E181: Andy Hartman - "The USDAA@Home Program"

 Today I chat with Andy Hartman from USDAA about the organizations new program for video titling — USDAA@Home.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Andy Hartman.

Andy is the vice president of the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA). He's held that position since 2011. However, he's been in agility since 1997, when he was introduced to the sport with his first Belgian Terv, Taz. His passion for the sport grew quickly and eventually became his work. Before joining USDAA he worked for the AKC, where he held several positions including Director of Agility.

He's been a USDAA judge since 2013, and judged the Agility Dog Association of Australia National Grand Prix in 2016. He's scheduled to judge it again next year. He's also accompanied TEAM USA competing at the IFCS World Agility Championships.

He met his wife, Cindy, through agility, and they have competed together in many events over the years. Andy has competed with many breeds of dogs including a Belgian Tervuren, Border Collie, Jack Russell Terrier, Border Terrier, Schipperke, Australian Shepherd, and Golden Retriever.

Today, Andy, Cindy, and their dogs live roughly 30 minutes from me — actually, roughly 15 minutes from me, from our chat before this interview — in nearby Apex, North Carolina, where Andy is now spending a large chunk of his time focused on the new USDAA@Home program!

Hi Andy, welcome to the podcast!

Andy Hartman: Thank you, Melissa. Nice to have you as a neighbor.

Melissa Breau: Back atcha. To start us out, do you want tell us a little bit about the dogs that you have now and what you're working on with them?

Andy Hartman: We've got a couple of older dogs. I've got a Border Collie, Flye, who's 13-and-a-half, I have a Jack Russell Terrier, Hula, who's going on 13, I have Oliver, who's a little mixed-breed terrier rescue from Florida, he's 6, and we recently got Monty, who's another terrier mix, and he's 5 months old.

Melissa Breau: He's the baby of the family.

Andy Hartman: He is, and he's fitting in very well. We're lucky. We've got a nice set of dogs.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned Taz in the intro, but how did you originally get into dogs and dog sports?

Andy Hartman: I always had dogs growing up. We had a couple of Saint Bernards when I was young. We did hunting, so we had Brittanys and German Shorthaired Pointers. When I got off on my own, I rescued a mixed-breed German Shepherd from the Humane Society and really liked him, and then got a purebred German Shepherd two years later.

Melissa Breau: So that's what got you into dogs.

Andy Hartman: That got me started. Then I lost the German Shepherds within three weeks of one another, and my veterinarian at the time said, "Before you get another dog, I'd like you to come and see my breed of dogs."

She happened to have Belgian Tervurens, so she took me to a Belgian Tervuren Regional Specialty, so I got to see all these cool dogs doing this really neat sport called agility. Then I started looking for a Belgian Tervuren. The breeders in that breed are very particular, and it's probably easier to adopt a child than it is a Terv, but everything worked out and I found a really nice dog.

My vet and her husband lived in the country, and they had a pole barn, and they did agility training on Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons, and so yeah, I'll try it. Next thing you know, I'm doing dog agility training, and you meet a dozen people who have the same passion for dogs that you do. It started out social, and then one day somebody goes, "It's time for you to go to a trial." They helped me get going, I went to the trial, and I was hooked.

I can remember that first run with Taz. He did great. We took third place only because we slid off the table. And then it was another six months before I Q'd at another trial.

Agility has that way. It's a humbling sport. If you have a fragile ego, this probably isn't the sport for you. There isn't a way to NQ in this sport that I haven't done multiple times. But I love it.

Melissa Breau: Obviously. You've made it your work as well as your play. I think a lot of our listeners are probably familiar with USDAA, but for those who aren't, can you share a little bit of background about what it is, what you guys do?

Andy Hartman: Ken Tatsch started USDAA back in 1986. He'd been to a dog show at Crufts, and they were doing a demonstration sport, which was agility. He came back from that and really liked it, and they started doing it. Back in the early days, it was more doing demonstrations and people getting together. You couldn't go out and buy a set of agility equipment. You had to make everything. That's how it got started.

