My dog is so fast…

The topic is one misconception people seem to have, in addition to the thought that speed is everything in lure-coursing. The dog may be fast in the backyard or in the ‘training’ where the pulls are 250m. But the real challenge of the 600-1000m lure coursing trial is something completely different.

How to tell the difference? In the backyard (or normal walkie), use a watch to time the actual time your dogs are running at a time. Constantly running, that is, at their full -or playfull- speed before giving in to trot. You might be surprised how little they really run, especially if you compare that to the time the dogs run in a lure-coursing trial.

How long is a trial, then? Depending on the track, at the average speed of 40km/h the normal track from 600-1000 m lasts anything from 1 minute to 1.5 minutes. On average the run craze of a dog at the back yard takes about 10-15 seconds and after that the dog is ready to go in. It may run like a lunatic, fast as lightning and all, but the real challenge is avoided.

The lactic acid threshold.

At about 100 meter point, which is about 6 seconds from the start, the dog has used the immediate energy reserves in the system and the lactic acid starts to mount into the muscles. This causes ache, stiffness and discomfort, and the dog will cease running if the reason to run is not strong enough. At the backyard the reason may be to release some tension and it’s over in the 10 seconds. In the trial it is the instinct to chase the lure, and it may not be enough to keep the dog interested after coming tired and stiff.

Each and every dog is the best in the world to it’s owner, that’s for sure. But the dog running at backyard/training/walkies is not necessarily the fastest or best in the lure-coursing trial, if it hasn’t gotten used to straining herself beyond the threshold.

Even then there may be something which causes her to quit before the trial is over. But that’s another story alltogether.

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.

Teenage of a future lure-courser

Where to draw the line of a puppy and a youngster? That is the question. In general, the biggest growth period of an Irish Wolfhound is finished at about the age of one year. At that point the basic bone and muscle growth has at least stabilized and the ‘infrastructure’ of the dog is there. At this point the muscles begin to grow and the dog will begin to handle it’s big body more agile.

You shouldn’t make any pulls before this age and should refrain from making lure pulls to an Irish Wolfhound this young: in the lure coursing regulations a dog of 18 months is ‘old enough’ to compete. Before that the risk of injury is more apparent mainly due to the fact that not all bones have gotten rigid enough and the joints may suffer from sudden impacts.

At this point it comes apparent that you should know your dog well enough to decide the range of strain it can endure without a risk. I haven’t made a single pull to a dog below one years age, and then it has been a straight pull for about 50 meters, just enough to give the dog an idea of the lure.

The actual training before 18 months should consist of daily walkies and a few longer walks in woods or broken terrain to exercise the agility and dexterity of the dog: free running in the forest would be the best, with other dogs. The main thing is to keep the experiences enjoyable and create the basic fitness of the dog. This helps the body to develop the muscles and nerves to handle the actual chasing.

At all times when devising trainings to the dog, be sure that you train her only when she has the inclination to do so. If she is uninterested in the exercise, let it be. The best way to break a promising competitor is to force her to compete.

At this time you could start to train with the lure: the best ways are a lure attached to a long pole by a string or a hand pulley. Remember that this is also a game and should be quit at the height of its intensity! With the hand pull device the maximum distance should be 100 meters in the beginning, even less to make the performance enjoyable.

All this exercise (or pretended lure exercise) should be performed on a proper area so the risk of even minimal injuries is minimized, to make the experience as risk free and enjoyable to the dog as possible.

At about this point you should come up with the proper gear for the dog: the muzzle, the mantle and proper collar. With the lure the dog should be able to exercise with another dog, but when training two dogs to run simultaneously you should make sure that this doesn’t result any kind of playing between the dogs. Exercise is exercise, playing is playing and they both have their own place and time. Which reminds me of another point: if possible, do not train the lure exercises at the same place as where you play with the dog. This is to secure that the dog connects the exercise and playing being separate things.

All the exercises at this point are mostly to prepare the dog for the mental aspects of the lure coursing. The actual training starts when the dog has gained enough muscles and mentality to take on the real thing.

What is important to  remember on the lure exercises is that you should never call the dog away from the lure: instead, you should go and lead the dog away from it after properly congratulating her on her excellent performance. Also a reward is in place at the first possible place: after all, the lure is the food.

And you should always remember, that the actual development happens when the dog rests. The same rules should apply as when the dog was just a puppy.

The safest way

What I learned yesterday on our long walk was that the safest way you think is not necessarily the safest anyhow. Simply because you have to expect the unexpected all the time.

And because accidents happen.

