Gamesmanship and Agility Trials: Turning Novice Dogs Bad Through Bad Sportsmanship

When I first began competing in agility, I came late and only watched the novice courses and was competing at 24 inches–which has fewer dogs than other heights. Now at the master’s  level and preferred 20 inches, I’ve had time to observe some bad manners common at agility trials. At best, these are cases of people being inconsiderate. At worst, this is gamesmanship. The photo above is obvious gamesmanship.

According to Merriam Webster, gamesmanship is:

1 : the art or practice of winning games by questionable expedients without actually violating the rules
2 : the use of ethically dubious methods to gain an objective

Intentionally attempting to distract other teams in the ring, should be considered bad sportsmanship but I have never seen it punished.

Trainer Denise Fenzi outlines in a blog post what good etiquette is (in case you don’t trust my judgement).  She writes:

It is absolutely possible that your dog loves everyone, doesn’t notice being stared at, and has no objections to being approached by rambunctious dogs.  It is also possible that your dog does even better in the ring when there is a dog thrashing his toy next to the entrance, but for others, any of the above scenarios can literally ruin their chances of qualifying.

Quiet But Real Close 

Ploy #1: Irresponsible Owner

A person can have his or her dog right up at the ring fence and even allow the dog to squat and pee while a dog is running toward that piece of real estate and no judge, no jump setter, no gatekeeper has said anything to that person from my experiences in Southern California AKC trials. Peeing in the ring is an automatic disqualification for the team inside the ring but peeing on the ring when a team is running is bad behavior that goes unpunished.

The first time I saw a competitor allow her dog to pee on the ring, it was a woman with a Vizsla at the Pomona Fairgrounds. She was ring side and respectable distance away and chatting with another competitor. She had competed before me and other people in our class were running. She had her dog on a long leash–not the standard six-feet, but more like 10-12-feet leash– and allowed the female dog to go to the ring, squat and pee as the competing dog was heading straight in that direction. You have to ask why would anyone have their dog on such a long leash under crowded enclosed conditions?

I learned this distraction technique was not an aberration. This September at Freedom Park in Camarillo, I saw another competitor walk up to the fence with her border collie. The border collie had a toy. The woman, a trainer who gives private classes, stayed there and chatted with her student who was seated inside the ring as a jump setter. What the student didn’t see was that the trainer purposely let go of the leash after positioning the dog on the side (right) most visible to the competing dogs. Dogs are usually led on the left side.

Competitor brings dog right up to the ring and lets go of leash.

The trainer let go of the leash, which is what caught my attention. The trainer and her dog stayed there for a few runs and the dog would from time to time, shake its toy vigorously. Yes, thrashing its toy which the student could also obviously hear.  I could hear it and I am sure the competing dogs could hear it as well. This was during a premier run where the competing dog would come down the a-frame and to the jump. The dog and trainer were there for several runs.

Let’s call this the intense-conversation-irresponsible-owner ploy. Of course, in the case of both women, they are responsible owners and supposedly know what they are doing. Even in conversation, you’re supposed to know where your dog is and what the dog is doing. A dog peeing at ringside while another dog is heading in that direction? Would that be allowed at an obedience trial? A dog shaking a toy while staring at another dog? Would you let that dog do the same to a dog in a crate? The answer to those questions is definitely no, but somehow these things happen and I’m sure happen more than once.

Reporting these actions with proof doesn’t do anything. Although I supplied the organizer of that event with the name of the trainer, the  trainer was in the ring as a jump setter the next weekend. Would you want that person inside the ring with your dog? I wouldn’t. What else can be done accidentally on purpose?

Ploy #2: Pressure on the Side

A similar strategy is standing about 3-4 feet away with one’s dog along a series of obstacles. I tried to wait for someone to finish walking away, but the person stopped with their dog. They were right along the side I intended to run with my dog over a series of jumps and they stopped just next to a table that was placed outside.  I asked the leash runner about them, but she did nothing and neither did the jump setter on the side.

Since the boundaries are marked only by a black netting and dogs have poor eyesight, it looks like the other team is competing side-by-side. This tactic of getting close to the ring on the same trajectory as the competing team is more commonly used by outside competitors when the weave poles are parallel and close to the open sides of the ring.

