Working Like a Dog – Agility Trials Don’t Run Themselves!

Recently a post cropped up on one of the agility Facebook groups that I am a part of regarding a most popular unpopular topic: volunteering at agility trials.  And how to get more volunteers.  In 2011 the Very Popular Agility Blog, Agility Nerd, organized a group blogging event on the topic of trial volunteering – and there were many participants.  There are a Lot of Feelings! about trial volunteering.

Agility is a whole lot of fun.  It is also heavy. (seriously, have you ever moved an A-frame?)  Agility requires a lot of organization.  It requires a lot of work.  It takes a lot of time and people to keep an agility trial moving smoothly.  And somebody has to do it.  A lot of sombodies.

In the realm of agility competitor tenure, I have a whole year and a half of trialing experience.  (So, not a whole lot!)  At my first trial there was a frazzled looking woman begging in a hoarse voice for workers.  It is a scene I have witnessed at every single agility trial that I have gone to since.  This person is the ‘volunteer coordinator’ and it is her job to round up competitors to volunteer to be part of the agility trial machine.  The day of that first trial I was a clueless newbie, but I volunteered to work as “ring crew” because hey, those bars aren’t going to set themselves.  It took me one day to realize a few things: that February trial was in a barn and it was cold but the ring crew chair out in the dusty sidelines of that ring had a propane heater next to it – it was officially the warmest seat in the house.  It was also a front row seat to the action – I was able to be up close and personal to watch experienced competitors and how they chose to handle sequences.  It was a learning experience for me.  It was the beginning of my passion for volunteering.  In fact, now I am that frazzled woman with the hoarse voice begging people to work – I am a volunteer coordinator.

What does it take to keep an agility trial running smoothly?
The list of jobs at an agility trial is more extensive than I ever realized.  No – the hosting club cannot do it all.  The trial committee is comprised of a small handful of very busy individuals who are trying to keep everything afloat and get the results out in a timely fashion – somebody else is going to have to set the bars in the ring.

Chief Course Builder and Course Builders take those course maps that we receive and make them come alive.  They move all of the heavy equipment around, they assemble the contact equipment, they make sure everything matches up to the map.  They create the playground!
The Gate Steward is an excuse to be loud and bossy!  The trial run order is posted on a board mounted on a stand outside of the ring entrance.  The gate steward makes sure that the competitors and their dogs are entering the ring in a timely manner, as well as shouting out for the next two to three dogs to be ready and close to the ring.
The Scribe is in charge of recording faults signaled by the judge and for writing the course time down on the score sheet.  The Scribe has to watch and listen to the judge for these faults, or for points called during game classes.  This is no job for the daydreamers!
Timer does just that – they time the runs!  Depending on what club is hosting the trial, the timer could be using a stopwatch (yikes!), or more commonly an electronic timing device will be used.  The timer must focus on the run and the equipment, and make sure that nothing malfunctions – if it does they need to restart or adjust the timer so that the team in the ring receives an accurate time.
Leash Runner spends the entire class walking leashes from the entrance end of the ring (where the competitor will remove it from the dog and drop it or fling it behind them…) and moving those leashes to the exit end of the ring so that it is waiting to be put back onto the dog after his run.
Score Runner spends the entire class accepting score sheets from the scribe, and bringing them to the score table so that they can be recorded into the results.
Ring Crew involves sitting in a chair out in the ring and: fixing displaced bars, “fluffing” the chute (or collapsed tunnel.), changing: jump, tire, and Aframe heights.  There are single bar jumps and then there are more complicated “double”, “triple”, and “viaduct” jumps.  There is the broad jump, a series of flat boards laying on the ground.  Sometimes there are electronic timing devices on either side of the start and finish obstacles, and depending on what variety they are – these devices need to be adjusted to match the jump height as well.  All of the adjustments of these obstacles fall onto the ring crew.

Things get a little hairy when it comes to filling all of these positions because the fact is: Agility trials cannot run without volunteers, but nobody can force people to volunteer.  Trials are literally halted in their tracks if the key positions are not filled.  This is perceived by some as bullying competitors into volunteering, but the truth of halting a trial in need of volunteers is that: somebody has to do it, “the show cannot go on” until there is proper support in the ring.  Turning over the ring or changing a jump height can take two or three times as long without enough workers.  And while that does not seem like a big deal, the wasted time adds up.  Trials lacking in volunteers can easily run hours longer than trials that are properly “staffed.”  This sounds like an absurd “old wives tale” created by evil volunteer coordinators to coerce errant competitors into volunteering at a trial, but it is absolutely true!

I have seen hosting clubs offer any of the following to volunteers: free meals, free drinks or coffee, free candy or other food, coupons for reduction in future trial entries and raffle tickets for cool dog gear.  I am in the “you had me at free coffee” camp, but I know many others are not so easily persuaded.

There are many reasons that people do not like to volunteer at agility trials and I have never known it to be “laziness”:

Somebody was mean to me when I volunteered.
This happens.  A lot more than it should.  A new competitor offers to volunteer and they are thrown in over their head with a job that needs to be filled, but that nobody bothers to explain to them.  And then when the ring is running and they make a mistake, somebody snaps at them and hurts their feelings.  If you are a new competitor and you volunteer, thank you.  So much.  If you are a volunteer coordinator, please try very hard to not dump new volunteers in over their head.  It is important.  And if you are a seasoned competitor and you feel frustrated with somebody who isn’t doing their ring job perfectly, take a deep breath and bite your tongue.  Nothing disgusts me more than a competitor being mean to a volunteer.  There is no excuse for it.  Nobody comes to an agility show to be belittled for doing a job they have volunteered to do for free.  Be nice to each other.  Take time to explain agility jobs.  Nothing in the ring is terribly difficult, but some jobs take a little more time and understanding of the sport to master than others.

