Dogsavers: Stress Fractures and Course Plans


"The worst course plans are usually the result of trying to set too long a course on too small a field.”

Let's go back to December of 1976, the first day of a lure coursing weekend in Phoenix, Arizona. I am there with the only Greyhounds: puppy, Trip, along for the drive; Sunny, whose neat little cat feet will handicap her in the sand; and Tiger, who, at 28 inches and 80 lbs., is a solid block of muscle and the most powerful sand-running dog I ever saw. It is Tiger's third birthday and he is just finishing out a year in which he has run in 24 lure courses. I had thought that the year was over and was debating whether to show him at Antelope Valley KC where, a year earlier, he had finished his breed championship, or to accept Jane Bulman's invitation to an open field course in relatively safe alfalfa fields. Then word came of the lure coursing weekend in Arizona and there was no contest. On an earlier trip to Arizona Tiger had revealed his astonishing talent for running in the desert. He has a proper hare foot to gain purchase in the sand, and the strength to run through it. I loved to watch him lean into the corners like a dirt biker, disappear in an explosion of sand and reappear on the far side running full speed in the new direction. He impressed not only me, but the other participants and judges as well, coming away from the earlier trip with back to back Best in Fields. They were his first BIF's and, since then, he has earned three more, including his invitational on grass in southern California. A last weekend in Arizona to finish out the competitive year seemed perfect.

No other Greyhounds were entered this time, so Tiger out placed Sunny for the breed; and I anxiously waited while the course mates were selected for the BIF run. He turned out to be in a two dog course with the Saluki, the born sand runner. The sand was wind packed, and during the preliminary courses the dogs had been able to run on top of the crust. With repeated runs, the crust along the lure line was broken down, leaving the sand deep and loose. At the slip, the Saluki proved to be clever. He moved away from the lure line to run on top of the packed sand. Tiger stayed right on the line where he always ran. The course was a giant rectangle with a deep U set into the far side of it. The run quickly fell into a pattern. At each corner, the Saluki would cut across and take the lead, and on each straightaway Tiger, virtually invisible from the elbows down in kicked up sand, would repass him and retake the lead. It is a nice way to earn a lot of points in lure coursing, because the Saluki does not get points for passing in the turn and the Greyhound does earn points for the go-bys on the straights. They had run the largest part of the rectangle and were in the U, which would bring them back near the start. Tiger was running across the bottom of the U when my first thought was that he had suddenly tired, because the Saluki passed him strongly. The human mind is slow to react. Tiger had run six strides before my mind could register what my eyes were seeing: he was running on three legs. His right rear leg was tucked up against his body. Fortunately, he was running directly toward me on the closest part of the course and, as he made the second turn in the U and headed out in the pursuit of the Saluki, I ran out and cut him off. It was the only time I ever succeeded in calling him off a lure. He was whimpering a little as he turned toward me. There had been a lot of broken bottles at the lure site, and I was paranoid about them. I had walked the lure line collecting them. I was sure that Tiger must have stepped on one that I had missed. The power of suggestion is so strong the as I knelt beside him to check the injured leg, I could see blood dripping from between his toes; but on second glance it was not there. It was only in my mind's eye. I blinked and the foot was unbloodied, although the toes were clenched tightly and the whole leg was held tightly against his belly. I was hugging Tiger and telling him it would be all right, but I couldn't even tell what was wrong.

At the second lure course we had ever attended, a little Saluki bitch had badly broken a front leg and her weeping owner had carried her off the field. At the time, I had wondered if, should Tiger ever need it, I would be able to carry him off a field. Sunny, at a demure 63 lbs, was no problem; but with Tiger at 80 lbs., I had doubts about my ability to carry him very far. Ken Reynolds approached us and simply picked Tiger up and packed him back to my car where I spread out a blanket to lay him. Suddenly, I could see at least part of what was wrong: the big tendon that runs down the back of the leg to the hock that is normally held out away from the leg muscles was lying slack and flat against the leg. At the very least, he had torn that tendon loose from the bone, which is the equivalent of tearing your Achilles tendon off your heel. Tiger was taking it all very calmly. I was clammy with shock and decided that if I drove all night, we could be sitting at my vets 400 miles away by their opening time in the morning. Ken loaded him in the car. I put Sunny in, and was about to leave when someone ran up and gave me poor Trip, whom I had forgotten and almost left behind. On the drive back to the motel, I picked up some ice to pack the leg in order to reduce swelling, and some NoDoz for the trip. Once at the motel, with Tiger laid out on the bed still uncomplaining, my mind started to function a little better. A phone call to my vet revealed that the emergency vet on call in Santa Barbara that weekend was someone I would never take a Greyhound to. His main claim to fame was having performed a C-section on Ch. Shalfleet Spanish Moon without getting all the puppies. They had to reopen her a few hours later, when she went back into labor, to remove a few more dead puppies and the fortunately still living Ch. Clairidge Angelic. I didn't think his services were worth driving all night for. There are few things more panicky than being far from home with a dog that needs care. I called the trial secretary for a vet reference and called that vet, only to be referred to a local emergency clinic. This was in the very early days of emergency clinics, and this was the first one I had ever encountered. The receptionist gave me street instructions that indicated it was actually nearby. (The Glendale-Phoenix Scottsdale metropolitan area is big and sprawling.) She also wanted the emergency fee in cash or credit card; and the charming couple that ran the motel kindly cashed more traveler's checks for me than they should have. (After this, I applied for a credit card just to have one in the event of any similar future emergencies.)