We had been walking about 20 minutes when a rabbit decided to test his skills in speed and agility, pitting his existence against three Irish Wolfhounds in decent fitness. All warmed up and ready to go.

And off they went.

It was a short chase, though, because the terrain and undergrowth of the forest gave the rabbit a distinct competitive advantage. Two of the three came back all intact, while the third, the most keen on the living prey, came back slightly limping. After a short inspection we deducted that it was nothing, just a small scrape on her toe, which we tended there and then.

We continued the rest of the walkies, total of 2 hours and 15 minutes, and noticed how this dog was not up to her standard movement, as if she was sore all over.

At home it became apparent that she has injured herself in a way or another: most probably the rabbit has taken straight 90 degree turn to the left, cutting in between two piles of logs, and the dog has done the same, spraining something in doing it. 5 kg causes much less strain to the body than 45 kg, simple physics.

So she’s forced to rest. The European Championships are a bit over a week from here.

She’s giving the other competitors a head start.

As mental as it gets

The more you think you know, the more you realize how little you really know. That is a truth that reminds of itself from time to time and makes this hobby with the dogs extremely interesting. It also makes the successes even more rewarding, as you can only rely on the knowledge you have gained and the training you have settled upon.

Earlier I wrote that you can make any dog chase the lure: for some it comes naturally, while others need more work to be ‘lure-fast’. What I didn’t take into the account back then was the mentality and personality of the dog. Sure, the dog will learn how to chase and even kill the lure with simple positive enhancement techniques, and will do the work by herself like an angel. But what happens when there is another dog chasing the same lure, like in the competition?

For Fiona the first competition ever was part success, part failure: the qualifiers she ran like an angel, making a really flashy debut on the field. In the finals, however, the other competitor collided with her and they both quit the chase without completing the trial. The veterinarian in the competition checked her and stated that there were no visible injuries. Nor did we notice anything later on: not even muscle soreness which usually follows this kind of contact.

But this weekend proved us wrong in one sense or another. Fiona started very well, but didn’t chase the lure any further without checking the whereabouts of her competitor. And quit.

Is it mental or physical?

Irish Wolfhounds are known to remember nasty things that have happened to them, and to avoid such situations. Then again, any sane dog would do the same, regardless of the breed, but sighthounds seem to be extremely particular on this. So if it’s mental, it may go with age and positive experiences. If it’s physical, it may go with massage and physiotherapy.

Let’s go deeper into the mentality side. Fiona is very gentle, calm and easy as a dog: one could describe her as being soft. Very soft, in fact. In addition to that, she’s having her spooky age, which has resulted the fact that she cannot be taken into shows: the shuns away from the judge, who in turn cannot evaluate her.

On the track the situation is quite similar: she has had the bad experience of being touched by another, unknown dog in the coursing, and she thinks all strangers are a threat to her. So the game is settled in the start already: one look from the competitors is usually enough to tell the pair who does what and how. Which one is the chaser, which the killer. In Fiona’s case, enough to tell her that she may be in jeopardy.

This is something we are going to treat as a challenge: how to grow a sensitive soft Irish Wolfhound into a competitive lure courser. As far as I understand, it requires some good, positive experiences in the lure coursing, encouraging her to take her position and gain some self confidence. She is just about 2 years old, so she’s still growing, which may have it’s effect on her mind, too.

Anyone happen to know good books or articles about dog’s mentality and mental training?

Seasoning the lure courser

Yesterday we did a rehearsal pull to our youngest runner, Fiona: it was just a few meters, but the idea was to teach her to kill the lure and not just neglect it like she did in her first competition. Natural reaction to the lure which just stopped. She jumped over it and went for mommy.

This brought to my mind the age old discussion on how to enhance the chasing -or killing- instinct of a lure coursing Irish Wolfhound. In greyhound side they say that the dog either has or doesn’t have the instinct: you cannot teach it to an older dog, anyhow. While I agree with this in the degree that you cannot teach a dog to chase at older age, at least with the ferocity and enthusiasm a ‘natural chaser’ would have, you can condition the dog to do this.

The best would naturally be to teach a puppy with natural affinity to chase. The puppy should be tested before making the selection, in the puppy bin, to see that it really is interested in the moving ‘prey’ and is hungry enough to do it’s best to catch -and eat- it. Of course, the puppy has to be old enough to see and walk on her own to make this work.

But this is only the beginning: now we have tested the puppy and made sure it has the natural affinity to hunt. The later life of the puppy should reflect to this in a way that the play with the puppy should contain small chases of a rag or something, so that the play would keep the affinity alive. The play should always be stopped at the point when the puppy gets excited. This way the instinct and desire isn’t fulfilled, but the basic need to chase and kill is only enhanced. The puppy will become even more fearce in her chasing and killing, leading to secure chasing and kills at the later age.

