Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Devoping the future of UK agility

Two years ago I received support from the Kennel Club to set up a development programme designed to bring handlers new to international competition and/or young dogs under the coaching teams radar. Following postitive feedback from handlers on the 2017 Development Programme, we’re continuing to run it this year.

Like any sport at the top level, it’s important that we look out for future up-and-coming stars and share our experience and knowledge to help develop them. 

To be successful internationally handlers need their own strong support network, a lot of commitment, resources to draw on and a team of professionals supporting them; that’s what the Agility Team GB Development Programme sets out to achieve.

11 handlers and dogs have been picked from the Performance Weekend to be part of this years programme. It’s likely others will join them through the year as the coaching team ‘spot’ other dogs & handlers who we consider have the potential to be part of a future team.

Since it’s introduction many people have asked me how they can join the programme. Obviously at the Performance Weekend is one route, being spotted through the year is another. So what are we looking for?

Well its a sport, not an exact science, so there isn't a black and white answer. However to give you a flavour of what we look for...

Fast, fit, well conditioned dogs = speed, (5+ metres/per/second). Their performance is consistent (able to produce top performance equally well under pressure). They’re accurate (they make the judges job easy). They regularly produce fast, clear rounds which increases our chances of winning medals. 

Handlers who demonstrate:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of tactics and strategy;
  • Ability to perform under pressure;
  • Confident dog trainers and agility handlers;
  • They’re open-minded and willing to learn and adapt and
  • They're able to produce top level performance under normal conditions. 

We rarely get the finished, polished partnership; that’s what the development programme is about. But if we can see the potential then we will look deeper.  

Congratulations to the 11 handlers who have been picked from the Performance Weekend. The Coaching Team and I look forward to working with you over the summer.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Agility Team GB 2018

Today we have announced the teams attending the two FCI competitions we'll be competing at this year. The European Open in Austria (July) and the World Championships in Sweden (October).

After five years of being Team Manager I fully appreciate that team selection isn't an easy part of the role. Each year brings its own rewards and challenges. There will always be winners and losers but that's sport. If you play at the top, winning is fantastic and challenging to sustain, and losing becomes harder to deal with. 

Each year the Coaching Team produce their plan and objectives for the year. This sets our  course for preparing the squad and influences our team selections. When selecting we consider past performance at FCI international competitions, performance on the squad, The Performance Weekend results and of course future potential. 

This year we've had the first group of handlers coming through the Development Programme into the main squad; some of those dogs and handlers have been selected for this years teams. They've done really well considering this is a huge step up from domestic agility. 

The Development Programme was put in place to encourage younger dogs into the squad and to give experience to handlers new to international competition. Judging by the feedback we've received it's worked well and we'll repeat it again this year...with a bit of tweaking.

We've also seen juniors progressing from the YKC Team onto the adult squad and once again this year an ex junior has been selected for the adult team.

Our selection process has also evolved over the last few years. I take an inclusive position with the Coaching Team, they're experts and professionals in their given fields and as such they all have an input into our selections. Ultimately as Manager I'm responsible for our decisions, however they're informed decisions supported by the Coaching Team.

One of the many things we've learnt about bringing dogs and handlers into the team is that we need to be mindful of what's happening in domestic agility and be bold in our decisions. 

This year we're being bold with a decision to call up Marita Davies with her young dog Duka to the EO team. I've been amazed by the number of people in agility who have contacted me to check that this partnership is on my radar...they certainly have been.

Marita & Duka won't replace anyone on the team, they'll be in addition to the planned selected team as a recognition of their outstanding performance so far this year. In the past we've over-looked young talented partnerships for various reasons. We've learnt that if we see world class talent we have to act on it and not delay in getting them on the road to international championships.

Handler Fitness & Movement Coach Ruth MacGill commented.

'Handler Fitness took on a new dimension this year with the introduction of carefully selected fitness tests, with a focus on fast running and strength.  Most took up the challenge and enjoyed the competitive edge and the desire to improve.  I believe we have probably selected the fittest ever group of handlers for this year's EO and FCI Teams'.