Sometimes you can ask a friend to station themselves there or be there with their dog facing with its back toward the ring. I saw one woman do this more than once for a fellow competitor with a dog of the same breed. Yet I did see a woman and with her dog walking vigorously back and forth parallel to the weave poles about 3-4 feet away from the ring boundaries. Whether that was to distract or prevent distraction is open to debate, but no one objected.

However, one has to wonder if these actions wouldn’t come under the regulation that prohibits:  “Outside Assistance. Interference or outside assistance that aids or is intended to aid the performance of a singular dog or handler.” There is a remedy for this: “Faults shall be at the judge’s discretion from a 5-point deduction to elimination.”

More recently, I was observing another master/excellent class (16-inch) and people knew that a Doberman and its owner were distracting the dog competing in the ring, yet it doesn’t seem like anyone took official action. A small border collie is one thing, but a Doberman is a more threatening presence for the competing handler and dog.

Someone recently told me people were supposed to stay 10 feet away, but if that’s true, it is almost never enforced. Things can get worse as I’ll point out below.

Ploy #3: Running interference

I was shocked when I saw a dog and its owner running toward my dog and I, only to suddenly veer off. This was while I was running FAST at City of Industry. That faux assault set off alarms in my rescue dog and she still barks at any dog she sees when in the ring–something she didn’t do before.  This incident was immediately after the standing man and dog next to the table. The judge must have seen it, but said nothing. The people at the table saw it and did nothing.

This ploy is especially effective with novice dogs, smaller dogs (or at least dogs smaller than the one involved) and herding dogs. It also helps if the person doing the running is larger than the owner, and thus more likely seen as a threat.

The running person obviously knew that he was a distraction because my dog was barking at him, but made no attempt to apologize.

Ploy #4: Tunnel Ambush

At another competition, I saw another woman competing with her dog at City of Industry.  The dog ran out of the tunnel and was confronted by two Cavalier King Charles spaniels who barked and lunged at the dog. The spaniels were about one-foot away at the end of the leash. The competing dog then barked back. The competing woman complained to the judge, but the judge shrugged it off. For the rest of the competition, this particular dog (not a novice) barked at every dog it saw outside of the ring.

The person with the Cavalier King Charles dogs did not apologize to the competitor (whom I spoke with). I suspect that this wasn’t the only time this person interfered with competing dogs.

When I was still at novice level, my first dog also came through a tunnel and was confronted by a woman with two white and tan Cavalier King Charles spaniels. The dogs lunged and barked at my dog, but my dog just stopped before continuing on from the tunnel to the dog walk. My husband later told me, I was penalized with a refusal. So the judge obviously saw it as did the spectators, including the organizers.

In the case of my dog, it was the second time that weekend he was confronted with something coming out of the tunnel. The other time was a camera man (and I mean a full-size TV professional style video camera) right up against the ring boundaries. The result? Another refusal, but also these experiences taught my dog to come out of the tunnel more slowly.

As a novice, I asked another competitor (and club member) what I should do. I was advised to make a report to the organizing committee which I did. However, I did not at the time consider that this might be so common place and hesitated to describe the dogs as aggressive. I see now that was a mistake.

Ploy #5: A Side of Barking

This year, my dog on the course and just about to jump, but was distracted by a woman and her black dog. The large black dog was barking and lunging at the end of its leash parallel to us. My dog stopped and looked and waited until the dog was under control and we continued. We got a refusal which at Master level means I won’t qualify. Luckily, I wasn’t so angry because we had already tipped a bar.  A larger dog might be more threatening than two small spaniels just like an average-sized human running at a petite child-sized person. No dog should feel threatened by dogs outside the ring. The competition ring should be a safe place, but not so in Southern California.

My dog no longer feels that he and I are safe inside the ring. Subsequently, when he sees a dog barking at us while we are inside the ring, he will go to the edge of the ring and barks back. This has now happened twice. Once at the end, before the final jump when we were heading toward a dog that was pulling at its leash, but the dog behind it was the one actually doing the barking (and had been barking for long periods of time Friday and Saturday) The dog was only silenced on Sunday, when I mentioned to other competitors what had happened to my dog. I had actually complained about the dog on Friday, but nothing was done. The barking dog’s owner was not a novice.

