Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Kicking ass for the working class

Steve from Agility Nerd sent out a call for bloggers to write about Working/Volunteering at trials for a 'Blog Action Day'.  I think if you go to his blog he'll have a list of links for all the postings so you can see what others have to say as well.  I think this came out of a discussion over at Clean Run's Yahoo group.  I checked out a bit of the discussion but there were so many posts, I don't have that kind of time or interest, but I did glean a little bit and one poster in particular had some rather extraordinary/inflammatory things to say that I may refer to a bit in my discussion.

I always work at trials, usually 4-6 classes per day for a DOCNA trial and 2-4  per day for USDAA depending on the trials needs.  Sometimes I even go to work trials I'm not competing in.  Within the past 2 years I've joined the 2 agility clubs local to me but even before joining I always worked trials and I work trials for other clubs/organizations as well.  Whether it's my club or not doesn't effect how many classes I work.  I don't consider this volunteering so much as work that needs to be done in order for me to enjoy my hobby (true volunteer work involves donating time/energy to organizations that do work to make the world a better place).  It's a lot of work to put on a trial and all the work shouldn't fall on the backs of a few club members or individuals with training centers.  I can't speak for AKC but the clubs/people putting on  DOCNA and USDAA trials are not making huge amounts of money and in fact sometimes lose money.  I know the last few 2-ring USDAA trials for both the clubs I belong to lost money.  People hold these trials for a love of the sport not to make money  but I'm sure this is obvious to most of those reading this.  Most agility clubs are either technically non-profits or at least functioning like them for all intents and purposes.  Some 'clubs' are as small as one person or have maybe a dozen members.  Any money the club makes goes back into buying new equipment or covering trials that lose money.  The only perks for members around here are a reduced entry fee and first choice at workers spots for the yearly seminar plus a few other small things.  But they're hardly compensation for the hard work that club members put in nor are they meant to be.  I only bring this up because there was a woman at the Clean Run discussion group who claimed that because she paid an entry fee she shouldn't be expected to work because it was up to the club to figure out how to staff their rings and turn a profit without help from paying customers.  And I say just because an agility competitor joins a club doesn't mean they're selling themselves into slavery.  Again, the financial benefits of joining a club are very slim for the individual compared to the work involved.  Most people do it for a love of the sport and so that we can all have trials to go to not because they make money or particularly enjoy all the work or have nothing better to do as the commenter over at Clean Run discussion group proclaimed.

Now I know there are AKC breed clubs that hold agility trials for the sole purpose of making money and in that instance I can understand competitors not wanting to work for free because that is a 'for profit' situation and money earned there is not going to go back into the agility community.  I know some of those clubs hire workers and in fact one of them 'hired' the Border Collie rescue group I volunteer for to do the grunt work for one of their trials.  The rescue made over $1000 and the breed club who was made up mostly of non-agility folk didn't have to do the heavy lifting.  Not sure if they  made money but from what I heard both sides were happy with the working arrangement, a win for everybody.

I'm a numbers geek so I crunched a few numbers based on a one ring USDAA trial I attended over the weekend.  I counted 176 jobs for one day assuming 1 score keeper, 4 jump setters, no scribe assistant and 5 course builders per class (in addition to the other positions).  I figured there were roughly 56 handlers (maximum, there may have been less) based on the running order and taking into account multiple dogs so that works out to a minimum of 3.14 jobs/handler for the day if the work is divided evenly amongst competitors.  I've done the same in the past for DOCNA and it works out 4 jobs/handler or so since there are more classes in DOCNA.  This doesn't take into account people who can't work for legitimate reasons or who work a lot and maybe need to take a break off from working for a trial.  If we conservatively assume 10% of the field or 6 competitors have a good reason not to be working the USDAA figure jumps up to 3.52 jobs/handler.

