My dog is so fast…

The topic is one misconception people seem to have, in addition to the thought that speed is everything in lure-coursing. The dog may be fast in the backyard or in the ‘training’ where the pulls are 250m. But the real challenge of the 600-1000m lure coursing trial is something completely different.

How to tell the difference? In the backyard (or normal walkie), use a watch to time the actual time your dogs are running at a time. Constantly running, that is, at their full -or playfull- speed before giving in to trot. You might be surprised how little they really run, especially if you compare that to the time the dogs run in a lure-coursing trial.

How long is a trial, then? Depending on the track, at the average speed of 40km/h the normal track from 600-1000 m lasts anything from 1 minute to 1.5 minutes. On average the run craze of a dog at the back yard takes about 10-15 seconds and after that the dog is ready to go in. It may run like a lunatic, fast as lightning and all, but the real challenge is avoided.

The lactic acid threshold.

At about 100 meter point, which is about 6 seconds from the start, the dog has used the immediate energy reserves in the system and the lactic acid starts to mount into the muscles. This causes ache, stiffness and discomfort, and the dog will cease running if the reason to run is not strong enough. At the backyard the reason may be to release some tension and it’s over in the 10 seconds. In the trial it is the instinct to chase the lure, and it may not be enough to keep the dog interested after coming tired and stiff.

Each and every dog is the best in the world to it’s owner, that’s for sure. But the dog running at backyard/training/walkies is not necessarily the fastest or best in the lure-coursing trial, if it hasn’t gotten used to straining herself beyond the threshold.

Even then there may be something which causes her to quit before the trial is over. But that’s another story alltogether.

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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.

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.

Early life of a future lure-courser

This is an adaptation from general guidelines for whippet and greyhound owners: their needs and physical traits differ slightly from Irish Wolfhounds, which makes some things a bit different.

Puppy bin

As lure-coursing isn’t exactly a sport nor a competition as greyhound racing, and thus the speed isn’t the most decisive factor, you should always select the puppy you feel most your own. If you really want to select one from the litter, try to select an active and brave puppy, which is interested in it’s surroundings. The best advice is to check the puppies feeding time: the one who is most brutally interested in her food should be your safest bet on natural chasing instinct.

Why? Because it’s food that’s running away from you.

Coming Home

In addition to normal visits to the yard the puppy needs walkies and exercise. This should be without restraints of anykind, the puppy should be able to run as she wishes and as much as she wants. And preferably in as many different terrain types as possible. The more the puppy is moving without the leash, the more it’s internal muscles develop and the overall agility improves. This is of crucial importance at latter age, when the structural bodymass starts to develop.

The puppy should be induced into different social contacts and should be growing mentally also. This requires contact with other dogs and playing. The first is simple to do: just meet as much different dogs in the local dog park or equivalent, and/or visit other people who own dogs. The experiences should be positive overall and well planned beforehand. Well planned means that you don’t take your precious puppy to a dog which you know to hate puppies, for example.

Playing is completely different story: the puppy shouldn’t be forced to play anymore than exercising. If you want to administer the playing, remember to keep in mind that the function of play for a dog is to rehearse the chase and capture of prey. Chasing a rag, tearing a piece of fur and chasing a ball are excellent ways to simulate the chase.

Remember to quit the playing when the intensity of the play is at it’s height! This way you are enhancing the instinct instead of fullfilling the need. The enhancing of instinct is what we’re aiming to, to create a lurefast runner!

You should be creative with the different games: chasing a ball or a frisbee, fetching a rag, tug of war, all have their function and should be changed day in, day out.

Rewarding the puppy is extremely important: a good reward is enhancing the effect of the play. However, a pet and praising the dog is quite enough, there is no real need for snacks as reward.

The best place to play is outside and my opinion is that the puppy should be trained from early on that inside is for resting and feeding, outside for playing and games. You should also remember that the puppy needs to rest, and when the puppy goes to rest, she should be left there. It should be made known to everyone in the household that when the puppy rests, she is not to be disturbed in any way.

You see, the most of the development of the muscles and mind of the dog -as well as us humans- happens during sleep and rest.

The muscles, tendons and the body of an Irish Wolfhound grows in extreme measures. From 500 grams to 50 kg within a year is the worst genetic disease this breed has, surpassing every other hereditary ailment. This should be kept in mind when working with Irish Wolfhound puppy: do not force her to exercise, let her rest when she rests and know your dog to notice any ailments well in time.

Nature has it’s ways, and this holds even with Irish Wolfhound.

Routines and routines

I’m having a bit of a writer’s block currently: I’m feeling that my posts are – and drafts – are revolving around just few subjects. Which I have covered already pretty well, only tweaking and clarifying the older posts regularily. 