I paid a lot for my entry fees, I should not need to volunteer.
This seems like a valid reason!  Agility is an expensive hobby.  We spend a lot of money on training classes, equipment, education, trial gear and our entry fees.  It all adds up to a sum that we might like to pretend doesn’t exist and it is hard to understand why we should have to go to a trial and not just relax and enjoy ourselves and our dogs.  After all, it is our weekend, our hobby, our fun – not our job!  The cold hard fact is: this is the reality of this sport.  Our trials need staffing, and lots of it.  Some dog sports don’t need quite so many hands on deck, but if you are going to go to agility trials, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.  That is not going to change.  Your entry fees do not support buying workers for agility trials – if that happened, entry fees would simply go up.  And nobody wants that!

I have done my time.
I don’t have a great grasp on this reason, since I am a fairly new competitor.  But truly, I can respect it.  If you are 10 plus years into agility trialing, and have spent those years working your tail off at trial after trial, it is understandable to feel like the new blood should shoulder a heavier work load.  Many older competitors are not physically able to do a high demand job like leash running or ring crew.  But…the job still needs to be done.  New competitors need seasoned pros to show them the ropes.  Please, if you only pick up the timer for one short class or jump height a day, it is such a huge help.  And all of your hard work in years past was much appreciated, and is unfortunately still needed as you continue to compete.

I just want to relax in between runs.
This goes hand in hand with my second ‘reason’.  And I get it.  I love to read books and hang out with my dogs, and the gaping amount of time that I wait in between agility runs is nice to catch up on my reading.  But again.  Our sport needs workers.  Period.  This is the way things are.  So please, work a class or two per day – everything and anything is an enormous help.  It might mean that somebody gets to have the only break that they might get during the entire trial to enjoy lunch and sitting down with their dog.

 

There may well be many many more reasons, but these are the reasons that so often reach my ears.  I personally love to volunteer at trials.  I love to have a front row seat on the action, it makes my day go faster, it helps me to understand the sport better and it helps me make friends with my fellow competitors.  We are a team with our dog in the ring, but we are a team with our fellow competitors when it comes to making an agility trial run smoothly – like it or not.  Some may not love volunteering as much as I do, but somebody must do this work.  A lot of somebodies.  Imagine if you walked into the ring late because nobody reminded you that your dog was next on the line, and the course was not set up according to the course map, all of the bars were the wrong height, nobody moved your leash to the exit gate, nobody recorded your score or time.  Really, imagine that.  Volunteers do all of these things for you.  Please, help to return the favor.  Our sport needs you.

6 thoughts on “Working Like a Dog – Agility Trials Don’t Run Themselves!

  1. Everyone going to an agility trial needs to read this! I was nervous of volunteering at my first couple trials because it was all so new and scary, but once I went to a couple I started volunteering for jobs I didn’t find intimidating: namely leash running. I can handle that. Pick up leash, run it to the end, go back and do it for the next dog. I loved being up close and watching it all and I was happy to help out a little.

    But at EVERY trial I go to they’re shouting for volunteers and I always feel bad at how few people step up.

  2. I volunteer regularly, but limit myself to no more than 2 classes a day, because that’s really all I can manage and still learn and strategize all of the courses my dogs will run. Others work more, by choice. There are a set group of people who never lift a hand, ever.

    I agree with your sentiment–people should help out, as much as they are able. But there’s a flipside to this, and–yes, I’ll go there–it is that clubs need to do more to motivate people to volunteer and to sincerely thank them for doing so. Reserved parking or tent space in a prime location? Guaranteed entry for a certain number of classes worked? Discounts off fees for future trials? Free lunch? Small, inexpensive swag item? All of these are a good start. (Heck, a sincere “thank you” goes a long way, and I’ve worked at trials where I didn’t even get that!)

    I don’t think I can recall a time, when, as a volunteer, another competitor was nasty to me. But club members have been nasty. Judges have been nasty. And that is absolutely uncalled for. Over the years I’ve developed a three strike rule for clubs — while volunteering, if a club member is nasty to me, or the judge they hired is nasty to me, at three different trials, then I’m done volunteering for that club. For clubs that treat volunteers well, I am willing to work more. Happy volunteers inspire others to volunteer. Miserable volunteers inspire others to steer clear.

    Some–and I am NOT saying all–clubs need to take a good look at the way their members and their hired judges treat volunteers. They’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!

  3. The club I train at hosts a few trials a summer. They put out volunteer sign-up grid the day before…I have to ask my instructor to sign me up for a ring crew role a week in advance to get a volunteering spot, as I usually only trial one day a weekend. It’s a great group of people :)

    I’m always eager to learn more, and the best way to do that is by volunteering!

  4. I only have on competing dong at the moment so I actually love volunteering at trials because it gives me something to do rather than sit around all day waiting for my run. Plus all of those things that you said about watching the runs is really enjoyable for me. My favorite job is assistant scribe. I like to keep track of all the dogs and I think it’s a lot of fun when I can recognize that one sheltie out of dozens of shelties in the class. Our clubs here in CT also pay us to volunteer. We get $4 per class that we can spend on food and vendors at the trials. And we get one raffle ticket per class for a big sum of money/dog treats or whatever is out there. I get so much free stuff every trial because of this. We also get free snacks and drinks as workers. It’s kind of wonderful. The worker hospitality at our trials is just amazing. It’s good that you’re putting this out here. Maybe more clubs will run like ours here in CT after reading this.

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