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The Appliance of Science to Dog Agility

     Supporting agility dogs with specialist lifetime cover

Isaac Newton and all that jazz...

At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that agility judge and keen observer Alan Waddington has lost the plot, but I urge you to read this series of mini-articles, They might make you change the way you read an agility course even if it does not make your financial investment decisions any easier. So hold onto your hats... here we go. The Isaac Newton Dog Training Academy presents the impact of the laws of nature on dog agility.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Let us begin by thinking like a judge.

A judge is primarily interested in the dog, not the handler. The sport is still Dog Agility, not Handler Agility. In order to test the agility of the dog the course may include jumping round to the right and to the left, with or without tight turns, to check the flexibility of the dog on both sides. There may be opportunity for acceleration and deceleration. If you are lucky, the judge will have built in choices. There might be a safer route, involving an easier approach to and/or exit from an obstacle to make avoidance of traps easier. There may also be alternative routes, concerned primarily with saving time.

The route you get your dog to take round a course will depend on a number of factors. The first will usually relate to the ability and experience of you and your dog.  You should have identified, in training, what you and your dog are capable of achieving. The decisions about the route and handling should be driven by your current skill level as a team. The time to push boundaries is in training. A competition is the time to test that training.

Deciding how to run a course can be seen as an investment decision. The theory argues that there is a link between the return which can be achieved and the amount of risk you are prepared to take. Some of us are more cautious and will make decisions which minimise the risk. Others are high risk takers of the get rich quick type. I guess that most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps we have a minimum amount we want to keep safe at all costs but are prepared to take more risk with anything over that amount. We can apply this idea of risk being linked to return, to the reading of an agility course.  Which parts of the course are the ones where you decide to take a least risk approach? Where will you attempt to gain an advantage from a higher risk strategy. It is about managing the risk profile of the course, with your investment strategy of minimising faults but posting a competitive time.

This leads on nicely to Isaac Newton, possibly the greatest ever Englishman, who described the physical property which is arguably the greatest risk factor in dog agility. In looking at how to run a course we should be aware of the gravitational pull which is exerted on the dog and brings it back to the ground. Once a dog has reached the maximum height of its jump it will begin to be drawn back to earth.

So what? I hear you ask.
We know that. Yes, I know it is obvious but let's imagine a choice on the course where a dog can take a slower straight on approach to a jump, or a faster angled approach to it. With the straight approach, a dog will have less of its body over the jump for a shorter period of time then with an angled approach. The more acute the angle, the longer the dog will be over the jump, allowing gravity to work its magic.

So, next time you walk a course, remember to check what choices the kind judge has offered you, how they fit into your investment strategy. Oh, and don't forget Isaac Newton you might stack the investment odds in your favour but you can never escape gravity!

As the World Turns, the Dog Turns

The other day, I was standing in front of the wash basin watching the water drain away. My face was covered in bits of toilet paper, drying up the blood after a not very successful shave. So much for it being the best razor in the world. The water was swirling around in a clockwise direction. Those of you who studied physics, will know that means I was in the Northern Hemisphere. More importantly for me, the water was draining away at a good rate. There was no need for any tube cleaning.

The way the water drained got me thinking. It was not a eureka moment, but the cogs had started to turn. I refilled the basin and let the water go. This time I deliberately swirled the water in an anti-clockwise motion, but it quickly reverted to flowing clockwise.

It was time to think about the phys-ical force which was being exerted on the water. Unfortunately, my last physics lesson had been 57 years earlier and there were huge gaps in my knowledge. I could have done with some help from Brian Cox, the professor, not the actor, but as he was not available, I soldiered on, on my own.

What was the strength of the force which I had observed? I discovered that a litre of water weighs almost exactly 1 kilogram. So, for someone brought up with imperial measurement, the four litres of water in my basin weighed about nine pounds. Putting this another way, this mysterious force was turning well over half a stone in weight at a decent speed. It was obviously something powerful which was at work.

