John Leslie meets an agility pioneer...
As the sport of dog agility celebrates its thirtieth year, and the 2008 Kennel Club International Agility Festival approaches, Fred Welham remembers the pioneering days of the very first agility competition. John Leslie of The Kennel Club travelled to Goole, Lincolnshire, to interview the man who built the first set of agility equipment. Reprinted with the kind permission of the Kennel Gazette.
It was just thirty years ago, at Crufts 1978, that the crowds lining the balconies of the Grand Hall at Olympia thrilled to the very first competition in what was to become the dog world's fastest-growing sport – agility.
Not that the small group of participants who brought agility to Crufts had any idea at the time how quickly the new sport would develop. One of those pioneers was Fred Welham, a leading light of the Yorkshire Working Trials Society, who was not only one of the first agility judges, but also claims to have built the very first set of agility equipment.
Varley had also devised the Crufts Personality Parade, which starred guide dogs, search & rescue dogs, Obedience and Working Trials Champions and others - not forgetting Doctor Who's robot dog K9 - parading under the spotlights to suitable poetry.
The agility demonstration was put together in a short space of time. Varley had explained his idea to Peter Meanwell from Lincolnshire Alsatian Association and All Breeds Training Society (as it was called then) asking if he would help him to design a 'pony club' style event for dogs at Crufts.
There, Meanwell involved members of his own Lincoln club together with fellow Working Trials Council member Trevor Jones and others, including Welham, from Yorkshire Working Trials Training Society.
Welham recalls that he built the agility equipment that the Lincoln and Yorkshire teams first trained on:
Not all the equipment would be familiar to present-day agility competitors.
The window jump was abandoned when the Kennel Club drew up the first agility regulations in 1980, as it was felt the 5 foot drop to the ground was too great. It was not the only feature of early agility that has been changed or abandoned in the intervening years. Figure of eight courses with a compulsory change of direction (clockwise to anti-clockwise or vice-versa) are no longer mandatory, and we no longer see ring stewards at each corner of the course and judging the weaves and the contact points. The weave poles themselves are no longer adorned with little flags.
The ‘scale' (adapted from Working Trials), now called an A-frame or A -ramp, rarely features as an 'Over and Under' – that is, a tunnel placed underneath the A-frame used to reverse the dog's direction. Refusals incur only five points, not ten as in the original 1980 regulations. And the custom of allowing competitors to practise on the course in the morning before competing in the afternoon has disappeared.
Some things don't change, though. The Dog World report on that very first Crufts event observes that the Lincolnshire team included two German Shepherds and two collies, while the winning Yorkshire team was all collies
Despite the inevitable adjustments, agility quickly gained popularity. During 1978 three qualifiers for the Crufts Agility were set up, at the British Dog Fair at Hickstead and at Sheffield and Wakefield. Teams from Yorkshire, Rugby and Pontefract qualified for Crufts 1979, where this time Fred Welham was judging (and Yorkshire won again).
In December 1979 the first Pedigree Chum Agility Stakes were held at the Olympia Horse Show, also following a series of qualifiers. It was the shape of things to come. The Crufts and Olympia finals and their qualifiers remained an annual fixture and still represent the peak of ambition for all serious UK competitors. By 1981 Dog Training Weekly was able to list 12 agility tests including a two-day North v. South match. Twenty years on, in 1998, there were 200 licensed UK agility tests, and in 2007 there were 342.
Fred Welham hasn't severed all his links to agility, though. He was invited to judge a special 25th anniversary commemorative agility class at Crufts in 2003 and was a guest of honour at a 30th anniversary agility show held by Lincolnshire German Shepherd Dog and All Breeds Training Society last year. The show's eight rings and 4000 entries epitomised for Welham the changes that have taken place in the sport of agility in the past thirty year.
Reprinted with kind permission of Kennel Gazette (July 2008)
He is currently employed in the WTOA department of The Kennel Club
He runs two large Standard Poodles called Bill and Beau and trains at Trent Park where he is also an instructor.
When not on the agility course, John sings in the Islington Choral Society and enjoys concerts when they don't compete with shows. He is currently Chair of the group.