Event without competition

Have you ever been in a lure-coursing event in which there is really no competition, just enjoying the dogs running after the lure time and again? Different breeds and even non-sighthounds being evaluated with the same scale (though ‘official’ with real judges).

Have you ever seen the joy in the face of a sighthound owner who is attending to such an event for the first time, sees how his dog launches to the lure for the first time ever and gets rewarded with a trophy for attending?

Those are really the moments which I cherish myself in the lure-coursing. They always remind me that it’s not about the winning nor titles, not about being the best or being better than others, but about doing something with your dogs and finding new things to enjoy with them.

Now that the competing season is closing up here, it’s time to start taking down the dogs’ exercises and go to the upkeep ‘program’. Only long walkies without unnecessary pulls and sprints. Just relaxing and keeping the dogs in shape.

Letting the dogs rest and enjoy life.

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Yet another weekend in the races

Or at least in lure coursing events: that topic was a poor rip off from Queen (A Day At The Races). Poor attempt to be funny.

Anyhow, one day working, the other having fun with dogs and owners. Sadly there are no pictures from either, as I haven’t taken any, but it’s sufficient to say that the weather was excellent on both days: not too warm nor too cold. You could tell that by looking at the dogs who were more than lively throughout the both events.

There were few things that got ‘stickied’ in my mind from the both of the events. First one is something that really bothers me still, even though I know the battle against windmills is already lost.

The dog which comes to the lure doesn’t win the trial. It’s of no use to ask ‘how can I make my dog faster’ or ‘why did the slower dog get better points’. The explanation is here. The short version for the lazy readers is as follows: the dog’s performance is rated in five categories (speed, enthusiasm, agility, endurance and intelligence), and the points of the judges are added up. Speed itself is only one fifth of the points, so a dog with enough endurance or enthusiasm wins a dog which is fast but not agile, for example.

On the other hand, if the dog has good points but is slower than the other dogs of the breed, then there is something you might do. Pulls downhill, speed exercises, short extreme speed pulls and running in swamp or deep snow come to mind. First three develop the speed itself, while the last ones build up the muscles. But there is only so much you can do with the speed actually, especially with a mature dog. Also something to consider is to lose some weight from the dog.

The other one is the comparison of points from different events. This weekend proved the point especially,  as the event I was working on Saturday had tracks which were 450m and 650m (about) in length, while our dogs ran on Sunday on a track which was around 750-825 meters long. And quite surprisingly the dogs got lower points on the longer track.

It’s the same thing with all the evaluation in numbers: the numbers tell only the information which we want to tell. The same with ranking tables and ratings: when we want to condense information to simple numbers, something gets lost in the way.

How can you compare 530 points from 650m long track to 480 points from 800m track? Especially when there are different judges and different ground on both?

No way. No way are the results comparable, and most certainly they do not tell everything about the dogs who have competed. Not even with that kind of (huge) point difference the dogs cannot be compared equally.

The points -and all point based evaluation methods- are fault in one way or another. In ranking table, is the dog which competes seven times a year better or more valuable than the dog which wins three times? In trials, is the dog which competes on a long track with certificate points worse runner than a dog which wins on a short track?

After all, the main point is healthy and loved dog. Not the prizes and recognition of the owners.

Isn’t it?

European Sighthound ranking initiative

There is a new initiative to have a concise sighthound ranking in Europe and the website can be found here.

While I see this as an admirable and quite ambitious initiative, for me this represents the dog owners need to excel over others. In sighthound racing this is quite normal, where the dog is mainly the tool to achievement – in greyhound racing especially.

For me the lure-coursing has a different meaning: the competition is just a side product of the main thing, to see the dogs run and do what they have been originally bred for.

The more I think of it, the competition part is what makes it difficult to enjoy the actual lure-coursing event: if you visit a lure-coursing training or an informal event the overall feel of the event is completely different from an official lure-coursing competition or event. The people are more relaxed, fun and not too confined in their own scheming (and planning the dog’s performance beforehand). However, in certain breeds of sighthounds the competition mentality is more apparent than in others and certain breeds have been created only for racing (take greyhound or whippet as an example of this).

But for Irish Wolfhound… Irish Wolfhound is a poor tool for a competitive minded people. Or a perfect one, for there is so little competition in national level that with just a few additional walkies a week you can ‘compete’ with a high level of success.

I’ve seen a question concerning this. What is a win over 3 competitors worth comparing the win over 30 or 50? My counter question is simple:

What does the dog understand about the winning or why is he celebrated one time and shunned the other after a completed trial?

Never the less, the initiative is admirable and I wish all the success to it! As long as it doesn’t become the owners’ bragging ground and/or sole basis for breeding.

The dog’s health and longevity should come first.

Always.

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.

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!

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.