting path is actually a zone, not identical paw prints hitting in the exact same spot, over and over and over again – some hug the wing, some stay to the center of the jump, some take-off long, some take-off short, some land long, some land short.  This variance is the normal performance of the obstacle in that particular course design.

3)      Safe courses does not mean easy courses.  Also safety does not remove the sport function or challenges inherent in the course.  Rather, safety means teams can focus on tackling the course and doing their job, instead of worrying about protecting themselves and holding back.

In management, we have a concept of job engagement.  It is a motivational concept, and describes employees who are fully absorbed and motivated to do their job.  Time flies quickly and challenges are tackled with vigor and dedication.  Interestingly, research highlights that one of the fundamental factors that determine if someone can become engaged is safety (physical, cognitive and emotional safety).  If someone is in an unsafe environment, they must allocate part of their cognitive resources to tending to the safety risks and protecting themselves.  The same can be applied to agility teams.  When a handler notes a significant safety risk to them or their dog, they will shift their focus from handling the course to managing that safety risk.

That said, I present the symptoms of unsafe course design, then I follow up with factors identified in my review of the data.  I conclude with specific recommendations for organizations, judges, course approvers, and competitors.


What are the symptoms of unsafe course designs?

The following is a list of the symptoms I see (nationally and internationally) with competitors and team performance when the course design is unsafe.

1)      Handler Grimaces and Murmurs: The first symptom usually comes in the form of handler complaints and murmurs.  Handlers expect there to be level-appropriate challenges.  Handlers also expect equipment to be safe.  However, when the path set by the layout of the equipment creates unsafe lines, it violates handler expectations (technically, this is called the violation of the psychological contract).  This violation of expectations is invariably met with dissatisfaction, decrease in trust (of the judge/hosting organization/agility organization), and is behaviorally seen through complaints, grimaces and murmurs, and other behaviors.

2)      Seek to Tweak: Seek to tweak is visible during course building when volunteers try to adjust the path / location of the obstacles to improve the course safety.  This is another form of behavioral response to the violated expectations, and is more agentic in nature than complaining.  The volunteer/competitor is actually trying to help and be a good agility citizen by removing the safety risk.  However, the judge has the final say in the set-up of the course, so these attempts may be thwarted.

3)      Congested Walk-Throughs in Sticky-Bits: It can also be visible when walk-throughs become congested on a part of the course that wasn’t intended to be the technical challenges from the judge’s perspective.  This is because handlers are trying to figure out how to manage the unsafe section.

4)      High Drop-Out Rate:  Ideally we’d like to think that handlers will put their dog’s safety ahead of tackling a challenge on a course.  If many competitors start to drop out of a course, then there is likely some form of unsafe conditions (e.g., ground conditions, equipment set-up/specs, or unsafe course design).  This symptom is less probable the higher the stakes are (e.g., highly televised / prestigious event / Nationals / costs incurred to attend), so this symptom cannot be a stand-alone sign of unsafe course design.

5)      Handling versus Managing: There is a distinction between handling a course and managing a course to prevent injury.  Handling is where the handler is able to: a) choose a safe and efficient path around the course, b) choose handling options that optimize the dog’s speed and correct trajectory, and c) drive the handler’s path as efficiently as possible.   Managing is where the handler must “stick around” to guarantee a dog’s path is significantly altered to ensure their safety for that particular obstacle (or the next obstacle after that).  Managing is noticeable when a handler is no longer able to run their more efficient path.  When we see a large number of handlers getting ‘sticky’ or ‘in their dog’s way’ in a class to forcibly alter the dog’s path, that isn’t handling, that’s managing.  This may also be illustrated with several handler-dog run-ins which increases the risk of physical injury of both handler and dog.

6)      Several Dogs Experiencing Performance Failure on Obstacles: When a course has multiple dogs falling in a tunnel, falling off a contact, taking out jump standards, clipping the edge of an off-course obstacle, then this is a symptom of an unsafe course design.

7)      Audience Wincing/Gasping: Another big indicator of a failure in safe course design is when you see the audience wince or hear the audience gasp.  The general public won’t wince/gasp because they don’t necessarily understand the risks, but when the audience is full of agility competitors and they are wincing at a section of the course, or worse, gasping, then that is indicative of a course design failure.