One thing we used to be sure of was that physical laws are universal. We now know that this might not be an entirely accurate assumption, but it is good enough to explain the physical world on which we live. So, if this force works on the water in the basin, it must also work on people and animals and all other moveable objects on the planet.

Does this mean that it will be easier for a dog to run and jump in a clockwise circle as it goes with the force which turned our water in this direction? We all know, or think we know that our dogs knock more poles down going in one direction than in the other. Is it more likely to happen when it jumps left (anti-clockwise) than when it jumps right (clockwise)? Is it also likely to influence the dog's natural line differently? We really do need our own in- house physicist to sort it out for us.

Image result for dogs turning clockwiseThink about reading an agility course
It is not just handling which has become more sophisticated. Judging has also discovered the 21st century. Out have gone the obvious traps and sending a dog out round a jump for no good reason. Now we have greater subtlety with interesting entries to and exits from obstacles. One of my favourites is setting jumps either slightly inside or outside the natural line of a turn. Often the difference is no more than a few centimetres and can be overlooked by handlers, when walking the course, only for the dog to subsequently run inside or outside the line. I feel quite smug when this happens, but also a bit sorry. I am just a softie. I do not like dogs getting faults.

Has any of this got anything to do with our mystery force, which sends the water from my basin in a clockwise direction? It must have. So, if there is a physics teacher, agility handler, reading this, please help us out. In the meantime, I am sure that you will be pleased to hear that the various shaving nicks have healed. The water is still turning in a clockwise direction and dogs still run in-side and outside the line of the jumps. Thank goodness for certainty.

The Air Feels Heavy

The other day, I was standing at the side of an agility ring. A friend said to me that he was cream crackered. Actually, he said something that sounded a bit like that, if you get my drift. The reason for feeling as he did was that the air felt heavy.

    He said, 'Just look at the dogs. They are feeling it, too. I have never seen Grade 7 dogs who are so lethargic.'

I had not noticed anything unusual, but I had not had my first coffee of the day and was not at my most alert. I watched a couple of runs and conceded he had a point. The dogs were not performing well, and the judge was getting a bit twitchy, waiting for the first clear round.

My friend's symptoms were obvious, even to me, a non-medic. He looked as if the energy had leached out of him. He described his limbs as heavy and he had a very bad headache which had come on when the air had got heavy. It was either that or he had a hangover.

Whether the weather...
Being a curious sort of bloke, I began to mull over whether we could relate performance of people and dogs to the air pressure. We only have to watch the weather forecasts to know that air pressure varies from day to day and that high pressure is usually associated with a dry spell and low pressure brings the rain. What I was struggling with was my friend's assertion that a change in air pressure could have such a devastating impact on his physical wellbeing. I was not even sure of the parameters in which air pressure changes normally occurred. It was time to consult Mr Google.

At sea level, air pressure is approximately 14.7lb per square inch. That seems lot. If you hold your hand out it does not feel that something that heavy is pressing it down. We also know that at higher altitudes the pressure is less. Is it just that there is less air above us? It could not be that simple, could it? Nearly all the athletic jumping records were set at high altitude so there is clearly some relationship between air pressure and performance. That was all well and good, but could air pressure changes, from day to day, in this beautiful field in Derbyshire affect the health and performance of handlers and dogs?

My research showed that the range between low and high pressure will not normally be more than 3.5%, which hardly seems enough to make the air feel lighter or heavier. Perhaps the judge should have a barometer as well as a measuring wheel and record the pressure before the start of the class and consult a chart which relates course times to air pressure!! STOP RIGHT THERE. Scrap that thought. Someone might take it seriously.

My friend was having difficulty breathing and was looking decidedly grey.

'Let me get you a tea or a coffee, I said?

As we drank, I tried to find out when the air felt heavy.

"On a day like this, when it is humid and thundery."

