Two more myths to break

Thanks to a comment to the recent “Myths and myths“-post, I found two more myths to break about lure-coursing. The first is that the owner of the dog has to be competitive personality to participate in a lure-coursing event and the other is that the dog has to be trained especially to be able to course. Both are myths and support each other. Let me tell you why I think so.

Lure-coursing isn’t competition in the first place: in FCI ruling it is the working class trial for sighthound. A way to measure the dog’s natural affinity to the work it was originally created for. In this pretext it should be mandatory for a sighthound owner to be at least vaguely interested in how the dog they own does show this natural instinct in action. The owner doesn’t have to be competitive to take the dog to a lure-coursing event, only interested in the natural instinct and performance of their dog.

Sadly the system is such that the dogs are rated on points, and when there is a numerical evaluation, there is always a competition of sorts. In lure-coursing the owners are rewarded for their dog’s performance much like in dog racing: the best will get the merit of being the winner, even though each and every dog passing the set point limit to qualify have passed the test!

Like I mentioned in the earlier Myth post, training is not hard work as such: what we consider training is just normal living with big sighthound. Long walkies in the woods, dog running free as much as possible. The main thing is that the dog is fit enough to run the 700-1000m on one stretch, at full speed. What I would like to add to this, the dog should be able to handle the warming up (30-60 min.) and cooling down (another 30-50 min) walkies. And all this twice in a lure-coursing event day.

That is the fitness the dog requires to participate in a lure coursing event. It doesn’t require a set training schedule or planned training. Instead, it requires continuous interest in the dog’s general health and adequate walkies to maintain that level. I saw one TV-program from the series “It’s Me or the Dog” in which dog trainer Victoria Stilwell tackles problem dogs which are straining families’ or couples’ lives. In this show the couple had a boxer which was terrorizing the house. In the show Ms. Stilwell stated that a healthy active boxer requires 2 hours of exercise each day to keep it calm at home.

2 hours aday.

Sighthounds, especially larger ones like Irish Wolfhounds, are deceiving in this regard: they are very calm and ‘uninterested’ at home (except for the food bowl). So it’s easy to think that the 15 minutes walkies for them a couple of times a day is enough. It’s enough to keep them alive, that’s all. It is not enough to keep them healthy, fit and in good enough condition to work the way they have been intended to do.

By breaking the myth of competitiveness and high training requirements in your head you are easily one step closer to participating a lure-coursing event. If your dogs can handle a couple of hours walkies aday (give or take few in a week, the dog has to rest, too!) for a month or so before the event, then they are ready to take the trial for sure.

And who knows, by taking part in a lure-coursing event you may well catch the lure yourself: a new and exciting way of seeing your own belowed pet. An Irish Wolfhound chasing the lure is a sight worth seeing.

It’s the way all sighthounds were meant to be, after all. Working dogs, chasing the prey.

Some comparisons

Dogs are pretty special creatures. Not exactly carnivores, nor completely omnivores, but somewhere in between. Let’s see what makes them tick.

Digestive tract, length: 4-5 times the length of their body. For comparison, cat has 3 times, pig has 14 times and human about 17.

Digestive tract, weight / body weight: giant breeds 2.7%, miniature breeds 7%, cat 2.8-3.5% and human 11%.

Stomach, volume: dog 0.5-8 litres. Cat 0.3 l, human 1.5 l.

pH (acidity): dog 1-2, cat 1-2, human 2-4, wolves 1.

Dog’s sense of smell is million times more accurate than human’s: where we have about 5 million receptor cells in our nose epitel, dogs have aroung 150-250 million. Then again, dog has almost 1/10th of the taste receptors compared to us (dog about 1500, human about 10.000).

What does this mean?

Dog, direct descendant and relative of wolf, is mainly a meat eating animal. The thousands of years with human has evolved it into a scavenger, eating all edible that it can find. Thus dog is capable of consuming vegetable material, too: in fact it’s necessary for the bacterial flora in it’s stomach to have some fibres for well being.

The length of the bowels is that of a carnivore, a meat eater: short and effective. The time food remains within the system is approximately 12-30 hours, whereas for us human that is around 30-120 h (5 days). So the energy requirement for the food is high (energy/volume), and that can only be attained from meat and meat derivates (fat).

So the basic function is that the acute sense of smell can spot a rotting carcass miles away, and the low stomach pH can kill almost all pathogens causing intestinal infections. In addition to that, the lack of taste gives the opportunity to eat whatever edible other animals may have left due to bad taste.

