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.

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