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The Ring Party

How many people does it take to run an agility show?

No, the answer is not one man and his dog. The straightforward answer to the question is that it needs 200 people each day to man/woman the rings at a typical six ring show. It cannot possibly take that many people to run a show you say.. Well, we can assure you that it does. We asked The Agility Whisperer to look at Ring Parties explains in his own unique style.

The figure of 200 is for ring party members and takes no account of those people in the Secretary's Tent or doing catering for Judges and Ring Parties. Nor does it take into account those involved with parking, both camping and day parking. Also no allowance has been made for cleaning and clearing duties and for security. I am sure there must be someone I have missed and if it is your pet job then I apologise to you now but this is not about being exact. It is about getting a handle on the issue.

Help required for a six rings show

Job

No.

Judge

6

Ring Manager

6

Scrimer

6

Scorer*

12

Caller **

24

Ticket **

24

Pad **

24

Leads **

24

Pole Picker ***

72

Total per day

198

* 1/2 day each    ** 2 Hours per person    *** 3 per ring, 2 hours each

If you double up the numbers for a two day show, it produces a staggering figure of well over 400 people to run the show of which most are needed for Ring Parties. I believe that the average competitor has no idea of the numbers involved. Show committees know that it needs a lot of help; hence the request for help which goes out with the schedules, but I suspect that few of them have ever added up the numbers. I admit to being staggered by the total. If my figures are re-inventing the wheel then I apologise, but I am sure that the message needs to get to as wide an audience as possible. I can only say that given the numbers involved I am amazed that shows run as smoothly as they do.  

The Ring Party Theory
If we regard the number of people required as the inputs of the show, then I thought it might be interesting to link it to outputs, measured as entries. To continue the illustration of a six ring show the numbers stack up as follows:-

6 Rings with 400 dogs per ring equals 2400 entries a day.

Assume, on average, 2 dogs per competitor and three runs for each dog; that comes to 6 runs per competitor. Divide that into the total number of runs per day and you arrive, as if by magic, at 400 people, enough people to staff the ring parties for 2 days.

Management theorists pontificate (I like that word). It adds a bit of class. Anyway they propound the theory that systems must have balanced inputs and outputs. Perhaps the Agility Show has arrived, probably by accident, at the “Holy Grail” of a balanced system. Perhaps we will have lots of research students examining why our sport has produced such a perfect model. Well it would be perfect except that not all the 400 people get involved and for a variety of reasons do not wish to be involved. I know that some people feel that if they have paid their entry fees then it is up to the organizers to do the work. However, there are others who duck out four one of four reasons listed. Namely:

  1. They do not know what the various jobs entail

  2. They are frightened of the responsibility which goes with the jobs

  3. They are frightened of getting things wrong and ending up in an unpleasant scene

  4. They do not want to make fools of themselves

If you fall in any of these categories please stick with this article. It will let you know, in as lighthearted a way as possible, what the various jobs entail. I will also try to show that being in a ring party can be fun. You can meet new people who are all as daft as you are about agility and if the ring works well there is also a lot of self satisfaction to be gained. Please read on. It will be lonely without you. 

Pole Picker
Starting with the job that needs the most people,
who would be a pole picker?

Okay, the silence is deafening. So perhaps it is not the most interesting job around but done properly it can keep a ring moving quickly. Oh dear the Agility Whisperer has just fallen into his own trap. What does he mean it keeps the ring moving quickly? The ring is an inanimate object and does not move at all. So what we really mean is that the name of the game is throughput. We want to get the next dog in as quickly as possible and we do not do that if the judge has to keep going to put jumps up at the end of a round.

So what does a good pole picker do?

Firstly, I would suggest, they walk the course to see which way the dog will move around the ring. You might even be able to spot the jump(s) with which they might have most difficulty. You can also check on which jumps, if any, are to be jumped more than once and assess whether it is possible to put the jump back up without distracting the handler and dog, before the dog reaches it a second time. You will also check with the judge to see if s/he wants the pole replaced before the second attempt. Remember, that if you put it back up for one dog you must do it for all of them so that they have exactly the same challenge.

