Dog Agility Tunnel Safety
Most dogs love the tunnel obstacle in dog agility so much that handlers have to keep their dogs from being sucked into them and course designers use them as traps. Even dogs that start off with a fear of the tunnel soon shrug off that fear and join the ranks with other dogs that thrive on them. There are even dog agility games that are comprised mainly of tunnels in a test of handling skill and control as the dog is guided through the course of tunnels in a ground speed game. Ground speed. That is where some problems crop up in tunnels and dogs.
As the sport of dog agility has grown in popularity and the competition side has grown as well, agility teams are getting better and faster. Some teams are comprised of dogs that start in agility fast, but lack control and skill on the course causing accidents as the dog does not make good judgements. We see bars down when the dogs take off too early and jump too flat. Tire accidents when the dog takes off early or misses the tire completely. Dogs crashing into jump standards when they turn incorrectly. Missed contacts and fly-offs as well as dogs that catapult over the A-frame and never touch the downside. And while these are no fun to watch, they seldom lead to death of the dog.
But there has been at least one death on the dog agility field. A death that could have been avoided had the course crew known the danger of over tightening the tunnel braces. As I mentioned above, the sport is getting fast and hard and these dogs hit the tunnels with incredible force. A force that knocks the tunnel out of position so course crews secure the tunnels in a way that makes them a death trap. The tunnel brace that uses sand bags, called saddlebags, are designed to use the bags as the brace not the connecting strap. When the strap is over tightened in an effort to keep the tunnel secure for several dogs, it collapses the interior height of the tunnel by 2 to 4 inches. Competition tunnel diameter is 24 inches so any dog at or over 24″ have to crouch to get through the tunnel. Dogs close to that height can rub the top as they run through and in both cases those low spots caused by the saddlebag straps come as a surprise causing the dog to hit that now solid ridge with their head, neck, shoulders and/or back. Depending on the speed and force of the dog, that can translate to a minor bump to a broken neck.
Saddlebags are not the only braces that can cause problems on the agility course. Some venues use metal braces at the entrance and exit of the tunnel. These can cause hazards as well if they are not properly bolted down. When the dog hits these braces upon exit they pop off and can hit and injure the dog as well. So just like the tire obstacle tunnel designers need to develop better ways to secure the tunnel while keeping these fast and hard hitting dogs safe. How about harnesses similar to tent tie downs that cover a larger area and get staked into the ground without collapsing any of the tunnel. I have heard there is new strapping that does not lay in the groove of the tunnel but instead rests on the wires keeping it from collapsing the tunnel. And Affordable Agility makes a great PVC brace that has no sharp corners like the metal braces and do not collapse any of the tunnel like saddle bags.
So what can you do? First, the straps on the tunnel braces should never be tightened to a degree that it causes any change in the diameter of the tunnel. Second, other strapping methods should be used if the event is going to cater to medium to large dogs of speed and drive in which the crew wants to keep the tunnel secure with minimal adjustments. Third, when you are walking a course pay close attention to the tunnel obstacle bracing as well as placement of the tunnel. If you see any collapsing of the tunnel, talk to the judge or administrators about adjusting the tension. If you see a tunnel placed near any solid object such as a brick wall consider if entry or exit of the tunnel at speed could cause your dog to hit the wall while in the tunnel. Finally, get the word out and educate others on these hazards.
We love our sport and we all want our dogs to be able to do their best without injury or fear. But, we need to know our dog’s safety is our responsibility alone. From baby beginner to seasoned champions, if the course looks or feels unsafe it is your job to say something or not run your dog. So, go out there and have fun, be safe and educate those around you about the joy and pleasure of our great sport as well as safety cautions.