8)      Injured Dog / Handler on Course: The final symptom is when there is an accident on course.  In organizations, accidents can happen, but when there are other indicators (as listed above here), then the accident isn’t a fluke or due to a handler or dog failure.  Rather, at that point it is the failure of the organization.

In organizations, when there are a lot of close-calls without actual injury (or death), then the actual risk of injury (or death) increases significantly unless the organization makes changes and takes it seriously.  Organizational catastrophes rarely occur out of the blue; there are always a series a close-calls and near misses.  When it makes it to the point of a dog exiting the ring lame, then that is a failure of all levels of the organization.

Some of the above indicators of failures occur too late for the judge to fix it.  Once competitors are doing their walk-through that is the judge’s final chance to fix the design flaw.  After that, the course is set and set to memory.  The results of letting the unsafe course design to proceed to “dog on course” means that the risk has now gone from a potential risk to an actual risk.  The risks are assumed primarily by the dog (they carry the cost of injury), secondarily by the handler (they may also become injured in the case of a collision with the dog to manage a course design risk), thirdly by the judge (who will earn a reputation for unsafe courses and have fewer job offers down the road), fourthly by the sanctioning organization if the organization is found to have more unsafe course designs than their competitors, and finally the sport of agility, itself, could assume some cost as public awareness of animal safety and rights increase.

What are some of the key course design safety components?

1)      Distances between Obstacles.  Interestingly, the vast majority of an agility course is the path on the ground which connects the obstacles. Assume the course has 20 obstacles in total, 3 x 15’ tunnels, 12 weaves, all contacts, and the rest jumps (13 jumps in total); and the dog is a 24” dog.  If the distance between all obstacles is 21’ (a recommended standard for flowing courses, not the required minimum distance), then the yardage (straight line, center-to-center) is this:

  • Contacts: 22 yards
  • Tunnels: 15 yards
  • Weaves: 8 yards
  • Jumps (distance in air): ~17 yards
  • On ground: 75 yards+ (no dog runs straight lines, center-to-center so this is a significant underestimation of the dog’s yardage).

If we, as a sport, are concerned about the design and safety features of the equipment and quality and nature of the ground beneath our dogs’ feet, then we need to be equally concerned about the design safety of the majority of the course – the path.

Most organizations have a minimum, and some may have a maximum.  Designing to the minimum distance increases the risk of insufficient space for certain teams (e.g., large, fast, open-striding dogs who are much faster than their handlers).  On the flipside, designing to the maximum distances also can come with challenges (too much speed on course as dogs flatten out at top speeds, unfair long distances for the small dogs).  An evolving design standard is ~20′-22’ between obstacles is the ideal (e.g., Tamas Traj).  This distance does not require the large open-striding dogs to bounce between jumps, it provides sufficient strides for the dog to see, interpret and implement their execution of the next obstacle, without being unduly hard on the small dogs (like 26’ distances).  This greater distance than the minimum 15’-18’ does require either larger rings or repeating of obstacles.  This creates design challenges for the judge, but the outcomes are well worth that challenge.

2)      Approaches to Obstacles:  The approaching line to the obstacle has a large impact on the safety of that particular obstacle.  The following are some key findings from the data I had received.