In addition to this, dog’s stomach contains pepsinogen, a very effective enzyme that breaks collagen: it makes it possible for dogs to gain energy from the hard collagenous material like bones, cartilages and tendons, which otherwise are left in the carcass. Thus making it’s system capable of acting as a cleaning unit in nature, disposing of the bones of the carcasses.

Like all predatory animals, dogs also have one thing above us dorcile humans: their elastic stomach. It can stretch to hold up to 8 l of material, making it possible for the dog to consume HUGE amount on one eating. So its no wonder the neighbourgs poodle ate the 8 pound turkey the other christmas, as the legend goes: it can and has happened.

Interesting beasts these friends of ours, aren’t they?

Myths and myths

There is a huge abundance of myths concerning Irish Wolfhounds, lure-coursing and training a sighthound for the lure-coursing (or for any other form of dog sport/hobby). Myths like training is science/hard, feeding properly is difficult, competitions are hard to take part in, newcomers are not welcome and so on. Let’s see if I can tackle at least some of them.

First thing that comes to mind is that the training is science: if you want to train a sighthound for racing, then there is a huge amount of information available about training a greyhound. This can be applied to the training of any other breed, clearly. The main point, however, is not the training, but the health and fitness of the dog. And that is not rocket-science: healthy dog requires exercise. And what is considered training for us owning these dogs, is considered as long walks in the woods by the rest of  the population! Want to increase the exercise level? Start jogging with the dogs. Does miracles to the aerobic fitness of both the dog and the owner. Training a dog is hard, because it requires you to do something for the dog! The success doesn’t come for free, you see.

There are some studies about training and scheduling the training, but the basic is to have the dog in proper health and fitness before the lure-coursing event. Sure, you can increase the speed of a dog by 15-20% by proper training, but in lure-coursing that isn’t the most necessary trait. I’d say that a healthy, fit and happy dog will perform on the other categories in lure-coursing just as well, or even better. If you are in doubt, use your common sense. If I do this myself to get more fit, it should work for the dog as well.

The dog should have enough rest, too. The most work the dog’s -and human, for the matter- system does for the muscles, tendons and nerves happens during the rest. After a hard training an equal rest. Think of how you would like to train and rest, and you are on the right track.

Feeding is a subject that has as many opinions as there are people talking about. The main point is to give the dog enough energy to compensate the consumption. Dog’s metabolic system is way more fat based than that of human, being 2-3 times more effective in turning fat into energy. Oh, I wish my system would do that, too: I’d be losing my weight like no tomorrow!

In feeding a working dog there are only few things to remember: more enegry doesn’t have to mean more volume, take care of certain minerals and vitamin’s which are crucial for the dog’s system and have enough water available. Oh, and take care of having enough time inbetween feeding and exercise: you wouldn’t go for a jog with a full stomach yourself, so why would you force your dog to do that?

Being a creature which uses fat based metabolism, to increase the energy content without increasing the volume of  the feed is pretty simple: add more fat into it. This poses a challenge, though, on the intake of the minerals and other micronutrients. This comes apparent only in a case of complete negligence, and the dog is a miracle worker when the diet has been balanced. The micronutrients are stored in the system for quite some time and can be replenished on the fly, anyhow. Any proper kibble can take care of that, even with the increased fat content in the final food.

The most important minerals are calcium, phosphorus and magnesia, while the micronutrients needed are iron, copper, zinc, iodine and selene. The last four are crucial because their utilization may be hindered if the feed’s calcium content is high. This, however, is of no concern with the current kibbles for working dogs, as these have been balanced out in the formulations.

Working dogs need additional iron in their diet to compensate the loss of it during the exercise: this, left unattended, causes stress anemia. Addition of raw meat or iron as a supplement compensates this easily. Raw meat being a natural way of digesting iron in the first place might be the easiest.

Competitions or lure-coursing events are not hard to participate: the most important things are to register, to come to the event site on time and have your dog’s gear with you. The rest is just asking and being guided from one spot to another. The hard part is to learn routines for the event day: warming up, trial, cooling down, tending the dog and helping it to recover and pass time.

The same goes with starting the hobby: people with sighthounds are generally very welcoming and the lure-coursing -and racing- people are very open and helpfull towards a newcomer. Sure, there are questions which are asked a million times, but there are also questions which no-one even thought about. The most important part is to know your dog and ask for help when help is needed.

Condensed all this is as follows: most of the hardships you hear about training or feeding or competing are myths born from people who don’t know about lure-coursing or sighthounds or dog sports. It all comes down to common sense, eagerness to try and will to work with the dog. Like the cliché says, no pain, no gain: the pain comes from going for a walk in pouring sleet, cold and wet freezing landscape, but the gains come when the fit dog runs from the joy of chasing and performs well.

