champion: a person who has defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition, especially in sports.
The American Kennel Club held its National Agility Championship this past weekend, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where 1,254 dogs competed for the honor of earning the title National Agility Champion (for the 6 regular height classes) and Preferred National Agility Champion (for the 5 preferred height classes), which is added to the official registered name of each winner as the prefix NAC or PNAC.
However, only 10 of the 11 champion titles were awarded. The 12” preferred height class failed to produce a clean run in the finals, and according to AKC rules, while there is a winning dog, that dog is not eligible for the PNAC title. In the finals, Penny Leigh and all-American Cameo clocked a time of 39.80 with 10 faults and finished in first place but was denied the title of PNAC. Clearly, this demonstrates the importance of a clean run to the people who put in this rule, but does this idea make sense in today’s sport of dog agility?
Let’s step away from the dirt rings of Tulsa and step on a different field—the football field. The winning team of the Super Bowl, which is the championship game for the National Football League, earns the title of Super Bowl Champions and is often referred to as the World Champions even though the league only exists in the United States. There has never been a year when the winning team was told by the league, “Yes, you won the game, but you had 5 turnovers and are the worst team to ever win a Super Bowl, so we are not going to acknowledge you guys as the Super Bowl Champions.”
Imagine this conversation between two agility competitors:
Friend: Congrats! I saw you got first place at nationals! You’re a national champion!
non-PNAC: Thank you, I did win nationals, but I’m not a national champion.
Friend: Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you won.
non-PNAC: I did win, but I had a fault so I didn’t run clean, so AKC won’t put the title in my dog’s name.
Friend: At least you got to be in the pictures of the winners on the AKC Facebook page!
non-PNAC: Actually, we weren’t in the pictures.
Friend: Oh. I don’t know what to say. Are we sad or happy about you getting first place?
non-PNAC: I’m not sure.
In 2009, Olga Chaiko and Yankee won a highly competitive 26” class that did not produce a clean run in the finals, having missed a contact on the dogwalk. Yankee was awarded the NAC honorific at that time, but afterward in 2010 a rule was put in place for subsequent events: a winning run must be clean in order to earn the title of National Agility Champion. Let’s call this the Yankee Rule.
In 2011, Kelsey Kirkpatrick and her border collie Ace won the highly competitive Challenger round at 26” but were denied an appearance in the finals because they did not run clean. They dropped a single bar.
In order to reach the finals, a dog has to finish in the top 7% of their class over 3 rounds. Once there, they have to beat all the other finalists to win. If you have the fewest faults in the finals, even without a clean run, and win first place, have you not defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition, which is the very definition of a champion? A champion is the best dog on that course on that day. The discussion over the relative quality of runs (in the eyes of the AKC), for example a slower clean run versus a faster run with a fault like a knocked bar, has already taken place and is reflected in the current scoring—the slower dog without a fault will be ranked higher. To add the Yankee Rule is redundant.
Course design, the competition, the surface, the crowd, the noise, and the officiating all play a part in a dog’s performance. A clean run in the finals is the sum of many moving parts—not just the dog and handler. Refusing to award the title in this situation is nonsensical, archaic, and insulting.
This year, 48 dogs entered AKC nationals in the 12” Preferred height class—a class that deserves a champion. To Penny Leigh, whenever I see you, I will mentally put the PNAC before Cameo’s name, because to me, you are the 2016 12” Preferred National Agility Champion. Congratulations.