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Bad Dog Agility’s 2019 Westminster Wrap-Up

We have collected the course maps and results and archived them here so you can find them easily.

On Saturday, February 9, 2019, over 300 dogs competed at the 6th Annual Masters Agility Championship at Westminster and Bad Dog Agility was there to see it (and compete in it). The event was held at Pier 94 in New York City and was crowded by the public–check out the video below for a look at the venue. I would love to see the event moved to a larger venue in the future, perhaps to Madison Square Garden.

The Finals were broadcast on Fox television the following afternoon, and Perry DeWitt and Verb captured the overall Masters Agility Champion title in addition to winning the 20” class. Lisa Topol and Plop earned the honor of highest finishing All-American dog.

This year, the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) donated $5,000 to honor the Grand Champion (overall winner) of the Masters Agility Championship, to be given to the AKC training club of their choice or the AKC Humane Fund. The WKC also donates $5,000 to the AKC European Open Junior Agility Team and gives an additional $1,000 donation in honor of the Highest Scoring All-American Dog, as well as the 4 remaining 1st place dogs in their height classes. Payment of this donation will be given to the AKC Agility Training Club of their choice or the AKC Humane Fund.

The quality of competition was excellent–despite drawing on a small pool of barely 300 dogs, the Finals at Westminster resembled the Finals of the AKC National Agility Championship (which draws between 1000-1500 dogs), with top-ranked dogs in each height representing the best of their breeds. Each of the winners would be obvious contenders for placements at the NAC, which takes place next month in Tulsa.

Judges

Ms. Christine Bishop of Port Charlotte, Florida and Mr. Steve Croxford of Leicestershire, United Kingdom designed very nice courses. I especially appreciated the long, subtle lines in the Finals course design which created instant drama for the audience. Without mistakes and near-mistakes from some dogs, the Finals would be far less interesting.

Finals Results

Let’s take a closer look at the Finals, where a W (off course) resulted in a 5 second penalty and an F (missed contact, dropped bar) resulted in a 10 second penalty which was then added to the time of the run. Placements were determined by total time after penalties were added, so it was possible that a faulted dog could beat a dog that had run clean.

The 8” height class was won by Andrea Samuels and Papillon Gabby who put in a wild run (with a time of 39.31) but managed to hang on for the win, beating out Betsey Lynch and papillon Lark who incurred a 5 fault during their run (38.20+5=43.20). Lark finished as the #2 papillon in our PowerScore rankings for 2018. Andrea has appeared regularly in these Finals over the years, sometimes appearing with multiple dogs. Gabby finished 2018 as the #3 papillon by PowerScore, a great accomplishment for a dog that is just three years old. I look forward to seeing this match up again in future years.

The 12” height class was won by Ami Sheffield and Miniature American Shepherd Pixel (33.45) who beat out defending champion Laura Dolan and Poodle Pre (35.10). Pixel was the #1 Miniature American Shepherd by PowerScore in 2018 while Pre was the #3 Poodle in 2018. Both dogs featured fantastic running contacts, and the outcome reflected their performances over the last year, with Pre averaging 4.83 yards per second and Pixel averaging 4.97 yards per second on standard courses in 2018. This was Pixel’s first time at Westminster, and she brought the win back home to Omaha. A split from the Australian Shepherd, the Miniature American Shepherd continues to rise in popularity as a breed, finishing 35th in AKC registrations 2017. Australian Shepherds were 17th.

The 16” height class was won by Bad Dog Agility Instructor Jennifer Crank and Border Collie P!nk. Jennifer and P!nk also won last year. This year, they put in a blistering 31.23 second run and defeated 2nd place finisher John Nys and Sheltie Boss (33.33) and 3rd place team Chip Gerfen and Miniature American Shepherd Trudi (34.29). P!nk finished 2018 as the #2 Border Collie by PowerScore. John Nys and Boss were the #1 16” Sheltie by PowerScore while Chip and Trudi were the #2 Miniature American Shepherd in 2018.

