Posted by: allstaragility | January 15, 2010

SYSTEM Failure

Many of you have heard me make this statement and I am not afraid to repeat it on this platform- I really abhor the word SYSTEM, especially in the context that is so popular amongst the agility community right now.  Please don’t misunderstand me- I avidly implement theories of handling that are the foundation of a very well-respected handling SYSTEM. I am grateful beyond words for the guidance I have received and readily credit those responsible for any achievements my dogs and I have earned.  I also respect and admire all of the “pioneers” who have worked at length to share their wealth of knowledge with the masses yearning for handling direction. 

With that disclaimer (and hoping that it keeps me from being burned at the stake!), what irritates me about this term is how we are seeing comparisons between the most popular SYSTEMS, the projection that you must subscribe solely and without exception to the teachings of a SYSTEM if you want to have any success, and even animosity between followers of these factions as to which SYSTEM is best (and I fully admit to being guilty of this, myself).  I have joked with others about how “belonging” to a SYSTEM could be likened to being a member of a religious cult.  If this continues on the same path, are we going to witness a SYSTEM jihad in the future?   Can one claim to be a SYSTEM atheist and still achieve their competitive goals?

Handling is simply defined as communication between person and dog.  The concept of utilizing a handling SYSTEM is to establish a consistent method of communicating with your dog.   Each SYSTEM has rules or guidelines for how you should communicate with your dog in every situation you might face on course.   All we have to do is learn the rules of a SYSTEM, teach our dogs to understand our communication and then execute correctly in competition.  Should be easy, right?  Unfortunately, I have found this is anything but! 

Agility is a fluid, ever changing sport.   If you look at how the top handlers ran courses with their dogs, even 5 years ago, you would see a very different picture.  I recently saw video of finals from an early AKC Nationals and found it quite amusing!   As agility has grown, we have become more competent in communicating with our dogs and teaching desired skills.  As we have seen an increase of challenges in our courses, we have had to adjust accordingly; broadening our skill set to help our dogs successfully navigate them.   I constantly tell students to reach outside of their comfort zone and experiment with different options.  After all, we cannot better ourselves if we don’t constantly expand the boundary lines of our capabilities, right?    

Now enter the age of the SYSTEM.   While they are valuable for helping enthusiasts understand the nuances of communication and the importance of consistency, they tend to promote the exact opposite of what is necessary in the sport- innovation and adaptation!   SYSTEMS create pre-cast molds for how a team must think, act and react.   They define strict boundaries for what is and is not acceptable; what can and cannot be done.  Many enthusiasts are so caught up in trying to make themselves the poster child of perfect handling for a SYSTEM that they lose the ability to think for themselves!   This sport that requires ingenuity, flexibility and the fine art of problem solving has become one huge mathematical equation to many poor souls (I find this analogy amusing as math was my worst subject in school and I know my dogs aren’t good at it ‘cause they still won’t do my taxes!).    When a course design comes along for which no formulary can be applied, and the handler lacks the skills and freedom of mind to adapt, the resulting hysteria is SYSTEM failure. 

Many of the SYSTEMS today expect the handler to run with or ahead of the dog most of the time.  Showing the dog the ideal path is conducive to success- nobody would argue that point.  The majority of accomplished individuals who perfectly execute a handling SYSTEM, true to design, are quite agile themselves.  Now, take into consideration the rest of the agility community…most do not fit the mold of physical ability.   There is not much leeway for those who have any degree of physical limitations.  If a person cannot follow the rules to be in a certain place to cue in a certain way to get a certain response from the dog, they experience SYSTEM failure.   

It is also easy for the fundamental values of a handling SYSTEM to be misinterpreted.  With the rise in popularity of a handful of SYSTEMS, the more severe the trickle-down effect has become.  Not everybody has access to learn directly from the creators of these handling SYSTEMS, thus the theories and practices are handed down from one instructor to the next- the agility version of the childhood “telephone” game.  By the time it reaches a large percentage of agility competitors, there is often little left of the original, intended values.   The resulting information is often watered down, distorted, contradictory and confusing…   Even with access to well prepared books, videos, blogs, internet forums and magazine articles; there is vast opportunity for misapplication and SYSTEM failure.

