Crufts 2020 | Stand Out Agility

Crufts 2020 round up.

So, we’re still on cloud nine, and not sure if we’re ever coming down!
In UK agility, Crufts is the pinnacle of dreams. To run with your dog on the famous green carpet is a success in itself and should be hugely celebrated by all. Everyone who makes it to Crufts, whether it be their first year, or their 30th year, has been tirelessly training and competing with their dogs the previous year. There are no single wins that will get you to Crufts, there are only combination rounds and point systems that build through the year, sometimes a single competition missed can cost you your place in the finals – so to everyone who made it this year, congratulations, you really deserved it! And for those who came so close, you deserved it too, but it just wasn’t meant to be (we’ve had so many of those moments, don’t let them get you down).

This year James and Willow qualified for two of the four categories she was eligible to compete in, the ABC (Anything But Collies) and the Championship round (for all dogs that win a prestigious championship ticket during the year). Although it would have been nice to compete in the Singles and British Open categories, it was a conscious decision to only chase two categories rather than all four this year – because not only does this help with planning of the competitions throughout the year to attend, but also during Crufts gives the dogs a break; four full days at the world’s largest dog show takes it’s toll on all of us. The championship class on the Sunday is what we’re all there for, and we wanted Willow to keep some energy reserved for it! Saying that, let’s be honest – if Willow had qualified for the other categories even without chasing them we’d have probably still done them. James is far too competitive to let anything pass! It’s just about setting goals and chasing those specifics – you can’t have all the cakes and eat them.

Willow and James’s training in the build-up to Crufts didn’t go quite to plan: the weather caused our training field to turn into a swamp which meant the usual 3-4 sessions per week were limited to a single weekly session at a rented barn or if lucky, a “Guest trainer” session with either a UK or international trainer for the day. Also, Willow is a true scavenger, she and her usual 8kg frame had to take a few days off on two separate occasions in the weeks before Crufts as she ate five boil-in-the-bag rice portions one evening and a whole box of cupcakes with only a few days to go. We like to tell people she was carb loading, but for a dog whose diet is planned and set out by the ounce, not mentioning the fact it’s also usually gluten free – there is no excuse. She can be a piglet. Behind all the glory and titles this little dog has won recently, she is still that family pet who jumps up onto the counter and eats any food left out, pulls the kitchen bin over to scavenge … and eats questionable things on walks.

Thursday evening, the night before Willow’s ABC category was an exciting experience – James and Willow hadn’t qualified for this the previous year. At the 2019 event they had only qualified for the Novice Cup. Following all advice that had been given, Willow had been figuratively ‘wrapped in bubble wrap’ the last few days: because we weren’t going to take any chances with injury! Normal dog walks, her usual healthy dinner from Cotswold RAW + a few sardines and coconut oil balls to build her energy supplies and an evening massage set her up nicely for the early start the next day.

There is no special parking for competitors at the NEC, so to try and keep Willow relatively close by, James left in the early hours to park as close to the venue as possible. Although there are is a backstage area and holding pens to keep your dogs in during the day, Willow never truly settles and she definitely wouldn’t go to sleep in a crate if there are other dogs walking by (she can be a little crate territorial and guards if she feels unsure) so James decided to keep willow in his van which is specially crated out and ventilated between her runs.
The first round was the ABC Jumping, which was exciting, fast paced and challenging! All the dogs flew round, handlers often struggling to keep up. But Willow and her little legs kept up with the crowd and took a comfortable 2nd place. Looking at Willow’s stats in agility, especially her ground speed and coverage is always critical to us. We know she often does better in the agility rounds, we also know she performs best on a carpet surface. Our aim for her is to get her ground speed as close to covering 7m per second as possible. It’s important to point out that in the Medium category, dogs can range between 35 – 45cm in height. Willow only stands 37.5cm so is classed as one of the smaller dogs in the category which doesn’t work her in favour: larger dogs have bigger strides and if conditioned right, more power. However, this doesn’t usually faze Willow, and she proves the exception to the rule. In fact the winner of the ABC jumping round “Tigerlily” owned by Toni Dawkins is the same size as Willow, just exceptionally fast – if you ever get chance to watch her run, you’ll be blown away!
The second round was agility, Willow’s stronger round – mainly because James has trained “Running contacts” with Willow, which means rather than slowing or stopping on the contact areas on the equipment, she simply runs through them ensuring a paw always touches the marked area. This saves valuable time as her natural strides aren’t as large as some of her competitors. She has also been taught to weave with her head low to ensure she doesn’t lose speed on bounce between the poles. In an ideal world, she would “swim” through the weaves using one paw at a time, however she hasn’t quite mastered this yet … so improvements are still to be made!

