AWC 2019 is said and done.
After much work to put the chute to rest and given the number of countries and organizations that have suspended that obstacle, it was heartbreaking and worrisome to see it back in the ring. Please note, this is not about the judges as my understanding is they were explicitly told to design a course with it, which is why only two courses (one per judge) had the chute.
Technically FCI – Federation Cynologique Internationale – has never suspended nor removed the chute but it has often been removed in practice (at competitions). I was happy that the large dogs did not have to do it. I was also impressed with the Galician design being one foot shorter than the old Canadian chutes. I am a huge fan of Galican equipment for its design and performance, so this post is not about the quality or safety of equipment that they make. The chute was built to the standards set by FCI.
However, it doesn’t alter the fact the chute is not a valid test of agility’s performance goals (for more details on lack of validity of the chute for performance evaluations in agility, please read: Open Letter). Nor does it alter the fact there is no appropriate standardization test for the action of the chute fabric required for accurate and proper dynamic equipment performance (again see Open Letter blog for more details).
That aside, I often wondered what were the statistics associated with the chute, and I have often said the best way to collect data would be to sit at a major / large event and record every single chute. Then one would know.
I felt AWC 2019 would be the best opportunity to do just that. The official videographers had very good angles of the chute (for medium dogs it often showed them up to black-out conditions inside the chute and then their emergence from the chute). The various conditions in this event allowed for me to assess the chute’s performance and effect under several ideal conditions:
- It was also ideal environmental conditions (indoors, no wind, no rain);
- The chute was the best design to date (shortest possible fabric, with lighter material on top and heavier on the bottom, flat entry with rubberization, and well weighted entry);
- The judges had ideal approaches to the chute (off a decelerated line/obstacle: wrap for the medium dogs, and weaves for the small). Exits were perhaps less than ideal (tire for medium, and angled line with crosses required for small dogs), but with over 100 dogs per course, I would be able to see how the obstacle impacted the dogs versus course;
- The population testing this obstacle are among the “best in the world” (handlers and dogs). This helps address a common counter argument of it being a training issue. Yes, it is quite possible that many dogs (the young ones) hadn’t seen a chute much; however, teams were forewarned. Teams had access to the chute during the unofficial offsite training events, and teams had access to the chute during the official warm-up event on site. These are the best dogs, chosen by their countries to represent them, thus they are the most highly trained dogs. If “it’s a training issue” is still on the tip of your tongue, please read this post first: Fundamental Attribution Error.
I used my subscription to the online video of the event to videotape every single chute performance for the medium team jumping and the small team jumping runs. I then compiled these snippets into a single video and set the speed to 1/8x to be able to see every visible instant and effect the chute has on the dog. Some effects are invisible to observers, specifically the moment the dog has gotten past the refusal plane (for the small dogs) and is starting to interact with the fabric chute (for both small and medium dogs).
I then watched it several times, first time whilst recording the chute segment, second time to develop a coding scheme of the types of effects I saw, the third time to apply the codes. A fourth time, if necessary, was done to ensure I captured all the codes (some dogs experiences multiple effects).
There were a total of 18 possible codes. The first was “Perfect Performance” where a dog entered on first approach, exited on the expected dog path (as designed by the judge) and in balance without having his/her path impacted by the handler. No other codes were permitted to be give along with the Perfect Performance code, it was mutually exclusive to all other codes.
All other codes could co-occur (hence the percentages add to more than 100%), except the indented codes in the table below were mutually exclusive to the other indented codes in their category (e.g., “Near Miss” was mutually exclusive to “Actual”). (Click here for a PDF of the results table.)
Not all effects are of equal consequence to the dog. For example, the least unsafe effects were 2-3 strides to rebalance or paths veering away from the handler. However, when combined with other effects, or considering course design / next obstacle safety, then even veering could become a higher risk. (For more information about safety associated with paths, please see Course Safety.)
The most serious and consequential for dog (and handler) safety were: Flattening of the dog (including one dog who rolled), Head Twist (this is the precursor for whiplash – which wouldn’t be symptomatic until the next day), and Actual Dog-Handler Collision.
An interesting effect that hasn’t been discussed previously, but was evident in the videos, was the impact of pre-existing wrinkles / folds in the chute. Prior to the chute’s suspension, there were concerns about the exit end lying flat to prevent entanglement, but what I saw in the videos was that the start of the chute frequently had channels due to folds. This is a natural effect due to any fabric coming off a circular edge to meet a flat ground.
These channels, especially for the small dogs, acted as a corral sending them on a variety of trajectories other than straight. This fold factor did not lead to any entanglement, but it would lead to dogs exiting in the corner of the chute, or onto a new trajectory that could send them veering into their handler’s path (or away from the handler, creating a slice to a tire or off-course).
Without resetting the chute after each and every dog, I witnessed the folds being set by the previous dog and there was NO PREDICTABILITY for the next handler-dog team. The seemingly simple chute folds at the start turned into major factor for equipment performance for the dog, especially for the small dogs. It would be like the teeter facing straight for one dog, but then being shifted to point them on another path 10-20 degrees off from straight, then shift again for the next dog, and so on. That is not a fair or consistent test to compare teams against each other. It also created a condition that handlers could not predict and prepare for in their handling plans.
It was clear that medium dogs and small dogs are impacted differently by the chute’s equipment performance. Medium dogs seemed to fair the best, with only one handler-dog contact. Also, the medium dog handlers’ lines as set by the course design were less likely to interfere (no crosses or serps required at the exit); however, some dogs did end up having to slice the tire due to the veering off path (usually thanks to the chute fold effect).
Finally, before anyone blames the handlers for the higher risks associated with the small dogs and collisions, yes, handling options was a factor, note that the vast majority of the effects were directly from the chute itself (fold altering dog’s path, chute flattening the small dogs, dog requiring 2-3 strides to rebalance).
When a dog exits purely blind, it takes them at least one stride to see and reorient themselves to their new path/surroundings. It was clear as day on their faces that they were looking to see where they are. If the handler got close to them in those first few strides, then there was nearly a guaranteed near miss or actual contact. This is the direct effect of the chute’s characteristics of blinding the dog of its exit. No other obstacle does this. This blindfolding is not part of the sport’s performance criteria (which has always been stated as speed and accuracy). As noted in the other blog (Open Letter), we have much safer options for the dog to have a ‘blind to handler’ or ‘momentarily blind to a trajectory’ without ever having the dog blind on its final exit (wall jump, flexible tunnel).
The chute is simply an unsafe risk and it is not fun to watch. Agility is meant to be a fun spectator sport. Watching a dog roll out of a chute is not fun. Watching a dog come out with its head torqued to the side isn’t fun. The hosts showed a video of the very first agility event, and yes, a collapsible tunnel was part of the course, but so was a door with a window in the top of it. The dogs who did that were traveling at speeds around 2-3 meters per second, not the 5-6 m/s for today. The sport has evolved and an obstacle for “something unusual and fun” no longer meets the objectives of the sport and is no longer fun nor safe.
I sincerely wish and hope that the Federation Cynologique Internationale reconsider the use of this one obstacle. Many of the FCI member organizations have long seen fit to remove it and we don’t hear lamenting of the good ol’ days of the chute…. Instead we hear, “Thank heaven, we never have to put our dogs through that again if ever.”
If FCI requires more motivation to consider changing their use of this obstacle, please read this blog Why Organizations Don’t Change. It was the final letter before Agility Association of Canada chose to suspend the chute (after UKI, CKC, USDAA, AKC, KC, UKA had all suspended it).