NADAC course design from a dog’s perspective

This blog post contains my first and last thoughts on the topic of NADAC course design from the perspective of the dog:

First thoughts:

Both my dogs ran this NADAC Elite Jumpers Course in March. For clarity sake, several of my friends have run this same course at different trials but it was set up differently and ran differently as a result. This post only refers to the opening sequence seen on this map which I think matched the course we ran in March very well.


The opening sequence reminded me of the types of handling challenges I used to see on AKC courses back in 2012 when I still competed in multiple venues. But lately I’ve been seeing more and more NADAC course maps with this same type of challenge thrown into otherwise fast and flowing courses…. which IMO changes the challenge tremendously due to 21′ NADAC obstacle spacing which has a profound affect on the way dogs move through courses (I am referring to dogs that are really running vs. casually loping along).

My understanding has always been that NADAC courses were designed primarily for dogs. Courses were designed with the natural movement of dogs in mind. NADAC is unique in its encouragement of handlers who want to explore the exciting realm of big distance handling with their dogs which necessitates mutually respect and an equal partnership between handlers and dogs. There is no other venue that offers this level of support and encouragement. Distance is an integral part of NADAC… imo.

In other venues, jumpers courses are not designed to be run at a distance. My understanding as well as my personal experience running NADAC courses with three different dogs, is courses run smoother and faster at a distance (if dogs have the necessary foundation skills) even with mini-dogs. My personal opinion about the opening sequence above is that its a good example of a current common challenge I’m seeing that has a better chance of a dog running fluidly with close handling and a bit of micro-management to help fast and long-striding dogs get through illogical spots that necessitate collection and lead changes like seen at LC1 and LC2 if the handler is on the dog’s right side. I suppose one could eliminate LC1 by handling from the dog’s left side to start so the dog starts and starts off on the left lead but that is besides the point of this post.

My dogs are trained to work at a distance and they appear to enjoy the freedom that comes with distance. They get to use their intelligence to run the courses I’m showing them however they see fit (in collection or in extension). For for me, I would not choose to handle that opening sequence up close or want to micro-manage to force collection or an awkward lead change. My approach is to look at bonus boxes for handling clues…whether I plan to attempt a bonus or not. I learned this from my good friend Lynn Smitley who said something like “the bonus box is a clue about the course designer’s intended handling challenges.” When Lynn uttered these words years ago, she was 100% correct. Bonus boxes used to offer valuable information about handling options even when I expanded the box significantly which I often did. However, now when I look at bonus boxes, I often feel like they were added after the course was designed vs. being an integral part of the design. And when I walk some (not all) of the current courses, I wonder if the course designer took time to envision a full range of dogs running the course to see if the motion required of them was reasonable/ logical to dogs.

Takoda has been out of commission since a mid-March trial due to a sacrum injury. This has given me 6 weeks to think about what I want to do moving forward. I still love NADAC and sincerely hope the future of NADAC course design will incorporate some sort of review process that will ensure course challenges continue in the NADAC tradition of rewarding dogs that have been trained to run courses with intelligence, confidence, fluidity, and speed at reasonable to big distances from their handlers. IMO this is the core of NADAC. Its what sets NADAC apart from other venues.

Takoda running his first Elite Chances a year ago. Truth be told he had been running Chances courses from the Elite line from the beginning (six months prior when he turned 18 months old) so nothing felt different to him.  It was just another fun course!

Last thoughts:

After receiving a fair amount of push back, I attempted to explain why I think what I think….. the thinking behind my thinking.  😉   Here is my final post on the topic of course design from a dog’s perspective…. as I see it:

I thought about posting more course maps to “make my case” / show examples of other sections that I feel would support my POV but the response will likely still be IT’S A HANDLING ISSUE or perhaps shift to IT’S A TRAINING ISSUE.  I think we all agree that running courses necessitates appropriate and timely handling and that handling is a whole lot easier if a dog has good foundation skills.

I was hoping for a broader conversation about THE GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF NADAC COURSE DESIGN which I used to think were heavily weighted towards the dog’s perspective and how dogs naturally move.  I  honestly always thought NADAC courses were designed first and foremost with dogs in mind which led me to  stop competing in other venues many years ago for the sake of my much beloved dogs.  Was my thinking misguided all along?  I don’t think so.  There have always been things I have not liked about NADAC like the 8′ A-frame at champs when most clubs use 9’ers, or the way dogs were divided into groups prior to 2016 (or whenever they changed grouping to be by wither height vs. jump height) but those issues have not stopped me from wanting to stay fully engaged.  But over the past year or so, I honestly think I’m seeing real changes in how dogs are navigating through what I call “choppy” or “illogical” sections of courses. This has stopped me in my tracks.