Taking home a 1st place in the agility, and a 2nd place in the jumping overall put her in 1st position – taking the overall Medium ABC agility title as it’s a combined results win – what a super way to start.

On Saturday, Willow had a short walk to loosen her legs, a bigger than usual breakfast with raw eggs added and an afternoon on the sofa snoozing, very rock and roll! For those interested, Willow comfortably sits at around 9kg in weight naturally by eating 175g of CotswoldRAW per day, plus raw eggs, sardines or goat’s milk on days where she is working/training. During the winter we increase her food to around 190g which takes her weight to just under 10kg and then during competition season we reduce her to 165g plus more of the added energy boosters and treats from training, e.g. grain free biscuits. It is important to remember that Willow is an unusually small working cocker spaniel, these diet allowances may not suit all dogs – make sure you speak to a professional if you’re planning to change your dog’s diet.

Sunday finally came, the big day, the day we had been waiting for since May 2019 when Willow won her championship ticket! Throughout the year there are only a handful of shows in which you can enter (if you have reached grade 7), the winner of which class is awarded a “Championship ticket” inviting them to the championship class at Crufts. If your dog wins three tickets, you are eligible to change their kennel club registered name to include the prefix “agility champion”. Willow has actually only ever won one ticket – however by winning the championship class at Crufts, you are also awarded this name-change as in essence you have just been up against the best dogs in the UK because it’s a class entirely made up of ticket winners.

If you’ve met James, you will know his mantra is “Go hard, or go home” and there is no “playing it safe” or taking easy lines when it comes to agility. During build-up rounds to a final, it’s often seen as a numbers game, you don’t need to win, just place highly enough in both rounds and you’ll get to the final. But, in true James style – he doesn’t believe you should ever play safe. Without getting too deep, he also believes that this is a reason why we in the UK aren’t as advanced as the European agility handlers – their systems and shows run differently. If you play safe you don’t get through, scoring relatively high in two rounds doesn’t qualify you for a final, so in essence everyone is always giving it 100%, which in the end pushes everyone to be better – all the time! But enough of that, we don’t need to start on agility politics here ….

Pushing hard, James and Willow won both the agility and jumping build up rounds, which in itself is a massive achievement. No other dog, even in the other height categories, managed this. Watching from the side lines was exciting, although also crippling! There is nothing more nerve wracking than sitting watching James and Willow on that start line; annoyingly if you ask James how he feels in the queue, or standing waiting to be given the go ahead – he says the pressure builds, but as soon as he gets the thumbs up to go, all the nerves vanish and the adrenaline kicks in. By winning both the previous rounds, James and Willow were set to run last in the final, just before them – Shannon Springford, friend and fellow team GB member went with her Boarder Collie, Gift. James and Shannon travelled to both the European open and world championships in 2019 together, so the friendship between them is strong and already built on mutual support – Shannon with the penultimate run went into the lead, the only person now with the opportunity to beat her being James.

This year, was James and Willow’s year – tight turns and that speedy dog walk meant they pipped Shannon and Gift into first place, and although I felt heartbreak for Shannon, I know that James was overjoyed to be sharing the podium with his team mate and friend.
Agility brings people together from all over the world, from all different walks of life, but all for the same reason – we love our dogs, and we love our sport!
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for us, however we’re not sure Willow has even noticed! She just thinks she got steak for jumping over a few jumps and playing in a few tunnels – the innocence of a spaniel never fails to impress.
Thank you again to the entire team at CotswoldRAW for your continuous support and advice on Raw feeding. Every detail makes such a difference to Willow’s performance, from inside to out, she has gone from strength to strength mentally and physically over the last year, something we all know can be put down to good nutrition.
When the heavens finally stop raining, James will be starting up his spring/summer agility classes again. For more information, please see and follow his Facebook page @StandOutDogs. James is also taking bookings for him to “Guest train” at your clubs so do drop us a message again for more information.

Time for a few weeks off, before training for Crufts 2021 qualifiers start …