Course Analysis Seminar Thoughts

12 Jul 2010Steve Schwarz

Updated 2010-Jul-18 with some clarifications in green.

I’d love your thoughts on my rough plans for a course analysis seminar. Recently I’ve been asked to give a couple agility seminars: a competition level handling seminar and a course analysis seminar. I found there are two main types of agility seminars: handling seminars and skills/foundation seminars. In recent years, there have been handling system specific lectures and seminars. But I don’t think I’ve heard of any seminars focusing on course analysis.

So I’ve been thinking about how best to design such a seminar. My first thought was that would end up being a mostly lecture and demonstration format seminar which might be too “hard core” for all but the most agility-nerdy of handlers. Also an analysis is best tested/verified/rejected by running the course.

My goals/philosophy for this seminar would include:

  • Help handlers see multiple handling alternatives and identify ones that are appropriate for their current and future teams.
  • Help handlers "see" the course, the dog's path and imagine handling approaches given a course map.
  • Identify patterns and handling approaches associated with them.
  • Identify discriminations, handler restrictions, and other course elements.
  • Evaluate/rule out handling approaches after seeing the course set up (the set up never matches the course map exactly). You can validate your thoughts from the map based on how close/far the course is set up from the map. Be prepared for walking the course.
  • Tweak the fine points of handling while walking the course.
  • Validate handling approaches for each team after seeing the course run. Was it an execution problem or was the analysis faulty?

I’m thinking that it is important that we analyze more than the 2 or 3 courses/sequences you might encounter in a handling seminar. I’d put a number of patterns, challenges, etc into each sequence so we can talk about them. But it takes practice to learn how to analyze courses. Lecturing and discussing more sequences could be at odds with having each handler run each sequence. So here are some of my thoughts on how it might work:

I intermingle brief lectures on the theory/practical application of course analysis before we look at each sequence. I’ll need to spend some time in discussion and explanation, but I’d have any diagrams I needed prepared and printed out to save time for the students. For the morning and afternoon sessions:

  • Course is setup and cones set out for three 14-20 obstacle sequences (same equipment with three nested courses).
  • Give handlers a couple copies of the first course map (a couple pages with the same sequence duplicated multiple times so there is room to draw different approaches).
  • Ask each handler to mark up their map with at least two different handling approaches for their dog as they would run it (based on our discussions)
  • Have the handlers walk the course and then update their course maps.
  • We get back together and evaluate the different handling methods. This is another opportunity for questions/discussion. As a group we decide on three(?) methods to evaluate.
  • Three teams volunteer to run one of the selected handling methods. The point of running the course using a specified handling is to see if our evaluation criteria works for that team. I don't want to spend time fixing or improving handling or equipment performance, it is more important to spend time discussing the appropriateness of the handling chosen for that team. Each working team will run 2 or 3 sequences that day; during breaks and lunch they can try running different handling methods. This would all depend on how many working teams are desired...

We’d repeat the process for 2-3 sequences in the morning on a Standard course and then do the same thing for a Jumpers course set up in the afternoon. I think it might be a lot to squeeze into a single day… or it might be a long day.

Another idea I had was to have handler’s run the course without their dogs so we could look only at the handling. But that might lead to too many handling approaches that aren’t realistic for a handler’s actual dog partner. Although it would take any obstacle training issues out of the equation.

Yet another idea would be to have three designated dog handler teams that would run the sequences. The idea being that these teams would be skilled enough that they could handle the courses without any equipment issues and we could focus only on the analysis and not on any weaknesses in the execution of the plan. I could field teams with different performance characteristics like: dog and handler speed equally matched, dog much faster than handler (or handler working behind), and dog slower than handler (handler working in front),

handler primarily handling in front, and handler primarily handling from behind. But that would leave out people who wanted a "working spot".

Now that I've re-read this a few more times I'd like clarify a couple points. I'm not really planning on focusing on the course map asthe way to analyze a course. It is a handy tool but not required for analyzing a course. I do want to prepare handlers to excel in a trial situation. In a trial, a course map can be analyzed prior to the course being built, then the analysis tweaked once the course is built; all before walking the course. Of course walking the course gives the handler the best opportunity for analysis, but in a busy trial the handler only has a few minutes during the walk through and I like to use that time to get fully prepared to run the handling I've already planned. It can also be hard to see the dog's line on a course full of other handlers during the walk through.

Analysis and handling are inextricably connected. The main reason for analysis is to develop a successful handling plan for a team for a given course. Once you mention handling, the handling system discussions start. In this seminar I would not advocate a specific handling system; I would indicate where a maneuver could be performed and leave it to the handler to know if:

  1. their team could execute it in that location
  2. their system would allow it in that location

As an aside, in the context of course analysis I believe a handling system would primarily serve to restrict the handling maneuvers allowed (i.e. no side change on a straight line). Some system don’t disallow handling maneuvers, but they might emphasize some cues and/or execution methods over others. As a presenter I think it is important to be able to visualize the challenges presented by each course and then consider the handling possibilities that could solve those challenges. Only then would I restrict the possibilities based on the team’s abilities and handling system.

When analyzing a course for your own team you might rule out some possibilities more quickly, but that can be a two edge sword; you might end up with slower, more conservative plans rather than the more aggressive, daring plan that could win the class, make course time, earn more (MACH, snooker, gamblers) points. But enough philosophy for now...

I’m wondering if you’d be interested in this type of seminar, what type of format you’d like with respect to running the sequences, or any other comments you might have. Are there any reasons why you wouldn’t take this seminar? Thanks!

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