Secondly, a pole picker must concentrate on what is happening in the ring. It is not an excuse to sit down and have a rest and a chat with someone outside the ring. It is your job to see that the jumps are up and ready for the next dog. If a jump has been completely flattened by a dog on a wrecking mission, you may have to get the judge to check that it has been replaced to his/her satisfaction.

Another point to bear in mind is that other obstacles require attention. Weaves and tunnels are prone to move or the pegs get loose. You should constantly have in mind the safety of the dogs running the course and draw the attention of the judge to any problem. Also, on a windy day you may have problems with the flat tunnel and might have to straighten the fabric at regular intervals.

One real benefit of pole picking is that you can enjoy watching dogs and handlers at all grades and observe different ways in which they handle the course. You never know you may pick up something useful which may help you improve your own handling.

So who wants to be a pole picker now? I am glad that there now seems to be some interest in doing what can be a fascinating job and helping to keep the ring moving. Oh no, not the moving ring again!        

Leads
Unless you are on a fitness regime and need to bend down to pick up the lead from the ground for every dog, I suggest that it is not an option. Bad backs, sciatica and arthritic hips and knees are not ideal for that sort of exercise. Fortunately there are other options. One useful aid is the mechanical hand on a pole, used by council workers to pick up litter. Another solution and my favourite is the two bucket system. The handler puts the lead in the bucket which is taken to the finish and the second bucket is collected and taken to the start for the next handler.

That deals with the mechanics of getting the lead from the start line to the finish but that is only part of the story. You will have to make decisions about when to move the lead. You do not want a dog to run back if it sees the lead being moved, particularly if it is possessive about it. The handler may also have special requirements about what is to happen to the lead. I can only say be as accommodating as possible whilst staying within the rules about training aids or double handling. Another thing is to stay alert. Do not get into a conversation and forget to get the lead to the finish. It takes the handler longer to get the dog under control and delays the start of the next dog.

Finally, you will have to work within the constraints of the aids which have been provided. If you do have to pick up every lead from the ground please do not throw it past the scrimer’s nose to the finish. They can very upset if you start pretending you are William Tell, particularly if your aim is not too good.

The Caller
'
I hear you calling me.' So began the song made famous by John McCormack. I am sorry. I have lost you already. Only those of you of a certain age will have even heard of John McCormack. To put that little bit of history straight, he was an Irish tenor and the song is originally from the early part of the 20th century. But I digress. I can feel you getting impatient but yes, you have guessed I am going to do a bit about The Caller.

The first bit of the job is easy. You get the running order list for the class from the ring box, assuming you have the right box. You get a pen which works. It will usually be about the fifth one you pick up, but please do not put all the duds back in the box! Once you have got your running order list and decent pen, you stand/sit and wait for business.

There will normally be a call for the first twenty dogs. You look around hopefully for customers. When someone comes to run their dog, you mark them off the list and then pass them on for someone to sort out the ticket. All this you already know. The tricky bit comes when you try to manage the queue.

Business may be slow and you may have to put out a reminder and periodically you will call to a larger running order number. Sometimes there will be more than one reminder and occasionally you might have to issue threats. 'There are 'no dogs' on the line and the judge will close the class if no one shows in the next 5 minutes. Another threat is, if your running order is less than 150, you must run before lunch. I am sure there must be judges who have acted on their threats, but I have never actually seen them being carried out.

What the poor caller is trying to achieve is a steady flow of dogs for the judge but without a long queue which stretches around the ring. It is a sensitive balance and one which is sometimes difficult to achieve.

Sometimes handlers will try to get a dog in early, particularly on the last day - surprise, surprise! If there are not many dogs in the queue, the caller may take pity on you and leave you to the mutterings of other competitors.

