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John Gilbert on World Agility

Agility here, there and everywhere

People, as we know, can be funny. Since the change in the quarantine laws, there has been much talk about amending British agility regulations to be in line with those of the FCI, simply because we can now take part. But much do we really know about the differences between the British and FCI rules and regs? International judge, trainer and former editor of Agility Voice John Gilbert takes a look at the whole FCI debate including issues such as injuries, jump heights and crossbreeds.

Some people want FCI agility opened to ALL dogs. They want to impose OUR rules on the rest of the world, whilst not wanting THEM to impose THEIR rules on us! Some whilst trying to convince us that they have ALL dogs at heart can’t help getting a dig in about collies! (aren’t collies dogs also?). Others are sure that 30” jumps must be dangerous, and then let slip that their own dog knocks poles down regularly, 24” jumps will cure that then! Whilst on the other hand there are those who will state categorically that 24” jumps are unsafe because the dogs will go too fast, then they will admit to owning a steady accurate dog that does well on tricky courses! 

Everyone knows someone who has visited a country once or twice, or knows a friend who has, or is a regular armchair agility enthusiast on the NET, who then becomes an expert on that countries agility set up, passing it onto others via the many media outlets. Unfortunately most of what they pass on is completely wrong and gives a totally false impression of agility in other countries.

I am always a bit suspicious when someone starts off 'What they do in XYZ is...' - all based on seeing one or two bits of agility. The same is true when I hear some people abroad talking about British Agility. They tell me, for instance, that we don’t train for contacts, because we only want SPEED! and many of our dogs are cripples from jumping too high! They KNOW it’s correct because they have spoken to someone in England who told them!

The FCI
Nothing is more confusing than when it comes to talking about the FCI (Federation Cynologique Internationale.) The FCI is a world organisation concerned with Pedigree dogs. Many countries across the world (not just Europe) are full members, many are affiliated, and some are just friendly with, or have reciprocal agreements. Each of these countries have their own domestic Rules and Regulations, but if and when they hold or take part in international competitions sanctioned by the FCI, they then must of course follow the FCI Regulations.

If Britain, as a friendly non-member, wants to take part in the FCI World Agility Championships, and as I understand it, we have asked and been accepted, then it naturally follows that we to must accept their Regulations for this event. If, however, we want to change some of the Rules and Regulations and generally have an input, then we first need to become a part of the organisation in some form or another to join in their discussions about Rules and Regulations. Even if we could have someone only as an observer attending the FCI Agility Commission meetings, it would be a giant step forward in keeping us fully up to date with what is currently being discussed, rather than getting this information third hand (and incorrect) through the grapevine.

Injuries - a very complex debate
Having been involved in training dogs for more than thirty years, twenty in the case of agility, I still wouldn’t need to use both hands to count the number of injuries that I have actually seen happen. I have seen accidents, both at training and in competition, but rarely did these result in an injury.

Having said that, of course we cannot know unless a complete and accurate study is carried out, whether injuries occurred later, or indeed if injuries occurred over a period of time just from training and competing. Whether tendon injuries occur from dogs hitting the slats on contact equipment is a matter for conjecture. In my experience of training thousands of dogs, I have observed that very few dogs - apart from minis - actually touch the slats.

What I would say about slats is that it is totally unnecessary for them to be too thick. A quarter of an inch or less is ideal. It may be that the equipment with the much thicker slats - and I have seen them up to three quarters of an inch thick - could be responsible for foot damage? The suggestion to delete the slats from the see-saw is purely on the grounds of safety in that many inexperienced dogs, when faced with slats on this obstacle, confuse it with the dogwalk and continue to climb up at speed when, in fact, the obstacle is falling away from them.