I get the feeling that most USDAA, NADAC and DOCNA competitors in Colorado work at least a couple of classes.  I don't know for sure because I don't have the time, energy or interest in keeping track of who's not working but most people that I know work.  Some work more than others but I'm not keeping score.  According to the Clean Run discussion this is not the case in other areas (and I can't speak for AKC or UKC in my area).  One person spoke of an AKC trial taking 13 hours because a large number of competitors flat out refused to work and also had the nerve to get angry at the slow pace of the day but yet still refused to lift a finger.  I can't imagine attending such a hostile trial.  How hard is it to jump into a ring and set a few bars or sit on your butt and hit the timer?  Takes much less energy than sitting in your chair and stewing over the length of the day.  One of the more inflammatory statements from the commentator over at Clean Run  was something to the effect that she hates the agility culture and feels alienated by it because she refuses to work.  Well if someone is sitting on their ass all day or practicing obedience with their dogs (as this person says she was doing) or sitting in the corner reading Ayn Rand's 'Virtue of Selfishness' and spouting Libertarian nonsense about Reverse Darwinism (I kid you not) then it's hardly a shocker when people are less than welcoming.  Nobody likes to be taken advantage of and it's a bit passive aggressive to loudly reject the values of a community then cry 'boo hoo, everyone's so mean, nobody likes me, I hate this place'.  I know Monica from Clean Run and others as well say that expressing animosity towards these people and walking around with a lot of anger towards them isn't helping matters and I soundly agree.  I don't think it's healthy walking around with a lot of anger about anything.  But the reality of the situation is that people are going to be angry if they feel taken advantage of and some are going to express it and telling them they shouldn't be angry adds insult to injury and is only going to make them more angry.  It seems so much easier for the non-worker to just put down the Ayn Rand and go set a few bars or hit a few timers and be part of the community rather than rail against it and create a lot of animosity just to prove a point.  Plus the day will go so much faster if everybody helps.

The other problem with people not pitching in is that the people who do work all the time get burnt out.  If someone has to work 6-8 classes instead of 4 because someone else won't work then that person is going to be tired and more prone to mistakes both in doing their job and running their dog by the end of the day.

I'm not sure what the solution is to get people more involved in areas where this is a problem.  The club could make working 2 classes per day mandatory for entry but how would you enforce that?  If someone scratches their name off the workers' list and refuses to work their classes are you going to drag them kicking and screaming to the ring?  You could refuse them entry to your next trial I suppose but you still need someone to keep track of it all.  And I think people like the idea that they're volunteering so you could be alienating people who would work anyway and still not getting the slackers to do their part.

The club could hire workers and charge an extra fee that everyone has to pay.  One club member on the yahoogroup said it cost them over $1000/day to hire workers for the day and I'm not sure if that was for every position or just ring crew but that seems low.  At that rate each person would have to pay an extra $18/day or $36 for the weekend and I'm not sure if that covers scribe/timer/scorekeeper.  It doesn't seem fair to charge someone the full rate if they're only doing 2/5 runs for the day while another handler with 3 dogs is doing 15 runs so the multi-dog handler could end up paying significantly more.  The other problem with this is that you have to deal with inexperienced workers and this can slow down the day.  Enticing enough experienced non-competing handlers to give up a free weekend to work at a trial for a pittance could be problematic.  And if you do have jobs left that require workers like timer and scribe you're going to have a really hard time getting them after charging competitors a hefty 'worker's fee'.

One tactic that I've seen work well is to offer a really nice prize in a worker's raffle.  DOCNA Champs. last year had a good quality tunnel for a prize and man you couldn't buy a worker's spot.  People were waiting ringside clamoring for those spots before they even called for ring crew, I don't even think they had to post a worker's list.  There's a woman who puts on NADAC trials single handedly and she usually has one of her nice high quality hand made fleece dog beds as well as an array of tugs and toys for her workers' raffle and she never seems to suffer for workers.  It's amazing how well run and low stress her trials are considering she's only one person.  I personally like getting vouchers for the next trial.  Then there was the time I won a maggot ball which it turns out I've got a fair bit of use out of and never would have bought for myself.  I doubt any of these incentives will entice the truly stubborn but nice perks for workers do tend to bring people out of the woodwork.