Fenzi wrote in response to those who believe that the answer is better training for the dog inside the ring:

While some of you might consider this a training issue, keep in mind that a person at the dog show may already be quite nervous, so why make it harder for them than it needs to be?  Yes, dogs should be trained to tolerate normal levels of distraction, but good manners and basic sportsmanship suggests that it’s not your place to create them.

The key phrase is “basic sportsmanship” and that something that I haven’t seen enforced or even encouraged in Southern California. People are creating distractions. The judge often sees these distractions and allows them. The penalty goes not to the person and dog team that creates the distraction, but to the competing team. Bad sportsmanship is rewarded under the current practices and if the team creating the distraction is competing in the same class or has a friend competing in the same class, there are no actual deterrents to the listed actions. Instead, by not even addressing the person causing the distraction in a professional manner by the judge, the organizers or the sponsoring club, unscrupulous competitors actually have an incentive (winning) to continue these kind of distracting actions.

Ploy #6: Stare Down

This works best if you have a border collie or, in some cases, an Aussie will do. These are breeds that naturally stare.

SCCC
Competitor brings dog right up to the ring and lets go of leash.

The trainer in the photo was counting on her dog to stare at the dog coming down the A-frame. That is, in dog culture, rude and often considered a challenge.

Numerous sites will tell you this. Canidae has an article that comments:

To a dog, a stare from another dog, animal or human is rude and can mean a challenge. When you think about it, we’re uncomfortable when someone stares at us, too. Thinking about how you feel about eye contact from another person will help you understand why it’s important to a dog. When you’re with your family and friends who know you as an individual, eye contact isn’t as intimidating because you are familiar with them. It’s the same way with your dogs

It is a known problem for owners of border collies and discussed:

Meg’s new behavior has potential to cause problems though. She moves towards a dog (not running, but moving fast) until she’s maybe 20-30 feet away and then lies down and stares…that intense Border Collie stare that makes other dogs uncomfortable.

The discussion notes that for some dogs, the lying down may be an attempt to ask the other dog to play, but it is noted that not all dogs like this approach. In the case of the border collie in the photo, it was obviously not at a down. It was standing.

Another case where the border collie stare was used was at the City of Industry. The course had a teeter pointed directly at the left-hand back corner. Two people decided to stand there with their border collie facing the teeter and staring directly at where the dog that would come down on the teeter. This was during the whole 16-inch Master/Excellent class.

Ploy #7: Bitches Seasoning the Course

My dogs are both intact males. When my dog wouldn’t leave the area before the first jump and just wanted to sniff and then continued to very doggedly sniff the course, no one cared. I knew something was wrong. When a more established person’s dog did the same thing, suddenly one of the organizers was really concerned. But that concern didn’t translate into action or compensation for those of us who had just wasted our time and money.

There is no established protocol for a ring that has been contaminated by a dog in heat. Bitches in heat are not supposed to be at the trial or compete, but they do. There are no repercussions or deterrents. There is no investigation and the competitors with male dogs are told that they should train their dogs around bitches in heat. But as I and other competitors pointed out: What does that actually mean? You want us to keep a bitch in heat just to train? Why not just enforce the rules?

Again, instead of having a protocol for the violation, there is no incentive for the organizers to insure bitches in heat do not contaminate the ring and no recourse for the owners of male dogs who would be naturally distracted. This gives a definite advantage to owners running female dogs.

It should be an all win or all lose situation. Either, all the dogs should get a qualification or all the dogs should get a disqualification. Otherwise, more responsibility should be placed on the organizers.

Think that’s unreasonable? Maybe for a sport where most of the competitors are women, but apparently not for a sport dominated by men. For example in AKC field trials, “Bitches that are in season or which, in the opinion of the Field Trial Committee, appear to be in season, are ineligible to compete in licensed or member field trials unless the premium list specifies the stake or stakes in which bitches in season may compete.” But more importantly, “Males shall not be run until the following day on any course or part of any course where bitches in season have been run.”

