Black Box Course Design

Black Box Course Design
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I had a course design discussion with an associate not too long ago. Our conversation had mostly to do with methodology for designing courses. The course designer always begins with a completely blank slate or tabula rasa, an awesome and sometimes intimidating challenge.

Once you get a start, of course you have foundation for nesting and variations on a theme. But getting a start really can be the hard part.

Anyway, I gave her an idea or two about how to get the creative juices flowing and in a timely manner lay out a design that is interesting, and fun, and challenging. I left off our study by wishing her luck. And I told her… “remind me some day to tell you about the Black Box method.”

She wrote back directly and was intrigued by the Black Box.

This is a unique opportunity to kill several birds with the same stone. I can answer her question; publish to my blog; and get a course designed that I will use next month.

Truth be Told

I’m going to take inspiration from an existing course that especially inspires or fascinates me. It might be unkind to suggest that I’m going to steal someone else’s course concept. I’m going to use it as a beginning point. And I will repurpose it and make it uniquely new.

It’s easy to camouflage what you borrow, if you’re feeling slightly guilty. I prefer to send a note to the original artist and give them kudos and tell them OBTW I’m going to use your course concept. Usually they are gratified by having their genius acknowledged.

FOR THIS TUTORIAL I went out to a website called and just flipped pages until I found something that grabbed me. has a provision for contacting the original designer to get permission to download the course map.

I found a course designed by USDAA judge Tami McClung that was played as a Team Standard course on June 24, 2006.

What drew me to this course was the meandering nature of the course from side to side. If a sequence undulates, in serpentine fashion, the handler is able to work the course without having to race the dog. These days we see a lot of severe straight lines running back ‘n forth the length of the floor.

I’m charged with designing a course for a 60′ x 90’ space, for play in the National Dog Agility League. There appears to be ample room for Tami McClung’s course North & South. But side to side I will have to make accommodations. I hope to be faithful to the challenges presented on this course. Tami debriefed the course, pointing out the wrong course options. My ambition is to preserve those challenges.


Because of the compression from the sides there wasn’t room for the opening sequence to be identical. A single jump did the duty of the #4 and #6 jumps on Tami’s original course. This accommodation sacrificed the first wrong course option from Tami’s debriefing.

And after jump #8, there was no room for a pipe tunnel on the right-side wall.


I’ve turned on the option to show path lengths between obstacles. When I design courses for the NDAL I like to see about 20′ for transitional distances between obstacles. I’m a little nervous about the short transitions to the A-frame, and on the dismount of the A-frame.

I’ve numbered this course through the dogwalk. The smaller space has depressed the number count for this course. But, I’m not done yet.


There’s no collapsed tunnel at the back of the ring. Tami McClung’s course was designed something like 14 years ago, while the USDAA still used the chute. These days the collapsed tunnel is just about extinct. We are happy to get rid of it… and there wasn’t room anyway.

I’ve replaced the #13 jump with a pipe tunnel. This introduces a wrong course option after jump #9, and makes up for losing the wrong course option after jump #14 in Tami’s original course.

On the dismount of the dogwalk a bit of sequencing has been added that will lift the obstacle count for the course. This change also breaks up that long line that finished the original course.

The A-frame has been nudged a bit to open up the transitional distances on approach and dismount. Moving the A-frame makes the A-frame a more compelling option after the #5 pipe tunnel; one of the wrong-course options from Tami’s original course.

Some of the jumps have wings removed. While I like the visual presentation of a winged jump, sometimes those wings create both visual clutter and complications for the handler’s path.


Finishing Touches

This course has been rotated 90º. My personal preference in designing courses is for the long ends of a course to go left and right. I worked designing this course longways up & down because I was constantly referring to the original course.

Another change, which might be kind of jarring, is that the course has been flipped or mirrored. This might be a bit sneaky, obscuring the notion that you’ve purloined somebody else’s course concept. But my motivation was a bit more pedestrian. The dogwalk was on the other side of the floor last month; and I wanted it to be completely repositioned.

On my course map I have written “with apology to Tami McClung”. You will see these notes of apology on my courses from time to time. These notes invariably mean that I have Black Boxed a course that fascinated or intrigued me.



Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit our web store: You’ll find in the web store The Jokers Notebook, a series of comprehensive training workbooks intended to teach a dog powerful skills of independent performance. –

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