Getting a working dog work in competitions requires, well, WORK. Nothing comes for free, especially not in hobbies where you learn constantly. Common sense in everything takes you a long way, too.

And the best training for the dog is to run free, off lead, with other dogs. From as early as possible to as old as she still can.

These are my ideas how the myths are really myths. Dogs are very resilient beings, and it requires quite a lot abuse and neglect from us humans to really cause them problems in their fitness. On our way back from the EM-lure-coursing we saw quite a lot stray dogs in the cities and towns we visited. They were -for the most part- in excellent condition, with shiny coat and great musculature: if the dogs really were so deeply dependant on us human to take care of them, the strays would die away. So by doing what you normally do with your dogs is a good start and in increasing the exercises you should monitor the overall being of the dog.

Knowing your dog and acting accordingly is really the key.

Writer’s block

I’ve hit the wall with the topics to write about. I’ve tried to come up with something relevant to say, but my mind is void and empty.

I think there are several reasons to this: vacation’s over, dog’s haven’t been competing, I’ve covered the basics and there haven’t been any questions or comments from which to see if I’m even heading to the right direction.

Most important thing is -I think- that I haven’t found the ‘voice’ of this blog: I have no direction where to head. I don’t want to turn this into a rambling about our dogs, the competitions or the competitors. That would be fruitless. Nor do I want to turn this into a picture blog, there are other places for walls of pictures of cute -and not so cute- Irish Wolfhounds from side, back, front, lying and standing.

One thing I haven’t meddled with yet is the nutrition and feeding of a competing IW. This is the hardest part, as you cannot give direct guidelines how the dog should be fed. But I’m digging for some information about this issue, too, and will post about it later on.

So the big question is, what would YOU, dear reader, want to learn more about Irish Wolfhounds, lure-coursing, competing and gear?

Why the dog doesn’t run?

After a few lure-coursing events where I’ve been working this question has been coming up from the dog’s owners and handlers. Their dog may well start in the field, chase the lure like there was no tomorrow and then turn back and run to the owner. Or run the qualifiers with high points only to guit in the middle of the finals.

Why does a lure-coursing, lure-fast Irish Wolfhound do this? (Or any other lure-coursing breed, for the matter of fact…)

First of all, the sighthound hunts with sight as the primary sense: the moving prey -or rag in the case of lure-coursing- gives the impulse to the chasing instinct, resulting the hunting. If the prey is lost from the sight of the dog, the hunting instinct should keep the dog over-charged and searching for it so that the minimal losses of the sight of the prey wouldn’t result the loss of the prey. So the chasing is very much an instinctive action.

Anything that causes the dog to lose its interest in the chasing is competing with the instinct. Be it the other dog, pain or discomfort or the call of the owner, the dog keeps chasing until this incentive reaches a level which exceeds the hunting instinct. Causing the dog to stop the chase.

If the hunting/chasing instinct is not strong enough, the dog will lose it’s interest in the prey/rag very easily. If the instinct is strong, it takes more to cause the loss of interest. The competition of the different stimulus within the dogs head can cause other ‘symptoms’, too: aggression because of frustration (not being able to win the prey/lure), quitting the run, doing secondary responses (peeing, chasing birds instead of prey, running around) or disturbing other competitors just for the heck of it. This continues until one instict gets the upper hand and directs the stimulus to one direction.

I hope this was not too confusing. In short, if the dog doesn’t know exactly what she’s supposed to do, she gets confused and doesn’t do anything relevant.

Because Irish Wolfhound is pretty heavy, the 11 km gravity well in which we live causes some additional problems. Because of the weight, slight problems in the muscles and tendons have more profound effect on the dog. As it takes more energy and strength to move a heavier mass (65-75 kg) at the speeds the sighthounds are running, even the slightest change may mean a lot compared to the -say- whippet with 10-14 kg body mass or Greyhound at 30 kg. The effect of the body mass to the speed and power needed for that speed doesn’t go linearly, so the effect is much bigger than the numbers may suggest.

Now that the background has been set, let’s return to the original question. Why does an Irish Wolfhound quit running after a great start?

The dog stops because her level of discomfort rises above the drive of the instinct. Level of discomfort is very much individual, and it may be either mental, physical or the combination of these two.