At the emergency clinic, I left the dogs in the car and went to register and wait. I asked the young man next to me what he was there for. He and his wife had returned home to find that their Great Dane bitch had broken part way out of a window and then pulled back into the house, cutting herself badly on the shards. She was busy being sewn up. His description of the state of the house was graphic; but he was more worried about his dog than his housekeeping. Then it was my turn. Before I went to get Tiger, a rather attractive young veterinarian asked me to describe what had happened. It turned out that, in addition to working at the clinic, he also worked at the Greyhound track. At that point, I stopped worrying about his competence. When I brought Tiger in and laid him on the table, the vet examined the leg very briefly and looked at me. "I thought you said it was a coursing accident. Dogs don't do this coursing. It is a track accident. It happens on the backstretch turn all the time, and always to the best dogs. I can x-ray it if you want, but I don't need to in order to tell you what has happened. The tendon is not torn off. The bone it attaches to is broken; and when it breaks, a lot of small bones around it also get broken. When it happens on the track, the dogs are usually put down because they will never run again."

He was a very nice, businesslike vet; but the shock of hearing a death sentence was like being shot in the chest. For a minute, I couldn't breathe. Briefly, I considered what it would be like for Tiger, who was a superb running machine, to NEVER run again; and I thought perhaps euthanasia would be kinder than that. But the moment passed, and I found myself babbling, trying to justify not taking his friendly advice, saying that Tiger was only three years old, he was the only Ch UD Greyhound in the world, he had been the top obedience sighthound of the previous year and would likely be the top lure courser of this year, and he had only sired three puppies so far. They were eight weeks old, and I had seen one of them for the first time earlier that day. I calmed down a little and asked the right question. "If he were your dog and you did not want to put him down, what would you do?" He thought a minute. "I have a friend who is a veterinary orthopedic surgeon who would love to work on an injury like this; but he hasn't been able to because when it happens to the track dogs, they are put down. Wait here and let me call him." It was probably a short wait, but it seemed very long. He came back saying cheerfully that he would keep Tiger overnight to take x-rays and splint the leg, and that we had an appointment with his friend at 9 a.m. I started to ask about his views on anesthesia, but relaxed when he said that the only thing he would use on Greyhounds was morphine. That, by the way, is a response that is common to vets who have worked with tracks and racing Greyhounds, and I find it very reassuring.

He was still curious about how the injury occurred until I explain that it was not live game coursing but lure coursing, and described the condition of the sand and the shape of the turn in which the accident occurred He seemed appalled at the ignorance that would let anyone put that kind of turn in those conditions and felt that it could hardly be called an accident, that we might as well have taken Tiger out and shot him in the leg as run him on a turn that similar to a track's backstretch turn. I asked him why it was usually the better running dogs that were hurt, and he explained that first the dog plants the rear foot on the outside of the turn. The sand, or track, traps the foot so it cannot rotate. Then, because of the turn, the dog turns its body, rotating the top of the leg so that it is pointing more to the left than the foot is. At this point, the leg is bent, and the top and bottom are not lined up in the same direction, so when the dog exerts all its strength to straighten the leg, the out of line stress may fracture the metacarpal bone. Once that is broken, the stress is suddenly transferred to the tiny bones around it and they will also break. In humans, the equivalent would be breaking your heel, and then breaking lots of the small bones in your instep. Anyway, the theory was that it happened to the fastest dogs because they were the strongest and exerted the most stress on their bodies.