On the dogs side we've also seen a general improvement in peoples understanding of the high level of fitness, strength and conditioning required at the top level of our sport. Team Physiotherapist Maria Johnson quotes.

 'As a veterinary physiotherapist and hydrotherapist being part of the coaching team brings the opportunity to assess, treat and work with the best partnerships in GB agility. It is rewarding and exciting to watch the development of these athletic dogs to ensure injury limitation, optimum fitness and performance'.


Exciting times ahead for the team getting ready for these two big championships and the competitions themselves.

I believe we have selected a strong team for both the EO and the World Championships capable of competing on the international stage against the best in the world. 

I'll be posting regular updates on our preparations on my blog, on the Agility Team GB Supporters Facebook Group and our twitter feed.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Part three... and final

In Laura's last blog as an Agility Team GB squad member, she shares her experience of the Performance Weekend.

Part 3 – Performance Weekend

So here is Part 3 – The final part to my Squad Day blog posts and, I must say, what a way to finish. An absolutely amazing weekend of which I was honoured and privileged to be a part of.

Performance weekend started on the Friday, so I set off Thursday evening to the hotel I had booked. Just Jade and myself – girlies together. It was very hard to say goodbye to Grace and Graham but it wasn’t going to be for long.  We checked into the hotel around 2100, chilled out, slept and woke up fresh for the Friday events.  

The Friday had the whole squad split into groups, with my group being first on in the morning, so I got to the Nottingham Trent University (NTU) early, had my photo taken and cracked on.  Vet/Physio check was first up, and we got the all clear and happy, yay.  I handed in my fitness plan for Jade which explained what I would do if she should be picked for a team.  Next stop – handler fitness.  

I was a little worried about this part as I had trapped my sciatic nerve shortly after squad day 2 and so I had not prepared as much as I would have liked. I was pleased with my results from the different tests and managed to improve from Squad Day 2 (phew).  I think I should point out here that the Coaching  Team members who undertake the fitness for both dogs and humans are amazing. They are very approachable and happy to discuss areas of concern if you have any and really put you at ease.  A real asset, especially if you’re not an overtly confident person like myself.

After that we had a practice session as per FCI set up.  We split our team into two groups, and had 30 seconds per dog on each course. This was interesting and definitely a new experience to be practicing with time of the essence to ensure you don’t go over into one of your other groups allotted time.  Great fun.  I think as a new person, this was made easier due to one person making the decision to split our group into two.  Obviously, they had previous experience of what would work well and this went seamlessly. Thanks Dave.

Once all that had been completed, we were done for the day.  Time to relax before the weekends runs.  I went for lunch with Lucie, Paul and Annette – we found a lovely pub and had a great time relaxing, putting the world to rights and building on friendships. Jade and I then went back to the hotel, I FaceTime’d Grace and Graham, heard all about their days, relaxed and went to bed early.

So, on to Saturday. Day 1 of competition runs.  I woke up, spoke to Grace and Graham on the phone, told them I loved them and started the day.  We got to NTU around 0800.  We had a briefing from Mark and our Judge for the weekend, Seppo Savikko (Finland).  As per FCI guidelines each height category had 8 minutes to walk the course which we did, and then the competition began.  Everyone appeared in good spirits and ready for the day. There was a warm up section at one end of the arena partitioned off from the course which was great to help with getting our dogs and us ready to compete. 

The first run was a jumping run, a lovely flowy course with some technicality required.  I was nervous, for some reason (can’t think why) more so than normal. I could feel my nerves increasing the closer it got to my turn. I ran the run and unfortunately didn’t connect with Jade after the long jump, sent her into the tunnel instead of over a jump and so were E’d.  I finished the run, went to cool jade down before popping her away where I took stock. I was frustrated that I had let myself become so nervous that it effected our performance.  Jade did exactly what I had asked, I let her down. I evaluated my warm up routine and preparation and tweaked this for the Agility round.  I was not going to be disheartened, I just needed to do better. 