Of course, you can always see if the dog is interested in living prey by following her actions at a garden. Or at home. If she tries to catch flies, butterflies or bees, she surely will try to catch the lure! Living, four-legged fly-trap is a sure sign of chasing affinity.

If only it was this easy. The dog may resent the lure with vengeance. For some peculiar reason or another, she may chase it with all the interest in the world only to leave it untouched after the race. It may be the odour (strange, not like home), the feeling it doesn’t reward the ‘kill’  or that catching it causes pain or miscomfort. The last one may be a result of catching a bee or an earlier experience of a competition/training in which the dog has gotten sore muscles or something.

How to proceed from this? The dog chases but doesn’t kill?

Our approach is to use positive conditioning. The action should be rewarded immediately after completing. We tie a treat to the hand lure we have and pull only so that the chasing starts: the dog catches the lure, finds the treat hidden in it and gets an immediate reward for killing it. Next time the treat is tied into a more difficult place, so the dog has to dig -or tear- it out of the lure, making the killing more ‘real’.

But only one pull at a time: the more you do this, the more the dog will learn and the easier she gets bored. Especially Irish Wolfhounds with their big heads (containing at least some brains) get bored so easily, so you have to be carefull not to over exert any training. Too many training pulls, and the dog loses her interest in the competitions. Too many competitions and the dog loses it’s interest to chase the lure: instead it starts to read the field and anticipates the lure movement according to the obstacles.

Our dogs are not stupid: they will optimize their gain from any exercise.

Use that to your training benefit!

Thoughts about weekend

The weekend’s two competitions in Lieto were a big event just for the sheer amount of dogs -and owners- involved: over 85 dogs in the Finnish Cup and over 145 in the Mother’s Day coursing! Mostly the competitors were dogs which have competed earlier, or dogs owned by seasoned owners. This should make it easy to write only about the sheer fun despite of the rain involved, but sadly it isn’t so.

Out of the vast amount of owners, handlers and trainers only handfull warmed up their dogs even remotely properly: mostly the people whose dogs perform well from one competition to another on international level. Even there you could see very diverse approaches to this, all from increasing the intensity towards the trial to just slowly loitering around the start area till the trial. Both right on their own and justified from the dog’s point of view: the muscles involved in the running are ‘activated’ and the blood stream is increased to provide more oxygen to the muscles. In this case it comes down to the fact, what the dog has gotten accustomed to.

The cooling down seems to be something which is even more neglected: the dogs were quite quickly walked down so that they wouldn’t pant and then given the opportunity to rest. However, the lactic acid needs more time to be excluded from the muscles, and if the heart uses 30% of it’s energy need by burning lactic acid for the first 5-15 minutes after exercise (trial or training), this is way too little to completely help the dog burn the lactic acid. Which in turn, left to the muscles, causes tension and cramps.

The competitions should be fun occasions, where everything is done to make the event as enjoyable as possible to the dog: anything causing discomfort should be avoided or worked against. The easiest way for us owners to do this is to make sure that 

a) we take care of the proper training before the competition event to make sure the dog is fit enough to perform at 110% level it will give while chasing the lure, 

b) we take care that the nutrition is proper and well to sustain the strain and providing enough crucial nutrients to replace whatever is lost during the exercise, 

c) we warm up the dog properly to take the strain so that the muscles don’t tear or get damaged by the sheer forces involved in the coursing,

d) we take good care in cooling the dog down properly to help the recovery for the next trial and the next day. 

All discomfort will lessen the enthusiasm of the dog to perform at it’s maximum capacity. In the worst case the dog feels so sore after the trial that it refuses to run in the second trial. Or in the next competition. And only because it connects the pain with the exercise and the lure coursing event.

The thought pattern is like this:

Excitement=lure
Lure -> Chase
Lure = CHASE!
LURE = CHASE! = pain
LURE = Chase = PAIN
Lure = chase = PAIN!
Lure = PAIN
LURE=PAIN

And the next time the dog sees the lure, the instinct kicks in the chasing, but the brain says it causes pain. It’s a battle which results the body/instinct to perform and the brain/experience to slow down, and in the end the dog just quits: any discomfort becomes stronger than the instinct to chase.

Pain is a very powerfull teacher. Even in the nature.

And in the end, it’s our duty as the owners of the dogs to think ourselves as the trainers of the dogs competing, and make our best to make the experience as pleasurable and anjoyable to our athletes, so they can focus on the main thing in a competition day.

Chasing the lure with all their existence.