Treating workers well, or at least not treating them poorly, is important too.  However it's important to remember that volunteer coordinators are volunteers themselves and of all the jobs it's got to one of the most daunting, stressful and thankless.  Probably the worst treatment I had as a volunteer was when the volunteer coordinator started yelling my name over the loudspeaker in an irritated, angry voice saying, 'C'mon Elayne, you volunteered for this position, where are you?' among other things.  Well where I was was in the other ring in the middle of my run.  Can you say distracting?  And I had told them I had a conflict and couldn't work but they told me no problem, they were holding the other ring.  Then they decided not to hold the other ring.  No the volunteer coordinator didn't have to resort to yelling at me over the loudspeaker and yes I did work for that trial under that volunteer coordinator again.  Because I'm not one to hold a grudge and nobody's perfect.  It's a long day and people's tempers fray, we need to cut each other some slack and not take everything so personally.  No I don't think this person is well suited to the job but no I don't want to do it myself thank you very much so I'm not going to gripe and go off in a huff and refuse to work.  I could give other minor instances of poor treatment, being bullied to work and poor organization of volunteers but it seems petty.  Again nobody is getting paid the big bucks to put on these trials and walking around angry and holding grudges isn't healthy.  Overall my experience is that the clubs around here treat workers pretty well (can't speak for AKC) as do the judges.  There are always exceptions and sometimes someone is going to be having a bad day but I like to look at the big picture and overall I'd say I'm treated pretty well as a worker.

Poor coordination of volunteers can make for a stressful day for all involved and I do think responsibility for that does fall squarely on the club.  It's important to have a loudspeaker or megaphone to be able to call for workers in the event that someone doesn't show up or not enough people sign up in advance.  Remarkably there were several people on the Clean Run yahoogroup complaining about having to listen to these announcements.  This is an easy fix.  If you don't want to listen to the announcements then sign up to work, problem solved.  Somebody has to man the rings and it could very well be that somebody finally got sick of working 6 classes and decided to see if someone else would step up.  If everybody points to their premium and says 'Hey, it doesn't say anywhere that I HAVE to work so I'm not going to' well it's going to be a long day of yelling over the loudspeaker.  If only someone would invent bars that reset themselves.  Or little helper elves that magically pop out of the tunnels.

I feel fortunate that the trials I attend in my area have competitors that aren't hostile towards working.  In any large group there are going to be people who give more than their fair share and those who sit back and let others do all the work but overall I get the sense that most people pitch in and by doing the work ourselves we get to keep our costs down, move the day along more quickly and generate a sense of community.


  1. I completely agree with you- and you've still managed to remind me of something important! I can get critical of the volunteer coordinators, but MUST remember that even when they do 'horrible abusive things'they are a volunteer too at the end of the day.

    Thanks for being a numbers geek, it's very interesting to see.

  2. You've covered a remarkable number of bases, including Ayn Rand. It is clear that the sport IS furthered through the use of volunteers--what is also clear is that the multiple attitudes in the community (of those who do and don't volunteer) should be absorbed and understood. In reading some of the blogs on this subject, it's easy to understand why some folks came to reject volunteerism. Similarly it's easy to understand why some folks get warm fuzzies for jumping in. In the nervous context of agility trials, sometimes a nerve gets prodded rather than soothed.

    Enjoyed your site as always and feel motivated to do some fitness routines!

  3. Wonderful post. I feel fortunate to compete mostly at trials that are well-oiled machines!

  4. "because she paid an entry fee she shouldn't be expected to work because it was up to the club to figure out how to staff their rings and turn a profit without help from paying customers." Sheesh! Another reason why I signed off those lists and haven't gone back.

    Something I've always wanted to do is to NOT work some weekend at all, and spend the weekend scooting around the trial all weekend and nothing who's working and when. People comment often about "so few people really work at trials," but, like you, when I add up the numbers, SOMEONE is filling those spots and, sure, some people are more likely to do it than others, but I'll bet there aren't really that many who aren't doing something sometime, and I'd like to prove it.

