Imagine that you’re responsible for fielding an American team to compete at the FCI Agility World Championship (AWC), held each year on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and subsidized by the AKC. How do you ensure that you are fielding a competitive team each year?
Determine Your Goal
First, define the qualities of a “competitive” team. Are you trying to earn medals or maximize your number of clean runs? Do the medals for team and individual have equal value? While the AKC may view all medals equally, most competitors will probably value individual medals more. Ask anyone, “Would you rather win an individual bronze at AWC (your jumpers and standard runs combined) or a team gold where you faulted in both runs but your teammates did very well (the best three of four runs are counted in team for jumpers, and the same for standard)? “
Ideally, any team you put together will be both consistent and fast, but if you’re forced to pick one or the other because of a lack of depth, which would you choose? For example, you have one spot on the medium team left to award, and you have to choose between a moderately fast but highly consistent dog (90% Q rate) versus a very fast dog with running contacts but a much lower Q rate (30%). Your moderately fast consistent dog will give you two clean runs 81% of the time but has no chance of finishing in the top 3 of any run at AWC. Your fast, inconsistent dog will give you two clean runs only 9% of the time, but when they do, they are almost guaranteed to finish top 3 overall. Which dog would you choose?
Establish Your Vision
Think about the next ten years. Are you building a program that is looking to improve handlers and dogs over time or are you starting fresh each year when you pick your team? If you’re looking to fill the team with the best handlers and dogs from the qualifying year, you SHOULD NOT look at previous results from ANY events before the qualifying period as they do not reflect the performance of the team within the last year. Otherwise, you will create legacy handlers and dogs, where reputation based on runs from the past can trump actual performance over the past year. This is problematic because it creates a sense of unfairness about the selection process, and you will occasionally pass over young, inexperienced but superior teams to the veterans you select in their place based on legacy. Google the phrase recency bias.
Your Tryouts Should Reflect Your Goal and Vision
The courses at tryouts should probably be on par with what your team will see at the actual event. Knowing that the bulk of your tryouts competitors are relatively weak on international courses (compared to other countries), will you make your courses easier, either by designing them yourself or pressuring the judges you bring in for tryouts?
Your tryouts will also affect the future. Paradoxically, a team that barely qualifies for tryouts and does poorly may have a handler who will be a great future world team member, but with a different dog (or even the same dog). Ideally, you’d identify and help these handlers develop their training and handling skills. Fostering a nurturing environment at tryouts will encourage people to test their skills and then go back home and improve.
Determine Your Selection Criteria
What’s the best way to compare different handlers and dogs? Gather them all in the same place, at the same time, and have them run the same courses—the more, the better. This will reduce the luck factor, as nearly any dog is capable of having a clean run on a very difficult course, but fewer dogs will be able to duplicate that performance on multiple difficult courses.
Should you consider results from AKC Nationals? No, for two very important reasons. First, a large number of the dogs who will be at tryouts did not attend the event. Second, the courses at AKC Nationals do not reflect the courses your team will see abroad. Would you pick your AKC national champion based on AKC novice courses?
Should you consider previous international experience? Maybe. The further back you go in time, the less likely those performances reflect the current skill and speed level of a team. In addition, should you hold past performances against the dog? For example, last year’s European Open team mostly struggled at all heights—at some point, should poor performances on courses comparable to AWC be penalized in the selection process? Relying on past experience simply allows handlers to ride the success of a previous tryout (recency bias), at the expense of their current performance. Finally, and most importantly, it’s not possible to use results from these events to compare dogs that attended these events with dogs that did not—you can only use those results to compare dogs that were all at the event.
Should you consider a dog’s qualifying rate from AKC trials? No. This is an easy one. Not only can you not compare dogs very well because they’re running on completely different courses, but these courses are far easier than what you see at AWC.
Should you consider a dog’s yards per second from AKC trials? No. Yards per second fluctuate widely based on standard course times that are set by judges, who often face tremendous pressure to wheel the yardage generously and design easier courses. In addition, good trainers will often use runs at local trials to train by holding stopped positions on contacts, artificially lowering their yards per second. Using yards per second from jumpers runs only would be a better indication of general speed but would not include contact performances.
Should you consider a dog’s record on premier courses from AKC trials or biathlon courses from USDAA? No. These courses suffer from the same technical problems as regular courses, with wide variations in design, difficulty, and thus speed and qualifying rate.
Objective versus Subjective Selection
Currently, two of the team positions for each height (small, medium, and large) are earned automatically (objectively) at the tryout event, that is, without any subjective input from the AKC. The remaining two positions plus the alternate are subjectively selected by the AKC, based on a variety of factors, but according to the premium and previous team selections, mostly based on performance at the tryouts and AKC nationals.
What are the advantages of having all five team positions filled automatically? First, it protects the AKC from the appearance of impropriety. Currently, the Team USA coach and AKC Directory of Agility pick the team together, and the possibility for conflicts of interest exist. The coach and/or director may have personal and financial relationships with potential team members. For example, personal students of the coach may benefit from favoritism, as the coach may decide they have potential that can be cultivated between tryouts and the actual event. The coach’s reputation as an instructor will also be enhanced, as they will have produced a world team level student. Or students of the coach may be at a disadvantage, because the coach knows their weaknesses that may not have appeared at nationals or tryouts, and believes these weaknesses will occur at the big event. In another example, the coach may also give joint seminars with other presenters, and financial incentives can wield a powerful influence on behavior, such as favoring a co-presenter for a position on the team, or not selecting a co-presenter in order to appear impartial.
Second, it protects the AKC from biases that feel true to the selection committee but may not be. For example, a coach may have a strong affection or dislike for running contacts, a specific handling system, or breed of dog, and this may impact their decision-making (perhaps even subconsciously). This also applies to experience, as the sample size for big competitions within any given year is simply too small to make sweeping generalizations about what a dog might do at the world championship under pressure, and performances preceding the qualifying year should not be included for obvious reasons.
Third, when all positions are filled automatically and the criteria are clear and known, competitors will feel the competition is worth attending as the selection process is fair to them and based solely on performance rather than vaguely defined impressions. Superior agility performance is defined by time. Does it make sense to suddenly revert to subjective opinion at the very highest level of our sport? This is dog agility, not conformation. Competitors will know the exact jump height to run in local trials and national events, and have a firm grasp of exactly how to enhance their chance of selection, spending their limited time and precious money in a way that makes sense.
Fourth, the members of the team will be known immediately at the event, allowing time for planning for both team members and people who did not make the team.
What if an inferior dog wins an automatic spot? Change your selection criteria and consider the possibility that the inferior dog is actually pretty good at agility.
What if a great dog is injured at tryouts or nationals, and does poorly at tryouts, and I really want them on the team because I think they will do great at the world championship? First, everyone deals with injury—that’s bad luck, and you can’t make exceptions for a few dogs, because then you’d have to make exceptions for everyone, in order to be fair and impartial. Second, if they were such a great dog, why did they do poorly at tryouts? If they did poorly at tryouts, they might also struggle at the big event.
The key points of the discussion here can also be applied to team selection for other events, even those held by other agility organizations. How does the AKC currently select the remainder of the team? In The Luna Effect podcast, which was recorded immediately following the 2015 AWC tryouts but before the remainder of the team was announced, we discussed how a 70-20-10 algorithm could be used to explain the team selection process over the last few years, where 70% of the criteria came from tryouts performance, 20% from nationals performance, and 10% from previous international experience. Now that you’ve learned about some of the difficulties, how would you select your own personal world team?