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.

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.

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.