Is shoulder height really the best way to set jump heights?

Today is Dog Agility Blogger Action Day, and the topic is “Improving Agility Organizations.”

Jump heights both within and across the various venues have long been a topic of concern for those of who want to run our dogs, want to be competitive, but also want to keep our dogs running for as long as possible. I have Shelties, a breed that quite often falls into “just over” territory, both due to the breed’s extreme variation in height, and their sometimes less-than-optimal structure. I am not going to argue the merits (or lack thereof) of the various organizations’ jump heights–but I do think we should consider HOW we measure dogs for Agility.

*PLEASE NOTE: This post does not address measuring for international competition at all. Obviously any competitor interested in competing internationally will have to comply with international standards.

Front structure impacts shoulder height

My second Agility dog, Charlie, I got as a rescue dog and at the time, had very little idea of how structure affects both the dog’s ability to extend over jumps, and the impact jumping has on the dog’s body. Charlie, it turned out, had very straight shoulders–so straight that measured at the normal spot for measuring (the top of the withers) he consistently got measurements of right at 15″ or slightly under–whereas if the wicket slipped at ALL behind the highest point of the withers, he measured closer to 13″. The effect of this was, of course, that he jumped 16″ (initially 18″ in USDAA) in the venues we competed in at the time–landing on straight, high shoulders that really couldn’t take the impact. Even with all the want-to in the world (and he had a lot of want-to!) eventually the impact took its toll, and while part of the problem was likely an injury that occurred before I got him, he retired much younger than I would have liked, with arthritis in his shoulders–so bad on one side that you could feel the bones grinding against each other when you picked him up.


Charlie, on the right, having a tug with baby Baci. Charlie was 10 years old and had been retired for close to a year at this point.

Shoulder height can vary

How many times have you watched a dog run and thought “really? That dog is REALLY under 18″?” (or 16″ or whatever). Competitors have many, many strategies for conditioning and setting up a dog in order to get the best possible measurement. Taking a LOT of weight off (so the dog is practically skeletal) is a fairly common practice, as is stacking the dog to get the shoulders as low as possible, or attempting to lower the dog’s head subtly while getting measured. I have known people to even teach a dog to crouch slightly when the wicket is set on the shoulders (sometimes not by the kindest means).

Most venues require final measurements once the dog is 2 years old. MOST Shelties (and I can assume that this holds true for at least some other breeds as well) chests don’t drop until they are closer to 3 years old. For a dog in an “iffy” range, this can be the difference between 16″ and 22″ (in USDAA) or 16″ and 20″ in AKC.

And then there’s the measurer…

Step up, folks with hairy dogs! How many times has the judge measured HAIR, not the dog? I am sure I am not the only one who has thinned the hair over my dog’s shoulders.

Can there be a better way to measure?

It would require some consideration and development to find the optimal heights for Agility jumping, but yes, I think there is. Flyball organization U-FLI has developed a measuring technique that isn’t impacted by the dog’s conformation, the handler’s strategies, or the measurer’s competence. It involves using a special device to measure the long bone of a dog’s foreleg from the point of the elbow to the accessory carpal bone (Pisiform), the bony protrusion just above the stop or carpal pad. Smaller dogs can be held by the handler to do the measurement, while taller dogs can stand on the floor. It’s extremely quick and much less stressful for the dog (it literally took SECONDS to do).

If it was possible to get an Agility organization interested in measuring this way, it seems to me that dogs could be measured at trials and a database started to cross-reference current jump height, current shoulder height, and foreleg length in order to develop optimal leg length for current jump heights, and eventually, all dogs’ jump heights could be set using this method.  I believe it would lead to a safer, fairer, more accurate means of determining Agility jump heights, and could only benefit our canine partners.

For information on U-FLI’s measuring protocol, check out


16 Responses to “Is shoulder height really the best way to set jump heights?”

  1. Is shoulder height really the best way to set jump heights? | Dog Agility Blog Events Says:

    […] Read the full article […]

  2. Elayne Says:

    Great idea, I love it. More fair and accurate and easier on the dog and judge. Probably a lot quicker too, could save a lot of time at trials.


  3. Taryn Says:

    As the owner of a Cardigan Corgi, I love this idea. My heavy-boned long-backed dog is expected to jump 16 inches in USDAA. Needless to say, I don’t do USDAA….

  4. Pam Says:

    Oh I have never heard of that measuring – sounds interesting

  5. Jen Says:

    I completely agree. I just don’t know how to go about making that happen. Petition? I just finished a canine rehab course and the dogs with straight fronts are already going to have more issues due to their structure so a higher jump height could be detrimental to the dogs agility career. I also have short dogs that run agility and one dog with a straight front and I wish he could jump 16″ in USDAA championship.

  6. Laura, Lance, and Vito Says:

    I love it! So much fairer for our dogs!

  7. hillbillygibberish Says:

    I’ve been thinking about it, and I think that someone would probably have to commit to actually start collecting the data. I may look in to buying one of the U-FLI measuring devices and start wandering up to people at trials, asking to measure their dogs!

  8. Tracy Says:

    The other flyball sanctioning org does still use a wicket. My pit bull was wicketed at 19 inches – setting her jump height for that flyball org at 14 inches.

    In U-Fli her forearm length allows her to set a 10 inch jump.

    • hillbillygibberish Says:

      Yes, my male Shelties are technically 10-11 inch dogs in NAFA, but 8 & 9 inch dogs in U-FLI. I think U-FLI’s method could be adopted in a lot of dog sports, with adjustments for the type of dog sport. It seems significantly less prone to error.

  9. Mufaasa's Mum Says:

    Wow, I wrote about the same thing! I have a lot of sheltie-owned friends who go through this. It’s less of an issue for me as my dogs have decent structure and there’s no arguing that they jump 26″ (as tall as you go in AAC), I would really like structure and also body-mass to be taken into consideration.

  10. JLGauntt Says:

    U-FLI has patented both their wicket and the measuring process and – when initially approached on it a couple of years ago – was not been willing to work with an agility organization

    • hillbillygibberish Says:

      It certainly can’t hurt to ask as an individual. I am not sure if U-FLI judges have their own device, or if one is borrowed from U-FLI for the weekend of a tournament, but there are U-FLI judges involved in Agility who might be willing to help.

  11. Tracy Says:

    I’ve also found that the U-Fli method of measurement is much faster and much MUCH less stressful for the dog.
    Having worked through 5 or 6 wicketings to get our little guy a height card for both AKC and USDAA – measuring him for U-Fli literally took 60 seconds.

  12. Steve Schwarz Says:

    The U-FLI method is definitely the way to go. I’ve been pushing it whenever the measuring issue comes up. The foreleg is part of the lever that determines how much lift a dog can muster so it is directly related to their ability to jump. It makes breed exemptions pretty much unnecessary!! Basset Hounds short foreleg – low jump height.

    I didn’t realize U-FLI wasn’t interested in letting other groups use it. I might send an email or two…

  13. Jenn Says:

    ” Flyball organization U-FLI has developed a measuring technique that isn’t impacted by the dog’s conformation, the handler’s strategies, or the measurer’s competence.”

    And cross-pollination of ideas like this one are why these Blog Action Days are so valuable. Thank you!

  14. Border Collie Mix Says:

    I’m a novice with a small BC mix, and so far no one gets a consistent jump height on her. NADAC measured her at 18 1/2 inches while AKC measured her at 18. At this point I am not even certain what height I should practice her at. I will keep getting her measured, and she can easily jump 20, but she is still a young dog.

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