When I watch teams run courses, I naturally watch the dog vs. the handler unless I try really really hard to TRY TO WATCH the handler too but I’m still mostly watching the dog.  I can’t help myself.   I think watching a bunch of dogs run the same course shows course design from the dog’s perspective.  “Choppy” can be minimized and barely noticeable with PERFECT handling or when handlers run their “comfortable as an old shoe” dogs or when handlers run slower dogs that lope through courses.. or run mini-dogs that take 5 strides between most obstacles.  But inherent choppiness (of course design) can still be visible even with these groups of dogs in subtle ways if you look closely.

I love watching the details of a dog’s movement: where they are looking, where they add a stride or leave a stride out, where and when they change leads, where their footwork is funky (tripping over themselves, slipping, scrambling, or turning the wrong way) where less motivated dogs turn to sniffing, or high strung dogs turn to barking, jumping, nipping, or running off to take whatever obstacle, or just running.

I will offer details of the opening sequence (the way I see it from the dog’s perspective) but I don’t want to have a conversation about the minutiae of this opening sequence.   I could have easily picked another sequence with different minutiae.  The following description is not about handling… Its about canine motion.. what the long-striding or super fast dog is likely doing on this opening sequence.  This is my attempt to have a conversation about the guiding principles of NADAC course design.  I don’t know how else to say it.

To answer another NADAC competitor’s question: What would have made the opening sequence more NADACee comes from the dog’s perspective.  Modify jump #4 (and shift other jumps affected by the changes made to #4) (or change what happens after #4). The purpose of changing #4 is not to soften the path from #3 – #4 but rather to take into consideration the dog’s natural movement and lead changes from the start line to the #3 jump.  Dogs running in semi-collection and medium to slow speed dogs have plenty of opportunities (more strides and more time) to change to the left lead when pushed out to #3 and then change back to the right lead without also needing to power down (collect) before jumping #3.  A loping dog will have no trouble getting back on the right lead and then taking a stride on that right lead to jump #3.  This offers a nice turn to #4.. no choppiness.

Long-striding, enthusiastic, confident big dogs will power off the start line and jump #1 in extension, landing long, then take one full stride to a nice take off spot for jumping #2 in extension.  They will jump #2 in extension landing long again (dog still on the right lead which the subtle arc of my blue line on the map indicates). The handler can begin to push after the dog is committed to #2 and an experienced dog might switch leads in the air but more likely the dog will land on its right lead then switch to the left lead as he moves away from the handler towards #3.  Once the dog is committed to the lead change, the handler can release pressure and begin to cue collection… but it has to happen in a millesecond… because a long-striding dog running with strong forward momentum will need time to reorganize his body and legs to power down, add a stride, and switch leads again.  Up until the point of cuing collection the dog is planning on jumping #3 in extension.. because of the change to left lead and seeing the #6 jump as the next logical jump.

If indeed this type of sequence is so common in NADAC that experienced dogs come to recognize it and run it with some self-directed collection, I have to ask the question:  How did these dogs gain that experience? My answer is by earlier lessons such as hard landings… sometimes on the wrong lead, being called off WCs, running around jumps, tripping over themselves trying to make surprise turns, losing their flow.  What other types of lessons might some dogs learn as they gain “experience” running through what I call “choppy” sequences: I better slow down, I better leave start line cautiously, I better run in semi-collection, I better wait for my handler to show me the next obstacle.

The point I am trying to make is if a long-striding dog powers out of the start line, the combination of lead changes and collection necessary to get a nice turn from #3 to #4 will create unnatural movement for the dog.  This imo takes the wind (joy) out of many dog’s sails and adds wind (frustration) in other dog’s sails causing things to fall apart between #4 and #5.   One can watch teams run this sequence and say  “The handler was ‘late” but imo,  the underlying cause was the long striding confident dog didn’t have time to organize himself given the tasks at hand…2 lead changes combined with powering down from 2 strides to either 3 or 4 strides between #1 and #3.

Can long-striding dogs get through this sequence? Yes.  Can “old comfortable shoe” dogs make this sequence look nice? Yes… but that is not my point.   Are these the kinds of challenges the course designer intended for dogs to have?  I don’t think so.  I think they are just a byproduct of a sequence designed for the handler.. which is unNADACee to me.   There are so many different ways to challenge handlers while also keeping the dog’s perspective in mind.

On an ending note, every “old shoe” dog started off as a young dog with endless possibilities.   What types of “experiences” we want our dogs to have is up to us.   I have learned so much from my young, long-striding, totally biddable, intelligent BC Takoda who always gives me his best effort and shows me agility from a dog’s perspective.






2 thoughts on “NADAC course design from a dog’s perspective

  1. I loved reading your post and your post-post. I understand what you are saying about NADACee course flow. I am wondering if, since it seems to be course design, the judges are being influenced by other venues. That is, they are using challenges found in AKC or international-type courses. Jump distance should not be the only factor separating NADAC from other venues.

    This was a good read. Thank you for putting your thoughts down for others to consider.

    Terri >

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