Physical reasons: Pain is one of the first you should take care of: are the dog’s muscles warm and open, are there stiff spots in her muscles, are the joints ok, is she ‘feeling’ alright? Even the stress might cause diarrhea, which causes extreme discomfort at the lure-coursing event, let alone in racing track, as the body fluids and electrolytes are off the norm. Has the dog been warmed up enough, or in the case of the final quits, has she been warmed up, cooled down and warmed up again properly? Pain is a very strong motivator in learning, as I’m going to explain later on, so this part should be considered extremely well. You should never, ever compete with a dog who isn’t fit enough or in good health to avoid any and all problems related to this.

Improper warming up may cause pain and discomfort on the dog in a start. In 7 seconds the dog’s immediate energy reserves have been used up and the real reserves are being used: the first stage of the run has just started, and most dogs quit around this point. The question is, has the dog been in good enough fitness to compete in the first place?

In an unfit -or overweight- dog the discomfort grows even faster than in a fit and lean one. A marathon trainer I know told that a half a kilo extra weight means 15 minutes in his marathon time: think what that means to the 800m runner your dog is! Also the distance your dog can run tells a lot: my rule-of-thumb is that if your dog endures a lengthy and brisk walkies of 2-3 hours without extra stops, she is fit enough to compete. Some say that if your dog can run 1000m at full speed, she is fit enough. In any case, be sure that your dog can really perform in the field before putting her up to the test.

In the case of the dog quitting in the finals the question is even more profound: has the dog been cooled down from the qualifiers and warmed up again before the final start to have her muscles as ready as possible. Or has she been tossed to the back of the car to sleep right after the qualifiers with improper cooling down and taken out to the finals almost directly from the car? This is hopefully an exaggeration, but I have seen similar things happen…

Mental reasons: If the dog is a bit soft with other dogs, the stare from the competitor may well be enough to cause enough discomfort: the other is stronger, so I’ll leave it to her. Aggression or contact in the beginning of the chase may be enough for a softer dog, too, for the same reason. If the dog has gotten used to follow the lure on a level, well mowed lawn, the chase in a different kind of area may well prove difficult because it’s … different. Also training runs with much shorter distance so that the dog never gets to run the full length of a track may cause the instinct to wear off before the end. Also, bithces around their season have a lot -hormonally induced- mental problems, which may cause them to be not-too-keen on the lure/chasing.

And the lack of the chasing instinct is very much a mental issue, too, though it is very hard to correct at the age a dog should start the lure-coursing (18 months in Irish Wolfhounds and large sighthound breeds). The instinct is in every puppy from the birth, stronger in some, weaker in some. In the early age of the puppy’s life this instinct is trainable, and they train it by themselves by playing and catching things. If this ‘strengthening’ of the instinct is left out of the newly acquired dog’s life, the instinct may be buried beneath other learned things, especially if the dog is told not to chase or play.

Mental and Physical reasons: Pain is a powerfull teacher, and animals learn from pain extremely fast. Collision in the chase may cause the dog lose it’s breath completely, causing extreme discomfort as she tries to run without any breathing. This causes anaerobic state and muscle stiffness very fast. Next time the trial starts, the dog may well remember the collision and quit before the track has been ran as long as the former collision happened (this has happened to us with two dogs, and it’s extremely hard to ‘unlearn’). The accident may be whatever: tripping, falling, colliding, an attack from the other dog. You name it: experience which causes discomfort.

Another mental side reason may be if the dog is called from the lure before the kill can happen. Or if the dog hasn’t been able to run enough to learn that she can run away from the mommy and return after that without being reprimanded.

My instinct about this issue is that the dog quits the chase when the discomfort grows big enough. With some dogs this never happens: they’ll run with their foot broken or with severe stomach cramps (as ours did in the last event, and we’re feeling extremely bad about it). With others even the different structure of the field is enough to cause this discomfort. Or the fact that they have learned to run the leash length away, but not further.

The sad part is that the owners of the dogs really do not see these symptoms before they enter a lure-coursing event and the dogs are released. The dog is always perfect in the eyes of the owner, through the rosy-tinted glasses each and everyone of us has when looking at our own children dogs. But to be able to do something about this problem requires us to remove those glasses and see the dog as the animal it is: it has it’s reasons not to run, be it anything.

Take a step back and look at your dog objectively, without the emotional aspect. If you see a strong, lean, fit and commanding Irish Wolfhound, you are definitely on the right track.

If not, then you’ll see what she is lacking. And that’s what you, as her owner, should work to repair.

You see, the reason your dog quits the chase isn’t in the track, pulling machine operator, the lure or the personnel on the field.

The reason is in the dog. And it’s your job to find the remedy.

