Judging Difficulty and Canine SubElements

I am writing this opinion piece as myself, a dog trainer and disc dog competitor and my comments do not, in any way, represent the USDDN or the USDDN Steering Committee.

I got a couple of questions about USDDN judging sent to me via a Facebook message from Mila, who lives in Moscow, Russia. Mila handles judging for the Disc Hunters, a Russian Disc Dog Club. It’s a two part-er so I’ll take it in chunks…

Hi! RON! would you please help us with the following questions:
a) scoring at some sub-elements of Canine Elements, for example Prey DrivePrey Drive is the desire to chase and catch moving targets. In nature these targets are live prey: rabbits, squirrels, cats, and birds. In dog sports the targets are most often tug toys, balls, or discs. Triggering Prey Drive is important in the game of disc dog freestyle. Moving the target away from your dog quickly and aggressively is key... and Grip should be done taking in to account difficulty of the routine?
as the USDDN Judging Handbook reads at “Scoring Examples”:
If the player attempts and made any sub-element with good success and difficulty they will usually receive 1.9-2.2
so we wish to precise how difficulty influences scoring for Prey DriveDrive is focus and energy applied towards work. There are many kinds of Drive: social drive, tracking drive, prey drive, bite/kill, stalking, and food to name a few. Social drive, prey drive, and bite/kill are the types of Drive most active in the game of disc dog freestyle, and are all fairly desirable. Stalking and tracking drive can be tough... and Grip sub-elements?

The Short answer is that that it doesn’t.

Independent Elements

The USDDN separates each Element: Canine, Player, Team and Execution. Each one is supposed to be judged independently. That’s the way the contest is designed. The scores a team gets in the Player and Team Elements are seriously impacted by difficulty, but the Canine element, not so much.

The job of the Dog judge is to observe the dog and score the dog on what the dog does on the field. The type of throw the player makes, or the type of vault done should have very little, if any, impact on the Dog’s score. What the Dog judge is looking at is the athletic scale, the smoothness, and the style of the dog, how the dog handles a disc in their mouth and the ability of the dog to perform the retrieve.


Grip is not impacted whatsoever by the difficulty of the routine. It’s just a function of having a good handle on the disc. Now, personally, I don’t care whether or not the dog has a firm grip on the disc or not – In all honesty, I think it’s a silly element to be judging – what I would be looking for is that the dog does a good job of handling the disc. The dog is not taco-ing, killing or shredding the disc, or errantly dropping it on the retrieve. I could care less if the dog is dangling the disc from a tooth. As long as they are on task and do not drop the disc because of that loose grip, I’m cool with that.

Funny enough, the real issue around Grip tends to be focused on too much, or too excited a grip on the disc, and not too much, so you could see a dog that just crushes discs getting a bad grip score if it overwhelms them and detracts from the flow and presentation of the routine.

It’s a safety issue as well, in that nobody wants to see a handler get bit or a dog get their face cut off by a shredded and damaged disc.

Now, not all judges are going to see it this way, but that’s my interpretation of the Grip rule.

Personally I’d like to see Grip and Retrieve rolled into a Canine Disc ManagementDisc Management is a disc dog term that describes management and organization of discs throughout the routine. Disc Management is a scored category in most disc dog freestyle organizations and has great impact upon the flow and energy level of the routine. A good rule of thumb is to carry 3 discs in your hands at all times. Disc Management... subelement that would give judges more freedom in making these kinds of judgement calls.

Prey Drive

Prey Drive, like Grip, is judged independently of the routine difficulty. What you are looking for with Prey Drive is focus on the task at hand and efficient and determined action towards the game. Like Grip, this is a Goldilocks situation. Too little drive – dog disengaging or not being really interested in the disc will result in a lower score. Too much drive – dog is overwhelmed by the disc and is unable to perform the set up skills and tricks that happen between the discs being caught, and the dog will earn a lower score.

Drive ≠ Arousal

Something that is super important to keep in mind regarding Drive is that Drive does not equal ArousalArousal is a general excited state of being that is often mistaken for Drive. Door jumping, wining, pacing, hyper-vigilance, barking, biting and nipping, and a host of other high energy behaviors can be included under the Arousal umbrella. Arousal differs from Drive because the dog’s energy is not readily applied towards work. Arousal often gets in the way of quality.... So many handlers and judges conflate these two concepts. Drive is action and energy and focus applied to work. Arousal is just action and energy with a lack of focus towards work. So a dog who sits patiently and waits for their opportunity to get a disc, and engages quickly and directly on the task at hand, be it a set up moveSet Up Moves are tricks that are used to establish timing and position in disc dog freestyle. Traditional tricks include: Around, Through, Backwards Through, and Scoot, but any or all of your tricks, could, conceivably, become a Set Up Move, just put it in front of something else. Set Up Moves are tricks that are used to establish timing and... or chasing a disc, has better Drive than a dog that is flying around jumping, biting, and barking and is frequently out of position to work. Also over aroused dogs that pressure their handlers so much that it detracts from the routine – no matter how high they are jumping, or how excited they are about the game, are not displaying Drive. They are displaying arousal. Drive is action, energy and focus applied towards work.

b) and the relating question – what the “difficulty” of the routine means?
how we can estimate whether the routine is difficult, very difficult or not difficult at all?
is there difficulty of tricks should be taken into account or/and difficulty of tricks bunches or/and anything else to be considerated while judging?
thank you a lt in advance for your great help!!
with truly best regards, Mila

This is a really good question, Mila! I’m sure you could ask 100 players and get 100 totally different answers here.