In 1988, we had the first Grand Prix of dog agility, and that has grown into Cynosport World Games, which we've held every year since except for this year. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, we had to cancel Cynosport, along with the National Titling Championship.

USDAA, if you take a look through our rulebook and other documentation, there's always a reason for what was done in the early days with USDAA. It wasn't just slapped together. There's a lot of thought that's gone behind it, a lot of philosophy, and still is today.

Melissa Breau: As the VP, what does that look like? What do you do?

Andy Hartman: Oh, man. When you work for a small company, you wear all kinds of hats. I manage the website to a degree, put content up, I look at sites for Cynosport and other events that can help in the planning of those events.

Day to day, right now with @Home, for a while I was handling all of the customer service email that would come through. Now I've gotten some help with that. But I'm still spending a lot of time prepping the courses. We have a number of judges that design courses, we've got a nice review process for looking at them.

But, to be honest with you, the hardest part about @Home and preparing it is the briefings, because unlike a trial, where you're there and if somebody asks a question, it's easy for you to answer, with @Home, we have to try to anticipate the questions and write the briefings as clearly as we can. Sometimes we think we've done a good job, but we've created some doubt, so then we get people writing in and we answer those. But every week we try to get better and better with USDAA@Home.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Talking about that, or mentioning that, I'd love to talk about it a little more. Can you share the basics? What it is, for those who haven't heard about it, and how it works?

Andy Hartman: Necessity is the mother of invention. Back in March, I can remember this distinctly, I had flown out to Phoenix for the Wild West Regional. This was just when COVID was heating up.

Flying back home, I can remember thinking in the airplane, What are we going to do, because I was concerned that we would have events that would cancel. Back then, I think we all had this impression that things would slow down for a month or two and then we'd be right back, we would get back to normal. It wasn't that many weeks into it when it was obvious that wasn't going to happen.

When you're an event-driven company, when you have no events, that's not a good thing. So we put our brains together, and over about an eight-week period of time, we worked seven days a week, it was a team effort, and we came up with the idea of doing the trialing, finding a way for people to be able to trial in their back yard, where they could do it on their time schedule and would not be affected by COVID in their back yard.

It turned out that there was a real need for that. The amount of email that we've gotten where people will say things like, "Thank you so much for doing USDAA@Home. You've brought joy back into my life. You've got me motivated again to work with my dogs." It is so rewarding when you get those emails and realize that you had a very positive impact on people's lives above and beyond the business side of things. It's just been really good, and it's been good for us. We've learned a lot as we've done this.

You get email from people who don't live anywhere near a trial who now can do agility trials in their back yard. You get people who have an aggressive dog who can trial in agility. You've got people who've got timid dogs. And let's face it — there's some people who don't enjoy being in crowds themselves who can now participate in the sport. So I think it's filling a real need out there for people.

Melissa Breau: When did you officially start offering? Do you remember?

Andy Hartman: Back in May, I believe. I can look it up if you ask me another question. I should have anticipated that one!

Melissa Breau: No, no, that's fine. I was just curious how long it's been running now and what kind of folks you've seen coming through, but that's OK. I'd like to dig a little deeper into why you chose to create the program — obviously the "Why now?" is pretty obvious — and some of the nitty-gritty.

Andy Hartman: As we went, we envisioned that we'd put exercises out there, because one of the things about our titling program, USDAA has a tournament program — Steeplechase, Grand Prix, Team, Masters Challenge Biathlon. We also have the titling side of things. Tournament is more head-to-head competition. Titling is all about skill sets and showing that you've met the standard for those skill sets.

At first we thought about we'll offer training for people. The first set that came out, there were no Q's or anything like that involved. It was just training. We got a good response, and then we realized that titling, allowing people to earn some Q's would be a good thing. But we wanted to keep that element of skill sets involved.

Of course we're not doing full-size courses. We're doing courses anywhere from 40-by-60, 50-by-60, 50-by-70, and 60-by-80. So it's a different design that you're coming up with. It takes a little bit more work than when you're doing it on 100-by-100 and you have the room to do it.

Then we decided that it needed two modules. You couldn't just go out and do one and earn that Q. You needed to do two. Because if you don't have a standard in place, if there isn't a challenge for people to do it, people won't do it for very long.

