Faster than anything

How come there are always dogs which are faster than any running dog alive and when the real event comes along those dogs are the first to give up?

It’s not mental for the dog. It’s completely physical.

It’s not enough for the general fitness of an Irish Wolfhound to have the few 15 minutes walkies in the lead and few sprints in the yard to make it run faster than anything. The few sprints in the yard or dog park is not showing how long or how fast the IW really is; it’s only showing how playfull the dog is.

In 7 seconds the dog has used up it’s immediate reserves and the first wave of exhaustion comes in. In the normal backyard the dog sprints for the few seconds and rests in a way or another for the next. In a lure-coursing event the track takes about 45 seconds, full speed running and steering.

The faster than anything dog gets exhausted, it’s muscles are sore from the lactic acid and the experience is anything but pleasant. After the trial she is put into a car to cool down and straight from the car to the finals, if lucky.

This dog will never compete again.

And hopefully so. For the well being of the dog.

To the owner of the faster than anything alive dog this may be devastating: she’s so fast at home, but not performing today. It may well be the last event the owner will ever take part into, if the owner was looking for instant gratification on the behalf of the dog’s performance. On the other hand, if the event otherwise was a success (good weather, nice buffet and nice people), the owner may take heed on the advice and dig a bit deeper into the excercise side. Take the dog out for a longer walkies, maybe jog with her from time to time (and participate half a marathon later next year… =D ).

Maybe the next time the dog is prepared -and ready- to run at full speed to the end.

Maybe after a while the dog is what the owner believed in the first place.

Faster than anything.

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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.

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.

Life after all

I’ve been pondering over this one issue which has been bothering me for some time already. In a way it’s so much connected with taking the dog to the dog shows over and over again, even after the dog has gained all the champion titles it ever can get.

What to do with the dog after it has gained all?

That’s a bit harsh to say like that, but the general idea is that why would I want to take the dog to yet another lure coursing event after he’s gotten his working class champion status? Winning an additional competition means nothing anymore. As a matter of fact, it seems to hinder the development of other dogs to compete with a dog which has recorded performance.

I can’t see but only one reason to take my dogs to the events after the titles have been received: to see them run. The winning actually is just a side effect of the fitness and willingness of the dog to run. The sad part of this is the people who are taking their dogs to the competitions to win and gain certificates. And prestige for owning such a champion.

The saddest example of this kind of behaviour is also closely related to the behaviour of people taking their dogs to dog shows. In dog shows it’s pretty common to choose the shows to which people take their dogs by the judge judging the dogs. By choosing the right judge you can make a champion out of three legged and crosseyed dog, if you really want to. Cruel over-simplification, but as it is based on opinion of one judge, and their opinions vary, it’s quite possible.

In lure coursing this craving for winning and certificates comes out by choosing the events in which the best dogs are not attending to. In the worst case even calling to the owners of the ‘top performing dogs’ to ask which competitions they are taking their dogs, so that they can go to the competitions these dogs are not attending to. In a way it’s the same as the dog show selection: by selecting the events in which there are less -or inadequate- competition people want to make sure their dog will be the top performing one.

Receiving the certificate and recognition.

I just want to ask one question: What is the value of such a win or certificate, if there is no real competition involved? What kind of information does it give to the owner of the dog about the dog’s performance, outlook or qualities to pit her against inadequate opponents?

My simple opinion is: none.

To win or lose, you should always compete with the best to see where you’re lacking. That’s my personal opinion. If you win, you have truly earned the win. If you lose, you can analyze, what went wrong. The same goes with the dogs: they will give their best when running against a better opponent, learning from the experience and gaining more than from an easy win.

In the deepest sense of the spirit of Lure Coursing, it’s  not a competition: it’s an evaluation of the sighthound hunting ability. The competition part is created by us humans, who want to ‘win’ and be better than others: this means neigh to the dog herself. So if you are taking your dog to lure coursing events only to win, you are using your dog as a tool to satisfy your own need to win. You are coursing your dog for the wrong reasons…

One thing is sure, however: after all has been gained, the only thing remaining is the joy of seeing the dogs run.