It was not a good night. I felt that Tiger was safe, and at least he was not likely to die; but I would probably never see him run again, and I loved to watch him run. That night I grieved, not for the loss of the dog, but for the loss of his running ability. Years later, that would show up in the final stanza of "The Passing of Coventry" where Brian says:

"So I will grieve for myself,
And the loss of my friend,
That never again in this life
Will I see Coventry run one more course
All courage and speed
All heart and desire."

The next morning, they gave me Tiger with his leg in a splint, a folder of x-rays, and directions to the Moon Valley Animal Hospital. I had hopes for any vet who was willing to go to the office early on a Sunday morning. I was met by just what everyone needs in an emergency a doctor who was a true enthusiast about his profession. The way some people love drag racers or dogs or football is the way Dr. Jack Henry loves bones. He ushered me, put my x-rays up on the screen, and almost chortled as he started indicating first the main break in the metacarpal, and then the small breaks in the bones that looked like they were not more than 1/4 of an inch square. When he got up to seven, I told him I did not want to know the total and asked what could be done. He showed me the involved bones on a skeleton about the size of a Whippet, and said that they could operate to set the metacarpal. If they tried to set it without reinforcing it, the constant drag of the big tendon would pull the break apart. He wanted to wait a day or two for the swelling to go down before doing the surgery, and estimated that it would take several hours of operating time. I was trying to get some idea of the eventual outcome of the operation, but couldn't.

I left Tiger with Dr. Henry and went, of all places, to the Sunday lure course; because I knew that if I did not run Sunny that day, I would probably never run another dog anywhere. First, I checked the course plan to be sure that there were no U-shaped turns. Watching her run alone was very unnerving. I did not run her for Best in Field when the course had been softened. The other participants were concerned and supportive, and that helped steady me for the drive home without Tiger, who was going to stay in Arizona for the week.

The phone report of the operation was good; and the following weekend, Sunny and I returned for him. I knew he would have lost condition, and I braced myself for the change I knew would have occurred. I wasn't prepared enough. The week before, he had been a heavily muscled athlete. Now he was emaciated, with the muscle all wasted away and his hipbones clearly exposed. The necessary inactivity had caused an astonishing amount of unavoidable muscle atrophy. But, if the operation was successful, I would be able to condition him again later. As it turned out, the operation was indeed a success. My vets at home admired the x-rays of the repaired hock with its two stainless steel wires and a screw holding it in place against the constant drag of the tendon. After three weeks, they x-rayed him again and replaced the cast, which Tiger promptly broke off, as he did with every replacement of it. I was beside myself with worry that not being able to keep the cast in place would undo all the repair work, but it didn't. Fortunately, when Dr. Henry saw the three week x-rays, he said the break had been healed enough at that point and the cast was no longer necessary.

When the cast was finally removed, we did a lot of slow walking, at first only 40 feet from the car to a bush in the park and back. Gradually, the distance increased. He began to use the paw and to put some weight on it. Eight months after the accident we were walking by a lure course and the lure operator asked if I wanted to run him. It was a short, circular pattern in a baseball diamond with the turns all in one direction. With misgivings, I let him run with his good leg on the outside of the turns. He loved it. A year later, he ran and placed in the big Greyhound specialty course at Santa Barbara where a pinched nerve in his shoulder gave him more trouble than the leg. I then realized that he was only using the injured leg for balance. He was running primarily on his three good legs. If he had actually been pushing hard with the injured leg, then the muscle in his hindquarter on that side would have developed, and it never did. If a dog can break a hock when running on four good legs, the chances are even greater that he could break the remaining good hock when he is running on three good legs. I believe Strider was an example of a dog who broke one hock, healed it, and then broke the other. When I realized that, Tiger was retired permanently.

For folks who are interested in how dogs run, when Tiger lost the full use of that right hind leg, it did not change his running speed much. What it did do was severely handicap his ability to turn to the left. He couldn't push himself into the turn with the right leg. I later saw another good Greyhound run lure both before and after her hip had been crushed by a car. She had even less use of the hind leg than Tiger did, and although her speed was not noticeably affected, her turning ability was.

All this happened ten years ago. I could not bring myself to write about it then, except for a brief memorial to his running career:

He strove for the impossible.
Driven by his great heart,
He showed us the impossible done,
until mortal bone broke under the strain,
And ended his final run

So why write about it now? I had assumed that what happened to Tiger was a freak accident until an article appeared in the Field Advisory News recommending a new lure line design as a possible solution to the leg fractures that had been happening to Greyhounds in lure courses in Arizona. I suddenly realized that what happened to Tiger could happen to any good Greyhound on a similar course plan. While I had learned what the problem was in a crash course on stress fractures that night in the emergency clinic a decade ago, the course designers were still using the same design that breaks Greyhound legs in the desert without even knowing they were doing it. If you recreate the backstretch turn of a race track in soft footing, whether it is sand or mud, then you are going to break Greyhound's legs on it; and what happens will be perfectly predictable and no accident.

