Behind the scenes at the first Agility demonstration...
Did you know that the person placed in charge of running Crufts 1978 Main Ring events knew nothing about dog training? Instead, he had horse background. He, therefore, asked senior Kennel Club staff if there was someone who could put together a 'dog jumping event' similar to Show Jumping for horses and was pointed in the direction of Peter Meanwell. And that's how Peter Meanwell became one of Agility's founding fathers, and rightly so. Peter Lewis was there to see it all.
Peter Meanwell was an experienced and popular dog trainer at Lincoln GSD & All Breeds Training Society in the 1970s. At the time, he was handling Border Collies named Laddie and Jamie in Working Trials which is how we met and how he became a great friend of mine.
For many years, the national police and military dog establishments, in particular the RAF, had been using various pieces of equipment for training and display purposes. During the research for a book I wrote about Working Trials in the 70s, I was told about the 'Send Great Danes' and the jumping competitions that were held with them in the 1930s. So it seems that dog jumping, on an informal and low key scale, had been around for very many years. It was not new.
They agreed upon using many the pieces of apparatus already employed at military and police demonstrations, placed in a figure of eight pattern with the table playing a prominent part. It was the starting point, cross over obstacle for a 'down five second wait' and the finish on the table. The judge, Fred Welham, was static near to the table with a Secretary, while the Flag Stewards were placed at the ring corner, with which the down side contacts were also pointed to. Handlers negotiated the course with their dogs beside them in the traditional left side heel position at a gentle trot.
first agility exhibition at Crufts
The crowd loved this opening act for the Best in Show evening. Those who had already judged training events, however, foresaw what the problems could be. One such was a 'static' judge who had no chance of observing the down side of the contacts. Stewards had to make the decisions. Another problem was the accuracy of the manual 5 second down count in the middle of the ring to say nothing of the fact that the judge had to take his eyes off the dog to talk to the Secretary.
In actual fact, it was a kind of organised chaos, with friends of handlers claiming the Steward had wrongly faulted their dog on a contact. However, only those involved or 'in the know' noticed. As a spectacle, it was a great success, and anyway, the result was supposed to be superfluous to the entertainment. You know the old British thing of 'It's not who wins but taking part.'
When asked for my opinion after the first demonstration I have to admit that I was economical with what I said.
Some friction developed within the Lincoln Club, probably over who was to be in their team at Crufts. Peter abhorred anything like that for, by nature, he was a peacemaker, a person whom I never found to be at all belligerent. That explained why he never referred to his team as being 'part of his club,' but rather as friends of his from that club. Nevertheless, the fact remains that they were Lincoln GSD & ABTS members, despite friction occurring. There were three years of these Crufts demonstrations with the last one being in 1981 when he asked me to be with him in the ring as his Secretary, thus avoiding him having to choose a person from his club.
Always discreet, he kept these problems quiet and, in the end, just walked away from them, completely fed up with all the argy bargy. After all, his great love was Working Trials. It looked as though that was the end of dog jumping, but Crufts had stirred people’s interest.
We passed it to higher Kennel Club committees, and they instructed that a set of rules and regulations should be made. Probably because of my involvement with the Working Trials Council, I became part of the Dog Jumping Rule Making Committee. It seemed I was expected to be one of the members as I was the one who put the problem before them in the first place. I was not too happy about this for I was being asked to make rules for something I actually disliked!
Some weeks later, I was on the train on the way to attend the first Dog Jumping Rules Sub-committee meeting, berating myself for accepting my nomination. On that journey, I started to ask myself some soul searching questions. What could I really say was wrong with dog jumping? I eventually had to concede that I couldn't find one sensible reason. Therefore, I asked myself why I was against it? I immediately realised that I didn't have a single valid reason so I decided to be for it rather than against it. I then went even further deciding to back it wholeheartedly. That's my nature. I never do anything by halves. In anything I had taken part in during my life, I have always contributed to the best of my ability.
Peter Meanwell was invited to be a rule making member too, but had to decline as he was to be away on business in the USA.
We decided to call this new activity Agility Tests as we suspected that 'dog jumping' would not be an acceptable title for those with more say in the matter. The Sub-committee sat twice in 1979 and, in effect, those two meetings were indeed my first official involvement with the sport. As I now look back, I realise there was not one person on the Committee who had been part of those first Crufts demonstrations in `78 and `79. In retrospect, that was a probably a good thing for there were no entrenched positions to overcome.
We discarded the window jump as too high a landing for the dogs, and also because it would have been an extra sight barrier for the judge. We made the game-changing rule that every course would be new, designed by the judge and kept a secret until built on the day. That really put the skill and variation factor into what was to be our sport.