  • Straight approaches to contacts, especially the dog-walk and the teeter. Dogs need to approach the narrow planks in balance and on the trajectory parallel to the contacts. Any other condition (out of balance or on angle), the dog will require corrections on the contact to re-balance or re-direct themselves, otherwise they will need to bail.  I have seen dogs bail off an A-Frame repeatedly due to an angled approach in a single class (it was a games – so the course was chosen by the handlers, not the judge or course approver; however, the points and mini-gambles created the motivation to choose that path for competitors).  It was not only scary because of the height and speed with which the dogs were abandoning the contact, but also because of the environment into which they were flying into (fencing/posts, and a tunnel beneath).  Rubberization helps provide the dogs with more traction to hopefully grip their way back into balance or onto the correct trajectory, but we should not rely on equipment safety design features for our dogs’ safety.
  • Tunnel-to-Contact 180.  One accepted practice is to have a tunnel under a contact and permit tunnel-to-contact (tight 180).  For the A-Frame, there is 3’ width for the dog to adjust their trajectory on the obstacle; however, for the dog-walk there is only 1’.   It is possible that this particular challenge is less than ideal for safety (tunnel to dogwalk), and it should be studied further.
  • Equal opportunity, regardless of handling choice, for straight approach to contacts, or a set-up that clearly makes one handling option the only option. As a judge, it would sometimes surprise me what handling options and paths people would choose.  This is why it has been pointed out that having equal safety for the handling options is optimal for course design.  A judge’s expectations of handling options and handling methods may not be the same as a competitors.  This difference in mental models of handling options needs to be considered in the design phase.
  • Straight approaches to the tire/tyre. With any slice scenario, the “window” in the center of the tire narrows, increasing the probability of the dog hitting / catching the tire.  Tire designs are improving to break open; however, again, the designer should not rely on back-up safety designs for dog safety.
  • Slicing single bar jumps and pole length – if a jump is designed to be taken on a great slice, then the pole should be 5’ to create a wide enough window so as to reduce the risk of taking out a jump standard.
  • E-timer standards/poles, repeat jumps and slicing – some course designs allow for a start or finish jump to be used repeatedly on course. If there are e-timer poles/standards on the jump, then this changes the obstacle for the dog.  Slices on these types of jump are more hazardous because the e-timer poles impact the “window” of the jump by decreasing it.  Like the tire jump, there should be no slicing on jumps with e-timer poles.
  • Spreads should also be straight approaches only. With a slice, the depth of the jump is increased, while at the same time, the window of the jump is decreased.  This combination increases the risk of pole knocking and/or knocking a standard.  Fortunately, AAC requires all spreads have 5’ poles and requires by design straight approaches (within 10-degrees of the 90-degree approach).

3)      Trajectories from Obstacles: The obstacles dictate the dog’s path as they interact with the obstacle, some more so than others.  For example, the tunnel, dog walk, teeter, and A-Frame strongly impact the trajectory of the dog’s path as they exit the obstacle, and running contacts depict trajectories more so than 2-on-2-off contacts.  Jumps and the paths created by the jumps also impact the exiting trajectory.  The momentum upon approach dictates how long and where the dog lands.  As such, the exiting path should be considered in terms of how it impacts the approach to the next obstacle.  Does it make it safer or more hazardous?  Is the exiting trajectory in the path of another obstacle or “thing” on course that creates a safety hazard?  For example, the angle and location of a series of jumps can create a flowing line or a series of corrections directed by the handler. (See Walter Dingemanse and Dave Munnings’s posts for illustrations regarding location and angle of obstacles impacting flow and safety of the dog’s path in the Appendix.)

4)      Location of Obstacles not on Course Path: This is a special nuance of distances between obstacles, but also interacts with the trajectories from obstacles.  This is where an obstacle, which is not the next obstacle on course, is located on a potential dog path.  For example, an A-Frame that is not the next obstacle is set tight to a line of jumps.  While small dogs may easily avoid hitting or clipping the corner of the A-Frame, the variance of the large dogs’ path, now has the corner of the A-Frame sitting on that path zone.

A normal design challenge is the “box” challenge where the handler and dog must navigate between wrong-course obstacles to continue to the correct obstacle.  As long as these wrong-course obstacles do not interfere with the range of normal dog paths, it is a safe challenge.  When they infringe on normal range of performance, they become unsafe.

5)      Tunnels, this one deserves its own category due to the various design factors with this obstacle.  There are some factors that are in the control of the course designer/approver, and some that require the cooperation of the host of the trial.

