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Close encounters of the VAR kind...

Just having got back from an 11-day trip to Denmark to compete for Team GB at the FCI European Championships, Alan Bray rushed straight on to the Derbyshire Show on the Sunday and then directly onto the IFCS World Agility Championships at the Oakridge Arena (Newark) where he was judging, so no peace for the wicked! He took time from his busy schedule to write this report for Agilitynet.

What a lovely friendly atmosphere and well-run event this was. It's a hidden gem of an international competition. Eleven countries were there to compete for both Individual and Team medals over two or three different agility tests including a Snooker and Gamblers competition and Team Relay event.

Dawn Weaver and Dave Russell had told me a while ago I was going to 'volunteer' to judge this so, not knowing much about the event, I set about doing some homework. I quickly realised I needed the expert help of Rachel Ward who is brilliant at this sort of thing.

Rachel dug out the rules and that included for Snooker and Gamblers and looked at previous courses to get a good feel for what differed between IFCS rules and those for the KC and FCI which I was already familiar with. John Bowe from Ireland was my co-judge. He got Snooker which left me with Gamblers to design which I hadn't judged - or competed in - for at least 100 years now when we still had black and white TVs!

Armed with this knowledge, I set about designing courses to fit in a 30m wide x 40m long arena so lots of space to play with. I needed to pitch the level of difficulty right to ensure that it was a good test for international finals as well as being entertaining to watch and good for handlers and dogs to work on. I also had to plan my route around the course so that I could be in position to effectively judge the contacts, long jump and weaves without being in the handler’s way. As the late great John Gilbert used to say 'the handler shouldn't even realise the judge is there, Alan!'

I was allocated Biathlon Agility on the Wednesday afternoon as the opening class of the event so needed to get us off to a good start. John did the Snooker on Thursday morning before I came back in to judge the Triathlon Agility.

VAR in agility
Now there's a topic. If you haven't heard of VAR, it's a video replay which is slowed down or frozen and then checked by going forward or backwards, frame by frame. It is widely used - and abused - in Premier League football, but better used in cricket, for example, when contentious decisions or game changing referee/umpire/judge's decisions are challenged and then reviewed.

One of the interesting differences between IFCS and other international competitions is that participating countries are allowed to challenge a judge's decisions on any matter, including contact calls. Queries are reviewed with the use of VAR cameras, strategically positioned around the course and then viewed in ultra-slow motion. There is a time limit so teams can't come back a day later and challenge them.

At the IFCS World Championships, cameras are placed around the arena at all up and down contacts points and/or anywhere there could be contentious decisions. Countries are allowed up to three challenges per class. Only Team Managers can come forward with a challenge which must be written down and presented to the IFCS Chief Judge. If clear and obvious, they will rule in favour of the class judge's decision but, if it is debatable, they will call over the judge to discuss the findings in-between dogs running, like in the Premier League when referee is called over to the side to study the big screen.

With 11 participating countries, worst case scenario was there could have been 33 reviews to study and decide in each class. Just imagine the disruption and how long it would take to run. Thankfully, this didn't happen, but I have to admit that my first thought was 'oh my gosh... there are going to be lots of challenges as a near call is bound to be challenged.' Happily, it didn't work out that way for me with relatively few calls being made.

My two wrong calls were for allowing seesaw contacts when the dog had alighted a micro-second before the plank hit the floor. Realistically, it was pretty nigh on impossible to see with the naked eye at full speed and could only could only be judged with the aid of a frame -by-frame look at the video. I received about six challenges all told throughout the week but thankfully all my dog walk and A-frame calls were proved correct.

In the Team Relay, I did check myself. I was relieved that I had called the USA team correctly, having faulted an A-frame when that was their only fault on a very fast run. Fortunately when I looked at it on the screen, I was spot on, but it was good to reassure myself. When I came back out and announced to the crowd that I had double-checked the A-frame contact and it was correct ... so don't bother challenging it,' this was met with laughter, bless them.

As always when judging, I gave myself plenty of space to see the contacts. I made sure that I didn't have to look through other obstacles or have handlers running in front of me to make the call on very fast dogs doing running contacts. This is something at experienced judges like John Gilbert and Arthur Rogers taught me when I first started out judging.

I was very pleased with the outcome of the challenges, being proved right 99.5% of the time. Only a couple of seesaw calls were corrected on the first day when I had allowed the seesaw though VAR showed the dog to have just left before the plank hit the floor. It was very close call and hard to see with the naked eye. I tightened this up after that and didn't receive another seesaw challenge after that.

