Why Is Requesting Safer Agility Competition Surfaces for Our Dogs Controversial?
A Brewing Controversy
Videos posted on Facebook of dogs slipping on sub-par surfaces at two different agility trials have recently started a firestorm of debate about the safety of agility surfaces. As my close agility friends know, I have been a surface snob myself since starting to trial my sheltie, Asher, so I'm thrilled at the upswing in discussion about agility surfaces.
What I'm not thrilled about are the people who seem to feel it's perfectly fine for clubs to continue to offer unsafe surfaces for our dogs. When discussing a slippery surface, many people have said something to the effect that "agility trials have been run for years on those surfaces, so why change?" Others have argued that agility is a dangerous sport where accidents happen, so why worry about a surface?
In a third slippery agility surface incident that popped up on the agility Facebook community awhile back, a club member was rumored to have told a competitor angry about the poor surface, "It's the handler's responsibility to decide about safety, not the club's."
Whether that remark was ever truly stated or not, it begs the questions: What exactly is a club's responsibility when it comes to safety for our dogs? What is the handler's responsibility? Why do some people think it is a bad idea to ask for clubs to offer safer agility surfaces for our dogs?
What Is Dog Agility?
To learn what the sport of dog agility is, read Agilitymach's article "What is Dog Agility: Agility Information for Newbies."
Who Is Responsible for a Safe Competition Surface?
When I write and mail my check for a trial entry, what am I expecting of the club whose name is on the check? Well, I'm expecting them to truly offer the trial they posted in their premium (a premium is a basically a trial announcement). I'm expecting the trial to be on the day mentioned at the location mentioned. I'm expecting them to offer the classes they say they'll offer. In fact, I'm expecting them to offer everything they say they will in their premium (or "test" for USDAA lovers).
In the premium, there will also be a description of the surface on which the dogs will be running. In my area of the country, it's usually "packed dirt." This description doesn't really give the competitor the true safety picture. I've seen "packed dirt" mean large clods on hard packed concrete-like dirt. I've seen "packed dirt" to mean a beautifully, softly-compacted bed of dirt with the perfect one-inch layer of fluff on top, moistened just so and not the least bit rutted. I've seen "packed dirt" mean a rutted surface on one quadrant of the ring to deep sand on another quadrant to clods on another quadrant to a pretty decently prepared and moistened dirt surface on the other quadrant.
This "packed dirt" leaves much open to the interpretation of the club and to the expectation of "safety" for the entering competitor. Does a club offering "packed dirt" really need to offer the safest possible preparation of the dirt surface possible, or is it the handler's responsibility when they arrive at the trial to decide whether the surface is suitable for their dog?
Of course, the answer is both. It IS the responsibility of the club to offer the safest possible surface. If the surface is on dirt, the club should learn how to prepare the best possible dirt surface, and make it (along with equipment safety) the top priority. If the surface is on grass, there should be a plan to avoid the ring surface getting wet and becoming slippery due to rain if at all possible. If the surface is on soccer turf, mats or other unchangeable indoor flooring, the club should "test" the surface for safety on a variety of dogs of varying speeds and sizes before renting the facility. Trial day is not the time to find out your club's surface is dangerous!
Clubs who think they do not have the responsibility for surface safety are simply wrong. When I give my entry fee to the club, I am expecting they will care as much as I do about my dogs' safety. I'm expecting they will already have a plan to either prepare or provide a surface that has good traction, isn't too hard or too fluffy, isn't cloddy, isn't slick, isn't rutty and is a great, safe surface for my dog - and for his human teammate - me! I believe I've paid for the right to expect that along with other safety issues such as good equipment, ring gating, etc.. That is what I believe the majority of my entry fee is for. My entry fee is not about more money for the club or more "perks" for club members. It is mainly about my dogs' safety. (Watch for a future article on how to properly prepare a dirt surface.)
Unfortunately, clubs sometimes fail to prepare a safe surface, or a fair surface deteriorates over the day due to several possibly unforeseen variables. When this happens, it is true the handler becomes the dog's last advocate, and the handler must be prepared to pull their dog and lose their entry fees because of the poor surface. However I believe a handler should not have to make this decision.