All of the heights ran the course and then the Agility course was set up. The same format started over again, 8 minutes course walking and then competition began again.  I am pleased to say that my tweaked warm up and self-preparation routine had a positive effect.  I got Jade around the whole course clear, with 5 faults for a cheeky missed dog walk – cheeky pops.  But I was pleased, on the start line I felt a lot more in control.  The agility ran and I was so pleased to be able to actually watch a lot of the Squad Dogs from all heights, it was brilliant to watch, there are so many amazing partnerships.

Once the jumping and agility rounds had finished the coaching team tallied up the results into a running order for the “final” of the day.  Jade and I were running order 40 (ish).  This was an agility round.  We all walked the course and proceeded to run the course.  Jade and I went clear in this round and came 7th, so pleased with this considering all the competition around. Well done has to go to Sian Illingworth (large) who won this round with an amazing run.

Once everyone had completed their runs, Saturday was finished and we could all go home.  I was exhausted.  Not so much physically but mentally.  Jade and I went back to the hotel & had some food.  I then rang Graham and Grace to say goodnight to Grace, who had been at a friends birthday party.  She was extremely tired, really beside herself and crying for me to come home. This killed me, I felt so bad that I was unable to be there for her.  I asked Graham to come off the phone as I was not helping her, to get her settled and let me know when she was asleep. I considered driving home to see her and coming back the next day but that was silly, by the time I had got home, she would’ve been asleep.  Graham text half an hour later and she was settled asleep in bed.  Right then, Grace was asleep and fine, brush off the emotions of guilt, worry etc. and carry on.  Jade and I went to bed to prepare for Sunday.  

We got to NTU early on Sunday as Sunday involved not just Squad dogs but a number of G6-7 dogs from all heights to compete alongside to try and make development squad.  I decided not to ring or speak to Grace that morning, I didn’t want her to get upset, but I also knew If I did, it could affect my performance during the day and I would be going home that evening anyway so would see her then.  I spoke with Graham, everything was fine so onwards with the day.  

The format followed the same as Saturday.  A briefing from Mark and Seppo, 8 minutes course walking per height and competition started.  As per Saturday, jumping was first.  Jade and I warmed up and had our run.  Again, amazing courses to be able to run, they were flowing and required skill from both dogs and handlers.  The dogs path seemed the main focus in these courses which was brilliant.  Jade ran well, however didn’t initially see a blind tunnel entrance (unusual for her), maybe I should’ve driven her more into it, hindsight is a wonderful thing.  This then briefly unfocused me and I pulled her off the next tunnel entrance by layering a jump… I never layer (oops), which resulted in a 5R and some time lost. But we continued for the rest of the course which she did beautifully, so I was pleased with how she was working considering how our training in preparation for this weekend had been impaired by the weather.  

I left the jumping run happy, but again, I needed to do better – I also left the jumping runs in a worse state then I had started.  I had tweaked my left quad, not sure how and not sure what I had done, all I knew was that it really hurt.  I iced it and made sure I stretched and cooled down well, knowing full well I had one more run to do and did not want this to jeopardise my run.  After the jumping round came the final for the ‘win on spot’ for EO’s.  The finalists for this were picked from squad day 2.  So pleased I got to watch this, the competition was fierce, with everyone really pushing. A really interestingly put together course for this final.  Well done to the winners of this, truly inspirational to watch and well deserved places.  