That came as a surprise. High pressure is associated with dry, settled weather. Time for another quick Google. I had an explanation. Water vapour is lighter than the oxygen and nitrogen molecules which make up 99% of the air, leading to humid air be-ing lighter.

It still did not explain why my friend felt worse on a muggy day. Just then there was a flash of lightening in the distance, followed a few seconds later by a low rumbling noise. At least we now knew what was affecting the dogs. They must have already heard the thunder. The sky was turning darker and my friend said the air was getting heavier. It was looking like there would be an early finish to the day and an instant lake might even appear in the centre of the field.

The rings were already deserted. The rain was now torrential. Caravans were steaming up. Wet clothing littered every dry surface. I suppose we were the lucky ones. It could have been worse. We could have been sheltering in a car in the day parking. I reflected on my conversation.

    'Jan, do you think the air will feel lighter after the storm?'' I asked.

All I got was a bewildered look and an indulgent smile.

Hit, Run or Airbag Deployment

I am sure, that at some time, most of you will have been in a car which as had to brake suddenly. As the vehicle stops you are thrown forwards and will be restrained by the seat belt. In a more serious, sudden stop, the air bag might also have deployed, providing a cushioning effect. The impact on the passenger is normally felt more strongly than it is by the driver who has, usually, fractionally more anticipation time and the opportunity to brace for the stop or impact. It can be a terrifying experience, but what on earth is going on? Why are we thrown forward as the vehicle stops? To find the answer we have to consult the laws of physics and Isaac Newton, who is rapidly becoming essential reading for an agility handler.

Newton's Third Law is about every action having an equal and opposite reaction. This explains the forward momentum of the passenger in a car which has to stop suddenly. It also applies to fast running dogs doing 'hits' on contact equipment. The stop produces the forward momentum which can lead to the back feet lifting off the equipment and then settling back on the contact. This negates the supposed advantage of a 'hit' over a running contact. Going back on the contact during a 'hit' will be an elimination compared with 5 faults for a missed running contact.

In the small village of Carleton in North Yorkshire where I was fortunate enough to grow up, if two gardeners on the allotments agreed that their gooseberries had done well, then it became universally accepted that it was a good year for gooseberries. It seems to me that dog agility is a lot like that.

Photo: OneMind DogsA couple of fast dogs in a Grade 7 Large Agility class do a 'hit' and lift their back legs on the contact no, they were not having a pee. The people in the queue start discussing the issue.

  •  'It always seems to happen on 'so and so's' equipment.'
  • 'It never occurred when we had wooden equipment.'
  • 'The new equipment has more spring in it, and it is throwing the dogs off.'
  • 'Don't you think it could be the rubber contacts?''

The discussion goes on and on, almost to the point where they miss their run. By this stage, the observation of the two dogs has become a universally agreed fact that metal equipment throws the dog forward during a hit. Goodness knows what will happen once it gets on social media.

Enough of the speculation. What we know as fact is that the physical laws of sudden deceleration could cause the dog's back legs to leave the contact during a 'hit.' Perhaps it really is something worth studying, using appropriate scientific method. Or perhaps we just need a new command to inflate an imaginary airbag. That should solve the problem.

This brings us back to the gardeners. They understand that you have to work with nature to get the best results. Surely agility cannot be that much different. After all, the laws of nature are universal. We just need to ensure that we are also working with them and not against them.

Photo of dog on see saw courtesy of OneMInd Dogs

Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow

It may not be politically correct, but I have to admit to being a fan of Strictly Come Dancing. What bloke wouldn't be? You get to watch scantily clad, beautiful women without being nagged to turn the television off. The real reason for watching it though is to apply what it can teach us about acceleration and deceleration in agility. Methinks he is telling porkies! We can, however, discover something about fluidity of movement, change of pace and direction and balance from the beautifully choreographed routines. OK, so we can also fantasise about our favourite dancer.