My wrong calls were all on the generous side. I didn't fault a seesaw when I should have done rather than faulting when the dog actually hit the contact, but then that's because I am always on the side of the dog and want them to do a nice clear round.

I now work out a judge's path in advance so I am not in the handler's or dog's way or eye line. I need to be able to see clearly so I can make the correct judging decisions such as whether they actually went over the long jump or through the side of it etc. Watch Martin Tait judging nowadays. He is always in the right spot.

I recall my experiences judging at Crufts in 2014 and 2016. Close decisions are usually replayed on the giant, cube-shaped screen above the course in the main arena before the next dog is allowed to start. I made a point of not waiting to see the replay. Usually you can hear the crowd going 'ooh and arrh' anyway. My wife Louise watched from the Kennel Club VIP seats while I judged. Whenever I looked over at her, she'd nod her head, indicating that I had got the decision right.

On one course, I remember setting a very fast dog walk jump finish where the dogs went straight out the tunnel and over the finish. Steve Richardson's dog looked to have missed the down contact with everyone going 'ahhh.' Although being on the opposite side to the crowd, I could see the dog's back left toes touching the contact, so I gave the clear. The gasps when this came up on the cube were very interesting, and I remember Graham Partridge commentating said, 'That's why we are sat here and Alan is down there.'

Does VAR happen anywhere else in dog agility world? The answer is yes. In fact, when Team GB is competing in the FCI European and World Championships, VAR has already been available to the judges so they can review their own decisions. The difference is that other individuals or countries are not allowed to complain or ask for a VAR review.

My advice to new judges is to never be afraid to ask an experienced judges for help and advice. Remember that they have been there and done that already and most will be more than happy to help.

You mustn't let VAR affect you and knock your confidence. You need to embrace it and see it as a helpful addition to your judging toolbox to ensure that you get the big decisions right. Be big enough to acknowledge that. On occasion, you get something wrong. With the speed of dogs over contacts these days, it's very difficult to get every decision right, so don't beat yourself up for a wrong call.

But I digress...

Back on course
Friday was afternoon again with the Individual Jumping while John did the morning shift. Then I doubled back Saturday morning to judge the Gamblers so after finishing quite late the day before it was a very early 7am start the next morning. I then finished off Sunday afternoon with the Triathlon Team Relay which is a bit like Mini-Mixi so I split the course in half with an A-frame and weave down the middle with the first and third dog running the right-hand side of the course and the second dog running the left -hand side. Again, slightly different rules as the handler runs with the baton in their hand and changes over behind the start and finish line. It does state in the rules however, that you are not allowed to hit the dog with the baton! Or the judge for that matter, haha!

Tuesday was for dog measuring and team practise in the arena then Wednesday morning the remaining countries practise before the opening ceremony. This was very passionately delivered by all 11 countries involved including Japan, Canada, USA, Italy, Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland, Spain, France and the hosts Great Britain

Straight after this and welcome drinks and cakes for all participants, whilst we built my agility course. All handlers were given 10 minutes to walk it in their separate groups and then we were ready to start.

I must say the ring party crew were fantastic. They all got stuck in helping and nothing was too much trouble. We ensured the pole pickers weren't in the dog's eye line so nicely tucked away as was the manual back up timer. A 'first jump goal keeper' was there to give a visual signal to the handler so once I blew my whistle to start, they moved out of the way and the handler could go. There was no timed start so they could go in their own time.

Wednesday - Competition Day 1
First Class Biathlon Agility
Course length: 194m long
Times: Toy - 69 secs, Mini - 66 secs, Midi and Maxi - 57 secs.

This was a very fast course that needed dogs to have the necessary skill sets at speed and gave handlers lots of different options to handle so it was a good one to judge.

Some of the main issues with the course concerned the weave entry from the start and dogs taking the back of the finish jump. Some went straight onto the A-frame from Jump 3 and others straight in tunnel from the dog walk.

The run from Tunnel 6 to Tunnel 7 caused all sorts of issues with handlers forgetting their dogs and going straight up the A-frame, while others attempted to run completely around the dog walk instead of layering it, thus not getting to Jump 8 in time and resulting in a refusal or an 'E.'

Other handlers were very excitedly telling their dogs to go-on at Jump 8... so, of course, they did, straight over the last jump!

The bogie jumps were numbers 15 and 17. We lost count of how many times these were knocked down and then dogs running around the last jump.








Thursday - Competition Day 2
Triathlon Agility
Course length: 197m long
Times: Toy - 70 secs, Mini - 67 secs, Midi and Maxi - 58 secs.

