Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Internationalization: Raising the Bar or Building Barriers?

This is my second contribution for a Dog Agility Blog Action Day and the topic this time is internationalization. That is, the increasing influence of European style course designs and the increased adoption and execution of new, somewhat complex, handling maneuvers. I've been thinking long and hard about what I wanted to write and when it came down to it, I really struggled with what to say. The truth is, I have very mixed feelings on the internationalization of the sport.

On the one hand, I love to learn new things and challenge myself. Admittedly, I'm not the most graceful handler in the world and sometimes feel like a dancer with two left feet (and two left arms) when learning some of these fancy moves and attempting to put them into action. I have to break them down into pieces and slowly put them together again before spending time working on my timing with my dog in order to be able to successfully execute them. The truth is, I'm unlikely to incorporate some of these moves into my repertoire in a trial setting at this time. Keeping it simple tends to work best for me. But I never say never and who knows? When Hokey and I come together as a team in the future, I might be out there tossing in Ketschers left and right.
I admire and appreciate watching teams successfully maneuver their way through a highly technical course. With Ollie by my side, I've enjoyed tackling the more difficult courses. I'd much rather run him on a technical course than one built for flow and speed. I admit, it's a rush to make it through a challenging course clean and be one of the few to earn a Q. And I'm looking forward to seeing what Hokey will do on such courses someday. She's building a good foundation in backsides and other maneuvers that will translate into some tight turns and being able to respond to some pretty fancy handling moves.

On the other hand, I do see some negative consequences resulting from the increase of international influences. Not the least of which, they are not necessarily right for every dog/handler/team. I happen to have a dog like that. Poppy. I know she is capable of executing technical courses and responding properly to some of the newer, complex handling moves. A couple of months ago, we took a brief class focusing on just that and she did beautifully. We Jaakko'd and Ketschered and blinded and back-sided our butts off. Put her in a trial situation however, and it would be a different story. Because her environmental sensitivities go haywire in a trial setting, the more flowing the course and the less handling I have to do, the better off she is. Too much technicality in the course or too much handling required on my part results in a stressy, disconnected dog. She is not the only dog like this. For some dogs, the optimal course is a flowing, forward moving one where they can hit a rhythm instead of constantly and rapidly having to switch back and forth between extension and collection and making a bunch of tight turns.  Yes, I am fortunate that, should I ever decide to get her going in agility again, I have a range of venues to select from and can choose one where I would encounter more flowing courses. Not everyone lives in a venue rich area like I do, however. I worry that as the international elements become the norm, some handlers with dogs who are not motivated by these types of courses and have a tendency to shut down when encountered with them, will become discouraged and will no longer want to participate in the sport.

Which brings me to another, more general, concern. Will the increasing influence of internationalization of the sport create a schism between the serious competitors with eyes toward big achievements in the realm of national and international competitions and those who simply participate for the love playing the game with their dog and who have smaller goals and aspirations? Will certain venues cater more to those serious competitors by continuing to incorporate international course design elements to the point where they become known as venues for elite teams only? Will the newer or more casual competitors feel alienated as a result? I don't know. I hope not. But I fear I may have already witnessed this slowly creeping into the sport. I understand that, in part, this is just the natural evolution of the sport. However, I would hate to see agility completely lose touch with its roots and become a sport only for elite handlers and their dogs.

Lastly, I worry about the physical effects on our dogs as we ask them to perform more and tighter turns while pushing for greater speeds. Are there more injuries occurring as these elements become more common? No handler is 100% perfect. With more severe angles on course and tighter turns required, a slight misjudgement in timing has the potential of causing harm. Just because it can be done, does that mean it should be? What is fair and reasonable to ask of a dog in this sport?

In sum, I truly have mixed feelings about the increasing influence of internationalization in dog agility. I, myself, love to run the more difficult courses and learn the new handling moves, but, at the same time, I am concerned about alienating and discouraging teams from participating in the sport and also about the physical effects the demands of these courses are placing on our dogs.

To read what others have to say on the subject of internationalization in agility, please visit the Dog Agility Blog Events page on the subject.

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