I have always had a love for animals that was nurtured by the fact that I grew up on a dairy farm. After leaving the farm, we have always had dogs as pets. We did basic obedience, dabbled in conformation, and most recently trained in agility. I have also enjoyed making things with my hands. Just ask the many people that have been the recipient of my hand-made gifts.
While I was learning agility with Joey, I remember trying to read a course map. I tend to be a person who thinks in pictures and it was hard for me at times to visualize how I would run a course while I was looking at "stick figures".
We had just moved in to our new home. Then came the overwhelming sense of responsibility and finances. Hmmm maybe I could make something that would be useful to people. Thinking back to agility training and trialing, I remembered how people would set up a course only to have to move pieces again because things didn't flow properly once they saw the obstacles in place. I had heard about computer programs for laying out a course but again they just had the "stick figures". If I could make actual pieces that would fit on, say a card table, that might be very useful.
All of the pieces would need to be scaled in order that the correct perspective would be attained. We had 2 card tables, so I measured the useable space and got a nice round number of 30 inches by 30 inches. I dug out some old course maps and most of them were about 100 feet by 100 feet. That gave me a ratio of 1 to 40, a nice round number. OH, did I mention that I have always liked math and working with numbers? So this was not scary to me as it might be for some people. Then just to be sure, I checked several agility organizations and found that usually the largest size field would be 100 square feet. Now with the ratio of 1 to 40 how small would the obstacles be and could I find a way to make them that small?
Just to get an idea I took the simplest obstacle first, the wingless jump and found it would be almost an inch high, about 1 1/2 inches wide and the jump standard feet about 1/2 inch long, just so they would not fall over. Okay, I think my hands could handle something that size.
Next I was off to the local craft store to see what materials were available to make these. After some looking, I found basswood and balsa wood. I had heard of balsa wood but it was so light weight that I feared if one breathed on an obstacle it would move or tip over. The basswood is not "heavy" but at least has some substance to it. I would also need something round for the jump bars. I found a hard wood dowel that I thought would work. I bought a few pieces to take home and try to make something.
The first few pieces I tried were not pretty to look at but gave me a good start. I think I remember using a straight blade to cut the wood for the first pieces, holding the wood by hand. We went online to find the equipment specifications of many different organizations. I took an average of each obstacle dimension. Then I started to work out what would be the actual dimensions of all of the obstacles. When I got to the obstacles that have angle cuts, like all of the contacts, I found that I needed help. I am very privileged to have a husband that works with Auto CAD, a computer engineering program, and could make drawings of the pieces for me. That gave me the exact dimensions and angles for each piece.
I tried making one of each of obstacle so that I could see what they would look like together. The jump bars were anything but straight across and the weave poles would not stand upright. So I needed a way to make straight cuts. Back to the store for a saw blade and miter box. Now that I had straight cuts I glued some pieces together. Things were still not fitting together correctly, and then I noticed that there were burrs on the wood from the cuts. Now for sanding each cut, but I really wanted all of the pieces to fit together properly. I even got so critical as to make sure that each piece of dowel for the jump bars and poles would stand straight up on it's end. These are 1/8" diameter and 1 to 1 1/4" long. But this made sure that all were straight.
When it came to finding a "tire", I went to the hardware store. I tried to describe to the sales person what I was trying to do. Okay, forget that, especially with someone who has never seen agility. I gave the dimensions that I needed for something round, dark colored, and hopefully rubber looking. The sales person took me to the O-rings and helped me find the exact size I needed.
Another interesting obstacle to reproduce is the chute. For the barrel, with dimensions in hand, I looked in the craft store and found a small spool. The opening was too small but if I painted the inside of the hole and the end black, it could look like a tube. The chute fabric would be held on by the bevel at the other end. For the fabric, actual rip stop was going to work and could be sewn without too much unraveling.
Onto the tunnel. For our dogs the tunnel was the easiest obstacle to train. But when it came to making one for the set it took a lot of thinking time and trial and error. I wanted something (the right size) that could be bent into the shapes being used in agility, hold that shape, and then be re-shape into a different tunnel. This is the one obstacle that I have the most unused craft items from development. I wanted it to look like a real tunnel even with the ribs. In the end what finally worked, is a nylon rope wrapped with floral wire and a knit fabric sewn over the whole outside making sure that the ends of the wire are protected so no one gets poked.
As for painting, I started with black and white. But that would be too boring. And we needed contact zones to look like the real deal. So I tried to pick different colors but keep some uniform for my own sanity in making the pieces.
The numbers even though not really an obstacle, I wanted to provide something to designate the course. I knew I could not make these to size and still be readable. I also wanted to provide something simple and inexpensive since there would need to be 25 for each set. I tried writing the numbers by hand on wood pieces but at best my hand writing is "good" and that is not all of the time. I finally found a template and a special pen that help me make all of the numbers uniform and neat.
Last but not least I wanted something to designate an agility ring - the "field cloth". It needed to be something that could be folded, would not hold a crease or wrinkle, would lay flat and not ravel. Also washable if necessary. The sales person in the fabric store (she didn't know anything about agility either) helped me find the "ponte double knit". It actually turns out to be the most expensive piece to the set, cost wise, but I think it is important. (The idea of adding the grid lines came from one potential customer. Looking for colored markers the correct size sent me to an office supply store.)
OK, if this "set" idea is going to work, people need a safe way to store it and I need to be able to ship it with all of the pieces arriving intact. I laid out the pieces to get the overall size of the package. I didn't want the pieces to bump each other possibly damaging the more delicate ones or the paint job. I looked for pre-made divided boxes but could not find anything that would work for the set. I did find an open box about the right size that I thought would be able to stand up to being shipped. I decided to make the dividers myself and cut foam to pack around the pieces to protect them.
It took about 10 months from the first idea till we got the website up. (Website? That's another story by itself that my husband might decide to write about some time.) It was a lot of work but fun also as I enjoy crafts and problem solving.
I had been making the "regular" set for awhile when I received an email from Bud Houston asking if I could make a set to TDAA (Teacup Dogs Agility Association) specifications. We have big dogs and I had never heard of TDAA. So I asked to see the specifications. If I thought the regular set was small, this set would be tiny, but doable. After several emails back and forth with Bud, I finally had an idea of all of the dimensions needed. Bud also wanted a regular set so I thought it was worth the effort to make the Teacup set.
TDAA does not use the double, triple, panel, or broad jumps and we decided that the chute could stay the same size as the regular set. The tunnel is only half the length and circumference as the regular set. A crossover was also asked for, something else new. Even their rings are smaller. I still smile at how cute these pieces look but also understand how the set can be very useful to people. So the Teacup set was born.