After the final, we had lunch while the last course of the day was set up, the Agility round.  Again, the same format, 8 mins per height to walk and then the competition began. Larges were last with this round and so it was nice to be able to watch the other heights attack the course. Again we prepared, warmed up, I warmed myself up more than usual as my leg continued to hurt and we gave it our best shot. We went clear, yay, well done pops! Once we were over the finish line, I was in agony, hobbled out of the arena, cooled jade down and found Lucie’s ice pack for my leg (thanks Lucie). I went back into the arena to see how the agility was progressing and it was very nearly over.  Out of around 100 dogs, Jade came 16th, and out of the squad dogs who went clear we were 5thor 6th.  I was so happy with this.  I’m under no illusion that Jade is the fastest dog out there but she is consistent (any mess-ups are mine) and she tries her best.  There are some amazing dogs and handlers out there, not just on the squad but as Sunday showed the G6-7 dogs from all heights.

Once the larges finished, this closed the Performance Weekend.  So, I said my goodbyes and thank yous and drove home where I gave Grace a big hug and a kiss (even though she was asleep), she didn’t even wake up. Takes after her father J.

Upon reflection, the Performance Weekend alongside Squad Day 1 and 2 have been amazing events, ones I will never forget being a part of.  The coaching team put so much effort into the running of it, and they all ran seamlessly – so well organised.  Thank you everyone for this, I do not envy you having to choose your teams, with so many fabulous dogs and handlers to choose from.  The courses set over the weekend were brilliant and loved every minute of running them.  The weekend has left me exhausted, but in a good way.  It has given me a lot to take home to think about and also be proud of.

This leads me to finally say, well done to each and every one of you, whether you went clear, got faults or were E’d – Everyone looked amazing and you are all an inspiration to watch.


Monday, 19 March 2018

The search is over...

The search to find my new Team Assistant is over. I'm pleased to announce that we (The KC and myself) have appointed Rebecca (Becky) Sargent into the position. 

I've worked with Becky in the past and obviously know her as an agility competitor. Becky brings a wealth of experience from the equestrian world and her own unique character and ideas to Agility Team GB. 

I'm looking forward to working with Becky as we support this years teams and develop future squads and teams; particularly with the exciting prospect of the UK hosting the EO2020. 

I'll let Becky introduce herself...

What an honour! As I start the 2018 season in a new position of Agility Team GB Assistant I cannot help but think myself as incredibly lucky!

I have always had an interest in sports. From a young age I participated in national and low level international athletics, before moving into the equine sector where I spent more than 20 years competing and being a trainer both national and international. I feel honoured to have grown up in this industry competing with and against family dynasties (Whittaker family) in show jumping and with the king and queen (Carl and Charlotte) of the dressage arena. 

The performance pathways demonstrated the investment and development of the equine world. There were two stages to the system then with a world class start squad and a world class potential squad. The idea being that you move from the start to the potential. 

The world class performance pathway was something put in place and monitored by the BEF (British Equestrian Federation) and as such provides equine and human athletes in the Equine industry with a wealth of knowledge and experience to hopefully produce medals in the future. It has changed significantly since I left that industry and now operates a coaches and centres pathway as well to help capture the grass roots talent available here in the UK.

I am looking forward to bringing my ideas and experience into the world of Dog Agility. From my experience in agility and going abroad with a fabulous team, I am excited to progress this further and help to develop the squad so that we can become unrivalled with the rest of the world.

Most importantly to me is an inclusive, informative and forward thinking team to help drive everyone towards the common goal of achieving medal successes throughout International Championships.

I am really excited and looking forward to working with the rest of the Coaching Team, handlers and dogs to make 2018 and amazing one.

Thanks Becky.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Striving to improve

This week I'm pleased to say that a previous guest blogger Laura has written another blog after the second squad day. I hope you enjoy reading about Laura's experience. 

Squad Day 2……

After Squad Day 1 and the blog post I wrote, I’ve decided to write a second blog post following up from Squad Day 2.  These are some of my first blog posts and I’ve found they’re great for reflection.  After Squad Day 1 I had a little more insight into how the format of these days, meaning I didn’t feel quite so nervous as I did for the first time around.

So as per Squad Day 1, I was up at 04:30 and on the road by 05:00. 
I Arrived around 07:30 in time to help set up and to let Jade stretch her legs before the day’s activities commenced.  The day was packed with items for both canine companions and their handlers.  The morning was aimed at us handlers, with the afternoon being all about the dogs and our partnerships together.

