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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Heat is going on

Weekend’s heatwave doesn’t seem to go away: up till the latter part of this week there is more of the same in the weather forecasts. This makes training itself almost impossible, and risks of all kinds rise their head. Sunstroke being the first one, not due to excessive sun, but due to loss of water and nutrients.

But this isn’t enough: due to the fact that the dog uses more energy to dissipate the heat, it also consumes more energy. This energy has to be replaced. We noticed that our dogs started to lose weight even though we had the same amount of the same food available all the time from ‘normal’ temperatures till the heatwave was on it’s third day. The remedy is to feed them clever, not more.

One has to remember that fat, when metabolized, releases water. Instead of adding energy from carbohydrates (easiest way), one should add more fat into the feed of the dog. Sounds controversial, but if you think of the metabolic functions of the dog, it makes perfect sense. The dog is meat eater, specified to consume meat and fat. It’s metabolic system will burn the fat effectively to water and energy (and other things), helping the body to keep up with the water need.

So, by adding more fat to the food we are actually helping the dog to drink more. Clever, eh? The amount eaten isn’t changed considerably while the dog’s system is being helped to cope with the excessive heat.

This doesn’t take away the requirement of cool, fresh water being available to the dog all the time. And over time, the dog will acclimatize, become accustomed with the warm weather, which in turn will help the situation.

Take care to fix the food later on as the weather cools down: the added energy isn’t required anymore and will result excessive weight gain… which a good exercise will take care of!

Heatwave

Oh my, oh my. We’ve been hit by the first real heatwave here in Finland. The daily temperatures go nicely above 25 deg C, meaning that the dogs are completely out of order during the day. Only at evening, or night to be precise, are we able to do any reasonable walkies with them. Like yesterday.

Hot weather can be dangerous to the dog, just as it can be dangerous to us people. What makes it more difficult for the dog -especially a dog with scruffy coat like Irish Wolfhound- to endure excessive heat is the fact that the dog has so limited ways to naturally cool herself down. The dog sweats only from her paws. The heat exchange is only through panting, aka mouth and tongue.

So how to cope with the excessive heat?

First of all, take care the dog has water, preferably cool water, available all the time. Not cold because that is considered to be one of the reasons to gastric torsion bloat. Which can be fatal – and very often is.

Naturally, spraying water on the dog is a good way to cool the dog down, but only as long as the water can dissipate from the coat naturally. I would prefer having a cooling mantle for the dog, or a blanket which you can tie on the dog. The blanket can be drenched with water and it cools the dog down by the same way as the water sprayed on her: dissipation of the water requires quite an amount of energy, thus cooling down. Wet blanket/mantle is the best external way to keep the dog cooled down.

But. There is always a but in these guidelines. Do not rub the the water into the coat and then put the wet mantle on top of that! This creates a steam bed inbetween the dogs sking (which is warm) and the exterior of the dog’s coat (which is insulated by the water which cannot dissipate due to the cooling wet blanket) and this can create even more heat on the dog! This applies also to the dog who has been swimming: do not put a wet towel/blanket/mantle on her!!!

The best way to cool down a dog -both in hot weather and after an exercise- is to dip her into the water as deep as her belly: the next-to-hairless area inside of the dogs legs have some massive veins, and thus the blood is fast cooled down to cool the rest of the body. After all, blood runs through the heart at the rate of a couple of times in a minute, even faster when exercisign, so the cooling is very effective through the “internal route”. This works also as a first aid in a situation where a dog has ‘over exercised’ and needs fast cooling down.

The cool water dip is also a good way to speed the recovery after a heavy exercise or competition.

Of course, the best way to keep the dog well in a hot summer day is to keep her in the cool shadows and not force her to work in excess of relieving herself.

Take care of your dogs and don’t leave them in the car or in direct sunlight!

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.

To cool down

After a trial or competition, a human athlete doesn’t pack his pack and cram himself into a car. Instead, he takes his time to recover from the strain, slowing down the heart beat and breathing, walking or gently jogging to keep the lactic acid moving from the muscles to the blood stream and stretching the muscles gently to relieve any stiffness caused by the strain of the muscle cells. And naturally, he’s drinking to overcome the water and nutrient loss of the trial.

However, the dog athlete is often walked to the car or cage, let to relieve themselves on the way and offered something to drink, water most usually. And then she is crammed into a small confined space to rest before the next trial.

What is wrong with the picture?

The dog athlete will do its maximum performance each and every time it works. This means that the muscles are strained to the maximum, and the micro-damage of the muscle cells causes severe loss of nutrients and iron from the body. Next time your dog does a long and very straining exercise, check her urine: don’t be alarmed, though, because the blood red urine is natural sign of an excessive strain to the muscles. I have seen this happen only when our dogs have chased a moose for over 5-10 minutes at one strech. But it shouldn’t be a norm, only after a very straining exercise!

But every dog -how long a sprint it ever is- is generating lactic acid because the full speed gallop is an anaerobic exercise: the muscles do not have enough oxygen to function and the metabolic system turns into a form in which the energy is created without oxygen. This results lactic acid, which in turn is harmfull to the muscles (lowering the acidity and causing cramping) and takes somewhat longer time to get out of the system. Heart muscle actually burns lactic acid off in it’s functions, but this happens slower than the muscles create it: this also requires the oxygen from breathing, thus making it neigh impossible during a race.

What to do, then? Cooldown.

As it was with the warm up, cooling the dog down doesn’g happen in minutes: it takes at least as long as the warm up to get the ‘body fluids’ moving and the real cooling down to start. The heart rate will stay higher than normal to burn the lactic acid away as effectively as possible, but the muscles will clear themselves out of this damaging substance. The main thing in cooling the dog down in this way is to slow the metabolic rate down by walking the dog gently. Also, it the weather is warm -as it usually is in the summer- the dog can be actually cooled down by applying water to the legs and belly: this will cool the dog’s temperature down while it evaporates. But never apply water into the dog’s pelt: the water will go down into the fur and get trapped in there, generating a layer of warm water, insulating the dog even more effectively from the cooling air!

As mentioned, the cooling down walkie should be at least as long as the warming up to make sure that the fluids keep washing the muscles after the trial and that the lactic acid is removed from the muscles as well as possible. The routine should be similar to warming up, though reverse: starting from a slightly brisker pace, slowing down to gentle gait.

And of course, the dog should be offered water to drink as soon as she accepts it, and something slight to eat if there is another trial coming later: this is to ensure that the dog’s energy reserves are  at least partially replenished before another straining exercise. After the cooldown walkie and some refreshments, the dog can have it’s rest: usually this means that the dog takes a good nap, only to wake up to the next trial or at home, where the recovery is continued.

Proper cooling down makes the new start and the next competition more enjoyable to the dog, as it prevents excessive soreness of the muscles and cramping, which may be caused by improper warm up/cool down. The more the dog enjoys the trial and the routines involved in it, the more certainly and surely it will run the competitions, one after another.

This serves both the dog -who stays fit and likes to run- and the owner -who sees the results and enjoys the appreciation-, so it is mutually beneficial!