What a difference on my journey home! My mind was working overtime. How could I build a set of equipment to train Spot, my Ticket class Obedience dog, to become an Agility dog. I did all that, so at Christmas in 1980, Spot and I competed in the last eight of the Olympia finals when I started a lasting friendship with Dave and Mary Ray.
From then on, the few of us involved in the early agility built upon what we had and refined other parts. One major change was to do away with the Secretary in the ring. That meant we could use hand signals similar to those used for years by cricket umpires. I realised ours could be much simpler with the open hand held high for non-refusal faults and the fist closed for refusal faults.
At first we used a whistle for an Elimination.. Then, as extra rings were added, that was changed to a hand signal, the most amusing being a sign that the handler had cut his own throat but usually it was crossed hands. Scribe pads needed inventing as did score sheets as they requiring tailoring to our new game.
In the first few years, quite a few novelty classes such as Snooker and Gamblers were added.
In the beginning, there was no class progression system. That did not become important until the number of competitors warranted it. In fact, that occurred quite quickly, and soon we were asking the powers in charge for a class progression system. At first we seemed to get nowhere. Upon asking a senior member of the KC staff, we were bluntly told there will never be a Agility Liaison Council nor Agility Champions. Who was it said, 'Never say never!' We battled on until, at last, the person at the pinnacle of dog training decisions - other than Field Trials - was metaphorically offered the pistol on a silver salver and decided to resign from his position.
Having spent many years competing in Obedience and Working Trials, working out how best to train for this fascinating new game was not difficult for me. I was lucky enough to quickly become a successful competitor, but then as a Working Trials enthusiast, I had a head start. I already had some of the basic knowledge needed or Agility. Remember that the first demonstrators at Crufts all came from that same long standing discipline.
I realised that Agility would need to be fast and not restricted to those figure of eight demonstrations. Having a newly designed course for every competition really put the emphasis on skilled dog training. In effect, it made the whole thing work, freeing it from the inevitable boredom that would have resulted.
I am glad we did not accept the Sub-committee Chairman's desire to stop the time being taken into consideration for the result. Can you imagine all the run offs we would have required! We asked why he wanted to do that, and were told those with less speed should have an equal chance. I thought about how the Olympic 200 hundred hurdles final would be with rules like that. He had to give way because we were not going any further if he insisted.
There are times in a fledgling sport when a judge creates precedents by making a rule of their own. For instance, I qualified for the 1980 Olympia Semi-finals with my Border Collie Spot. Everyone who had judged so far that year was a competitor in those Semi-finals, so a Working Trials judge who knew nothing about agility was provided. Bear in mind the new rules were now in place, so the judge positioned himself just beyond the first two hurdles which commenced the course.
I was drawn to run first. As both hurdles were straight on from each other, I gave my ex-obedience dog the command to 'wait' at the starting point and moved up to a strategic position beyond the second hurdle but in line with my dog and the hurdles. To do that I had to pass the judge whom I knew well from Working Trials, and he said 'Where do you think you are going?'
I explained what I was doing, and he said in a loud voice, 'You cannot advance beyond your dog.' Having been on the KC rule making body, I knew there was no such rule. So while my dog obediently sat at the start, we had what could be politely be described as a 'discussion.' Luckily, the next competitor heard this interruption and backed me up, so the 'know nothing' judge backed down. We went clear and qualified for Olympia 1980. Just think if he had prevailed and that had become a rule, we might have been stuck with it forever more. We probably would have been stopped from changing handling sides as well. From there on, I would advise anyone new to the sport to forget all their preconceived ideas used in other dog training disciplines. In this new one, it was total freedom for dog and hander to move where they wished. However, the dog had to complete the course set by the judge in the shortest possible time and if, course penalties were non-existent or equal, time would prevail.
I've had opportunities to teach Agility in many countries around the world, and this basic British concept was always the philosophy I taught. Never was that more important than when I had to teach the first ten chosen to be official French KC judges. I already knew enough to understand that if the French adopted it, then the FCI would.
Oh yes, we got our International competition with the French, and the FCI played a leading part in the standardisation of international agility. You could call those of us who pioneered agility in 1980 'We happy few.' You could have counted us on two people's hands and toes. Our winners and losers continued to refine the sport, as did others who flooded into the sport. The speed of the dogs accelerated quickly and kept increasing as more and more people joined the sport and developed better training methods.
I suppose we were lucky for subsequent eras, the world gradually seemed to reject 'slower' sports with speed and action always seeming to be more popular. Thank you to Peter Meanwell. Your first demonstrations were not quick in their execution, but you gave the world the vehicle to change all that with what came to called Agility, the dog game devised for a handful of people that that became a sport and has swept the world.
Peter spent 20 years as a dog behaviourist, started competitive Heelwork to Music with Mary and Dave Ray and has been writing about many of these subjects for some years now. Currently he writes novels, as computer work makes few demands on his old body.
First publisher 20 May 2016