Wild, focused, pure joy of the chase.

To be fast enough to catch the lure.

How did it go?

One of the questions that has bothered me enough to write about is from the lure coursing competition I worked in some weeks ago. The question was from a new lure coursing dog owner, who was in his first competition ever. The question was, how can he see if the dog runs well or not. In short “How did the coursing go?”

What it all comes down to is -like in all hobbies- that you learn by doing and seeing. What helps you to pay attention to the correct things in the dogs performance is the list of the traits the judges are rating. In FCI competition (that is, in Europe) the list is simply:

  1. Speed
  2. Enthusiasm
  3. Intelligence
  4. Agility
  5. Endurance

I have earlier gone through these from the competition evaluation side, but lets look at these from the competitor side for a change.

1. Speed

Dog breeds have very breed specific way of running, from the fast ticking pace of the Italian Sighthounds, Greyhounds and Whippets to the wide and extended paces of the Irish Wolfhounds, Scottish Deerhounds and Borzois. The speed doesn’t actually mean which one catches the lure first, which seems to be the misconception of some competitors: instead, it is the measure of the dogs ability to run in a breed specific way and speed, when compared to the other dog competing. The more you see your dog run, the better you know what the typical speed and style of movement is particular to the breed.

2. Enthusiasm

The look. The stare. The total devotion to the prey or lure. This is what enthusiasm is in the best possible way. It also shows when the dog is competing for the lure with another dog in the way it tries to cut the corners to gain advantage, how eagerly the dog follows the lure through visible obstacles and how eagerly the dog tries to find the lure if she loses the sight of it. Enthusiasm just is, and it’s very easy to see in your dog’s performance. Lack of enthusiasm also shows in the dog as disturbing the competitor, or even in attacking the competitor instead of chasing the lure.

3. Intelligence

Some say that the lure coursing dog becomes so intelligent that it can predict where the lure is going to turn: My opinion is still that this only tells that the dog has been lure coursing too much on an open field. Sure, its intelligence in the sense that the dog inherently knows that the lure will not dart into the woods all of a sudden (even though the living prey would), but it’s not real ‘hunting intelligence’. The intelligence comes into play in the sense of co-operation and driving the prey with the companion instead of against her. It’s also seen in the way the dogs use the terrain to their advantage and how the slower one cuts the corners to cut the way of the lure/prey.

4. Agility

Probably the most important physical characteristic of a good lure courser – naturally in addition to excellent physical fitness –  agility can be seen as the capability of the dog to take turns and follow the lure tightly at the heel of it. The turns and their tightness is breed specific, where the smaller breeds can cut a tighter corner than the larger ones: however, the lure coursing tracks are always compromises and are regulated by the rules themself.

5. Endurance

The ability to keep up with the lure without breaking the sweat: the overall measure of the physical fitness of the dog. For the smaller ones up to Greyhound this is all that is needed for a full track: however, for the larger breeds like Borzois and Irish Wolfhounds, the track ought to be much longer for this to be seen as a limiting factor. There are some tracks with natural height differences, which really strain the dog’s endurance, but in competition this measures the dogs ability to maintain the speed and agility long enough to make a complete trial.

What this all comes down to? Go to see as many competitions as possible, not as a competitor but as a spectator. Better still, go to a competition to work in there, and see how different competitors warm up and cool down their dogs, how they handle their over excited dogs before the trials and how the dogs perform and how they differ from breed to breed.

Like I said in the beginning: it all comes from the experience. As you have seen dogs run and perform at different levels, you have to take a step back and observe your own dog’s performance as objectively as possible, without trying to analyze anything, to really see how she performs.

You might be surprised how difficult this is, and how much it helps while you are ‘training’ your dog for the next important competition.