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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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.

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!

Monday diary post

Thus far my entries have been pretty much on a topic: this is the first, though not the last ‘diary type’ posting I’ll make in this blog. The reason? I’ve covered the crude basics in the earlier posts, so now it’s time to move on.

Last week was merely recovering our male, Ness, from his paw injury: seven stitches in one toe is enough to keep this guy reasonably still for a couple of weeks still. However, the less he may move, the more he has energy and stamina to actually run! Which makes the normal visit to the yard an adventure at the best, a nightmare at the worst, when he bursts out of the door with the rest of the pack! Then again, when on leash, he acts like the gentleman he is: no pulling, no stretching the handler’s arms.

Due to my work and other activities, I haven’t been on the longer walks lately: my wife, however has done some with the bitches. Much to her annoyance, the girls are even more active than before. Maybe the fact that the ‘alpha male’ (Ness, not me) is lacking gives them the ‘right’ to be more active.

Their longer walk in the forest on Sunday was an excellent example of that. The girls ran to and from for the first two and half hours before they settled even remotely to a ‘manageable pace’ and were anywhere near to be controlled! The leader of this activity was the youngest one, our one year old Duana, who certainly is going to have a some kind of lure coursing/running career ahead of her.

If she stays fit and doesn’t break herself with all the fuzz and fury…  But as long as she’s regulating her own movement and exercise, she’ll be fine.

But you never know about the accidents that are bound to happen when the dog’s roam on their own in the woods. 

You can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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.

Evaluation of coursing

Several times, when I have told people about our dog’s competing in lure-coursing, the response has been a bit confusing to me. They are running after a lure, right, but not on a track. Not like the one you can see greyhounds running, or whippets, around the world. The most common response has been that the dogs must be very fast, as people usually think that the fastest runner wins. However, that is not the whole truth, as the dogs are evaluated in five categories and the combined points are calculated to gain the final score of a trial. So the fastes dog doesn’t necessarily win, but the best in all categories.

The categories are:  Speed, Enthusiasm, Intelligence, Agility and Endurance. 

  1.  Speed: The speed necessary to catch the prey. Naturally this means that the dog has to adjust it’s speed according to the speed of the prey and try to catch the lure. The breeds that hunt alone (greyhounds and whippets for example) will try to catch the lure by themself, but the breeds who drive the prey as pack will take their pair as an asset. This will lead to situation in which the fastest dog will not necessarily even kill the prey, but secure it.
  2. Enthusiasm: “Enthusiasm in the pursuit whatever the conditions of the ground (rough or with obstacles) and whatever incidents occur such as overshooting the turns, falling and losing sight of the lure.” This usually can be seen in situations in which the dog loses the sight of the lure, but still continues to pursue it at the direction it disappeared: some dogs just quit.
  3. Intelligence: The ability to read the track, terrain and the position of the other competitor and gain the best possible route to the lure. Especially with Irish Wolfhounds this leads eventually to the situation in which the dog ‘predicts’ the track just by seeing the terrain and guesses where the lure will turn. Usually dogs who have competed -or have been trained- too much in one season are prone to do this. Also working as a team is considered to be intelligent: there is nothing more enthralling than to see a well working pair to switch their lanes to keep the prey from getting away.
  4. Agility: Sighthound’s agility is shown in it’s rapid turning according to the turns of the lure, clearing obstacles and the final ‘kill’, sliding to the lure. Irish Wolfhound, being so big and heavy, this causes some problems as the tracks are usually designed for all breeds from Italian Sighthound to Irish Wolfhound: the turns and twists are pretty steep from time to time for this gentle giant.
  5. Endurance: “Endurance is the ability of a Sighthound to finish its course in good physical condition. It is the end sum of its physical and mental abilities.” Taken into account the fact that Irish Wolfhounds, Scottish Deerhounds and Borzois (Russian Sighthounds) have been bred to hunt big game, namely deer, elks, moose and wolves, the track can only be seen as the final stretch of the lengthy hunting trip. 

The quotations are directly from the FCI Lure-Coursing rules, all else is from my personal thoughts about the rules. As I have stated above, the rules are very general and the competitions are a sum of several compromises due to the fact that they usually accomodate several, very different breeds which have very different needs to be rated by their hunting performance.

Currently the lure-coursing track is 500-1000 meters long, usually around 700-900 in International competitions. However, that track is devised so that it can be used for all breeds and thus the amount and cornering of the track is compromise to all except maybe the mid-sized breeds. For smaller ones the straight parts may be too long, and they may well get too much speed for the next corner. For larger breeds, the corners may be too tight and they will overshoot them, maybe even break themselves while trying to follow the lure.

About the ruling, still: there are three judges giving 20 points for each category in each trial. In a competition there are two trials: qualifiers and finals, to which the best of the qualifiers are entered. Usually the dogs who have received over half of the maximum points from the qualifiers are entered to the finals: this means 150 points from the qualifiers. In the end, the qualifier and final points are added together to get the results. Usually the points for the dogs completing both trials range from 350 to 500, with some exceptions, even though the maximum is 600.

As you can see, it’s not easy to explain the competition to a person who knows nothing about it: alone the evaluation of the performance is pretty difficult, and we haven’t even entered the competition yet.

And all this is to evaluate the ability of a sighthound to hunt in a manner typical for the breed.

Go figure.