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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Yet another weekend in the races

Or at least in lure coursing events: that topic was a poor rip off from Queen (A Day At The Races). Poor attempt to be funny.

Anyhow, one day working, the other having fun with dogs and owners. Sadly there are no pictures from either, as I haven’t taken any, but it’s sufficient to say that the weather was excellent on both days: not too warm nor too cold. You could tell that by looking at the dogs who were more than lively throughout the both events.

There were few things that got ‘stickied’ in my mind from the both of the events. First one is something that really bothers me still, even though I know the battle against windmills is already lost.

The dog which comes to the lure doesn’t win the trial. It’s of no use to ask ‘how can I make my dog faster’ or ‘why did the slower dog get better points’. The explanation is here. The short version for the lazy readers is as follows: the dog’s performance is rated in five categories (speed, enthusiasm, agility, endurance and intelligence), and the points of the judges are added up. Speed itself is only one fifth of the points, so a dog with enough endurance or enthusiasm wins a dog which is fast but not agile, for example.

On the other hand, if the dog has good points but is slower than the other dogs of the breed, then there is something you might do. Pulls downhill, speed exercises, short extreme speed pulls and running in swamp or deep snow come to mind. First three develop the speed itself, while the last ones build up the muscles. But there is only so much you can do with the speed actually, especially with a mature dog. Also something to consider is to lose some weight from the dog.

The other one is the comparison of points from different events. This weekend proved the point especially,  as the event I was working on Saturday had tracks which were 450m and 650m (about) in length, while our dogs ran on Sunday on a track which was around 750-825 meters long. And quite surprisingly the dogs got lower points on the longer track.

It’s the same thing with all the evaluation in numbers: the numbers tell only the information which we want to tell. The same with ranking tables and ratings: when we want to condense information to simple numbers, something gets lost in the way.

How can you compare 530 points from 650m long track to 480 points from 800m track? Especially when there are different judges and different ground on both?

No way. No way are the results comparable, and most certainly they do not tell everything about the dogs who have competed. Not even with that kind of (huge) point difference the dogs cannot be compared equally.

The points -and all point based evaluation methods- are fault in one way or another. In ranking table, is the dog which competes seven times a year better or more valuable than the dog which wins three times? In trials, is the dog which competes on a long track with certificate points worse runner than a dog which wins on a short track?

After all, the main point is healthy and loved dog. Not the prizes and recognition of the owners.

Isn’t it?

Learning experience

Last weekend was the first competition I was working in: for two days (and 200 dogs) I was either cheking the identities of the dogs before start or starting the lure coursing pairs on track. What a terrific learning experience as whole! About 200 starts of dogs, qualifiers and finals combined, with all the variety from a clean start to several starts on a trial.

If you really want to learn about lure coursing and how the gear should be, the muzzles and mantles set and how to avoid the common mistakes, go and join your local sighthound club and volunteer for the next coursing event. It’s such a learning experience that you will thank yourself for a long time after that.

What you will see: nervous handlers with patient and focused dogs, anxious dogs with trembling newcomers, excited dogs with very relaxed handlers and all the possible mixes and variations of these! You’ll see excellently fitting muzzles, adequately or poorly fitting ones (which have to be fixed before the start) and speedy changes of muzzles from one dog to another withing the few minutes the returning of the lure takes. 

And the best of it all. You will see some fantastic and spectacular performances of the lure coursing dogs of different breeds and for certainly you will learn what is the difference between a mediocre performance and a superb one. And you will most certainly begin to appreciate the variety and difference of the multitude sighthound breeds, and their capabilities in dealing with the chase and the kill. I admit, that this experience has opened my eyes to the whole lure coursing the way I had never expected.

Highly recommended experience. Just remember to take it easy, give ample guidance to the competitors and remain calm when the competitors feel they have been treated wrong – sorry, when they feel that their dog has been treated wrong. That is the job of the judges to take care of, within the rules and such.

And the best part?

You can be of help without having your dog in the competition, so your dogs may rest the day in peace while you enjoy the show. And you will appreciate the people working in the next competition way more than before, making their work as easy as possible, thus speeding up the whole competition on your part!

Off you go!

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!

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.