The 20” height class was won by Perry DeWitt and Border Collie Verb. Just like last year, the top 3 finishers in this class went BC, BC, and Aussie. Verb (32.05) finished ahead of Kimberly Stuber and Border Collie Fallon (34.21) while Dave Grubel and Australian Shepherd Boca (34.94) took third place. Perry and Verb were awarded $5000 by the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) to be donated to the AKC training club of their choice or the AKC Humane Fund. You can listen to Perry talk about her Westminster experience on our podcast.

The 24” height class was won by Erin Stumler and All American Dog Harley who posted a time of 43.92 and then watched dog after dog come up short. Previous Westminster winner Amber McCune and Border Collie Kaboom nearly made up their 5 second penalty (40.63+5=45.63) to steal the win but settled for second place. Anita Justinus and Poodle Isaac took third with a clean run (47.57). Isaac was the #3 Poodle by PowerScore in 2018.

The Broadcast

Last year, the broadcast was moved from Fox Sports 1 to Fox resulting in a 369% increase in viewers to 1.46 million. This year, the Finals were again shown on Fox, and the audience increased by 11% to 1.622 million. I watched the entire broadcast and here are my thoughts:

  • Nadine Sierra sang the national anthem beautifully.
  • If you are not running the heights from big-to-little or little-to-big, it’s odd to me to start with the 20” height class given that the likely overall winner will come from that height.
  • Every dog that ran in the live Finals appeared in the broadcast, which is significant because in past years some Finalists were left out. The possibility of appearing on TV is part of the incentive for entering the event.
  • The microphones on the a-frame and weave poles created loud metallic rattling that continued even after the dog had exited the a-frame–turn them down or get rid of them.
  • The camera on the dogwalk is visible to the dog and caught the eye of at least one, but not as many as handlers may have feared.
  • I loved the Agility 101 pieces with Terry Simons that explain the obstacles and scoring, and wonder if they should move these to the beginning.
  • Graham Partridge as the live announcer was new this year, and he did an excellent job of introducing the teams.
  • Fox’s sideline reporter Jennifer Hale has improved as an interviewer, asking better questions of winners and enduring some serious kissing from multiple dogs. Someone led her astray on walk-throughs though, as she said they were called “visualizations”.
  • Fox’s commentator Justin Kutcher struggled at times as he doesn’t treat agility like the serious sport that it is:
    • He made bad jokes, mostly about names of dogs and handlers, referring to Bob Dole, Twix, Boston and so on.
    • He mildly slighted dogs who were slower or made mistakes like, “he prefers the modeling” and “casual stroll” and so on. For Rudy the bulldog, one of the undeniable stars of the broadcast, he said that agility was “not in my [the dog’s] repertoire” when he could have said something like, “bulldogs aren’t typically known for their ground speed, but Rudy is fantastic, look at him go!”
    • In an interview with HLN Weekend Express, Justin implies he doesn’t prepare for the event and relies on his co-host:


      At least he’s honest, but maybe he should read this article, “What Makes a Sports Announcer Great” and underline #3, “Know the sport.”