Competition Day 2 began with John Bowe judging the Snooker. After a lot of technical problems, John managed to complete by 15.00 which was two hours later than scheduled. Please don't ever ask me to judge the Snooker. Having watched John, I really appreciate how difficult it is to remember everything. I have no idea how he managed to it.

My 'afternoon' class was another agility one, the Standard Triathlon. By the time the arena had been harrowed, the course built and the handlers had walked the course, we didn't start until 17.15 hours.

It was designed to be a very fast forward going run. Provided the dogs had the necessary skill sets, it allowed their handlers to take short cuts and leave them to work away alone. The handler could then meet their dog at the next section that required handling.

One of the problems handlers found occurred after the long jump (No. 4) with dogs overshooting Jump 5. They needed early warning to slightly turn left after the long jump, then the exit from Tunnel 6. Some dogs weren't called, and they shot back over Jump 5 and consequently overshot their weave entry, gaining a 5R.

There were so many different ways to handle the weaves (No.7) to Jump 10 that it made it interesting to watch. Many of the dogs had decided on their own way of doing this from Jump 8 to the tunnel which didn't coincide with the handler's way.

When dogs going over Jump 10 weren't called in, they headed for the last jump instead of No.11. Then again when dogs were not communicated with, they headed for the start jump instead of the push round blind on Jump 12 to line the A-frame up.

From the running A-frame, handlers had the option to layer the weaves and meet their dog coming over Jump 17 or, if they enjoyed running, then going the whole way around the weaves with their dog.

Then the seesaw! This caused huge amounts of problems with dogs alighting too early as the handler was under pressure to get the threadle over Jump 21. This could be done with a slice for the fastest time or a wrap which was slower. Alternatively, they could run the other side of Jump 20 and do a German turn over Jump 21 or indeed a whisky slice.

It was such good fun to judge, and the crowd seemed to really enjoy it too with lots of cheers going on. We finished around 20.00 hours so not bad really given the 17.15 start time and having to reset the weaves after the Mallies had destroyed them.

Once again, I must say that my ring party was excellent. Thanks very much for working such a long day.





Friday - Competition Day 3
Individual All Around Jumping
Course length:- 184m long
Times: Toy - 51 secs, Mini - 46 secs, Midi and Maxi - 41 secs.

On Friday, it just poured down. We were swamped outside in the car park and in the camping area. Trust the good old British weather, eh!

Thanks Dawn Weaver for reminding me that I was judging in England when I could have been asked to go to sunny Spain or Italy. Typical. The forecast was for rain all weekend as well – what joy!

John judged the Agility in the morning and then I did the Individual All Around Jumping class in the afternoon. Don't ask... I don't understand what it means either.

Then we held the presentations from all the previous evenings which were held over because of the late finishes the day before.

My Jumping class was designed for skill sets at speed and the ability to work dogs away from the handler with push arounds all being natural lines for the dogs so no clunky around the back moves.

The spread, set at just below maximum, caused all sorts of problems with many dogs having it down except the Toy/Small height class.

I also noticed many of the dogs had the spread down in John's classes, too as well so looks like a training refresh coming up for many of them.

Handlers had many different ways in which to work this course, and it was good to watch the variety of handling options and routes taken.






Saturday - Competition Day 4
Gamblers Individual and All Around
Course times: Toy - 35 secs, Mini - 46 secs. Midi and Maxi - 33 secs.
Gamble times - Jump 1 to over Jump 6: Maxi and Midi - 14 secs. Mini and Toy - 16 secs.

This was so difficult to plan for but thankfully Rachel Ward had done some great work on rules and had some previous courses for me to look at which made things a lot easier. It was a hundred years ago when I last judged a Kennel Club Gamblers, but some of the rules were different for the IFCS version so I had to look at this one the most of all the course designs.

IFCS has an opening section where you can do obstacles a maximum of twice but not in succession. You couldn't do contact to contact either. This section can also include a 'Joker' sequence where you score bonus points for completing a section or specific obstacles in the section before attempting the Gamble. The Gamble must be an at distance challenge where the handler cannot cross a line at least 5m away from the dog whereas, in KC terms, we would allow them to go closer, but they wouldn't score maximum points so it was similar but just removed the crossing the line option.

Handlers had to do the Gamble obstacle No.1 at before going over the Finish jump. Otherwise, they were eliminated. If their dog ran out of the arena at the end before doing the last jump, they were also eliminated. In addition, if handlers did two or more of the Gamble obstacles in the first section, they were E'd.

My original plan was to number the obstacles in the opening section. I expected to be able to call out points to my scrime from my microphone, only to find out that that none of the obstacles in the opening section would be numbered. So, I had to call out the number of points for each obstacle and the scrime would add these up at the end. Only the Gamble obstacles were numbered.