I suppose this happens even when you’re living, exercising and/or training dog’s, too: you get railroaded into certain routines without noticing how simple and predictable your routines become. It’s food in the morning, walkies at noon, food in the evening, with ‘scheduled’ training in between.

Howabout the training? Unles you are very meticulous and plan your trainings beforehand (or have a training diary), you are bound to end up doing the same kind of strength, speed and stamina trainings over and over. And most probably in the same place, so the dogs will learn what happens where and when. The curses of organized training system.

As I have stated time and again, I don’t believe in rigorous training programs as such: free movement and roaming is what I put my emphasis on. For IW’s this works pretty well, especially in a pack like ours: two youngsters keep the older ones on the move and active. I can imagine this proves to be difficult if there is just one dog though: she may well become so dependant on the vincinity of the pack (aka owner/handler) that she will not even sprint for the occasional ‘prey’.

The pitfall of routines is also dangerous in the sense of training: the body, whether human or dog, will get accustomed to repeated exercise. Accustomed to certain strain. The training which gave excellent results in the beginning will soon become just an upkeep level strain. There has to be changes in the pace, hardness, strain and lenght of the training for it to become constantly rewarding. This can be achieved with adding some hill sprinting between two people in the woods, by adding some longer jogging sessions (yes, to really train a dog you have to be fit yourself… :P) or to have a pull or two for the sprint/speed training.

But the routines should be avoided in training. They should be enforced in other aspects of life: feeding times, rest times, obedience and play time. The routines should be time based, not exercise based. This is my philosophy, anyhow.

Currently I have to think about these training issues, because of our Ness’ paw: it’s healing nicely after a severe cut almost through one toe (took 6 stitches…), but the time between today and the European Championships is way too short to get him into prime condition. Without rigorous dedication and training.

Both of which I resent in this hobby, because for me the dog should enjoy it’s life, not be a tool for my personal craving for recognition.

But I cannot let a dog with no fitness, endurance or health to compete in such a competition, so I’m bound to have some sort of training schedule at least in my mind. Because of this, I’m off to the drawing board.

My jolly, how many sentences started with B… 😛

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.

Expectations of the owners

Last weekend I attended to a happening which was co-arranged by local Irish Wolfhound and Scottish Deerhoud associations: mainly the idea was to have a training morning for the dogs and owners about lure coursing and give some taste of the real thing.

The event started with a small presentation by a renown lure-coursing enthusiast, who has been doing this for the last 33 years. So the experience spoke when he told the listeners that the dog should be warmed up well enough before the trial and cooled down afterwards. And that the dog -when trained to chase the lure- should be only teased to play with the lure and left unsatisfied with the game to make her chase the lure in real even more enthusiastically.

How wrong was I when I followed the attending dog owners from aside (with our own dogs with us)!

The dogs were allowed to take a short hand operated pull on a greyhound track first. Most of the dogs ran nicely, only few of the dogs were clearly disturbed by the surroundings and the vast amount of strange dogs.

Then came the lure-coursing exercise. The track was something around 200-300 meters, so approximately half of the real track. We were walking around with our dogs constantly, so there were only few still moments for their muscles to cool down: we thought that we walked too little, but then again, there were a lot of those who just took the dog to the track and then walked them back to car. So much from listening to the initial presentation.

All in all, all the dogs -both Irish Wolfhounds and Scottish Deerhounds- ran very well. If these dogs would be warmed up and cooled down properly, they would enjoy the exercise and competing more. And I surely hope that at least some of them would compete this season as there are too few of these giant breeds competing anyhow.

What really stopped me and made me think during this weekend was something I found myself thinking, too. In the initial presentation it was stated that the dog shouldn’t be punished or reprimanded for what she did or didn’t do on the track, for she thinks she has done the best she can: instead, she should either be complimented, patted or said nothing. And this is what I saw: dogs which didn’t go to the lure after a great run being neglected, dogs who didn’t run exceptionally well on their first time on the track, dogs who were happy and enjoying themselves being talked down because they weren’t performing to the max.

Most of the times by the owners who had no experience in the competitions and had their expectations too high for the dog. I myself found myself evaluating our first time runner in way too critical manner, something of which my wife correctly mentioned to me. And true, I was comparing a complete novice to our European Champion who really showed what the sport is about: running, speed, joy and ease.

When you go with your dog to the lure-coursing training, remember that it is only training. If your dog is there for the first time, everything is new to her: the smells, sounds, everything. This is enough to confuse the poor dog, let alone the fact that the owners are more or less excited and tense.

Give your dog time to get accustomed. Evaluate her on her own performance, not by comparing to the others. Congratulate her on everything she does correctly, for she will do her best 110% on the field, much more than we could ever put effort into.

And she will know when she blunders, even though you never mention it.

The training day should be enjoyable experience to the dog and shouldn’t be repeated too many times. Keep your dog happy about the chase and she will bring you all the results she can!