What I have seen

The vacation is over and the daily grind for the meat to feed the dogs has started again. What a vacation, from Czech to a couple of Finnish lure-coursing events to rest and relaxation. The best of it has been the people, the people and the dogs. Not necessarily in this order, but anyhow, these things.

And the weather wasn’t bad, either: for the last four weeks I had socks in my feet only twice, the second time being the last weeks event in which I was working.

What have I seen during the time? A lot. A lot of things that have opened my eyes to so many new things in this wonderfull hobby with the dogs. How the organisation works behind the scenes, how little the competitors really know of what is going on and how uninterested the dogs are of all of this. My humble opinion is that each dog owner who participates in a lure-coursing event should be obliged to participate in some as work force: the learning experience is immense!

And if you have worked in a lure-coursing event, you must do the same in a racing event. The two worlds share similarities, but are completely different.

But this is not what I started to write about.

I started to write about something that stirred in my mind in Czech Republic and was brought out to my conscious mind after reading this great post of the Retrieverman. In a way, I have the same feeling about dog shows as he does: the shows are a big business and have lost their original meaning along the years, granting people prestige and feeling of achievement for their dog’s ability to show itself in the ring (in some cases I have witnessed how the owner has beaten the dog with a leash to stand correctly before showing the dog…). It has become obvious to me in several discussions and occasions, that in several cases the show judges do not even understand the original job or activity the dog breed has been created for. (This is in a sense a gross exaggeration, but please bear with me.)

This has come the most obvious in what I heard happening in Germany, where some show judges have stated out loud that a working class Irish Wolfhound will never get a result above very good (excellent being the next – and highest – result and needed for certificates). Come again? Irish wolfhound has been originally a hunting dog, a sighthound, used for hunting big game and guarding, and now the current working class dogs -which prove their abilities in the lure-coursing- are rated to be such that they don’t comply with the breed standard?

Granted, like Retrieverman stated in another fine post of his, that Irish Wolfhound was more or less recreated to the ideal of one man in the late 19th century. But still, the ideal of big game hunting big dog was there, and still the Irish Wolfhound is considered to be a sighthound, not a mastiff or something else.

Which leads me to the other side of the board. In the recent discussions I’ve had with different breed owners in the events I’ve been working and competing (Czech and three domestic events) I’ve noticed that there are dogs competing in the events which do not comply with the corresponding breeds standards. In some instances it has even crossed my mind whether there should be a mandatory show result for all dogs competing in the events to even things out.

These are the two sides of the age old discussion about the form and function: which should be emphasized more and is one above the other. My -honest but sad- opinion is, that the current dog show system puts too much emphasis on the form over function. This will cause problems to the breeds later on, if they haven’t been affected already.

Form and function should be equal and the judges should be taught to think alike. For without the form there would be no breed, but without the function the form would be lacking substance.

Feelings after EM

It’s over a week since the EM Lure-Coursing in Marianske Lazne took place, and there has been some time to reflect the whole event. The drive there and back, the camping among the Finnish team and the actual coursing have been -mind the pun- coursing in my head ever since. Even while working at the International Lure-Coursing event in Tampere last weekend I had the EM event as my comparison: how did this go, how was that done and so on.

I’m still amazed and surprised about the performance of our Ness. The more I think about it, the more I’m amazed about the recovery of the dog. He truly is a big guy with a big -and healthy!- heart.

The event -all in all- was extremely well planned, executed and pulled through by the competition personnel. There were some slight issues with scheduling and executing things in time they were scheduled to be, but as the weather was so benevolent towards the competing dogs, nothing was drastically off the comfort zone.

If you have a lure-coursing dog, and you have the change to participate EM event or similar big scale event, do make your best to be there! The atmosphere is very unique, nothing like the national competitions. It’s amazing to see such a large amount of sighthounds passing each other in peace, with owners and spectators passing them in ‘organized chaos’ from here and there. The atmosphere is completely different from dog shows, which are about the same in the amount of dogs. One member of the Finnish team wondered this too, and came to the conclusion that the sighthounds are really racists, despising other breeds only because they are always surrounded with sighthounds.

In these events this holds true, not necessarily in the everyday life.

All in all I’m very pleased to have been able to take part in the event. I’m also very grateful for the people who took their time to visit us at the Finnish camp: I didn’t take the time to go around the camps to see people. Even though I try my best not to be so competitive, I’m too concerned about my dogs and their performance in these events, so I’m too attached to them in the events.

Now it’s time to focus forward.

Next event is just around the bend. And we will be ready this time!