So what skills do you need to be a caller? Well, it helps if you can use the radio to get calls put out. You also need a thick skin to deal with the handlers who do not think they are getting a good deal. You also need to be good at forecasting how good people will be at turning up on their own.

Finally, a controversial observation: my own take on the matter is that handlers of Small and Medium dogs are better at getting to the ring on time than their Large counterparts. Even if Large classes normally have more dogs and, therefore the overall time frame for the class is longer, it should not be an excuse for not getting to the ring in time to fit in with your running order.

So Count John Mc Cormack - He was a Papal Count - let’s hear it one more time. 'I hear you calling me.' so do something about it. Get to the ring and if you want to find out what the song was like, just type in the title there are loads of web sites from which to download it.

Tickets
There are two distinct elements to handling tickets. The first is issuing the ticket to the handler. It is always worth double checking the running order with the handler before handing over the precious document. You must be certain that you have given the ticket to the correct handler. If the handler has more than one dog, you must also make certain that the ticket is for the dog with the lowest running order still to run. After this, you give the ticket to the handler and hope that they:-

  • Do not lose it. It happens.

  • Crumple it in to a little ball.

  • Blow their nose on it. No, they probably don’t do that!

  • Give it the dog to hold. Yes I have seen it done and it comes out all slimy. Ugh.

  • Give it to a friend to look after, only to find that the friend has gone off somewhere else at the critical time.

Everything goes well until someone arrives who has had entries changed by the Show Secretary. At this point, you hope that there are some blank tickets and you then have to complete one. If, for some reason or other, there is a change in the handler this should also be changed on the ticket.

So, where were we? Right, I remember. The handler is doing unmentionable things with her ticket to ride. So what happens next? When the handler and dog arrive at the front of the queue, someone has to collect the ticket and get the handler to the line so that as soon as one dog has finished and the scrimer has completed that ticket, the next dog is ready to run. Using a two board system, you have to attach the ticket for the next dog to a board and be ready to hand it to the scrimer as soon as s/he is ready for it. The scrimer will give you the completed ticket for the dog which has just finished. If the scoring is being done at the ringside you should take the ticket from the board and give it to the scorer. It is a nice simple operation and if done properly can keep a ring running smoothly and keep the judge occupied.

Please do not get distracted when you do this job. It really winds up the scrimer if s/he has to keep looking for the next ticket. So, do not enter into lengthy discussions with the handlers but be ready at the scrimer’s shoulder to swap boards.

Scrimer
Not many people know that before agility had scrimers, the word existed and means a fencing master. Its French origin meant that the spelling was Scrim’er. In agility, of course, scrimer is a word which was made up to combine the job of judges’ scribe and timer. I have no idea who first used the word, but I am sure that someone out there will tell us. There are probably at least 50 people who think they invented it. Perhaps we should run a competition and give a prize, or at least a certificate, to the person who puts forward the best claim to the title.

Lots of people shy away from the job of scrimer. For one thing it is usually a whole day job and secondly you spend your day watching a judge and not the dogs. That is the purpose of the job you watch for the judges signals and note them on the ticket.

The usual recording is 5 for a fault, signaled by a raised open hand, 5R for a refusal, signaled by a raised clenched fist, 5H for accidental handling of the dog, signaled either by the judge tapping his/her arm or leg and finally the dreaded elimination, signaled either by crossed arms or a cutting motion across the throat. This is recorded by a large E on the ticket. The E’s get bigger as the day wears on!

If the dog completes the course without error the ticket will be marked with a C for clear. Except for an elimination, the time for the round is also recorded. So far so good; you should ignore any other actions made by the judge such as scratching of the head or the behind, wafting hair from the face or various shrugs which may indicate uncertainty. If the dog has three refusals you should help the judge by raising three fingers. The poor dears are often not very good at counting.

So there you have it. As with all ring party jobs it requires your full attention. What can go wrong?