    Still, I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who "can't work because I'm running a dog" (really!) or "I can't work because I'm running 2 dogs" (really!).

    I try to remember that not everyone in the universe is capable of managing themselves and their dogs and the stress and activity at a multiple-ring trial and give them some slack. Yes, I've had pole-setters that I'd rather never do that job again, let alone anything else, and so they might as well go practice obedience instead and I'd be happy. :-)

  5. That was "noting", not "nothing" who's working.

  6. Man, Im glad I havent read the clean run list. Ive been to trials where its mandatory to work if you want to come to the trial. It seems to work. Its a small trial and they do yell out sometimes, "if you want to get out of here today, we need course builders". They arent mean , but it gets the point across. I really dont have a problem with it. I think some of those people need to be in charge of a trial and see how much work it really takes. Ive been trial chair now for 3 years and boy is it a tough job. Without volunteers, I dont know how things would get done.

  7. I don't typically read those message boards either but I was curious to find out what was so controversial about volunteering. The person with the attitude only did AKC agility and came from a conformation/obedience background where apparently the competitors don't volunteer very much if at all. Since I don't do AKC I can't say if that's a typical attitude around here. It stands to reason that competitors don't have to work as much to spread the work around because there are only 2-3 classes a day and a lot more competitors compared to the number of classes. But I really don't know what goes on at those trials and I can understand not wanting to work your butt off for a for-profit event.

  8. Wow, lots of good points raised here. The megaphone incident makes me cringe. I was once yelled at for moving the table using an incorrect technique. Some people could benefit from learning some relaxation techniques but yes, totally agree on not holding grudges and moving forward.

  9. Great post, Elayne. Everyone should try to work at least one class, even if they run multiple dogs--especially if they run multiple dogs!--but I do wonder why clubs put on trials if they aren't making money. Wouldn't it be better to do something else then? And how much is enough? Should it be enough to just break even? And why are the clubs who have trouble filling volunteer spots not doing what the other clubs do who have very little trouble getting volunteers?
    I know you don't neccessarily have the answers, I'm just thinking out loud.

  10. Certainly the clubs don't set out to lose money but they can't predict what their entry will be. USDAA is the big money suck because they require unlimited entry (and they take a big cut). There's a point where you have to start providing a second ring but you don't have nearly enough competitors to pay for the second ring (or third ring or whatever). The last few years have seen a big decline in USDAA entries but the club doesn't know in advance that they could have gotten away with 1 ring so they've provided 2 but don't have enough entry to pay for it. The last two 2-ring USDAA trials lost money (2 different clubs) most likely for that reason. Many USDAA trials are going back to 1 ring so hopefully they'll go back to being profitable. But there's a lag time in knowing the demand. There are enough diehard USDAA fans though that they're willing to put on the trials and take the chance and let the profits from the other venues cover the cost. Clubs put on trials so that people can enjoy their sport/venue, not to make money for individuals or a breed club with other agendas. They hope to make enough from some events to cover potential losses from others and have enough left over to cover equipment and other expenses. I don't know what the specific monetary limits are to qualify as a non-profit but the biggest agility club in the Denver area was talking about applying for that status. I think it also matters that the club pours the profit back into the club and agility community.

    The 1-ring indoor DOCNA trials typically sell out so I'm guessing they make money but not huge amounts, maybe in the hundreds of dollars. Outdoor trials are less popular and don't always sell out. Not everyone loves AKC and they want an alternative even if it isn't as profitable as an AKC trial.

