Sarah has collected the course maps and results and archived them here so you can find them easily.
On Saturday, February 10, 2018, over 300 dogs converged on Pier 94 in New York City to compete at the 5th Annual Masters Agility Championship at Westminster. As usual, the event was well run, well attended, and well received by competitors and spectators alike. The Finals were broadcast on Fox television the following afternoon, and Jessica Ajoux and Fame(US) captured the overall Master Championship in addition to winning the 20” class. Liza Buckner and Jefe earned the honor of highest finishing All-American dog. Everyone’s a winner, but these dogs brought home the ribbons from the Finals — more on the winners (including videos of their runs) later in this article.
This year, Westminster moved from Fox Sports 1 to Fox, resulting in a huge increase in viewership of 369% with 1.46 million viewers for the Sunday airing and 170,000 for the rebroadcast. This would have put Westminster in the top 100 of most-watched sporting events through the first half of last year. For comparison, the NBA Finals rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors on Martin Luther King Day on TNT drew 4.52 million viewers. The Australian Open final between the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, drew 926,000 viewers on ESPN. The most watched sporting event in America is of course the Super Bowl, which last year featured the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons and drew 111.32 million viewers on Fox. Can Westminster and Fox continue to grow the viewership?
Interest in Dog Agility
We’ve talked in the past about how Westminster has always been followed by a spike in Google searches for “dog agility.” The chart above shows that this year’s spike is the largest one to date. Remember that Jack Russell Terrier from Crufts? Olly went viral and triggered a huge spike in searches for dog agility, but even he has been dwarfed by this year’s surge of interest.
The crowd slowly built to a crescendo in the early afternoon, filling the bleachers that surround both rings, leaving standing room only. Most of the audience were not competitors and the constant noise and murmurs often erupted into cheers or laughter depending on the dog in the ring. The weave poles were by far the crowd favorite, but the dogwalk also brought the noise, especially in the Finals where it was the next-to-last obstacle.
The environment can be intimidating for many dogs, especially when they are unaccustomed to the crowds and noise. Even experienced dogs in the Finals found the dinosaur-like appearance and movement of certain cameras threatening, and refused to work in that part of the ring. Interestingly, Fox decided to cut those dogs out of the broadcast.
JudgesWhen French judge David Powell’s flight was delayed, AKC judge Susan Thompson stepped in to oversee the jumpers with weaves course. Eventually, Mr. Powell arrived and along with Don Farage of the United States, judged the evening’s televised Finals. Mr. Powell judged the FCI Agility World Championship in 2011 and designed a jumpers course that I’m still going over in my mind today.
Preliminary Round: Jumpers With Weaves
David Powell designed a course that will be long remembered by Westminster competitors. I admit I spent a little extra time walking this course during the general walk through. The long line after the weave poles into the tunnel was the focal point of everyone’s attention, but the rest of the course was also challenging. As Sarah put it, the course “didn’t let up” anywhere. While being difficult for this group of handlers, the course was very fast and did not have any threadles or backside wraps, but still had an “international” feel to it. I highly recommend setting up the course and running it with your friends or students.
Preliminary Round: Standard
Don Farage designed an interesting standard course that punished handlers who have to manage their end contact behaviors. He also provided competitors with a wrap choice in the closing, which is a course design element that I love to see in agility as it generates variety and tests more than simple execution of handling maneuvers. Controlling the turn at the triple in some fashion helped dogs get into the weave poles better; dogs that turned wide often missed the entry. The sharp turn from the a-frame to the tunnel generated a fair amount of faults as well.
Making the Finals with Faults
Do you need two clean runs to make the Finals at Westminster? Not this year, as several dogs advanced to the Finals with faults in the preliminary rounds. Still, dogs needed at least one qualifying run, so if they were eliminated in both runs, they were not eligible for the Finals. Competitors who passed on entering this trial because their dog doesn’t often qualify twice in the same day should reconsider for next year, especially if they have a non-border collie breed. The finals are structured to generate breed diversity. While there may be a maximum of 4 Finalists for a given breed, no breed (including the border collie) had more than 2 Finalists in a given height.
42% of the Finalists had a non-qualifying preliminary run. Looking at the top 4 finishers in each of the 5 jump heights, half of them had faulted in a preliminary run, including two height winners: 8” Champion Pink and 20” Champion Fame(US).
Finals RoundThe Finals course opened with a choice at jump #2. As I mentioned before, I really like to see choices in Finals at big events. I will be taking a closer look at this opening and trying it with our dogs because a Coach’s Eye analysis of the actual runs shows that the choice is not as obvious as I thought it was from looking at the course map. The course was fast and had enough challenges to keep it interesting for both competitors and casual spectators.