At USDAA we're all about standards, so we looked at some of the things and we realized right off the bat, right from the get-go, let's let people … you know what? You can do it a number of times. We're not going to say you can only run it once. Who's going to police that? So let's just let people train on it, and let's see how they do. It allows us, from a course design standpoint, maybe to make things a little bit more challenging than you would see, for example, at the Starters or Advanced level, or Masters, at a show where you only have one chance to do it.

And so people start training and they're building their skill set, so I think we all win in that regard. As then as we progress, you'll notice if you look at some of the courses now, the first module sometimes is more of a training module, where we have a specific skill set that we're trying to emphasize, and the second module is more of the full course.

So it's been going good. We get lots of customer feedback. We listen to that customer feedback each week. Every day we have a staff meeting, we talk about those things in the staff meeting, and we don't sit back on our laurels. It's continuous process improvement. We're going to make this thing better each and every week.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I love that, and I love that you guys are working so hard to incorporate that feedback as you go. That's so important for something like this. Especially it's kind of a new world out there.

Andy Hartman: It is. Again, I think we're all learning it each week when we go through this process. Our customers, our competitors, have been so good with their feedback, and so positive and so supportive.

Again, the amount of people who thank us for doing this and hope that it will continue, I'm here to say it will continue. I think @Home will be with us even when we get back to a more normal. With that said, I'm very mindful that we do not want to cannibalize our regular events and our groups' entries.

So I think it will modify with time. I think there will come a point in time when @Home will become its own program and maybe have a different titling structure. We'll have to cross that bridge when we get there. But for right now, people are earning regular titling Q's, improving their skill sets through the courses that we offer, so it's a good thing.

Melissa Breau: To dig a little more into technically how it works, how often are you releasing new courses, and how often can people work through things? How do those bits and pieces work?

Andy Hartman: Right now, we offer new courses every week and we give people two weeks to run those courses. Because lots of people are doing it outside, weather plays into it, so we like to be able to give people two weekends to be able to do it.

Once the event closes, then we give people an additional twenty-four hours to upload their results. People log in to USDAA@Home with their system email and one of their dogs' registration numbers — it doesn't matter which one, because the system will recognize it — and from their dashboard they can go and look at the event requirements, and take a look at the events that are open for enrollment, and pick the events they want. They can drop those into a shopping cart and then check out.

Each one of our events contains two modules. You have to do both modules cleanly in order to earn a Q, and we charge twelve dollars for that event. Once that's done, they can download the course maps, and we give them a regular course map and then we give them a setup course map that shows the coordinates. If you laid down a tape measure, you could step off just like we do at a lot of regular trials and set up your equipment.

Once you set this up, you have to video it, because we're going to judge it. We give suggested camera positions on the course maps, but we realize not everyone's yard is the same. Your 40-by-60 or 50-by-60 yard may be just slightly different than my 50-by-60 yard. So we allow slight adjustments, as long as you maintain the flow and the challenge of the course.

We realize that that camera position we suggested might not work in your case, so we just want to see you and your dog perform each obstacle. Of course if there's contacts, we want to be able to see the down contact performed.

So people run that run, now they come back home, they log into their dashboard, it will show them the events that they're currently enrolled in, they click on the event they want to work on, and it's an accordion, a little drop down, and you'll see Course 1 and Course 2, and next to it, it will say Submit Results. You click on Submit Results, it will come up, it will tell you who the dog is, and you're going to enter the actual height you ran your dog at, because that's how we know whether to give you a Championship Q, a Performance Q, or if your dog is old enough, a Veterans Q. Then you're going to give us the time of your run, how long did it take, your score.

With your video, you take your video and you're going to get either a YouTube or a Vimeo account, upload your video there, take that link and paste it in. Then you hit Submit, and that uploads into our system. Then you go back and repeat and do the second module.

On our end, once an event closes, then we have a group of judges that we assign the judging duties to, and they go in. I remember when we first did this. I got goosebumps watching people run their dogs in their back yard. It's really inspiring. People are hooting and hollering as if they're at a regular trial in a lot of cases. It's really a neat thing.