First off, a small introduction regarding the day and then we all split into our pre-arranged groups.  My first stop was vet check and physio.  Now what I didn’t mention in my first blog post, was that during Squad Day 1 the vet/physio felt something unusual on Jade near her back end, which led me to take Jade straight to SMART clinic. We worked closely with SMART for Jade’s conditioning and fitness since her accident at KCI last year, Tace Allen (our regular physio), and our registered vets to find out what this was.  It was a false alarm (talk about relief from me!) and we had the all clear from everyone to continue with our training programme so persisted with our aim to be fitter by Squad Day 2. 

Because of all this, I was a little apprehensive about the vet/physio check, even though my regular physios were happy with Jade.  I needn’t have been.  They were pleased with her progress & fitness, giving us the all clear (another huge sigh of relief).  While others were having their dog’s vet / physio checks, we were tasked with a rather large (approx. 35 questions) questionnaire.  These were not your “normal” agility questions – they ranged from knowledge of countries, dates & judges of the different world championships, to proprioception and canine anatomy and FCI rules & even harness types.  A great exercise for team building while we all worked together (I mean on our own Gina J) to answer these questions. Oh, and well done Lucie, who I believe won. 

After the checks came handler fitness eeekk!! Anyone that knows me, know I try to stay fit, not only for agility but also because I really like food.  I managed to shave a few tenths of a second from my previous scores, which I am pretty happy about! This was helped by the encouraging tones of Lee Gibson and Dave Munnings shouting for me to run faster – great team spirit.  So I am pleased… all that hill running over Cleeve Common with the dogs is paying off (although I’d be lying if I told you I enjoyed it).

After handler fitness was an update from Mark, which similarly to last squad day was very interesting and informative. This was just before lunch so after this I spent 45 mins taking Jade for a little wander to stretch her legs and let her go to the toilet etc., ready for her afternoon of fun.

The afternoon consisted of a practice session (if we wanted to), so I took the opportunity to put Jade through an FCI type tyre as this is something that she had not seen before.  She handled this beautifully, so I was very pleased.  I didn’t feel I wanted to practice anything else so I cooled her down after this and waited for course walking.  

Jirina Mackova set 2 great courses, one agility and one jumping.  

These had technicality but in a way that the dogs were able to open up with some obstacle discrimination added in for good measure J.  These courses were set to run to enable the management team pick the top number of placed dogs to go through to the final for a ‘win on the spot’ place for the EO’s.

We all had an allocated time to walk the course then it was time – smalls first, then mediums and finally the larges.  Jade ran beautifully for me, I on the other hand was quite nervous.  She put in a great round, however I lost connection with her and so lost around 3 seconds – she thought I was sending her to the weaves for a second time when in fact I wanted her to turn left… oops.  Bless her though, even though she really thought I asked her for the weaves I managed to pull her off them and correct her line for the dog walk.  So a clear in the agility but lost a lot of time.  I needed to put in a good performance in the jumping to be in with a chance of a spot in the final.  

The jumping followed the same format & order of dogs running, enabling me to ensure she was cooled down from the agility and warmed up again appropriately for the jumping.  Again I couldn’t fault Jade, she, as always works so hard.  I miss handled one jump which caused her to have a pole down (very unlike her, but completely my fault), so 5 faults.  Oh well, we tried our best.  Looking at her time if we hadn’t have had the pole we would’ve made the final, so I took comfort in that.  Having said that, at the end of the day, I was not disappointed – this is our first year going through this process and am pleased with how it is all panning out.  Everyone is very supportive and I am really enjoying and honoured to be a part of it. 

So, next stop is Performance Weekend in April.  We will take the lessons learnt from Squad Day 1 and 2, and as ever strive to improve and see what PW brings.

Thanks for reading.

Laura Hope

Feb 2018