  1. Timing problems – timing does not start or does not stop. You need to make sure that someone gets the handler whilst you report the problem to the judge. As a scrimer you should also make sure that the timing has stopped after a dog finishes a round.

  2. Competitors in the wrong order. If the ticket collecting is done correctly you should always have the right ticket for the competitor in the ring. It can be quite disconcerting to find a ticket for a female handler with a male handler in the ring.

  3. You may be distracted and miss the signal of a judge. If you are in any doubt you should refer to the judge.

The job does have its plus points. You get to put names and faces together. You get a free lunch and usually a bottle of wine for your efforts. By and large judges seem to prefer to bring their own scrimer or have someone that they know. This is fair enough because the judge must have confidence in the person who records their decisions.

Scorer
Have you scored? Okay, we will have less of the dirty laughs. You should know by now that the Agility Whisperer does not do innuendo and this is a serious question. If you have not been a scorer, then why not?

Well, I suppose it does need someone with reasonable clerical skills, someone whose writing is legible, to avoid problems when the results are read out. The person on the PA has all on sorting out the daft names which some people seem to give to their dogs, without having to struggle to make out what is written on the results sheet.

So, in a nutshell - I have no idea where the expression came from. Perhaps someone can enlighten me - the job involves writing out a score sheet from the tickets completed by the scrimer and filing the tickets for clear rounds, five faults, eliminations etc. with separate bulldog clips. The fastest in each group goes on top of the pile and then the next fastest and so on. The score sheets are pre-printed and you record the information for a particular running order against the same number on the score sheet. At the end of the class you complete a results sheet and send the paperwork to the show secretary. It really is simple and if you like  a nice organized job this could be the one for you.

So what can go wrong? If you keep up to date with the recording as the tickets come from the scrimer then you should be OK. If you get a back log there is always the danger that a ticket could get overlooked. One thing which most scorers do is to put a line diagonally across the ticket once it has been entered. At a later stage when you look through the clears on the bulldog clip you should check that they have all been marked as entered.

Competitors can be the main problem. They are interested how their dog did and will ask if they can look through the tickets. Some people, however, feel that they must remove the tickets from the clip in order to see them properly and sometimes they end up as so much confetti on the floor. This is not the correct way to impress the scorer and you should not be surprised if the normally mild- mannered person loses his/her rag.

Sometimes all the scorers are put together in a tent of their own. This has its advantages. Scorers can cover for each other whilst one goes to run a dog. It can also be fun. There is usually a fair amount of banter about competitors and judges and whether a particular judge will ever have a dog which goes clear. This system is also helpful for an inexperienced scorer to have people around to refer to. The main disadvantage is that it needs someone to bring the tickets from the rings. This is not only an extra job but service can be unreliable and you find yourself having to go get completed tickets yourself. For those with a sweet tooth there is always one kindly scorer who arrives with a box of treats of the human variety.

My experience is that scorers take a great deal of pride in their work and are reluctant to let other people help. If it sounds like your cup of tea, why not offer to score. It eliminates a lot of the boredom between running a dog.

Ring Manager
WHO’S IN CHARGE?

I suppose really it is the person in the middle of the ring doing Tai Chi (old man’s disco!). Please don’t groan. There must be someone out there who has not heard the joke. Getting back to who is in charge, it is usually the ring manager who will field the questions.

The ring manager is the person in overall charge of seeing that everything goes smoothly and that the judge has proper help. A good ring manager sets the tone for the ring and in the best business tradition tries to foster good teamwork. The job includes checking that all jobs are covered and most important for the ring party, handing out the vouchers for lunch. What happened to the bacon butties?!

One issue which arises is does the ring manager have to be at ringside all day? If everything is going smoothly do they need to be there? Well, maybe not all the time but sometimes a ring manager seems to be a bit like an absentee landlord.  My own take on this is that ring managers have to demonstrate that they are involved and care about what happens on the ring and also whether the ring party is coping. This may not require them to be there all day. It just has to seem that way.