  11. As for clubs who have trouble filling volunteer spots, well, I don't know. The only time I've ever seen that problem in my area is with the smaller entry 2-ring trials and the big Regionals events. The volunteer coordinator for this past weekend's 1-ring USDAA trial said she was turning workers away so many were showing up asking to help. USDAA in particular in my area has a great spirit of volunteerism when it's not a 2 ring trial and people have no conflicts. If a geographic area has even a small population of people with bad attitudes then it spreads to everyone. Who wants to work their butt of while others sit around and proclaim they are Customers and shouldn't have to work? We all have reasons/excuses not to work, it's a long exhausting day for everybody and if the bulk of the work always falls on the backs of the same people, well, those folks are going to say 'enough' at some point. Maybe eliminating the bad attitude/bad apples by requiring people to work would be a good idea for those clubs who have problems.

  12. A lot of ditto to what Elayne said. Bay Team covers the whole range, I think, from huge USDAA trails that net a lot of money to small cpe trials that don't. And I'm sensitive about saying "net" rather than "profit" because people sometimes think that thousands of $ of profit means the club is rolling in dough and members are profiting from it. More likely we're relieved that we can finally get the new trailer outfitted, or whatever.

    We are a not-for-profit club, which isn't quite the same as a nonprofit, and most agility clubs hereabouts are, too.

    We've been trying to figure out for years how to get more volunteers to step up. In retrospect, I'm not sure that adding a huge raffle has really improved the number of workers who leap up to help. We've always offered free lunches, which to me is worth more than a raffle chance, but there's at least one club that doesn't even offer that, and seems the workers are about in the same quantity.

    We think that, for our small CPE trials, people are less experienced and therefore less confident about working. We think that, for our huge USDAA trials, there are so many people that they figure that someone else is going to do it. In other words, you can't win.

    We offer $50 certificates to people who come and work full time for a day (no dog running), and they can use that for future entries, with any local trainer, with most vendors who come to our shows, etc. We usually don't have trouble filling those spots if we think the trial can afford it. But, for example, the CPE I'm chairing at the end of July, we're now wondering whether we've overscheduled by having 2 judges instead of just 1, closing is a week away and entries are about half of what they were last year. The result is that I can't budget more than 2 full timers per ring. And even for the bigger trials, if you "hire" full timers for ALL positions (pole setters, leash runners, etc.) for, say, 3 or 4 rings, the trial's net drops pretty quickly, and we really do need & use that money all the time (replacing/upgrading equipment--have replaced all our weaves twice in the last couple of years, thanks USDAA!).

    We've tried signing people up ahead of time but I know from experience both as scheduler and as crew chief that (a) sometimes you can't find anyone among the volunteers who can actually work the slots you need, and (b) having them signed up still means you have to find them, people just forget or the schedule changes or whatever.

    We try the whiteboard signup thing. Often people will sign up in the morning and then, also, forget, or the schedule changes, or whatever, but still the whiteboard is almost never filled up by the time the ring starts. And we've found that making more announcements just makes people tune out so they don't listen to anything that anyone says over the loudspeakers.

  13. As I said in my blog, I think when the sport was newer and the trials and clubs were smaller, it was a little easier for everyone to realize that they needed to chip in--although I can also remember when we first proposed having a 3-ring trial that one of the big arguments against it was that we had enough trouble getting people to volunteer for the 2-ring trials and we'd be hosed for bigger trials.

    People keep telling me that, in england, everyone is just expected to work or bring someone to work. And I gather that's true in some places over here, too. We tried that at one trial, and the number of excuses that came out (bad back, bad knee--both saving themselves for running, which believe me, I can understand--have kids with them, have guests with them, dog is new at trials and needs attention, and just plain not being willing to work, OMG it ended up being exactly the same thing as any other trial.

    I'll tell you that one-ring trials in my experience have no trouble at all getting workers, but anything more than that, and people FEEL that they have conflicts even if they don't. I can get my dogs out of their crates, do a quick warmup and a little stretch, 3 to 6 dogs ahead of when we're running and feel that I've done enough. There are lots of people who want 20 minutes with their dog before each run and that pretty much precludes them from helping in many cases, esp. if they're running more than one dog.

    Anyway, just rambling on about why workers are hard to find and what we've tried.