Clubs should be responsible for preparing or providing surfaces that are good for ALL dogs. For years, I have heard trial committee members defend their poor surfaces by stating that because their personal dogs didn't slip, the surface is fine. The fact is all dogs jump differently. The variables that go into this are many. How fast is the dog? What is the dog's front structure like? How about the rear? Where is the dog's center of gravity? How old is the dog? How big is the dog? I hear trial committee members often talking about competitors "eating sour grapes" because of complaints about slipping dogs and knocked bars. These aren't "sour grapes." They are usually legitimate complaints about a surface that needs the trial committee's full attention.
Because simply put, it is the CLUB'S RESPONSIBILITY to provide as safe a surface as possible for our dogs (and us!).
Voice Your Opinion
Do you think the topic of safer agility surfaces is important?
One argument I have heard against seeking and demanding safer surfaces is that it doesn't matter if a dog runs on a poor surface or a great surface because agility is a dangerous sport and dogs crash on all surfaces.
This flat doesn't make sense. Yes, dogs can crash on any surface. However, if dogs crash three times more often on Surface A than they do on Surface B, then why would anyone want to run their dog on Surface A? Shouldn't the agility community as a whole be working toward the most safe surfaces, realizing there is no 100 percent safe surface, rather than continuing with surfaces that are less safe? Apparently this logical thinking isn't clear for many in the agility community.
The issue is simple. Either you want to continue to run on a surface with a higher percent risk of a crash and injury to the dogs, or you are on the dogs' side, wishing to push clubs and titling venues to surfaces that have a lower risk of a crash. You are either for added protection for your dog, or you aren't. I hate to be that blunt, but I don't see another, third option.
Train Rather Than Complain?
I hear the argument "train for a bad surface" given in defense of slippery surfaces all the time. The idea is that if your dog will be running on a slick surface regularly, then you mimic the surface in training and teach the dog how to be careful on that surface.
There are issues with this line of thinking however. First, the dog will be at danger while learning to slow down on the more slippery surface. A handler simply does not always have enough speed control over fast dogs, and "slowing the dog down" enough for a dangerous surface does not always occur even with the best handling. The idea of teaching the dog to slow down is for the dog to first slip on the surface and learn it isn't that safe.
Second, even running slower, the likelihood of a dog having a foot slip out from under him is higher on a slick surface than a safer surface. We're right back to the "would you rather run on a safe surface or a slick surface" argument above.
The "we can't bubble wrap our dogs" argument I also hear so often is just a silly way of saying, "I don't care about limiting danger to my dog." Of course we can't always protect our dogs, but we can and should mitigate dangers.
I do believe it is important for the dogs to learn to run on many, different, safer surfaces. On safer surfaces, I agree - train to that surface. I believe it's important for my dog to learn how it feels to have different, safer surfaces under their feet. Well prepared dirt, good grass, turf, and mats with cushioning and great traction are all surfaces I will happily train my dogs to become familiar with. If you don't mind, I won't be training my dogs on slick and unsafe surfaces because I won't be asking my dogs to run on slick and unsafe surfaces either in training or competition. I don't believe in "Let him slip. He'll slow down."
I can hear the, "But dogs can slip on any surface" argument again churning around in some people's heads as they read this. Read above. The idea I'm promoting is to provide a less percentage chance of a dog slipping. Are you for less slipping, less injuries and better surfaces or for MORE slipping, more injuries and poor surfaces.
We've Always Done It That Way
I have also heard the argument from "old time" agility competitors that, "We've always run on that surface, and it's just fine." But I think their cry of, "We've always done it that way" is precisely the issue. Change hurts.
As I watched the debates about agility surfaces unfold on Facebook, what I most felt from those who regularly run or hold trials on surfaces that are less safe was defensiveness. Their "hackles" immediately rose as they went into defensive mode after feeling personally attacked. I hope as people read this blog that they lower their defenses, take a deep breath, and really think about the topic. If your club is offering a surface that results in more slips and crashes than another surface does, don't get defensive. How can you fix that? Think outside the box - way outside the box. Throw a little money at the issue.
If you've run your dog on a slippery surface and are feeling defensive after reading this blog, relax. Many have, and hopefully we've all learned from it.
The whole idea of this blog is to get the agility community thinking about the importance of making safer surfaces for our dogs. How someone can argue against that, I cannot imagine. Whether you agree with all of my statements here or not, I'm sure you ARE for safer surfaces.
So, let's get started. Let's start talking. Let's start voting for safer surfaces with our entries. Let's make change. Let's make this sport - and our dogs - as safe as possible.