So what does AKC actually say about gamesmanship?

What the rules books actually states under Section 31 “Judges Responsibilities” is:

The judges must promptly excuse any handler who willfully interferes with another dog or handler, or who abuses their dog, or in any way displays conduct prejudicial to the sport of dogs and the American Kennel Club, or who disregards a judge’s direct order. The judge must report such incidents to the Event Committee for further action under Chapter 5 of the Rules Applying to Registration and Discipline and Dealing With Misconduct booklet.

The official response I got from AKC representative Jamie Gregory is:

If a situation arises it needs to be handled at the event; if you are seeing or experiencing problems they need to be brought to the event committee and the judge’s attention so things can be written up. We do not have rules against people or dogs standing close to a ring; we advocate for responsible dog ownership and encourage all well-behaved dogs to attend our events.

And yet the judge gave me a refusal and must have seen the dogs barking at my dogs as did the organizers, but nothing was done. I was unaware of the refusal in the first case until after I got out of the ring. Consider how difficult it would be for me to continue on the run and still identify the dog and the owner after I got out of the ring. Consider that a person did complain directly to the judge and nothing was done. In that particular case, because the competitor stopped at that point, the person with the dogs outside the ring could have easily been identified and addressed.

If the incidents were just a result of carelessness, the judge and organizers simply cautioning the owner of the dogs would have prevented that from happening again and also informed everyone present of the trial’s standard of conduct.

I understand that many people have problems asserting themselves, most notably when my husband’s behavior was addressed by talking to me instead of him (even though he was standing right there). That might explain why a male handler felt free and easy to dominate a section of a public park, equal to the space of two rings, in order to warm up his dog off-leash.

You have a few problems there. First it is a public park and dogs are supposed to be on-leash at all times (except in the competition ring or in the warm-up area). Second, although other competitors needed to warm up their dogs, they were forced to use the areas around the rings and thus creating more distraction. Third, one usually doesn’t flaunt a toy in front of other dogs.

I know there was a complaint made in writing because I sent an email on Saturday, but the male competitor did the same thing all three days  of the competition and competitors gave him an increasingly wide berth. That was a real win for him, but an obvious problem for the sponsoring club, the organization providing the equipment and the park. It doubtlessly left a bad impression on the people who regularly use the park.

Easy Solutions

Preventing gamesmanship requires vigilance and a degree of willingness to address problems before and while they are happening but who do you report to? Gamesmanship is made easier because the ring is often fenced off by nothing more than a net. That means the easy answer to preventing most gamesmanship is requiring an opaque fencing would cut down on the ease of distracting the competing team, whether by accident or by design.

Cautioning a person and making a notation is also an easy solution. Providing customer service that treats all competitors as equals also helps. Not addressing the problem never does.

When I first encounter a problem (ambush at the tunnel), I asked a member of the sponsoring club what I should do. I was told to write an email. I did. I got a response, but still something similar happened a few years later with the very same sponsoring club and very same organizer.

When I didn’t know anyone at the sponsoring club, I asked AKC through their agility department what would be the appropriate action (agility@AKC.org). I never received a response. When I saw more violations, I again sent another email describing the situation and asking what actions I should take. I did not receive a response.

That email is still valid and has a staff of people behind it. It actually took me challenging someone higher up the chain to get any response at all after my novice dog have been penalized for displaying behavior inside the ring that dogs outside the ring were allowed to do–barking and lunging. The odd thing about that incident is that Misty was the last dog to compete. I looked about and made sure there were no dogs in the possible weak points and then suddenly, halfway through, there was a dog and owner, alone on the left side of the ring where no one was camped out.  My husband says that the man was talking on the side where you enter and then walked to that side after I had started and let his dog bark and lunge at Misty.

The second day, the judge allowed Misty to continue. She was again last. I looked and saw no one on the right side of the ring where no one was camped out.  And then there was, what appeared to be the same team at the right side of the ring, but Misty wasn’t reacting to what she could see. She reacted to what she heard as she was through the hoop in the opposite direction.

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