The parallels between dance and dog agility seem to me to be obvious. In agility, the judge maps out a pattern which the handler then choreographs. The handler and dog then attempt the course. The judge waits in anticipation for the perfect round where handler and dog work together as one and create something new and beautiful. For the judge, it makes the day. Even Craig would be reaching for his 10 paddle or, I suppose because it is agility his 0 would be better.

We hear a lot of talk about flowing courses, technical courses, handler's courses and even impossible courses. In fact, there are so many adjectives applied to courses that it is difficult to keep up with the latest theme. A senior judge who had just run one of my Grade 6/7 agility courses, came up to me afterwards and said it was like a jumping course with contacts. She looked happy, so I took it as a compliment.

The message is clear
The variety of courses is mind boggling. The way they need to be choreographed and run is varied. Some will suit your dog better than others. Remember though, that once the scrimer gives you the cue to go, it is show time and the judge would love to applaud your run.

Each course will have a natural rhythm. There will be parts where the dog will need to push on and others where it will be better to hold back. You will also need to identify the level of effort needed, bearing in mind the likely need for acceleration and deceleration.

Many of you will have come across Newton's cradle which has five balls suspended in a line. If you let the end one go, gently, to hit the remaining balls then the one at the other end will move out gently as well. If two balls are allowed to swing, then two balls will move out at the other end. The larger the degree of swing and the heavier the contact, the greater will be the response.

I believe that the underlying principle of Newton's cradle is directly applicable to handling a dog in an agility ring. Stronger commands verbal or body language - are likely to have a greater impact on the dog than softer ones. So, you have to decide what you want from your dog and how you are going to achieve it. It sounds easy, doesn't it? Well, perhaps not that easy.

That still leaves us with acceleration and deceleration which are merely changes in velocity. Sometimes the shortest route may not be the fastest, particularly if it involves a tight turn where the dog has to be slowed down before the turn to avoid running on and then has to build back up to the optimum momentum. A longer option which enables the dog to keep up its pace may be preferable. You might want to use a stop watch in training to try out some examples.

Does Size Matter?

Agility handlers come in all sizes, at least according to show PA announcers. There are small handlers, medium handlers and large handlers. At Wallingford we even had Large, lower height handlers. Perhaps there are a few rugby prop forwards who have taken up agility.

It got me thinking. It usually takes a while to get the brain into gear, but something about the Large, lower height handlers had struck a chord. Once the grey matter had warmed up, I had a whole jumble of thoughts going around in my head. I do not know why it happens, but I do know that it makes my brain hot and it brings on a feverish attempt to create some sort of order out of chaos.

The crux of the matter seemed to be that in most sports and even specific positions within the same sport, you need people of a particular size and shape. Could the same be true of dog agility? If we were designing a robot to be an agility handler, what would it look like and what specific skills would you have to build in to its design? We could really do with a brain storm-ing session but for now you will have to make do with my initial thoughts.

It is true that agility handlers do come in all shapes, sizes and age. The most important thing is that they all seem to enjoy the challenge of handling a dog to the best of their ability. I would not want anything to interfere with that. Long may we be an inclusive sport. If, however, we are trying to identify elite handlers, should we be looking for specific physical characteristics?

Dog agility is not a contact sport
Did I just write that? I might just have written the agility quote of the decade. I could be famous. I think it is worth repeating. Dog agility is not a contact sport. I hear a storm of protest brewing, surely agility is all about contact. The thing is though, it does not involve any form of physical challenge with another person, except for the occasional accidental collision with a judge. Physical contact with the dog is also not allowed and will be penalised by fault or elimination. The fact that it is not a contact sport might be one criterion we build into the design of our robot.

I suggest that there are, at least, two main qualities which we must design into our robot. One is effective communication with the dog. The robot must be clear and consistent in the instructions it gives the dog. If we are honest, it is this lack of consistency which often lets down our agility runs. Unfortunately, at times, we are not even aware that we are giving contradictory messages. Videos of what we do can help us to identify problems.

