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:

Lure -> Chase
Lure = CHASE!
LURE = CHASE! = pain
LURE = Chase = PAIN
Lure = chase = 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!

To warm up

I would like to see what would happen if a World class sprinter would take his 100m sprint without warming up properly. Most probably he would tear a muscle, whether in thigh or shin, that doesn’t matter. In the most probable case, he would ruin his training for the next few weeks in the mild case, for months in a more severe case. For certain he wouldn’t perform anywhere near his level, that’s for sure.

In reality, he would have as much sense in his head that he wouldn’t take the chance of breaking himself up without proper warm up.

Let’s turn this into the dog world. Way too often I can see people taking a sighthound in lure-coursing event almost directly from the car, walking her to the start as a warm up and taking the dog back to the car -cool down- to rest before the final round. The dog doesn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not it’s going to run if it has even the slightest chasing instinct in her head. She will run at full speed to the maximum performance, warmed up or not.

Guess what? The dog’s muscles get damaged as easily as the world class sprinters. In this sense, the lure-coursing or track sprinting dog should be considered a championship athlete, even if she isn’t competing at the highest level.

And she should have the luxury of being treated as one, too.

The meaning of a proper warm up is to prepare the dog’s respiratory and blood circulation systems and the muscles to the coming strain. The warm up should be increasingly straining to the system up to the point that the maximum performance is the climatic top stretch of the event. This warming up doesn’t happen in minutes. Human athletes take from half an hour to hour, or even more, to properly warm up their muscles before the main event, the competition. Why on earth do people think that the half a minute walk from the car to the start is enough for the dog?

According to several dog physiotherapists I’ve been discussing this warming up routine about, the minimum reasonable warm up period is half an hour of constant movement. This doesn’t have to be sprinting and playing, a simple walk with increasing speed to brisk gait is quite enough. The slower and more aerobic the warmup is, the better for the sprinting activity of the trial: the muscles will reserve their glycogen to the instance it is really needed and consumed.

During the warm up you should try to avoid sprinting, especially in the beginning. Like I mentioned earlier, the warm up should be aerobic, slowly increasing the heart beat rate towards the actual competition.

The warm up should be enjoyable walkie to the dog and the owner. In the end, the dog is the one performing in the trials, and it’s the dog who should enjoy it.

Motivation and motivating

Dog is a machine. Simple, straightforward hunting machine.

Everything in this descendant of the wolf points to that direction. Except maybe the fact that it’s digestive system has altered to utilize more varied food than it’s ancestors: whereas wolves digestive tract is completely designed to utilize meat in it’s all forms, shapes, sizes and putrefecation stages, domesticated dog’s system doesn’t endure as varied selection.

But the pack mentality, speed, attention and focus. That’s all from a simple killing machine which the nature has created to keep the amounts of game species down. Or at least prune out the sick and wounded ones.

In lure-coursing you can see the focus of the sighthounds clearly: the low gait, sharp stare of the lure and ‘all or nothing’ mentality in the chase.

But what drives the motivation of the dog? The instinct is the main motivator, naturally, which is triggered by the moving preylike lure. However, the more I see and hear about irish wolfhounds, the more imminent is the fact that not all dogs have this instinct intact. There are dogs that don’t even consider chasing the lure, let alone living prey.

The instinct can -and in case of sighthounds, should- be enhanced. If the dogs would live in ‘nature’, the mothers would teach their puppies to hunt at some point. To play with food, so to speak, by bringing a dazed prey animal (rabbit for example) to the lair and let the pups play with the animal before killing it for food. That’s the way it is.

The main idea would be to attach the image of food into the chase. The idea of fulfilling one basic need.

Nowadays the domesticated dogs seldom get this luxury. Thus it is twice as important to remember to play with the little pup when she is young and ‘tender’: pull a rag to her to catch, to pull the rag gently to get the pup going into the playing and just letting her to bash the rag around. But not over do this: Irish Wolfhound is extremely intelligent and gets bored very fast. Young dogs may even lose their interest in playing if exerted for too long.

A couple of teasing games with a rag should be enough at a time.

The most important thing for us owners is to know our dog. So it’s very important to have your eye on how your pup develops and how she is doing. 

It may well save her life if something nasty happens.

Back to the issue: The motivation to hunt or to chase is partly inborn and can be enhanced by playing with the young dog. To make this even more efficient, the preferred actions could be rewarded by treat. More mature dog might even expect finding that treat from the training lure when she catches it. And in competition the dog might even be rewarded for the chase and getting the lure at the end by a treat. Be cautious with this one, though, as the rules and code of conduct of the competitions prohibit the competitors to hinder the other competitor’s performance: treat dropped to the track will most certainly do that!

Dog is a machine. Sighthound even more so. It doesn’t matter how well or bad the dog runs in the competition, it does it with the fullest of efforts she can do it. 

It’s just us humans evaluating the performance who deem if the dog was enthusiastic or not. 

The dog does it’s best and to the max each and every time she’s chasing.

That’s motivation for you.