The judge, when you go in, you have a screen and you see all of the runs, and you're either going to say yes or no, which means pass or you did not pass. Right there, they can click on the course map, so they have it on the screen so they know what the course is, or they can even go and download all the documents associated with that course, so they don't have to spend time going back through the site to find it, and then you judge.

When everyone uses the same camera angle, it goes pretty fast. Then you get some and it's a 180-degree different camera angle because they had to, and you've got to think about it a little bit more. Our judges who are doing the judging do a great job for us, and I think they enjoy doing it, because we haven't had anyone quit yet. So that's a good sign.

Melissa Breau: Definitely. Being able to do something like that from home when it's already something that you've chosen to do, when it requires traveling and showing up at trials and a whole day's travel sometimes and whatever else, I'm sure that's nice for them too.

Andy Hartman: We plan ahead. Originally we would offer one of each class type: Standard, Jumpers, Gamblers, and Snooker. But the last three or four weeks we've gone to a … for instance, this week we're going to offer Gamblers and Jumpers — two different courses, though, for each, two different ring sizes, trying to accommodate more people. And then the following week we'll do Standard and Snooker, again each class type in two different ring sizes, trying to appeal to as many people as we can.

Melissa Breau: For those who have different yard sizes and things like that, right?

Andy Hartman: Correct. This month we've started to offer Combined Relay because people need Relay Q's in order to advance for titles. I think we've offered three Combined Relays so far, with more to come. That's been really popular.

With the Combined Relay there's one course, and it's set at the Advanced level, it's judged by Advanced rules, and you can pair a Starters dog with a Masters dog, Advanced with Masters, it doesn't matter. It's two modules, so you're going to run both halves. The first time through, you're going to run one half, and then the second one, you and your partner are going to switch, and you're going to run opposite halves. We share jumps because again it's a smaller ring size, so any jumps that are shared, we have set at the lower dog's height.

Melissa Breau: It sounds like you are really trying to work to make it as accessible for as many people as possible. Even though obviously agility requires some equipment, there's some good flexibility there.

Andy Hartman: We allow things like you can use either winged or non-winged jumps, and we've got a whole list of equipment substitutions that we allow. Some of the courses sometimes … for instance, in a Standard we'll have a dog walk. We might put in a jump A-frame as a substitution for that, or a jump seesaw as a substitution for that. Sometimes we have two tunnels. Not everyone has two tunnels, so a lot of times we'll allow a jump to be substituted for one of the tunnels, although we'll specify which tunnel that is generally on the course map.

Melissa Breau: You said you're offering two different yard sizes. Are they the same yard sizes from week to week? What is the smallest space somebody could realistically compete with?

Andy Hartman: Forty-by-sixty. We find the 50-by-60, somebody with a 40-by-60 with slight adjustments can make a 50-by-60 work. Of course, Standard is hard to do in a small ring, so usually we'll see either 50-by-70 or 60-by-80 with a Standard. A lot of training facilities are offering these courses for people, if they want to come in and do it during the week. Sometimes people are doing it in their back yard, sometimes they're going to a friend's house that has a little bit bigger yard, so it's all been really good.

Melissa Breau: But much safer than a full-blown trial, for now at least.

Andy Hartman: Absolutely. I think we, as dog people, are pretty responsible people and we have a lot of respect for one another.

Melissa Breau: You were talking a little bit earlier about the future of the program and that you guys are definitely hoping to keep it around long term, but maybe it will morph a little bit. Can you share a little more about that?

Andy Hartman: Again, it's one of those things. This is not set in stone, just one of the thoughts is that maybe once regular trials come back, maybe if you're titling for regular titling Q's, you go to a regular trial. Maybe @Home becomes its own program where if you do @Home, you're going after @Home titles, and that would allow us to come up with a different structure for @Home.

For instance, you'll notice we don't offer tournaments right now with @Home. However, that's going to change with the @Home Fall Festival that's going to take place for the entire month of October. We will be offering tournament courses, and we're working on getting guest judges to design some of the courses. It's going to be a lot of fun. We're going to have details coming out about it shortly. We're just working out some of those last details. That will be really, really exciting.