  • Fox analyst Terry Simons, an agility competitor and the “expert” in the booth, did a nice job of pushing back on some of Justin’s slights. He’s in a very awkward position because he has to provide expert commentary without alienating the uneducated viewer while playing off a partner who clearly knows nothing about the sport, even after several years of covering it.
  • Terry was at his best when he was in “analyst mode” which contrasts sharply with the “cheerleader mode” that made Greg Louganis so forgettable as the analyst for the very first Westminster. The difference between treating the dogs like athletes and circus performers dramatically influences how the viewing public feels about our sport.
  • Dog agility is a sport, not a novelty halftime show (although ironically, that’s how agility started).
  • Did anyone else notice that the dog in the Cosequin commercial was named “Quinn”?
  • All-American dog Plop was used in the Embark DNA commercial and I wonder if the owner knew about this in advance, or actually used the Embark product, which “provides insights on breed, health, ancestry, and more…”
  • I had never heard of the Yukon Vet, Michelle Oakley, but her show sounds cool.
  • Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, was one of the VIP guests at the event. He still looks sad from losing the Super Bowl 2 years ago to the New England Patriots despite having a 28-3 lead. A few days after Westminster, he bought himself a $180 million yacht, presumably to make himself feel better. Sorry, I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan and simply jealous that the Falcons have been to the Super Bowl in the 21st century.
  • Fox provided an infographic called “Fastest Dogs Regardless of Class” but never explained how the overall champion was chosen. As we’ll discuss later, this caused confusion on social media and continues to be a problem for Westminster. I strongly recommend using the dog’s overall time to determine the Grand Champion.
  • Justin was quick to point out the Preferred dogs in each height, who jumped 4” lower than the other dogs they were scored against. Terry’s explanation came slowly and was unclear. Again, there was confusion on social media. A major element of sports is the idea of fairness, and this is another issue that continues to be a problem for Westminster. At some point, perhaps as soon as next year, a Preferred dog will win a height class and even possibly the overall championship–most likely a fast 20” border collie who has moved down to 16” Preferred at the end of a career and happens to beat the 20” Finalists especially if the top 1 to 3 dogs fault. I strongly recommend eliminating Preferred entries to the event. Addendum #1: A reader brought to our attention that a Preferred dog has already won a Finals class, in 2017. Andrea Samuels and Sparkle won the 8” class while running 4” Preferred. Addendum #2: 2 readers have pointed out that by eliminating Preferred dogs, we would effectively banish some breeds from Westminster as they compete exclusively at Preferred heights. Perhaps we can expand the scoring while adding just a few more dogs, as I assume time constraints would prevent us from doubling the amount of winners by making Westminster like the National Agility Championship, with both Regular and Preferred height winners.

Can Instant Replay Make Westminster Even Better?

After each run, there was a quick replay of a key part of the dog’s run, highlighting an error or a great performance, and this enhanced the quality of the broadcast. For an event like this, adding a formal replay would add drama and legitimize agility as a sport, and I’m thinking specifically of contact calls. A 20” dog was called on a teeter, and while the faults appeared on TV, no explanation was given, presumably because Justin and Terry did not see a fault. I happened to tape this run on my own phone and watched it in slow motion so I know that a quick review ringside by the judge could have resulted in a correct call. At big events, it’s important to get the calls right, and this is especially true in the age of social media. Agility is such a fast sport that we know missed calls will happen from time to time. Officiating mistakes are a huge issue for major leagues like the NFL and NBA, with improvements to the replay system coming each year. I don’t want to see a blown contact call resulting in online backlash against the event or judges. It’s just a matter of time before (another?) bad call happens and people notice.

Social Media

The big difference in event coverage came from social media rather than the Fox broadcast. Here is our continuing track of the search term “Westminster” on Google Trends:

The interest in “Westminster” looks stable but take a look at this:

This is an all-time high in interest for “dog agility” which dwarfs the previous all-time high in interest that occurred after last year’s event! Unlike previous years, the Fox broadcast was live-tweeted by users. Several videos of different Finalists, and not always the winners, went viral with MILLIONS of views–a fantastic outcome for Fox, Westminster, dog agility, our dogs, and the fans.

Among the winners, P!nk and Verb received a lot of media attention, but several other dogs were even more popular. Social media super stars included Laura Dolan and poodle Pre:

Andrea Samuels and papillon Gabby also took the internet by storm.

Even a dog who didn’t make the televised Finals, Winky the Bichon Frise, became a social media darling when footage from the prelims made the rounds.

Among the finalists, one of the biggest winners was Rudy the bulldog. It was my great pleasure to have dinner with Rudy’s handler the night before Westminster, where I was warned that I’ve never seen a bulldog run like Rudy. Rudy’s YouTube video on FOX Sports garnered nearly 1 million views, more than any other dog.

Check out the Spanish announcing for P!nk and Rudy:

Overall Masters Agility Champion

The overall winner among the 5 individual height winners is referred to as “Grand Champion”. This year, Verb won the honor of Grand Champion with a time of 32.05. But what about the 16” winner, P!nk, who ran a 31.23 second course?

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 the 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 as a community 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.

