At every AKC agility trial, you see people wandering around with a single sheet of paper in their hands. They may be drawing little swoopy lines on it or just staring at it as if it contains the secrets to the universe or, at the very least, the solution for getting dog hair out of the butter when your mother-in-law is visiting.

Alas, it is neither. It’s an agility map. And it tells the competitor what she will see in her class on that particular day. An agility course changes for every single class at every single trial, and competitors don’t know what a course will look like until the day of the trial. The printed map helps competitors figure out where they’re going before they actually “walk the course.” In case you’ve never seen this before, when the course is set up, competitors are welcomed into the ring to walk through the course before they must enter with their dogs. Thus, they “walk the course.”

When the walk-through is open, handlers only have eight minutes in the arena to memorize the course and figure out where they need to be in order to get their dogs around it in a fast and efficient manner. By familiarizing themselves with the course beforehand, they’re less likely to send their dogs off course or around some obstacle they should be taking.

Novice competitors typically face 13 to 15 obstacles, and Open competitors face 15 to 18, each of which must be taken in the correct order. At the top level, or Excellent, competitors face 18 to 20 obstacles. Many of these are deliberately placed so that another obstacle is in close proximity to tempt the dog to head in a different direction. For example, the path may require a dog to take a jump, then turn right 90 degrees and take another jump. If the tunnel or dog walk is positioned in the line of vision, a dog could be tempted to head for those obstacles instead.

Course maps are not difficult to read, but if you’ve never seen one, they can, at first, be puzzling. No key or legend is provided, so consider this your key. You may want to print it out and take it with you to your agility class and your first few trials.

Once you’ve got the key to agility maps in your head, you’ll be much faster at discerning the course.

Several different types of jumps are used, including those with single, double and triple bars, with and without wings that appear on the sides of the jumps. The wings are designed to keep handlers away from the jumps and are made of a variety of materials. Panel jumps appear as a solid wall, and broad jumps are placed side-by-side on the ground. The height of the dog determines the height of the jumps and the length of the broad jumps.

This map shows the Standard course at the Excellent level that Zipper and I ran recently. A Standard course can include every type of agility obstacle. The circled numbers on the map appear on cones or cards placed next to the approach or takeoff side of each obstacle.

On the above map, you can see how the course is designed with a few challenges. After the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6 jumps, for example, sharp turns are necessary, requiring dogs to slow down just a bit. Several obstacles are also positioned to provide a temptation, such as the No. 15 tunnel entrance.

My Miniature Pinscher Zipper and I ran this Standard course recently. After the No. 15 tunnel, I “pulled” too hard trying to get into position to show him the No. 17 weaves, and he went around the No. 16 jump, instead of over it. Because I hadn’t taken the time to show him to take the jump, a handler error cost me my qualifying run.

This map is of a Jumpers with Weaves course for competitors at the Excellent level. In Jumpers with Weaves, only three types of obstacles are used: jumps, weave poles and tunnels. Tunnels are optional in Jumpers.

On the map for the Jumpers with Weaves course above, there’s a very tricky line from the No. 1 jump through the tunnel at No. 5, where the dog has to avoid going through the tunnel from the wrong end. Also, the entrance to the tunnel near jump No. 17 is a real trouble spot, since a dog could be tempted to go through the tunnel again.

In the Novice and Open agility courses, dogs must always hit the down contact zone in order to get a qualifying score. Contact zones are areas of contrasting color to the rest of the obstacle. At least one paw must make contact with this zone. At any level, missing a contact zone or dropping a bar results in a non-qualifying score.

In Jumpers, Zipper and I were clean, but just a hair over time. The time is measured in seconds and depends on the total yardage of the course, as measured by judge. Only a certain number of seconds is permitted for a dog to complete the course. At the Excellent level, if a competitor doesn’t make time, there is no qualifying score. There can also be no refusals, no wrong courses, no dropped bars and no table faults. More about these in a future article.

Zipper loves to fly!

Zipper and I tried to qualify on both courses, but didn’t make it. Three qualifying scores are required for both the Novice and Open agility titles, and three Excellent “A” legs are required for the Excellent title. For super achievers, Master agility and MACH agility titles await.

So, now you see that what might look confusing to the uninitiated is simply an agility map. And you know how to read one! When you’re reviewing a course map, look for the obstacles placed as traps. Think about having to lead your dog into the ring, unclip his leash and take him over a course which he has never seen or practiced on. You need to get him to the correct obstacles without touching him, and you must do it at a run. That’s my definition of the most fun ever!