  • Nature of the Curves. For 10’ tunnels, they don’t work as a C and are best left as an I, maybe a very slight (-shape.  For 15’ and 20’ tunnels, these have the ability to be turned into an L, U and S (20’ only); however, that doesn’t mean they should be.  AAC does not permit for the S shape, so those should never be seen on a course.  Bernadette van Klavern from BC (a former course approver) once had me change all my C tunnels into (-shaped tunnels.  I didn’t understand why, but she noted it was something she’s noticed and recommended it.  I then took note of how the dogs performed on those tunnels compared to my other trials where there were some U or C shaped tunnels.  I loved what I saw.  The dogs slipped less and none came out on their shoulder.  (See Martin Reid’s post in the Appendix for illustration.)
  • Full extension and sufficient securing of the tunnels. In designing a course, it is important to use the correct length of tunnel in the map, but to also ensure that it is fully stretched out on the map.  Sometimes when shaping a tunnel in the designing software, we can inadvertently shorten the tunnel’s dimensions. If it isn’t fully extended on the map, the ramifications are seen in the course building as builders try to replicate the map. The result is either the tunnel is angled more sharply (into a C or a U), or the tunnel is compressed and not fully extended.  Tunnels that are not fully extended carry risks of sprained/dislocated toes (caught on the warped material on the inside of the tunnel) or other injuries as the tunnel has too much give on its walls for any dog that banks the curves.  For securing the tunnels, the standard or above practice now is 1 set per 1m (3’) per tunnel or more, with sand bags (~30-35lb per side).
  • Speed of Dog & Approach to Tunnel Entry. Related to the previous two points, is the speed of the dog and the angle of the approach and curve of the tunnel. As dog speed increases, the banking effect of the dog also increases.  Dogs who run under ~3/3.5 yps don’t tend to bank very much.  Dogs who run ~2.5 yps tend to keep all four feet on the ground in the tunnel.  Dogs (regardless of size and stride) who exceed ~4 yps, start needing to bank inside the tunnels.  The more they bank, the higher up on the walls of the tunnel they apply force.  Think of Track Cycling in velodromes (the angled tracks).   During warm-up and cool-down the cycles are on the bottom of the velodrome, perpendicular to Earth.  However, the faster they go, the higher they go up the track.   The angle allows them to stay “on track” during turns.   Highways for cars also use the banking for turns with speed (well-constructed highways slope into the turn to help keep cars balanced during high speed turns).  This means, that gentler turns are easier to keep in balance while banking than sharp turns.  Similarly, as a dog applies pressure to the walls of the tunnel, there must be counter-force to allow the transition of force into the turn.   This is why fully extending the tunnels and securing them properly is critical for safety of the dogs who bank the turns (either upon entry or during curves inside).


Additional Course Design Safety Consideration Factors

Aside from the overarching design considerations noted above, there are some additional factors that influence dog safety on course:

1)      Not all dogs face the same course design risks, the following characteristics significantly impact the type of course design safety risks:

  • Speed of the dog – permits more or less handler management of the dog path. Dogs who run at or slightly faster than SCT yps have a different experience than those with significantly higher yps.  With slower dogs, there is more time for a handler to provide information through position, motion, verbals on what is needed to handle the path safely.  There is also more time for the dog to see, compute and implement what they need to do for their own safety.  This sport is not slowing down; in fact, speed is in the very definition and official objectives of the sport and its component games/types of courses.  As such, the designing of courses must consider the effects of speed for course safety.
  • Stride of the dog – “With each stride a dog is making a decision” (Susan Salo), with open/long strides, there are fewer moments of opportunity for a dog to make decisions let alone correct an initial decision. Yes, we can train collection, but some will naturally run with more open strides than others. It is the same thing with horses in a hunters course.   I’ve ridden a horse with a naturally massive stride (14’ strides) on a course designed for a 10’ stride – it is a very different experience even if the horse is in balance and shown the perfect path for the course.  I have seen dogs of similar size but with very different natural strides.  An open-striding dog takes fewer strides on a course and will face more design hazards than a closed-striding dog, simply because they have fewer decision-making opportunities between two obstacles.
  • Size of the dog – heights of the jumps alter the distance of take-off and landing, thus differences in the relative distance for line adjustment and reading of path requirements.  Some organizations / events accommodate this factor by having different courses for each size (large, medium, small).  When there is the same course for all jump heights, there can become some very serious safety risks, especially for the large dogs.  At one major, televised event in 2019, I was genuinely horrified at the safety risks for the large dogs.  Handlers had to aggressively manage their dog’s path to prevent it from clipping the corner of the A-Frame, or running into a jump standard, or to get a safe approach to the tire jump.  At another major event in 2018, as poles were added to an ascending jump, the relative distance to a tunnel from the jump decreased to the point where some handlers had to pull their dog off the line and take a refusal to prevent injury. Sadly, one dog was injured on that course.

