Here is the link to the Challengers course:
This was a technical course where handlers had to push to be fast and clean. Winning this class was necessary for a spot in the finals for those who did not make the original cut for finals. Up to 12 dogs in each jump height are eligible for this class, which is open to the top 4 dogs of each jump height from rounds 1 through 3, that have not already gaiined placement into the finals based on three rounds of cumulative scores, provided they scored 100 in that round. Two clean rounds are required to be in the Challenger's class.
So the pressure was on for this class. The opening with the 1-2-3 serpentine into the weaves went well for most handlers. Lead-outs proved a distinct advantage for this sequence. A few dogs knocked bars here or missed weave entries but most did fine. Then on to the panel and wrap to the aframe. Having fast aframe contacts made a huge difference in saving precious hundredths of seconds. Once again the teeter proved problematic for the smaller dogs with many of them bailing off of it. All of the teeters were provided by J&J and in my opinion these are very heavy teeters for small dogs. All weekend long the teeter was a problem for many experienced small dogs.
Most handlers of all size dogs did front crosses between 9 and 10 and 11 to 12. The well timed crosses had the tightest turns and again made a difference in this close fast competition. Some handlers were in a hurry to get the front cross in between 11 and 12 that they didn't support 10 well and got run-bys on 10. The wrap to the tire and tunnel entrance were not a problem for most dogs. There were a couple of dogs who got hung up in the tire. Then the ending produced two different handling strategies. The majority of the handlers did a front cross on the landing side of 16 and then ran with their dogs on the right to the finish. Several handlers kept their dogs on their left for 15-16-17 and rear crossed on the take-off side of 18.
The crowd started cheering while dogs were on the dogwalk which got dogs running faster and there were many missed dogwalk contacts on that finish. Most handlers are pushing and the dogs are running fast. A handful of handlers celebrated a little too early and the last bar came down.
It was really fun to watch handlers really running all out and going for broke.
The finals run was a very technical course with a few spots where handlers could push for speed. The opening sequence of 1-2-3-4 was challenging. A lead out was definitely needed but many dogs were pretty amped and pushing the start line stays a lot. I was seated with a perfect view of this part of the course and could see many dogs looking past the first jump to the tunnel under the dogwalk. But all the dogs took the correct jump but I think many worried their handlers. Handlers had to work the chute exit because it was hard for the dogs to see the jump coming out of the chute and if the dogs came out too much toward the handler they could incur a refusal on #4 jump. Then handlers sprinted from #4 to the #7 tunnel. Handlers wanted to hustle to get to the exit of the tunnel because it was very challenging section of the course.
The 8-9-10 proved to be the most difficult part of the entire course. Many, many small dogs took the off course tunnel instead of the dogwalk. The number of dogs taking the off course tunnel decreased as the jump heights increased but it was not a "gimmee" for anyone. Some handlers chose to keep their dogs on their right from the tunnel to #8 jump and rear crossed the take off side of 8 and then pulled their dogs to the dogwalk. Other handlers sprinted to the exit and did a front cross and sent the dogs over #8 off their left side. A small number of handlers did another front cross between 9 and 10 to try to push their dogs off their right sides on to the dogwalk. This worked for about half of the handlers who tried it. What I noticed was that handlers were not decelerating to get their dogs to collect and check-in for the dogwalk cue. Many handlers kept racing forward and relayed strictly on verbal cues and dogs blasted into the tunnel. Two dogs at the last second looked up and noticed their handler was almost to the end of the dogwalk and went up the walk when they looked committed to the tunnel. Handlers who did a full reverse flow pivot (RFP) often pushed their dogs into the tunnel when they came out of the rotation (main reason why I find this to be an ineffective technique for this kind of obstacle discrimination). Handlers who did a bit of a turn and hand cue had some success but they usually also stopped or hesitated long enough to get their dogs heads. Overall I was amazed at how this very common set-up caused so many problems for otherwise experienced dogs and handlers. I suspect many people will be going home and training this sequence.
The other part that caught some of the medium sized dog handlers and some 20" dog handlers was that the panel jump off the dogwalk was a bit of a push. Many run-bys occurred at this jump as handlers were racing to try to get crosses in by the aframe and to push for speed on this otherwise straightforward sequence. Some handlers did great front crosses between the tire and the aframe and others did them on the descent of the aframe. A few rear crossed the jump after the aframe. Almost every front crossed before the weave poles. A handful of dogs popped out of the last pole of the weaves as handlers started racing for the finish line.
The clean runs were very close in time for every jump height. But there were very few clean runs - it was a very challenging course when handlers are pushing for speed.
It was interesting that they had a judge assigned to just judge the down side of the dogwalk. It would have been a hard course for a judge to judge alone - not a great judging path because they would be in the handler's way and with fast dogs it would be hard to judge the downside of the dogwalk and then get over to the downside of the aframe without getting in the handler's way. I also suspect that with the increase in number of dogs doing running dogwalks it is getting harder and harder to judge the dogwalk and at a competition like this you want to be sure you are making a good call.
I also noticed, because I was seated up high, that most of the running dogwalk contacts work well for the 42" contact but would not work well in a 36" contact (USDAA). This is a problem that I've encountered and I know Stacy Peardot-Goudy and Dana Pike have experienced it as well. Having a consistent running contact under pressure is very difficult. Many handlers were releasing their 2on/2off early to save precious time and I could see many dogs were leaving the contacts higher and higher up as the weekend progressed. I believe there will be a lot of contact training going on in the next several weeks by folks who were at the nationals. This is why I really believe that nationals events are the place when releasing early can help you achieve some goals and can make a difference in time and makes the price to pay worthwhile. That price being some going back to contact foundation for several weeks/trials to pay for it. The stronger the initial foundation of 2on/2off the less the price will be. The longer you release early, the higher the price. Some dogs can evolve into modified running contacts with early releases but many others will get pushier and pushier about leaving the board earlier and earlier. Again which way a dog will go depends on the attitude of the dog, size of the dog, speed of the dog, degree of foundation training on contacts, degree of reinforcement in trial settings, amount of trialing and many other factors. The other thing is that having a running contact requires a handler to be present at the end of the contact to direct the dog which in the case of the finals most of the handlers were athletic enough to run every inch of the course with their dogs.
Watching competitions like this can be very inspiring and can be very educational in terms of watching handling styles and moves. I strongly recommend getting your hands on the videos of the finals because this was a very challenging course. Sometimes finals courses can be all about speed and not as technical. This one was technical and therefore very educational in terms of handling and training.