A historical reflection...
Dianne P. Ford has seen Canadian agility move from one height structure to another and she has competed under both the old and new regimes. In the light of the recent debate here on the introduction of a 4th height into Kennel Club agility, Kay Jennings asked Dianne what it's like to compete in Canada. She kindly agreed to explain how agility works in another FCI country and how the variations in jump heights fit in with the ability to compete internationally. It’s not all Mounties and maple syrup...
Kay Jennings (KJ) :Tell us a little bit about yourself and your dogs
Dianne Ford (DF) I live in Canada and I've been training and competing in agility since 1994, primarily with Agility Association of Canada (AAC). I've had three agility partners - all of whom have taught me a bit about jump heights.
My first dog was Brooke, a crossbreed Alsatian/Doberman/Lab mix who measured at 24in / 61cm at the withers and had phenomenal conformation for jumping. We competed together from 1994 - 2003, and she earned five agility titles before retiring at the Masters level. Baxter was my second partner. He was a large-boned Welsh Springer Spaniel (WWS). He measured 20in / 51cm at the withers and had less than ideal conformation - large boned and a bit too long in back - but he was exceptionally fit. Kelsey, my current partner, is also a WSS, measures 18.5in / 47cm and has a phenomenal conformation for jumping. Some call her my 'flying squirrel' as she really soars.
KJ: What's the situation with jump heights in Canadian agility?
DF: The AAC has four height categories. Back in the 90s they added some new classifications, specifically regulars, specials and veterans to allow for more inclusivity and extend agility careers safely. Specials and vets jump a lower height, for example, and veterans get more time.
The current AAC heights are:-
KJ: What was your own experience?
DF: Back in the 1990s, our Large height was 30in / 76cm, which meant Brooke was jumping 6in / 15cm above her withers. She could do it, but I had to do a lot of work to strength her rear and ensuring she was fit and generally healthy. When AAC lowered the heights to 26in / 66cm, I immediately noticed a difference on the course with her. Our speed picked up, and she exhibited more joy on course. Again, as she aged, I moved her to Specials - we didn’t need extra time - and the sparkle came back. We were able to get her final title before she retired.
Baxter was never built to jump full height. His measurement put him into 22in / 56cm which he could manage, but I could see it was taking a toll on him - emotionally and physically - so before we started competing I made the decision to keep him in 16in / 41cm Specials. He had a phenomenal agility career, and he was doing it right up to the day before he died. The joy on his face was paramount to me, not proving he could jump his regular height.
Kelsey's measurement puts her into our 22in height category which is 3.5in / 9cm above her withers. Technically, she could leap over 26in but that would be 7.5in / 19cm above her withers. After watching what happened with Brooke after moving from jumps that were 6in above her withers to 2in above, I won't even consider putting an even a greater differential onto Kelsey. In my opinion, it wears out their body that much faster, and moves it from a fast, competitive, fun sport to do with my dog to a purely competitive one. The 26in large height is also deterring me from training and seeking World’s l(FCI) evel with Kelsey which was commented to me as something I should consider from two of Canada’s World’s level competitors (WAO and IFCS with the Midi height still being an interesting option.)
I have never heard any discontent about the four heights – and I have competed across nearly all of Canada from Alberta to Newfoundland. The 22in height bracket tends to have the Border Collies, Spaniels, mixed breeds while the 26in bracket tends to have the large BC, Shepherds, Standard Poodles, Labs, Goldies, Dobermans and large mixed breeds.
One difference I've noticed between Canada and the UK is the huge variety of dogs in agility. It might have to do with the four heights, or it could have to do with the basis of moving up / titles. Regardless, I know if I lived in the UK, I am sure that Brooke would have done just fine, but Baxter would not have been able to have had a competitive agility career and earn all the titles he did. And I'd have some serious thinking about whether or not I'd have competed with Kelsey at all. If we did, hers would certainly have been a shorter competitive agility career, say four or five years as opposed to the 9-11 years that I've had with my past teammates.
KJ: Can you tell us how this translates to the international stage? If a person with a phenomenal dog wishes to compete at FCI worlds, but their 18in dog normally jumps at 22in nationally, can they qualify? Because that size dog would be large at FCI....
DF: For Canadian teams who go international, members of the 22in group basically make the decision whether that's a route they want to go. If the dog's overall health and physical strength can support it, then they would do specific training prior to the international event to up the jump height - something that with basic jumping foundation isn't that hard to do. Any Canadian international-level competitors with 22in dogs would do / have done the 26in heights at international competitions. It is a very conscious decision, based on fitness and seen as a short-term blip in the dog's agility career rather than the permanent, multi-trial, multi-year height.
JK: Interesting... so competing nationally at 22in doesn't preclude you from trying out at 26in?
DF: In AAC the jump height, as determined by your dog's measurement, is the 'minimum' height it may enter. The handler may choose to run the dog in a higher jump height i.e. I could have chosen to enter Kelsey in a trial at 26in height. I have yet to see someone choose to run their 22in dog at 26in, and that's after nearly two decades of competing. However, it would allow those preparing for an international competition to enter an AAC competition at the international height. I can't honestly say I know of anyone doing that though - it's usually an out-of-trial training issue, not a competitive issue.
Whenever there are major changes like this, it does lead to heated debates. It was no different in the AAC when the new, lower jump heights and weaving spacing were instigated or the Specials / Veterans categories introduced. But after implementation, I can't say I've ever heard any further complaints as the benefits for the dogs are so apparent that it overrides any other issues including investment issues for equipment etc. Now people and their dogs can play longer and more people can play, which ultimately brings in more finances to clubs/businesses. Plus, everyone is happier when their dogs are fit, happy and healthy. That's a little simplistic, but that is what I have witnessed over the years.
JK: Thank you for your input: It’s immensely useful to find the view of someone who has been here ahead of us and has seen both sides of the argument.
DF: Thank you. I hope it contributes usefully to the debate.
Dianne’s background includes a Psychology degree and several years as a competitor in equestrian competition.
First published 22 November 2012