These three factors can also interact, such that it is more likely that a 24” (large) dog will have a longer stride, run faster on the ground, and have bigger jumps than an 8” (small) dog.  However, that isn’t necessarily always the case, and a fast, open-striding medium dog can face more course design hazards than a 24”, closed-striding and slower dog.

2)      Not all teams face the same course design risks.

  • Relative speed of the handler to dog – if the dog has substantially faster speed on course than the handler, then handlers must leave path negotiation more in the dog’s “hands” than handlers who can keep pace or are faster than their canine partners. I know from experience that I could shape lines a lot more easily with my girl Kelsey (who ran 4-4.5yps) as my top speed is 5.5-6yps than my ability to shape and manage my boy Jenga’s lines (who runs 6-9yps depending on the technicality of the course).   I rely on verbals, me taking shortcuts on my path, and trusting his judgement a whole lot more than I ever needed to with Kelsey.
  • The Team’s Obstacle Performance Criteria – For example, a dog with a 2o2o allows more “set-up” for the next line than a dog with a running contact. Teams who have trained a solid understanding of a collection for turns of varying degrees will have different course design safety than dogs who don’t and land long or turn wide on the vast majority of the jumps.


So what does all of this mean for our agility organizations, and judges?

1)      Consideration of the Variation in Team Population. First, all courses should have a sufficient buffer on course design to permit dog and handler error without the risk of significant injury due to dog trajectory on course.  Of course, the sport of agility does carry with it risk, and this is not a call to remove ALL risk and to put our dogs into bubble wrap on course.  However, it is a call that a course designed for all heights should not be safe for one height and dangerous for the other spectrum.  A course shouldn’t be safe for slow, collected dogs, and a great risk for fast, open-striding dogs.  It should be designed for the greatest risk factor for that course and then confirmed that the other types of dogs and teams aren’t facing significant risks.

2)      Increase the Minimum Distance. In Canada we used to have the leading standard of minimum distances with 15’; however, Kennel Club (UK) now has a 5 meter minimum (16.4’).  As mentioned earlier, designing to the minimum is problematic, but we can help promote safer distances, if as an organization we increase those minimum distances to something safer (like 18’ minimum or 20’).

3)      Judge and Course Approver Education and Continued Professional Development.  One of the requirements in AAC is that the judge should be handling a dog currently at Masters level to become a judge.  A challenge of relying on personal experience of the judge is that the judge may have a strong history of a particular style/size/speed of agility partner.  Personal experiences can lead to blind spots on course design risks.  Until someone is able to highlight the blind spot, the judge (or course approver) will honestly not know they are designing (or approving) safety hazards into their courses.

I see this frequently when handlers of a particular type of dog (small or large or open-striding, or fast) agree on a safety risk for a particular course or trial.  One can usually guess the type of dog the judge handles based on their course designs.  This is not a bad thing; it is merely symptomatic of the nature of judge education in the organization.

In addition, the sport is ever evolving.  What we thought was safe in 1996 is no longer considered safe.  What was deemed acceptable in design in 2012 has been shown to have unnecessary risks in 2019.  This means, continual learning and discussions of safety and evolving best practices is critical.  The governing organizations need to support this and provide incentive or support to judges to secure this type of on-going professional development.

4)      Enable the Course Approvers to Facilitate the Learning of Design Safety. It isn’t all on the course approver or clinic facilitators either.  In AAC and UKI, courses are reviewed and approved by a course approver prior to the trial.  For AAC, all judges must attend and pass a rigorous clinic and assessment process.  However, the initial judge clinics have a lot to cover from rules, trial management, calls, to even the disciplinary processes!  Delving into safe course design may not be sufficiently absorbed by the new potential judges at these clinic due to information overload.   Similarly, course approvers are limited by the criteria set before them by the organization. They may personally cringe at some of the design features for safety, but if they feel bound by the criteria, they won’t require the judge to make the desired amendments.  Thus, it behooves the organization to provide course design safety training to course approvers, and to integrate this component into the course approval process.