Observe some of the best handling free-spirits; watch any FCI World Championship DVD.  You will see some of the most extreme handling on the planet and even moves that would be considered blasphemous amongst some handling circles.  Yet it works for them!  It is clear that our continent has some of the smoothest, refined and efficient handlers in the world, but that does not make us invincible.   When we get past trying so hard to do what is considered “correct” by others, maybe we will be more open to do what is “best” for ourselves and our dogs.

How can you defend yourself against SYSTEM failure?  The answer to that is simple- DO NOT FALL PREY TO IT!  Embrace your inner “non-conformist” and DESIGN YOUR OWN SYSTEM that is as unique as you and your dog!  Make your own mold and break it often! I encourage my students to study different theories and methods, and glean information from a variety of instructors.   Apply what works and learn from what doesn’t- but stay true to yourself and your values of consistent communicating with your dog.  Try what you would never before dare and you just might surprise yourself and climb to new heights.   🙂


  1. Thank you! I have felt exactly this way for a long time!

  2. I think you have to be opened minded to new ideas and handling methods, but not to isolate any thing that works better for you. The most important thing is to really be enjoying your sport, when that stops you are in big trouble no matter what system you take on. Don’t ever be afraid to step out of the norm, it might surprise you, in this sport it would be impossible to just follow one system

  3. Amen!!! What a great, well-written blog. Needs to be in CR!! I agree 100 percent with all of it. As a person who has developed my own system that fits my team and my physical limitations, this blog is just right up my alley. When I work with students, I use the best of what I know from other “systems,” including much of the big name systems, but I use this information to help that student form their own system for their own individual team. IMO, a system should be as unique to each team as a finger print.

    I, too, am extremely appreciative of those who have shared their systems, as much of what I use comes from them. But to follow those systems blindly, and perhaps incorrectly, is to ignore your team’s individual strengths and weaknesses. And as for system failure….I’m dealing with it now. I’m working on training a few new concepts to both of my dogs, and I’m trying to stretch my system to fit these new concepts. A system should always be fluid…ever changing as we grow in the sport, change in physical ability, get a new team-mate, etc.

    The best thing about training with you, Lori, (when I get that rare opportunity) is your ability to think so outside of the box. You make me look at MY system and see where it can be improved in ways I would never have considered.

    Seriously…send this to CR for the editorial section. I’m linking it for my students.

    • Kristen- Love the “fingerprint” simile! You know it has long been my position, I just finally found my soapbox! 🙂

      • And I’m glad you found the soapbox. 🙂 And I love the system atheist reference. I’ll have to give that some thought.

  4. very nicely put! :o)

  5. Kristin Kaldahl said in her reply that a person’s “system” they use should be as individual as their own fingerprint. I love this analogy! As instructors, our job is not to make handling clones of ourselves, but to help students become confident, independent problem solvers who are the best partners for their own dogs. To take it a step further, you have to even develop a different “system” for every dog you own! If I had to handle Zoom with the same handling “rules” that I use with Bode, I would have a very stressed and unmotivated dog. I have seen this affect countless dogs of those who just follow the “rules” and either can’t think outside the box for themselves or have instructors who are inflexible in allowing them to work beyond the “system’s” normal parameters. System failure is as much to blame on instructors who don’t recognize when certain methods aren’t working because they are so “system” blind! However that cold be a totally different discussion topic!

  6. Whenever someone asked me what system I used, I would say the Kristin Kaldahl method because she has always told me to do what works for the dog. I have often done something that others didn’t care for, but the dog knew exactly what I wanted. As the years with my dog have progressed, I have realized the systems are nice for basics, but the relationship with your dogs is what makes it work. He loves me, I love him. We work to understand each other. Systems/methods aren’t what keeps me going to trial after trial after trial. Then dog does.

  7. As one who followed only one system for 6 years, I am well aquainted with the benefits and drawbacks of the system method. While many of the aspects of the Derrett system worked well for Gertie & Minnie, not all of it worked for Elsa. What really didn’t help was the “my way or no way” attitude of a lot of system managers. I have always attended various seminars trying to gleen what I can from them to help my students, but yet, I clung to the “system.” Since coming out here, I have been forced to think outside the perverbial box – Thanks Lori. Not limiting myself has really helped my handling. I have been able to pick and choose what works for my dogs. No longer am I confined by “the System.” I think every system has its good points and bad points, but limiting oneself, limits your handling.

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