Melissa Breau: For those who want those details when they're available, what's the best way for them to follow everything going on and stay up to date on the latest changes and updates?

Andy Hartman: We'll make an announcement definitely on USDAA.com. We'll make a news announcement, and I'm sure we'll add something to the USDAA/@Home page as well, on the beginning page.

Melissa Breau: Awesome.

Andy Hartman: We'll get the word out there. We know people are chomping at the bit, so we're working hard to finish up those details and get that information out.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to add about the program? I've got a couple more questions here for you, but anything else?

Andy Hartman: I'm thinking what's one of the most unusual things that I've seen through the program. There's a competitor in Denali, Alaska, a park, that has a resort, and she and her friends do agility. I got a picture showing the dog and the handler on the agility course, and in the distance there's a moose in the field. So that was a little different. That doesn't happen every day.

I just want to say thank you to everyone who's participated. We have gotten so many new people to come in and try USDAA agility from other venues who have never done it before. It's been really good, to the point where I was talking with one of our groups and letting them know that we don't want to cannibalize our entries when we get back to normal. We're very mindful of that.

Her comment was, "I don't think you should change a thing, because we are going to have more people at our trials because we've got people who haven't done USDAA before to come and try it."

So I would say to anyone out there: If you're itching to do agility, and you have any concerns about getting together with groups of people, give USDAA@Home a try. We'd love to have you come. If you've got questions, you can write us, you can call us, we're there to answer questions, we're there to help you with anything that we can.

I just want to say thank you to everyone who's done it. We just can't thank you enough for all the good support, for all the kind words. It really motivates us to keep working hard, keep it fresh, and to keep improving it on a daily basis. So thank you everybody.

Melissa Breau: Such a great note to round things out on, but I do have three more questions here for you. I've got these three things I usually ask people at the end of the call their first time on. The first one here is what's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Andy Hartman: I had a Border Collie named Zest, and unfortunately, Zest got attacked several times at different training facilities and she became really spooky. I can remember the first agility trial. The judge was wearing a hat, and she just came unglued and I had to carry her off the field. I worked really hard with Zest to overcome that, and we did. She was a fantastic agility dog and just a wonderful partner. So when I look across my career, that was probably the most satisfying, to be able to pull that out and have so many good years with her.

Melissa Breau: I like that. What about training advice? What's the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Andy Hartman: Two things. Save a foot, lose a leg. In other words, follow through or you pay the price that your dog might not follow through on that obstacle. I think that's a really good little saying. The other — and I get it from my wife, who's a really good dog trainer — is be consistent. No matter what you do with your dog when it comes to training, be consistent. That takes a lot of work. It's not necessarily an easy thing to do.

Melissa Breau: By nature, humans are not very consistent, that's for sure.

Andy Hartman: No, we're not, and even when we train in our back yard, then we go to a show and we're completely different, and our mood is different, and the dog is looking at us like, "What is going on?"

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Last one: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Andy Hartman: I look up to a lot of the people that started this sport off and that worked so hard, traveled all over the country, going to the few events that were out there. But if I have to pick an individual, I would pick Stuart Mah. I picked Stuart because Stuart has accomplished just about everything you can in the sport of agility, and yet he's always willing to help somebody out, to give advice, and he's so humble.

He is retired from the sport now, but when he and his wife, Pati, were trialing, those two were a great example. They've accomplished all these things and yet here they are, volunteering at trials, helping out right along with everyone else, and I think it's so important. If we didn't have volunteers in this sport, we couldn't do it. So I've got a lot of respect and I look up to Stuart an awful lot.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Andy! It's been fantastic.

Andy Hartman: It's been my pleasure Melissa. Thank you so much for having me. I've enjoyed it. I can't believe it's over already, and we only had one dog-barking incident between us, and those were my dogs.

Melissa Breau: Nobody else has to know about that. We're going to cut that little part out.

Andy Hartman: Well, there you go.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Deb Jones to talk about her new titling program, offered in partnership with the Fenzi Team Titling program!

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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