OH  HAPPY DAY

Wasn’t Whoopi Goldberg fantastic in the Sister Act films? What a motivator. Well an agility ring is a bit like that. The tone on the ring is set by the judge and the ring manager. In the vast majority of cases everything works well and the ring party is well motivated. However, I have noticed that the use of 2 hour slots for helpers does not help towards cohesion. People may be late turning up (mutter, mutter by those going off duty). It is at changeover time that the ring manager needs to be there to sort out who does what. It is important because the atmosphere can change very quickly, not because people do not want to pull their weight but because the handover is never as seamless as it should be.

The new people have their own views of what is the best way to do a particular job and for scrimers and scorers who are the more permanent fixtures on the ring there can seem to be a period of uncertainty before the new team get settled in. What is obvious is that if there is a good spirit on the ring, things get done more efficiently. That means more dogs through the ring in any hour and an early finish if you are lucky and that is a win, win, win situation for the judge, the ring party and the competitors.

TO HELP OR NOT TO HELP THAT IS THE QUESTION?

You hear some people say that they work almost full time when it is their club show, why should they help at others. The facts, I think, speak for themselves. Using present methods it needs a lot of people, many more than the membership of the club.

There two main ways of bridging the gap. One method is to have a reciprocal arrangement with other clubs to “run” a ring. The other is to put out a general plea for helpers.

Something which some people do get worked up about is not a club show but a “private" show, run, not for club funds but for profit. It is an issue which has to be addressed. You still need bodies to run the show that much is obvious, but if people choose not help, because they feel that their contribution is worth more than the organizers are prepared to pay, they should not be made to feel guilty. In any labour market there will be a rate for the job which will balance jobs with the number of people who are prepared to help. There is a catch 22 situation in all this because people want to run their dogs and this cannot happen if there are no helpers.

With new private shows coming in every year, getting helpers must be high in the planning process. It will be interesting to see what imaginative solutions come forward.

Finally...
Yes, The Agility Whisperer is nearly done. It is his or her own view about the sport. It has not been my intention to tell the obvious to those who have much more experience of running shows than I have. Rather it is a way for new people to find some information about the jobs which have to be done on an agility ring and how to go about doing a good job. The information should be seen as a first step. There is, in my view, no substitute from learning from those who are experienced in ring party duties.

I have also chosen to put in print my position on issues involved. I have not tried to put a balanced approach. I am sure that those with different views will wish to put forward their ideas and opinions so that show management can continue to evolve. I believe that every stage of management and administration should be challenged to assess whether we make the best use of technology and the goodwill of people who offer their time so generously.

Surely, the starting point in planning a show should be “What do we really need to do this time” and not what did we do last year”? For example do we really need tickets and a scorer? Why not input the running order into a computer when a dog starts its run and have the scrimer put the judges decisions into the computer instead of on to a piece of paper and then use a simple sorting program to produce the results? If we do need tickets why do we have to write 5 and 5R? Why not design the ticket with two sections, one for faults, the other for refusals and instead of writing 5 each time why not use a single pen stroke  to indicate the number of faults or refusals. It seems to work OK on the continent.

Thanks for getting this far. I shall sit back and wait for the flak or maybe it will just be gentle waves of apathy which will wash over me and never forget, the Agility Whisperer might be nearer to you than you think.       

 It is not even the one who was referred to at a show recently as the “tit” in competition. We all know who that was so there is no need for me to reveal the name.

, nor is it one harassed Show Manager, or as they now seem to prefer – Competition Manager. The answer is also not the Show Secretary, who usually looks harassed and seems like she might have to be on tranquilisers for quite some time once the show is finished. As for the woman doing 'communications,' she looks as if the safety valve is about to blow and that is something to be avoided at all costs. She does not seem to understand that there can be no-one on ring five who knows which button to press on the “walkie talkie”.