A change of heart...
As an agility handler of more than 20 years, Ann Harmes has seen many changes in our sport, mostly she would say for the better. It is amazing to see how agility has grown and developed - indeed beyond recognition - from when she first started competing with her crazy working sheepdog- although, some things never change! When asked to write this piece for the 4th Height Supporters Group, she thought it would be of value to canvas the views of her friends, and those whom she admires within the sport, both as handlers and professionals. Here she shares their thoughts as well as her own in a differing perspective.
Resistance to change, as in most walks of life, comes from many perspectives, and all changes are met with many views and, occasionally, controversy. I can recall, many years ago, hearing about a proposed 4th height for Kennel Club agility and, I will be totally honest, that I really didn't pay a great deal of attention. It didn't affect me at the time, so I suppose I could be accused of the 'I'm alright Jack' philosophy. If it ain't broke' (at least for me) and so on.
It is difficult, without actually experiencing something, or walking in someone else's shoes, to truly understand its impact. Many people believe that a 4th height dumbs down the sport in some way, and that 'elite performance' isn't achieved by making things easier for our dogs, but instead will in some way dilute their performance or indulge less competitive partnerships. I hope some of the comments I have gathered from friends and fellow agility handlers will help to dispel these myths.
My experience is quite to the contrary. My Grade 7 dog Noonoo has been fairly competitive. She is what I would describe as a 'capable dog' - fairly talented but not one that would appear in a list of top UK agility dogs. Nothing wrong with that. I am incredibly proud of her. However, after qualifying her for the World Agility Open, where she ran at the lower height of 550mm, I had what I would describe as an epiphany! The difference to her style of jumping, her ability to use her drive and athleticism for getting around the course was quite something! Not only did Noonoo excel at this height, but it also opened my eyes to other dogs on a world stage that can only be described as incredible!
I was watching what I would consider to be the most competitive and exciting height category I had ever seen. This was not dumbing down in any sense of the word. It was incredibly skilled and exciting! These dogs were awesome! I talked to other handlers running in this category from the UK and abroad, and they all seemed to feel the same. I can see why there is now a strong movement in Europe to include a lower height and understand many countries - just like the UK - want to move towards its inclusion.
The tide is definitely turning, and those with informed opinions and experience just know this is right for smaller 'Large' dogs.
I am very grateful to Charlotte Harding, with her dog Ag.Ch. Rujaff Red Hot Scandal, for sharing her thoughts with us, and providing such an insightful view.
A great insight into a changing view on jump heights, and how Charlotte's international experience has influenced and altered her view of how a 4th height would and could benefit dogs in the UK.
Following my own change of heart, I have been aware of many well known handlers expressing the same views, and I expect that this is primarily driven by opportunity from European competitions such as the World Agility Open, the IFCS, and the increase in popularity of these events. Live streaming, Youtube and social media has made it possible for Agility to become a worldwide community that we can access and be a part of.
We can now watch the FCI competitions from the comfort of our laptop, analyse runs, and all become ‘armchair experts'. However, I am sure that the growth in such opportunities has also resulted in an increased awareness of the excitement that the 550mm height category brings. Watching handlers such as Karen Marriott, Niina-Liina Linna and Jess Clarehugh at this height cannot help but cause goose bumps to those who watch! So it is no wonder that the European forums are frequently flowing with questions from handlers asking why they also don't have the opportunity to run their dogs on a 4th height.
Here are some comments from Jane Ellen Christiansen from Denmark, a former FCI World Championship team member, who feels passionately about the inclusion of a 4th height in the future of agility:
Another UK handler to inspire me with her smaller than average BC is Lauren Langman. Her dog Tiki is, for me, a model example of an amazingly athletic BC. She has very short legs, and even though she can hold her own in Large Championship agility, she cannot be very much outside the Medium measure. I have had many discussions with Lauren over the last two years about this issue and I know that she has supported the inclusion of a 4th height in KC agility for many years, both from an inclusive point of view and a competitive view.
Lauren feels that this will allow all breeds and types to stay in the game and she firmly believes that it is not only attractive, but vital for the broad and well rounded growth of our sport. Lauren and Tiki have qualified for the IFCS GB team for 2015 so they will most certainly have their moment on a world stage at a height that I am convinced will ensure that this little dog will shine!
As competitors, we are always concerned with the health and wellbeing of our dogs, and I have always taken the time to have the conversation with regards to jump heights with the individuals who I respect from a health perspective. I recently took the opportunity to address Dr. Christine Zink on the subject at a seminar I attended entitled The Canine Athlete, and was pleased that she was happy to confirm my growing belief that it is better for these smaller Large dogs to jump a lower height. Indeed, she was surprised that anyone would not think that this was the case. My discussions with Lydia Critchlow endorsed this view also.
Evidently in Canada and the US, the opportunity for dogs to jump a range of heights is available, and indeed world renowned trainer and competitor Susan Garrett echoed this sentiment which I felt I must share as it most certainly sums up the notion of ‘why on earth not?'
Another very important view on this subject are those expressed by our measurers, and it is no coincidence that many of them feel so strongly about the need for the inclusion of an additional 4th height, I asked Jackie Kenny to provide me with her view as a KC measurer and here is what she had to say:
I do find it quite sad that there is currently no place for these dogs in KC Agility, despite the mission statement of the Kennel Club supporting 'Fit for Function' as a philosophy and yet so many fall through the discriminative net.
I find it interesting that the prospect of research has been held up as a way forward, and whilst no one would honestly suggest that this was a bad thing, it is certainly not a good thing if it is used to kick the support for such a change into the long grass. We now find two years on that reportedly nothing has been done in this respect. I found fellow agility competitor and friend Dr Audra Hurst's comments interesting, especially coming from an academic perspective.
The positive note to draw my thoughts to a close is that we now have an opportunity to vote. There is now a proposal placed on the January Agenda for the Agility Liaison Council for a 4th height in KC Agility. I do hope you have found some of the detail interesting and thought-provoking. You may have guessed it is something I feel quite passionate about, and I know there are many agility handlers who feel the same, some of whom have contributed here. If you would like to see our agility flourish and move on with growing current opinion, please don't forget to go along to your regional meeting and have your say.
For more information about the 4th Height Supporters Groups, visit http://areyou4it.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/123817961094745/ or email: email@example.com
Ann now competes at Championship level with her own dogs Noonoonog and Darleyfalls Woof with a good degree of success, representing Wales at the WAO for the last four years and qualifying for many major events.
Ann also runs and sponsors the Camddwr Cup, a national Agility Series culminating in a Grand final held at Malvern as an annual event. She is also Director of Camddwr Canine Ltd, a well established business providing quality products for sporting and active Dogs.
Ann has provided individualised training in the UK for the past 15 years, offering bespoke training days, seminars as far afield as South Africa, and specialising in an individualised approach to training.
First published 3 December 2014