Dogsavers: Course Plans and Lure Operation

PATRICIA GAIL BURNHAM

"Deciding whether a course is safe requires that the judges visualize where the dogs are actually going to be running."

In the last issue I promised an article showing good and bad course plans. Unfortunately, there has not been time enough between the last issue and the deadline for this one for readers to contribute their favorite candidates. That article will be postponed for one more issue to give everyone enough time to submit those course plans. Meanwhile, let's consider what happens on the day of the trial once the lure operator lays out whatever course was shown in the premium list.

The first requirement is that the judges walk the course plan. The rules say that this is to check to see that it is actually the plan shown on the premium list and that it is safe. Judges can have the line moved away from obstructions, or require that the obstructions be padded with hay bales or old mattresses. Many clubs keep small sand bags on hand to place over exposed sprinkler heads and other small holes in the field. Deciding whether a course is safe requires that the judges visualize where the dogs are actually going to be running. That means checking the area on the outside of turns for the dogs who will overrun the turns and checking the inside of turns for dogs who will cut. There is not any provision for it in the rules, but if the club and lure operator are in agreement, it is often possible to modify the course plan in ways that will simplify judging and speed up the trial by reducing the need for reruns.

If, as a judge, you are going to modify a course plan then keep in mind the lure operator's concerns:

1. He needs to be able to see the complete lure circuit from his operating position.

2. Adding turns or increasing the angle on a turn will increase the drag on the machine, and often the course design is already close to the machine's capacity. It is generally a more welcome idea to reduce the angles on turns or eliminate unnecessary turns. Balance out your changes so the total drag is not increased. If you have to add a pulley to box a corner, then eliminate or reduce the angles on pulleys elsewhere.

3. Adding hold-down pulleys increases the drag a little, unless it makes the line drag along the ground or actually cut into the ground as it will do if the line wraps over the crest of even a slight hill. Having the line cut into the crest of a hill will increase the drag enormously. In modifying a course plan set on rolling ground, watch the ground elevation where you propose to move pulleys. Will the line cut into the side of a hill? Will it be way above the ground and need a hold-down pulley? Will that make it cut into the ground somewhere else?

4. Many lure operators do not like to cut their expensive lure lines, so if you are going to eliminate some pulleys and create slack in the line, it will need to be taken up elsewhere in the course by widening a turn or lengthening a straightaway. Often there are parts of a course that can be lengthened easily by moving a single pulley. If you are working with a small field and a lot of line and a lure operator who absolutely won't cut it, then have him set a series of switch-backs that are NOT PART OF THE COURSE. The dogs do not run through the switch-backs. Don't laugh. I have seen courses with multiple switch-backs and when I asked what they were doing in the course I was told that they had been added to take up extra line. They do work to take up the line, but they also punish and penalize the fast, clean running dogs while rewarding the cutters who are smart enough to ignore the actual course and create their own.

Last month, while judging in Seattle for a weekend, I had three apprentice judges on Sunday. One of them was delighted because in the majority of courses we were all agreeing on the order in which the dogs should place. It seems that the last time she had apprenticed with an out of area judge she had been unable to figure out what the judge had been scoring on from course to course. I hated to finally tell her that what she thought was some sort of miraculous talent on my part really wasn't; the course plan was responsible for a lot of our agreement.

The course plans both days had started out as lovely, open patterns. Then they had let me modify a few minor features on them each morning before the dogs ran. I had been surprised to find that the initial layouts were very similar to two of the plans we had used a decade earlier for the annual Greyhound Specialty Trial in Santa Barbara. I had always wondered what an all breed trial would look like on them, and this weekend I was pleased to find out. If a judge knows what qualities he is looking for in a coursing hound and has the opportunity to judge on a course plan that tests those abilities, then he should not have much trouble placing the best dogs. A good course plan can make the judge look very talented.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. A choppy, complicated course plan can guarantee that almost nobody is happy with the judging. After I had accepted an invitation to judge at the International, the premium list arrived complete with a course plan that contained no fewer than four 135 degree turns and 14 straights with two crossovers. I thought, "Why am I flying 3000 miles to judge on a course plan that looks like a plate of spaghetti?" Fortunately, the course was simplified somewhat before the Saturday runs and a great deal before the Sunday runs, so what we saw was not what we got. I met an exhibitor from California who said he had reacted the same way to seeing the plan in the premium list. He had shown it to Lyle Gillette and Don Papin and they had nearly fallen down laughing at him, commenting "why are you flying a dog 3000 miles to run on that pile of ...