The televised nature of the Finals controlled the way it was presented. There were frequent breaks after every few dogs and the Finals lagged a bit as it approached three hours. Organizers led with the 20” class, and I have mixed feelings about that, as it is a near certainty that the overall champion will come from the 20” class. Once someone sees Fame(US) run under 30 seconds, the rest of the runs might feel anticlimactic.
Some of the dogs found the cameras spooky, especially the camera attached to a long arm in the corner of the ring, which had a negative effect on their runs. There were also cameras placed at various points on the course, including in the weave poles.
Individual Winner Profiles
Here is a link to a Fox Sports video of all 5 winning runs, the high scoring All-American from the Finals, and a dog spooked by the camera.
The 12” height class was won by Laura Dolan and Poodle Pre. A former AKC/FCI world team member and AKC National Agility Champion with her Sheltie Race, Laura combined her experience with Pre’s speed (Pre is the #4 Poodle by PowerScore for 2017) for the win, using multiple blind crosses along the way. Liza Buckner and All-American Jefe took second place, earning the distinction of highest finishing All-American in all heights at Westminster.
The 16” height class was won by Bad Dog Agility Sponsored Athlete Jennifer Crank and Border Collie P!nk. Jennifer finished second in the Finals last year with her Sheltie, but this year she debuted P!nk and they were sensational, putting up the only other sub-30 second run (29.78) besides Fame(US) and nearly becoming the first non-20” dog to claim the overall Masters Championship. P!nk beat out two outstanding dogs, Lilac the Australian Shepherd (Neno Pessoa, 31.31) and Atomic the Border Collie (Maddie Speagle, 31.74). Lilac, the #1 Australian Shepherd for 2017 by PowerScore and the reigning 2017 AKC National Agility Champion, had a brilliant run and the crowd loved Neno’s animated and vocal handling style. P!nk also dominated the preliminary rounds, winning both standard and jumpers with weaves.
The 20” height class was won by Jessica Ajoux and Border Collie Fame(US). Fame(US) was also the winner of the overall Masters Championship, which comes with a $10,000 prize that the winner can donate to the AKC agility club of her choice (the prize can also be donated to the AKC Humane Fund). Jessica also ran Bailey, a student’s German Shorthaired Pointer, in the Finals and finished 6th. Fame(US) put up a remarkable time of 29.53 to capture the win, ahead of two outstanding handler-dog teams. Top seed and Bad Dog Agility Sponsored Athlete Sarah Baker and 2-time AKC National Agility Champion Hops (Border Collie, 31.06) finished second while Boca the Australian Shepherd (Dave Grubel, 31.73) finished third. Boca is the #3 Australian Shepherd by PowerScore in 24” (although they jump 24” for international competition, their natural height is 20”). You can listen to Jessica talk about her Westminster experience on our podcast.
The 24” height class was won by Amber McCune and Border Collie Kaboom, who successfully defended last year’s win at this event, a great accomplishment. Kaboom posted a 34.52, ahead of Border Collie Smitten (Lyndsay Mulligan) and Shambhu the Poodle (Russell Thorpe), who took second and third, respectively. Shambhu was the #2 Poodle in 24” for 2017.
Overall Masters Agility Champion
The overall Master Championship Round score is calculated by taking the course yardage for the dog’s true jump height divided by the dog’s score (which is calculated using dog’s running time plus any course or time faults). Why does Westminster bother with an overall champion? In agility, we have different jump heights for a reason — we’ve decided that it simply isn’t fair to compare dogs across jump heights, but that’s exactly what a determination of an “overall” champion attempts to do.
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers. Fame(US), a top 10 Border Collie by PowerScore, ran the course in 29.53 seconds for a yards per second of 6.231. This yards per second is based on a 20” dog’s estimated path of 184 yards. However, the same course is estimated as 181 yards long for a 16” dog. This means that to beat Fame(US)’s 6.231 yards per second, a 16” dog would need to finished the course in 29.05 seconds. That’s 0.48 seconds FASTER than Fame(US).
It gets worse as you drop down in height.The 8” and 12” dogs have an estimated course yardage of 177 yards, which means they have to run the course in 28.41 seconds to beat Fame(US) — that’s 1.12 seconds faster than Fame(US). In other words, a 12” dog could beat Fame(US) by a full second (which would be unbelievable) and still not claim the overall crown. In lieu of eliminating the overall champion, the two next best options (in my opinion — there’s plenty of room for discussion here) are to determine the overall winner purely by time, or for judges to intentionally wheel the courses as close as possible. In this way, you are more likely to ensure the overall winner demonstrates a run that is as close to 100% perfect (as run by the best mythical dog in that height on that course) as possible. This avoids the scenario where a good but not great 20” dog beats out a 12” or 16” dog that runs a truly great course.
Parting ThoughtsThe impressive Fox television viewership reflects the continued growth and development within the sport of dog agility. This was our second trip to Westminster (we sat out last year so Gitchi could have puppies) and I highly recommend that everyone compete at the event at least once in their agility careers.
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