The physical design of our robotic handler is probably more difficult to get right. You hear handlers say, 'you need longer legs to do these courses.' I am not sure this is true. Straight line speed is not primarily what handling is about. Most courses will involve the handler in making changes of direction, twists and turns and acceleration and deceleration. This means there is a need for the handler to be well balanced and flexible.

It is time to consider the physics involved. Better balance will come from a lower centre of gravity. This points to a shorter person being our elite handler, but not necessarily with the bulk of our Wallingford prop forwards. A taller person may have more balance issues than a shorter one and the longer levers might also be marginally slower to respond to quick changes of movement.

Perhaps it is time to take the theorising to the real world. It might be worth looking more closely at some of the most successful handlers, to see if, by observation, there are specific physical characteristics they share that contribute to their success. After that, we can continue the development work on our robot. What year will it be when a robot and dog win an agility class? Maybe we should start a sweepstake. My entry is for 2030.

After all that, it is time for a lie down in a darkened room with a cold pack on my head to cool down my brain. If I was a dog, I would jump in a water trough.

May the Force Be with You

Okay the title is not original, but what do you expect at these prices. I make no apology for using the phrase, because it sums very neatly what I have been trying to get across in the series of articles. I am grateful to Ellen for posting them on Agilitynet and would like to congratulate her on 21 years of wide-ranging information provision for agility enthusiasts.

Right then, it is time to get back to the business of science and sport. No one can doubt the contribution of science to the improvement of sporting performance. It has come in all sorts of guises from anatomy, nutrition, sports psychology, equipment design, new materials and training regimes and all the rest you care to mention.

These are what I choose to categorise as the variable elements of sport science and putting the principles into practice will often lead to improved performance. We can improve muscle tone. We can envisage better outcomes. Diet can improve our general health. All this goes for the dog as well. Okay, maybe it cannot visualise success or perhaps it can!

Agility has had many changes
Equipment has been standardised and improved. In the early days, there really was a homemade feel about it. Jump heights have been lowered. Some obstacles have been removed altogether. Weave gaps have been widened. Training has become more organised and professional. New ways of handling seem to be launched almost weekly. Some will stand the test of time. Others will soon have handlers reaching for the delete button to consign them to the waste bin.

My series of mini articles has not been about the well-trodden paths which receive widespread coverage on various forums. I have tried instead to raise a few ideas/issues about the fundamental laws of nature which cannot be changed and provide the boundaries for our life on this planet. Your first thought about this is no doubt to question why we would want to spend/waste time on something which we cannot change. It is a fair point and until I began to put my thoughts to paper, I thought exactly the same. I now believe there is mileage in investigating the impact which these fundamental scientific principles have on our sport.

The laws relating to motion, gravity and energy transference provide the limits of what is possible. If we do not understand their impact, we may be setting our sights too low or alternatively striving for the impossible. You might also want to revisit some of the examples used in the previous articles. How do we assess the relative gravitational risk of an acute angled jump, compared with a straight on jump? Is it better to turn the dog in a clockwise direction if this is an option? Does the law of equal and opposite reaction always mean that you will need airbag deployment to get a fast dog to do accurate 'hits' on contact equipment?

I am not a physicist, so I don't know the answers but there must be someone out there who does. My role has been that of a naturally curious bystander. In writing this mini-series, I hope that you have been entertained. I also like to think that I may have pushed you, just a little bit, to think for yourselves about how science can help your understanding of the sport you love.

If I see just one reference to anything I have written, I will be a happy man. For now, I will just enjoy a glass of beer. I wonder what science has to say about the best way to pick up a pint.

About the author...
Alan Waddington and his wife spend
part of the year in Spain and the rest in the UK.

He qualified as a judge a few years back and was busy on the Northern Circuit until health issues meant he could not do a full day. He has been known to judge in Spain, however, where there is only a quarter of the dogs we would judge in the UK.

In the UK he does 'sitting down' jobs, usually scriming.

Published 13th April - 22nd July 2019