5)       No Old-Files Courses.  Recycling old courses mean that upgrades in design are not incorporated into the course.  Just like Recommendation #3, the big events for organizations must have current course designs.  Similarly, a judge who repeats the same old design components isn’t recycling full courses, but they may be recycling sequence issues.

6)      Exposure to Different Course Approvers.  It is not uncommon for judges to develop preferential choices of approvers.  As an organization, though, we can help prevent silos of thought in the organization if we promote cross-pollination of ideas via different judge/approver interactions.  That said, the organization should not force judges to use all approvers.

7)      Knowledge Sharing and Organizational Learning.  Another possible way to encourage cross-pollination and learning is to have open dialogue about course design.  Debrief designs that were actually unsafe (even though the judge and approver believed initially they would be safe).  Safe forums for candid and respectful discussion on sport development and lessons learned on course design are a must.  Many organizations do post-op analysis of failures; however, if there isn’t a safe forum for judges to have this type of post-op discussion, there will not be the transfer of knowledge and organizational learning.  Trust, safety and openness to failures without fear of retribution or sanction from the organization are critical factors for these to work (as per my research on knowledge sharing).

8)      Big Events Need Higher Criteria Standards.  For the big AAC events, like Regionals and Nationals, where the courses selected are not those necessarily designed by the event judge(s), we recommend that all course designers who contribute to the pool of possible courses have additional training and accreditation for safe course design.  Possible examples are Global Judging Program (Greg Derrett), Tamas Traj course design workshops.  These might not incorporate some of the rules of the sport in Canada, but the lessons can be extrapolated and incorporated into the revisions of the rules.  The judge in the ring should also have this additional training so they understand and are able to tweak for safety given actual ring and equipment considerations.

At these big events, competitors and judges in the ring are less able to address poor course design (from a safety perspective) once that course is selected.  For example, competitors are less likely to pull out of a single run at these events as it has significant implications for overall standing (team selections, etc.).  The higher the event profile, the higher the standard should be for course design and safety.  A significant injury or death at large profile events are high cost to the sport as a whole, and to the organization.



In summary, there are some themes to safe course design that are fairly well understood now, but need implementation more consistently.  Judge, course approver education and continued professional development beyond their own experiences with their own dogs are important for the continued safety of our dogs and our sport.  Finally, when we as competitors and spectators see and know there is a safety hazard based on the course design, it is our responsibility as members of this sport to raise a respectful discussion with the judge as early as possible – before the seek-to-tweak, the walk-through-congestion, the risky managing of paths, the audience wincing,… before the accident.

Appendix: Recommendations for Judges on Course Design Safety

(reprinted with permission – links to original posts included below)

Dave Munnings

Original post on Facebook: September 3, 2018 


I have been planning on doing this for ages and with an unexpected day off I actually got round to it. Martin‘s tunnel post also made me get on with it especially as he got so many shares I got a bit jelly haha. I have drawn these small sequences of course design to try and show people how I believe a course should flow and what I believe can be a dangerous/demotivating line for young fast dogs. Even slower dogs would benefit from the small changes i have made to these designs as it would encourage them to go faster and not be nagged all the time or have to worry about jumps being to close together.

These are my opinions not written rules anywhere, so I’m sure not everyone will agree. I hate bigging myself up but I want people to know my background so they can see that what I am trying to say has got some good reasoning behind it. I have been doing agility for 26 years, am a full time agility trainer so have seen a LOT of dogs jumping, I came from a show jumping background where I worked for world class competitors and have a degree in human, equine and canine Osteopathy after 5 years at university. I have studied how horses jump and how dogs jump and have very good knowledge of canine anatomy and physiology.

Being back in G3 with my young dog this year has made me realise that course design needs to be addressed, especially in the lower grades. I don’t like to ridicule people and make them feel bad, I love teaching and want to try to educate less experienced handlers on how to set safe and fun courses for dogs and handlers.

