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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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.

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.

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!

Typical walkie

Had a typical walkie with the dogs the other day. Typical meaning that we went to the forest and the dogs ran freely for the whole time. Typical in the way that I walked for a 1.5 hours. Typical that it was over 7 km in length for me.

Typical walkie for the dogs too, if I’m not counting the fact that the three of them who were with me took of to the woods at least three times to chase something I didn’t see. Saw only one big bird which they chased, though I couldn’t but laugh to the poor dogs who still don’t get it that they cannot catch a bird by running.

Untypical, though, because they took off the first time after only 10 minutes of walking. This is the part that scares me: the dogs take on chasing without proper warming up and tear their muscles. That is a lesson I don’t want to give my dogs, for whom the chasing should be fun, rewarding and -during the training season- should only enhance the chasing instinct by not resulting a catch.

Typical walkies this time. 

How is your typical walkies?