Still with me? Being ancient, I thought I would never remember it all. If the handler did the same obstacle, I decided to score it one point for Jumps, three for tunnels, five for the A-frame and seesaw and seven for the dog walk and weaves and allow the jumps to be done as many times as they like so I didn't have to remember if they had done two or more. They loved this option! 

I then added in the three tunnels as the Joker in any direction, scoring 10 bonus points in the opening sequence. The Gamble was marked by the line of four jumps which handlers weren't allowed to go pass. The Gamble scored 15 points so they needed to do this really to get maximum points.

My aim was to create a flowing course in the first section which the handlers could just flow around and allow a natural finish which went straight into the Gamble section. Handlers are not allowed to stand and wait for the Gamble as that's an elimination as well. The course also provided enough for those not as confident about contacts to do a jumping and tunnels and weaves course.

I planned my own route around the course so that I could stay between the A-frame and dog walk in order to see the seesaw and weaves and stay out of the way of handlers who chose many different routes, making it more interesting to watch rather than everyone going the same way around.

Most problems of the Gamble section were caused by handlers not being near enough to start so they were out of time for the 40m run to the end! I deliberately designed it to be along the audience seating area so they were all cheering dogs along the finish. Also, handlers then standing around the Tunnel 2 exit where the jump marking the line was - so the dogs targeted them stood there instead of the long jump and, of course, just dogs not wanting to work away from the handler, but there were many brilliant runs here with everyone cheering those who made the gamble.

We endured lots of technical problems during the class but managed to resolve them all and get it done. Big thanks to Paul Moore for coming out of retirement and timing for me as it was vital the hooter sounded spot on time for the Gamble section to start. Well done to the Irish Team who were brilliant on this together with Team GB.












Sunday - Competition Day 5
Team Relay Triathlon

Here it was... the last day. It seemed a long week for everyone competing especially with the great English summer weather of very heavy rain and mud and then very warm sunshine.

The Team Relay consisted of three dogs and handlers with two different heights allowed in the team and a maximum and minimum number of obstacles to negotiate with a baton change in-between each partnership.

I designed this like a KC Mini/Mixi Pairs course with two dogs of the same height going out on the left side of the course and the other height on the right side, so the jump heights don't get mixed up. Both sides then do the centre section including A-frame and seesaw.

Handlers have to run with the baton in hand and then pass to the second handler who runs with it unlike the KC where the baton staying behind the line. If the baton was dropped, it would be an elimination.

Then the way this ran was that each team would run as they were drawn irrespective of height so no grouping together of say all Maxi and Midi heights or Toy and Mini heights. It meant we changed the jump heights after every team had run which seems strange to me but we had ring party positioned at each jump ready to change heights after every team had run and we got through it okay although I had to make sure the heights were right before allowing the next team to start.

You know anything can happen with Teams. This was no different with two dogs on the course at the same time. Three partnerships were all clear right up until the last but one obstacle when the French girl forgot to go back into tunnel 13 from jump 12 and went straight over the finish, running through with her arms aloft believing they were all clear but getting the team eliminated. The poor girl was so upset, crying on the floor because it meant so much to them all. No words made it any easier for her.

There were some brilliant runs and clears and some so close and others where everything that could go wrong – did!

Thoroughly enjoyed judging this one. It was great fun.

Afterwards we held the awards and closing ceremony and speeches which was a great event. Then got packed up and drove home.

Thank you to Dawn Weaver for inviting and trusting me to judge and to Wim Bekendam, the IFCS chief judge, for all his help in understanding the rules and regulations and course design guidance helping to tweak things on the day.

Huge thank you to the ring party and team who were brilliant all week and to fellow judge John Bowe and Kate Smith expert commentating.

About the author...
Alan Bray
has vast experience both in judging and competing at international level. Currently he is a member of the successful Team GB which competed at the FCI European Championships in Denmark in mid-July 2023, and he is off to compete in the World Cup in Czech Republic in early October so he was ideally suited to know the standard of course designs to pitch.

Over his 33-year agility career, he has won every domestic honour and major final several times as well as a major final with different dogs and different breeds and even heights. In addition, he has made five different dogs up to Agility Champions.

As the owner of Upanova Tigers, he has helped train others to achieve success at the highest level by continuing to evolve training and handling methods and styles to suit current course tests.

Alan keeps his feet firmly on the floor though, saying that he is lucky to have so many good friends in agility and to able to spend quality time with his lovely wife Louise and daughter Selena - both at training and shows.

First published 3rd October 2023



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