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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Mother’s Day competition

Oh what a day: we returned from the longest competition day yet, with out first time competitor. The competition had exceptionally big amount of dogs competing in a single day lure coursing event: over 145 dogs. The competition itself lasted for 9 hours from the first trial to the last and there were about 12.5 trials in an hour. This all was revealed to the competitors at the prize seremonies by the head judge, who customarily gives a small recap about the competition day.

The tracks were on the same fields as the Cup on Saturday, but in reverse order: the earlier finals track was the qualifiers.

For the Irish Wolfhounds this wasn’t the biggest day of glory, though. There were only four dogs competing after one had cancelled their participation. In the trials, only two dogs completed the trial, both competing for the first time ever. With decent points, I might say, even though the track was so demanding, physically.

Then there was about 7 hours of waiting till the finals, which must have been the reason for the results: neither of the dogs finished the finals, thus leaving the qualifiers points as valid scoring. What I mean about this is that our fist timer, Fiona (Siofra’s Wolfmann Fairy), experienced the competition event for the first time ever and most certainly the strain was immense to her mentally. As I left for work this morning there was no sign of any fatigue, and she was as playfull as ever, so the physical strain was well within her range.

All in all, the weather was great till the last finals, the dog returned home without injuries and in good fit.

The results of the Mother’s Day Lure Coursing in Lieto, Finland

1. Siofra’s Wolfmann Fairy 218 (Fiona)
2. Gogamagog’s Convel 191 (Nuupi)
3. Fernmark Kamikaze 0 (Kusti)
4. Sapwood’s Amusing Autumn 0 (Mimmi)

More thoughts about the competition later.

EDIT: Checked the times: the qualifiers started at 8:50 am and finals at 15:00, so the wait was ‘only’ 6 hours. Minus cool down and warm up, that’s just 4-5 hours of total rest and waiting.

A day at the Races

Or more accurately, a day at the lure-coursing competition. I think that I have covered some of the basics by now, to which I’ll return sooner or later again. Sooner most probably, as certain things will stick to my eye more often than others, usually the things being such basic things as 

  • endurance and stamina of the dog running
  • warm up
  • cool down
  • reaction to the dog’s performance at the lure
  • conduct at the start
  • and so on.

Now I think it is time to go through the typical schedule for a competition. I’m doing this only because we’re having our first competition weekend this weekend, with two dogs on Saturday and one on Sunday. I’ll report about the event as soon as I get back to normal.

1. Arrival to the competition site

To be completely honest and up to the facts, this isn’t the first thing: the first things are to register to the competition, to gather all the gear to go with you (dog’s papers, mantle, muzzle and so on) and to make certain that the dog is healthy enough to perform in the competition. The first and most important thing, however, is to ensure that the dog is fit enough to compete!

Upon arrival you have to register the dog to the competition: it’s just to tell the officials that the dog has arrived, the papers are ok and that the competition lisences are up to date. In most cases the participation fee is paid at this time. Here in Finland we also leave the dog’s competition records to the officials for the competition’s results at this point.

After this the dogs usually are ushered to the veterinary examination, where the vet checks the general health of the dog alongside with the movement.

2. Warming up

After the vet it’s time to figure out how much time there is to the first trials: usually the veterinary exam is positioned so that you have something between 1/2 to 1 hour before the start. In our cases this means that we go to the car, grab the competition gear (mantle, muzzle) and head off from the competition area for our warm up walkie. Usually this means that we try to find out (reasonably) quiet and empty area, usually within some woods to take our dogs out of the competition fuzz. Naturally they are pretty pepped up at this point, which is a good sign in that sense that it tells they are expecting the race, looking forward to it.

We take our time in our own peace and try to come back to the competition site at about the time our start is scheduled. If we’re too early, we keep the dogs at least walking till the start. If we’re too late… well, we run to the start!

3. First trial

The dogs have their mantles on as they come to the start, and the officials tell you to put the muzzle on: usually the dogs are already in the competition by now, staring at the lure and completely out of this world, so the muzzle isn’t even noticed. Currently the international rules state that the owners release the dogs at the start, so you should make certain that you hold the dog well enough to warrant swift release when the start is issued. The main thing, especially with big dogs like Irish Wolfhounds, is to ensure your grasp of the collar is so that your palm is upwards: if you’re holding the collar from above, you risk your fingers as the dogs launch.

Before the start your duty is to keep the dog still. He may squirm and move restlessly, but stay firm and be prepared to dig your heels into the ground: sometimes a very anxious dog can stand on it’s hind legs at the start, and if that dog weighs some 60 kg, you can be sure you have to use all of your strength to keep her down!

After the release, stay calm and enjoy the poetry in motion.

4. Catch up

After the 45 seconds or so, the lure comes to rest and the dogs do their kills: what ever you do, do not call your dog away from the lure at this point! Instead, go to the dog and compliment her the best you can, making sure she gets all the praise you can give her: after all, she has done her best, to the maximum, 110% and everything in her power to catch the lure and beat the other dog(s), so you have to make it known that she’s done great. Something more than “Well done, pig. Well done.” as the farmer said in the movie Babe, but do not exxaggerate.

Because the current rules will punish you if you somehow affect the other dogs’ performance, I would suggest that you give the treats to the dog only after leaving the grounds and remove the muzzle. She will soon learn that the reward comes after the muzzle is removed. And still this enhances the satisfaction from the chase and catch.

5. Cool down

Muzzle and mantle off and something to drink. For the dog, naturally. Most probably she’ll relieve herself pretty soon after the trial. After this it’s off to the woods to cool down, as the points will be announced earliest about 30 minutes after the last trial in a race. There is mandatory resting time for all breeds which will be followed by another vet exam, so there is no real hurry to get back from the cooling down.

Except to give the dogs something restorative to eat and let them rest for good.

6. Finals

The routine for finals is similar to the first trials: visit the vet about 1 hour before the scheduled start, wait for the starting schedule, warm up, race, cool down and wait for the results. This part is usually the most agonizing, because it takes always so long to receive the final results and see how the dog really performed.

There you have it: a bit streamlined schedule for a normal lure-coursing competition with qualifiers and finals. All in all the competition takes usually almost the whole day, and with warm ups and cool downs you’ll be walking about 9-11 km during the whole day. It’s a great way to exercise yourself, too!

For the dog… well, it’s just another day at the races!