What is Difficult?

Estimating the difficulty of the routine is based on experience and understanding of athletics in general, and is primarily handled by the Head Judge (all Team Elements) and the Player Judge in the Release Diversity and Rhythmic Team subelements. And of course a difficult routine will bleed over into the Canine and other Player and Team elements, it’s a natural response to Awesome, but the Canine and those other Player elements are not designed to judge difficulty or to be impacted by difficulty, and they should not be swayed much, if at all, by the difficulty of the routine.

Let’s look at some of the Team Elements that are judged by the Head Judge and see how they could be judged in terms of difficulty:

Two Different Overs

Big Over with LootOvers are when the dog leaps over a part of the handler’s body – a leg, a hoop, over the body. The scale of the over is important towards judging difficulty, as is the release. A dog leaping over a standing handler is, most likely, harder than an over while the handler is laying down, or kneeling. A butterfly OverAn Over is any leaping catch that happens over top of the handler’s body. Overs are usually named by the part of the body over which the dog flies, i.e - Leg Over, or the position you are in while doing the Over - Seated Over, Spinning Over, etc. Overs should be taught before Vaults.... is more difficult than a regular backhand toss.

The timing of the throw and the separation between the handler’s hand and the disc when it is caught by the dog also bears heavily on difficulty. A tiny little toss that the dog catches 15cm (6 inches) from the handler’s hand should be less impressive in terms of difficulty than a disc that is caught 75cm (30 inches) from the handler’s hand. Overs that are well thrown are more difficult than near takes.

A blind throw (handler can’t see dog) or a blind catch (dog can’t see disc) or limited visibility throws and catches are more difficult.

Another thing that is important in judging the difficulty of overs, and that impacts every single one of these things is what happened right before it. A Flip to Over, for instance – dog flips and immediately does an over – is most likely more difficult than a simple over that takes place with a dog standing a meter or two away from the handler.

A unique or difficult body position by the handler could impact difficulty as well. Handler or team movement during an over is also an indicator of difficulty.

Two Vaults

Overs and Vaults are very similar skills, and are also very similar in terms of judging their difficulty. The type of release, timing of release and separation between the catch and the handler’s hand, team movement, Flip (or any trick) to VaultThe dog uses the player´s body as a launching pad to jump for a disc. A Vault is a leaping catch from the handler’s body. The dog leaves the ground for the target and uses the handler’s body to get there. There are many different styles and variations of vaults, but they are commonly described by the part of the..., and unique or difficult positioning or vaulting platform will impact difficulty.

The scale of the vault in terms of height from the ground may or may not add difficulty to a vault, depending on the judge.

Multiple Segment

Release, scale, dogs movement – flipping, side to side, standing on hind legs, all of these things should be factored in when assessing difficulty of the multiple. Also there’s the speed of the multiple that should be taken into effect.

Dog Catch

Similar to Vaults and Overs…

Team Movement

Unique or interesting team movement can have a positive effect on difficulty. Tight flow and unique starting and set up moves and position often makes the sum of a sequence greater than it’s parts in terms of difficulty.

Passing Segments

Again, very similar to vaults and overs with the exception of the fact that the dog is not leaping over or off the handler’s body, and may not be leaping at all.

Directional Distance Movement

These are typically Zig Zags, Crossing patterns and Around the WorldAn Around the World is a disc dog flatwork pattern consisting of 4 catches in a circular pattern around the handler. This pattern is typically larger than 5 yards and often features creative throws to a leaping dog for maximum freestyle scoring potential. Clockwise or counter clockwise, the Around the World is a working flank with multiple catches that highlights... type moves. Their difficulty is primarily judged by the releases thrown and the intent of the handler. Is the handler just chucking discs out there? Or is the handler putting discs in a spotSpot is a “go to a place”, or “go to a mat” behavior. This means that the dog seeks out and performs a duration behavior on a spot of the handler’s choosing. A Pedestal is a raised spot. Anything a dog can leap onto and perch upon. Spots and Pedestals are important dog training tools.... to enhance the pattern or to punctuate the pattern with a big leap?

Wrapping it Up

There is no real formula for difficulty in Dog Frisbee, but many of the general principles have all been outlined above. No two judges will see things exactly the same in terms of difficulty. What some people find difficult, others see as easy. That’s the way subjective judging goes.

I hope this helps, Mila, and I hope some other people chime in on this important and interesting topic. Comments are right below…

I will forward your questions to the USDDN Steering Committee in hopes that someone else might add their thoughts to this conversation.