  14. Yes, the more rings the more problems with getting workers for sure. Some people are happy to work as long as it doesn't involve too much personal sacrifice/stress. And how much sacrifice/stress is it reasonable to expect from a volunteer or even a club member? And if the average competitor won't work under some level of duress then it only adds to the sacrifice/stress of those who do work.

    A 20 minute warm-up? I would think most dogs would be fried by the time they got in the ring with such a lengthy warm-up. And if a handler's mental management program takes that long then it's a pretty poor program. Can I have a 60 minute massage and a spa treatment before all my runs? That would be awesome.

  15. LOL! Massage, me, too. Well, everyone has something that works for him or her. For me--nothing about the dog being fried, *I'm* fried if I have my dogs out for too long before a run.

  16. brdrcol1:53 PM

    I've been reading a lot of the blogs on volunteering and yours is great, Elayne. Granted, it may be because I can relate more since I know whereof you speak (literally)!

    I volunteer a lot at trials and sometimes am on the trial committee. I don't have to worry about hauling in food and I often get vouchers towards future entry fees (especially in my own club), which helps a lot as I'm on a very tight budget.

    That said, I have cut back some. I try to let the negative folks roll off my back, but sometimes I hit a point where I just don't want to deal with it any more. I have definitely felt used a few times, and I don't need that stress, either. It's all about FUN, right?! I've also had the occasional judge who didn't give a hoot that I was working the other ring - if I missed most or all of the walkthrough, too bad. (I appreciate that our club is pretty careful about who we ask to judge - if someone has been difficult to deal with in the past, they won't be asked back.) And at a rally trial one time, I was done showing for the day and, knowing they needed workers, was ready to stay and help out. Then one of the stewards was quite rude to me, so guess what? They lost a good worker - and I probably won't ever volunteer for them again.

    On a tangent - In defense of those who say they need longer to warm up their dogs, I have been in their shoes. Sure, some use it as an excuse. But at one time, one of my dogs was coming back from an injury, so I spent probably 15-20 minutes in warm-up, stretches, etc., then afterwards we did more of the same plus heat and/or cool packs.

    Yes, I volunteer. I know the trials will not run without volunteers and I love to trial. I try to be pleasant to all and help wherever I can. My agility friends are some of the best folks around and working next to them makes a good trial a great one.

    Sorry for blathering on so long!

  17. Blather all you like! The internet has plenty of room.

    Certainly dogs/people that are coming off of injury/surgery, and I've had my share of that with both me and my dogs, need and deserve a longer warm-up. I'm adamant about warm-ups and probably even more so about cool downs. I do expect to have 8-10 minutes on each side of my run and I don't think that's unreasonable.

    Also if somebody-club member, judge or otherwise-is being consistently nasty all day long to the volunteers, well that's just wrong and I don't blame people for not wanting to return for more of that.

  18. I have to admit that I think entry limits on USDAA trials might be a good thing. I love playing USDAA but I hate having to rush between rings and worry about how I can walk two or more courses at the same time. Yuck, no fun. I have enough stuff I have to be on time for during the work week to want to have to do that on the weekend.

    I also hate to leave my dogs in their crates most of the day. I like to spend a good bit of time hanging out with them since I can't do that during the week. It seems to me that USDAA trials are getting to be more like work than play.

  19. I actually don't like entry limits. I schedule out my agility year for the trials I want to attend. I turn down any other offers for those time periods and basically plan my year around them. It really sucks when i can't get in because the trial fills up. (There are some around here that fill up the first day. Maybe not so much these days with entries down a bit, but I felt stranded and frustrated when it happened to me.)

    There are ways to self-limit trials. Like, our trial with one day masters, one day adv/starters always was a very full weekend for one judge, but never really enough for 2 judges. It could've been the format, the time of year (january) or the location (north bay instead of south bay--so maybe 2-3 hours more for people coming from the south than for our other trials). But anyway, the entries have been far, far lower than a regular usdaa trial.

  20. (But I don't disagree that multiple ring trials are a lot of work and stress.)