First, let’s take a look at the actual results:

Jump HeightCourse YardsWinning TimeYards Per Second
8″ (Gabby)17839.314.53
12″ (Pixel)17833.455.32
16″ (P!nk)18731.235.99
20″ (Verb)19532.056.08
24″ (Harley)19543.924.44

By yards per second, Verb wins the overall title with a yards per second of 6.08, though P!nk had the fastest time, beating Verb by 0.82 seconds. Using algebra, we can determine what TIME would be required at each height class to equal Verb’s 6.08 yard per second.

Dust off your algebra. It’s time to solve for X where 187/X=6.08

Want to see the math?

Sarah wants you to know that she solved for X with pencil and paper at the event, but her handwriting looks like she types for a living, so we included these pretty solver steps for the math inclined.

Jump HeightCourse YardsTime to Win OverallMust Beat 20″ ByYards Per Second
8″17829.282.776.08
12″17829.282.776.08
16″18730.761.296.08
20″ (Verb)19532.05N/A6.08
24″19532.0506.08

We can see how the system is inherently flawed because it requires smaller dogs to beat the 20″ winner by a huge margin, one that’s too big relative to any turning advantage a small dog might have. In last year’s wrap-up, we calculated that the 16″ winner would need to beat last year’s 20″ winner by 0.48 seconds.

This highlights the second flaw in the system–wheeling. This year, P!nk did beat the 20″ winner by more than 0.48 seconds, as her time was 0.82 seconds faster than Verb. However, on last year’s finals course, 20″ dogs were given 3 yards more than 16″ dogs. This year, the 20″ dogs were given an astounding 8 yards (that’s 24 feet) more than 16″ dogs! If the difference in yards were the same as last year (3 yards), then Verb would have 190 yards instead of 195 and their yards per second would be 5.93 and P!nk would be the overall champion with her 5.99 yards per second. In fact, if the 20″ height class were given 4.97 yards more than the 16″ height class, P!nk would still be the overall winner.

A look at all Masters Standard runs in AKC agility in 2018 shows that the average difference in yards between the 16 inch and 20 inch height class is 4.69 yards. The 8 yards difference wheeled for this finals course puts it in the top 5% in terms of the average difference between 16” and 20” for all AKC standard courses in 2018.

Why should we care?

In addition to the uncomfortable questions that both Perry and Jennifer have undoubtedly fielded, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time answering messages and emails and comments and explaining how the winner was chosen. People are clearly confused and that’s not a good thing. Look at what happened in conformation at Westminster this year. People actually booed the Best In Show wire fox terrier because they felt that the dachshund should have won. We usually avoid this kind of acrimony in agility because our results are protected by the clock–there’s no subjectivity there.

One other consideration–a 20” dog has been the Grand Champion every single year: all border collies except for one Australian Shepherd. If we had picked the Grand Champion by time, we would have 3 different breeds and 3 different height classes represented. Does Westminster want sports fans to tune out? Less people will watch an event that has no suspense to it–look no further than this year’s Super Bowl and the constant presence of the New England Patriots.

Mark my words: agility will surpass conformation as the must-see event at Westminster. King, the Best in Show winner got 104,000 views on Fox Sports’ YouTube while Verb got 96,000 views. Rudy the bulldog? Nearly one million. Gabby the papillon on Facebook? 24 million. Our own Bad Dog Agility video of P!nk got 224,000 views on Facebook. King, the Best In Show on Facebook? I couldn’t find a video with more than 100,000 views. Fixing these issues are important for Westminster’s continued success.

Parting Thoughts

Paul Campanella, Director of Companion Events for Westminster Kennel Club does a great job–again!

In spite of the issues that we’ve explored in some depth, Westminster remains a great event for dog agility. I suspect the success of the broadcast might spark interest in the sport from other networks who find their ad revenues vanishing as the internet flexes, except in sports (I think going back to the live format of the finals could be helpful here). This may lead to the creation of new events or give Westminster more leverage when the current contract with Fox expires.

As in past years, I highly recommend that everyone compete at the event at least once in their agility careers, especially if you have an uncommon breed with some skill and speed. I hope that Westminster invests some time and effort into recruiting you to enter the event. Westminster brings agility to millions of viewers. You may be the team that brightens their day or inspires them to take a life-changing action in their own lives–like trying agility with their dog.

If you have any questions or comments (or corrections), please send them to team@baddogagility.com.

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