Agility like any physical sport cannot be injury free, but we can always learn to do things better and, if necessary, make recommendations or changes to make things better. We must always have the safety of our sport uppermost in our minds at all times, inside and outside of the competition ring. I think on the whole that we achieve this now, but we must never be complacent, and likewise must also not be too hasty should one unfortunate injury befall one unfortunate dog.Kay McCarroll working on Benson

One thing of which I would agree is that chiropractors will see and report more injuries now than say, five years ago. More agility dogs are going to see them, or being sent by trainers like me when we see a dog that is not performing 100%. Far better that the dog is looked at, diagnosed, sorted out and cured, than say, ten years ago when the only treatment was rest and lead walking. In many cases, they never really got to the root of the dog’s problem, so it carried on in agility with an injury, albeit underachieving.

Someone has already said that if it were a pet dog NOT doing agility the injury may well never have been discovered, how true ! In other cases the chiropractor may well diagnose an injury for which a cure cannot be maintained if the dog continues to do agility, at least the owner now knows, and can make a decision based on knowledge, in the past the dogs non-performance may well have been put down to bad training or a stupid dog! Rather than stating the fact that chiropractors, Osteopaths, Veterinary Surgeons etc are seeing more agility dogs with injuries and everyone concluding that 'Ah well, that MUST be the so and so that’s causing that, I always thought so.' What we need to be very helpful is, numbers, facts, type of injury, age, time in agility etc, etc, etc, information and recommendations that can be discussed objectively.

Mike McCartney with AceJump heights
There is to my knowledge NO recommendation from anyone to change any of our Agility Rules and Regulations in favour of those of the FCI. There is however, since the change in the quarantine laws, much debate and interest on the subject because we can now take part. Someone was asking if there was an historical reason for our jump heights and why didn’t the rest of the world follow us in the first place.

Originally, some people may be surprised to know, our jump height was 36” not 30”, and since Agility was invented by a Working Trials man, (Peter Meanwell) and Working Trials people were the first to take part, it’s not so surprising that the height of a Working Trial clear jump was used as a yard stick. However as soon as non-Working Trials dogs started to be interested in this new sport, it was obvious that 36” was too high, and so it was changed to a maximum of 30” and has remained so to this day.

Many people, myself included, believe that 30” is the perfect jumping height for an agility dog, it’s a good test without being too hard for the majority of dogs, the size of the obstacles in relation to the course lends itself perfectly to this height, and it is the optimum height to achieve the 'jumping curve' effect that is so pleasing to the eye when negotiated to perfection. Having said that, if it can be proved that it would benefit agility to change this height, or there is a swell of opinion to do so, then of course I would be willing to listen.

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, they did initially follow our lead, but in 1995 the FCI reduced their top height to between 55cm and 65cm (21 5/8” – 25 5/8”.) Countries have come to this height from different angles, some were heavily influenced by a report that stated dogs jumping 30” were far more likely to sustain long term injuries than dogs jumping just over 25” !!! and as a lower height suited more people than it didn’t, the rest was easy. Other countries were dominated by breeds that are generally smaller than in the UK, so once again, lowering the height met with little opposition. Once it was obvious that some countries were in favour, and considering that unlike us, many European countries were already 'playing together' it was almost a forgone conclusion that the FCI would be subject to change.

I have to say from my experience of teaching and judging many times in 20 countries around the world that I have found that it makes little or no difference whatever the jump height is. When judging I have always designed courses exactly the same as I would here in the UK and indeed judged exactly the same without any problems whatsoever. The same percentage of knock-downs occur on 65cm or 75cm jump heights. The European dogs go just as fast as some of ours - in some cases faster - but have no problem in negotiating the contact equipment coming from a lower trajectory jump, as our Elementary dogs have no problem when their jumps are set at 24”, indeed is it not the same as our fast dogs exiting from a tunnel onto an A-ramp?

Marie Poole's WillowPedigree dogs/crossbreeds
There is much talk about why Crossbreeds are not allowed in the FCI World Championships. Having explained briefly about the FCI, we have to accept that at the moment it is their rule. However, it is not true to say that crossbreeds are discriminated against in World Agility. In almost all countries Crossbreeds and Pedigrees compete on an equal footing as in the UK. A Crossbreed can also become a national champion in many countries. The only restriction that I know of for Crossbreeds is that they cannot qualify for the World Championships or enter a CACIAG competition. (This is an FCI class to qualify as an International Champion.)