Here are a few useful guidelines. Simplify the course plan if:

1. it is a hot day and the lure machine is going to overheat.
2. it is a rainy day and the wet grass is going to put too much drag on the lure machine (and eat up batteries).
3. it is a soft, sandy course and stress fractures are likely.
4. it is a hard, dry field and lots of dogs are going to strip pads.
5. the ground is very wet and the anchors for the pulleys are not likely to hold.
6. if you want to run long courses without overloading the lure machine.
7. if you want the exhibitors to have a better chance of understanding the judging.
8. if you want the trial to finish before dark, especially if you have a large entry.
9. if you want the placements to go to the best coursing hounds, instead of the luckiest.

Even if the course plan is less than great, good lure operation can improve how the dogs perform on it. The biggest single factor in good lure operation is being able to maintain enough lead. Whenever a dog gets close enough to the lure to try to pick it up, that dog is going to be handicapped in his performance in that course. The ASFA rules say that the lure should be kept ten to thirty yards in front of the lead dog. If this could always be done there would never be a take attempt during a course. Unfortunately, due to the varying talents of the lure operators and the hounds, and occasionally due to an underpowered lure machine, takes and missed takes are common.

Why does an attempted take penalize a dog? If takes were done the way most writers seem to think they are there would be no problem. Dog writers say that a sighthound's long legs are matched by its long neck, enabling the dog to reach down and make takes in full stride. If that were actually what happens the dog could reach down, miss a take, and simply raise his head again and keep running. No problem. That is not what happens in a take attempt. The human eye cannot tell us what happens during a take. Only a high speed camera can really show what the dog is doing in a take, so let's take a look at it.

Photo #1:
In the first frame the dog is fifteen yards behind the lure and is running all out with his head up.

Photo #2: In the second photo this dog is approaching the lure and is starting to drop her whole front end. As she sets up her take, she is no longer in running stride at all as her head, shoulders and indeed all of her body, starts to drop.

Photo #3: A moment later her front legs, from paw to stop pad, are flat on the ground. Her momentum is carrying her towards the lure and her back legs are coming forward towards what will be their paw plant for the take attempt. She will put those back feet down substantially in front of where her front paws are now planted.

Photo #4: In the fourth photo we have the moment of the take. The body is supported on the hind legs, which are thrust forward. The front legs have sprung up from their pastern-on-the-ground position and are bent in the opposite direction. Now they are tucked out of the way beneath the dog. The entire dog is collapsed toward the ground as she reaches for the lure. She is saved from falling on her nose only by her forward momentum, the strength of her own body and the support from those back feet.

Photo #5: Once she has made the take, she will have to push with those back legs as she uncoils her body and raises her head and shoulders. It will take her several strides to regain her balance and even longer to regain her pre-take speed since running dogs depend on the action of their stride to help them breathe and the take attempt has broken the rhythm of her stride and put her into oxygen debt.

So far we have been discussing a normal take attempt. Imagine what would happen if she tries her take at the moment that the lure reaches a pulley. Once her weight is shifted forward and her front has started to drop is she in any position to turn? No, she isn't. What will happen is that the dogs she has been leading will cut across and pass her while she is recovering from the take attempt. It is quite easy for a lure operator to take the lead away from the front running dog just by letting it get too close to the lure as it approaches a pulley. Most of them try not to do it because it displays poor lure operation. It is the mark of a good lure operator when they can get a fast dog around a sharp corner without having him lose the lead.

Once or twice, when judging, I have encountered lure operators who appeared to be deliberately manipulating the course. It is a little tough to decide what to do in that case since you can never be sure whether they do not understand what they are doing or whether they understand it very well. The judge has two options to correct this: You can increase the score of the dog who has been handicapped by the lure operation; or you can ask for a particular style of lure operation and request a specific amount of lead at certain parts of the course. The best thing you can do is tell all lure operators when they are doing a good job. It is a demanding and thankless job.

This is the second installment of a series which was written in 1986 and originally appeared in The Windhound.

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