This is nothing about advertising or making money, this has all been done in my spare time (which I have little of) because I want things to improve for my own dogs and everyone else dogs I see struggle in the same situations. I also want agility in the UK to improve overall and update and adapt to the faster dogs we are breeding and training.



Walter Dingemanse

Original post on Facebook: September 12, 2018


Building on very interesting and informative posts from Martin Reid and Dave Munnings, I would like to share some aspects on approaches to contacts, as these seem to be causing a lot of issues. With more and more dogs having running contacts, the approach is getting even more important.

And yes I know, as a handler you can manage the approach to a contact, but 1) most dogs with running contacts, the handler will be close to the end of the contact by the time the dog is there, meaning especially for the dogwalk, the handler will not be there to support the approach, and 2) is that really what we want? I don’t think that is something a course should test, especially in the lower grades with less experienced dogs.

Even though there are rules concerning the approach, as it should be ‘fairly straight’, but for younger / inexperienced dogs, and fast / long striding dogs, the approach will be significantly different from what a lot of people seem to anticipate. Because of the width, this seems to be less of an issue for the A-Frame, but can lead to dangerous situations especially for the dogwalk and see-saw.

Below you will see two different popular sequences leading up to a contact, which in a lot of cases lead to an angled approach because it is not based on the DOGS LINE, but on a theoretical /FANTASY LINE. I have also shown how to work with the dogs line and slightly change the setup of the jumps, to ensure a safe approach for all types of dogs.

The third picture is an example of how important the sequence leading up to the contact is, showing it is not just the obstacle before that determines a straight approach.

And to all handlers, pay attention to the lines your dog takes when running a course, as it will help you understand your dogs line, and identify issues such as (potentially) dangerous approaches to contacts even during course walk.
I think the bottom line of it all is, when designing a course (whether it is for training or competition) to make sure it is safe for ALL dogs. As with all aspects in course design, an approach that is safe for fast, long striding dogs will also be safe for slow(er) or shorter striding dogs, but not the other way around!

This is not intended to ridicule or offend anyone making courses for competition or training, but to show the differences between what I call the theoretical line (or fantasy line…), and the dogs line… And some ideas/solutions of what you can do to ensure it is safe for all types of dogs (of course you’re not limited to these solutions and will need to see what works with the rest of the course as well..). These are merely simple examples, obviously in higher grades things get more complicated… but approaches should always be something to be considered!



Martin Reid

Original post on Facebook: August 28, 2018

Following on from Dan Shaw’s post about securing of tunnels, I decided to post a few examples, explanations and effects of different tunnel set ups.

These are all photos of which I have created then taken myself. No dogs were actually used in the making of these photos.

My reasoning behind this post is to help educate anyone wanting to learn. I’m only saying these examples are unsafe or unsuitable because I believe them to pose a danger to any dog who has to run through such set ups.

A couple of other points to note:
• There are plenty more examples of good and bad set ups.
• Just because a tunnel is under a contact doesn’t change how it should be set up or secured.
• A great theory to amount of fixings needed is, one per meter length of the tunnel. E.g. 5 Meter Tunnel = 5 Tunnel fixings needed.
• Colour of tunnel – Lighter Coloured, (Especially, with a strip running the length of the tunnel) will help our dogs see/predict the shape of the tunnel.
• Quality of the tunnel e.g. Spacing between wiring, thickness of material etc etc will help reduce risk of injury.
• Anti-Slip tunnels are brilliant (some), others I consider to be more slippery than a standard tunnel. This point needs much more research and standardisation of quality of anti-slip material used. Also the anti slip material should cover the ENTIRE inside of the tunnel. Not just half.

All of the points above are to help reduce the risk of injury to our dogs.

It is a KENNEL CLUB GUIDELINE for the use of at least 4 fixing points for tunnels. Ideally more would be better, however if a show/equipment supplier is unable to supply you (as a judge) this amount, then it should be noted in the incident book. There is NO excuse for an inability to supply enough fixings for tunnels. If nothing is reported (noted would be a better word), then a rule change to help standardise securing of tunnels is very unlikely to happen.

Feel free to share to help raise awareness!!

[NOTE: the below photos include set-up safety that go beyond course design and are updated from Martin’s original post.]


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