British Agility without Crossbreeds will never happen. It’s just scaremongering, and the rescuing of dogs will not diminish Marie Poole's Tobybecause of a World Championship for Pedigrees. The FCI cannot dictate, and does not dictate to any country in regard to their domestic arrangements. If a country wishes to follow the FCI rules and regulations lock, stock, and barrel, it’s their choice, but as far as I know there is no country that adopts this way.

Maybe instead of constantly indulging in FCI bashing, we should be working towards a more positive solution. If we were to get a voice within the FCI Agility Commission, and fully explain the situation as it exists in the UK, it might be possible to achieve some concessions or compromise. For instance, hardly anyone abroad can grasp the fact that there IS a difference between two identical black & white dogs because one is a Border Collie (BC) and the other is a Working Sheep Dog (WSD). What about us here in the UK. trying to get the WSD recognised as a breed? I appreciate that doesn’t solve the problem for all the other Crossbreeds, but maybe it’s a start.

WC2000It has been stated that the FCI World Championships cannot truly be called 'World' when a number of dogs are not allowed to compete, and this has lead to the organisation of an 'alternative World Championships' by people who feel strongly about the FCI’s restrictive policy. There is nothing wrong with holding another competition, but how can this be an 'alternative' (presumably meaning better), when so many more dogs would be restricted simply because they come from countries whose dogs are not allowed into Britain? 

The suggestion that the current World Champion, Christine Charpentier and her Border Collie Mac are not worthy winners because there could be better dogs that were excluded, is too ludicrous to even contemplate, if you had ever seen this young lady and her dog you wouldn’t even pose the question! 

Every year the FCI World Championship are held, they are just like the Olympics, bigger and better with more countries participating, hardly a recipe for a dead loss competition! Knowing as I do quite a bit about Italian Agility, the competition held there for non-registered dogs was not in answer to the FCI elitist Trial, but people will pick up on anything to strengthen their own argument.

Change? What change?
To change British agility regulations in line with those of the FCI is almost unthinkable to many in the UK, but do many people even know what the differences are between UK and FCI rules and regs!
Much of what we do now I can assure everyone is exactly the same, after all they got it from us in the first place!

The most noticeable differences are:-

  1. Weaving poles – Only even numbers can be used.
  2. Age of dog – 15 months is the minimum age to start.
  3. Jump heights – Lower as previously discussed.
  4. Classification – All handlers can compete in STARTERS.
  5. Table – The dog’s position on the table is judges discretion.
  6. Clubs – Handlers must belong to a registered club to compete

Now a quick look at this list and I am sure that many handlers would have no hesitation in accepting points 1-4 because they are beneficial to them personally, but whether they are in the interest of our domestic agility generally, would need to be the subject of much debate.


About the author...
John Gilbert
started Dog Training in 1967 with a German Shepherd called Heidi, together they went on to compete in Championship classes in Obedience as a 'C' only dog. Throughout the next ten years John was competing regularly in Obedience During this time he had also become an instructor at the Hemel Hempstead BAGSD, but it was in 1978 when Dog Agility started that things moved very quickly for John.

With his next German Shepherd Becky John was one of the top competitors in those early days of Agility, qualifying for the Olympia finals six times as well as winning dozens of other competitions. Up to the present time John has trained and handled four dogs to Senior (A3) level.

When the sport of Agility became official in 1980 John was instrumental in forming the rules of the sport and became one of the first people to judge. He has since judged every major event in the UK and also judged in over 19 countries throughout the world including twice judging at the FCI World Dog Show.

In the late 1980’s John Started his own private training centre for Obedience and Agility and became a professional trainer full time. Since that time his teaching expertise has been in constant demand both at home and abroad. Travelling the world teaching judges, instructors and handlers has become a passion that John relishes with enthusiasm.