The injuries will happen to Greyhounds because of their high ratio of muscle mass to bone size. Whippets are also likely candidates for stress fractures, but their light weight and smaller momentum may sometimes save them. Most of the other sighthounds have far lower muscle/ bone ratios, although there may be individual exceptions. I have read articles that say we should breed for high bone density in order to prevent stress fractures, and indeed we should. (Arabian horses are noted for having very dense bone.) That wouldn't have saved Tiger. After the operation, Dr. Henry commented that it had been the most dense, hard bone that he had ever drilled through. The bone strength just had not been enough to save the leg.

What would it take to reduce the incidence of injuries in desert lure coursing? In the early days of ASFA, the rulebook had a few rules that applied to course plan design. One of them was that the sharpest turn allowed was 90 degrees. Another was that a 90-degree turn had to be followed by a straight of at least 100 yards before the next turn. If this had actually been followed, in both spirit as well as to the letter, then Tiger and other dogs after him would not have been hurt. Before he ran that day, I protested that the U-turn violated that rule. I was told that it did not violate the rule because it was not really a 90-degree turn, it was two 85-degree turns with 25 yards between them. That was true; so it met the letter of the rule and violated the intent, which was to not force a dog to turn more than 90 degrees without time to recover and run normally for a while. What happened was while Tiger was in the first 85-degree turn he saw the lure hit the next pulley and tried to sharpen the turn he was already in. His outside foot was planted in the sand and immobilized; he swung his body further into the turn, rotating the upper leg; and then he started to push off. A lady standing near the turn said that it sounded like a pistol shot as the bone broke.

After Sunny finished her LCM, I was away from lure coursing for a while. When we started running Tiger's daughters, we went to a course hosted by a Basenji club. The course plan in the premium list didn't look too alarming; but what was laid out in the field had an incredible number of turns, most of them 90 degrees or greater, and lots of little, bitty straights. I asked what happened to the rule about 100 yards being required after a 90, and was told by the genuinely puzzled club people that there was no such rule. That sent me back to the obscure pages of the rulebook where I was astounded to find it had been deleted. Indeed, all guidance about course plans had been deleted. Even the old, recommended sample course plans were no longer shown. That is a pity, because there are dogs being injured unnecessarily by running on course plans with unsafe designs, and the designers probably don't even know the risk. At least, I hope they do know it. It seems inconceivable that a course designer would knowingly use a course plan that is dangerous. Perhaps some designers, trial secretaries or lure operators incorrectly assume that a certain percentage of the dogs running at a trial will suffer stress injuries. Stress injuries are the result of the course design. They are avoidable. We ran the Greyhound specialty lure course as a special event at Santa Barbara for five years, with entries of several dozen dogs each year that included Greyhounds that were outstanding in everything from lure coursing, to open field coursing, to actual racing dogs, to show champions. Other than slipped pads, the only injury suffered was one broken toe in the fifth year. Stress fractures are not necessary. No judge ever complained about judging on our quite simple course plan. In fact, the course plan made the relative running abilities of the dogs self-evident enough so that even the exhibitors were generally content.

While the example given in this article was of a dog running in sand, it is also possible to design courses that will produce stress fractures in dogs running on grass. On grass, however, you will see more injuries to front legs. When a dog hits a sharp turn on grass, he is trying to do two things at the same time: break his forward speed and turn. The breaking action puts most of his weight on his front legs, allowing the stress of a sharp turn to occasionally produce stress fractures. These fractures are often torsional. The best way to prevent this kind of injury is to design a course with a long enough first straight so that some of the dog's initial speed is burned off before he has to negotiate the turns. When the turns do come, they should be no greater than 90 degrees, and there should be fewer than 8 of them.

There is one exception to the restriction against using turns greater than 90 degrees: I have seen some very successful course plans that used a full 180-degree reversal of direction. This was not done with the use of pulleys but by actually reversing the lure direction at the end of the straight. If you have a really good lure operator, this is a pretty technique to watch. It is also a maneuver that desperate rabbits actually use: stopping cold, letting the dogs overrun them, then running back the way they have come. Because it is a full reversal, there is no chance for a slow dog to cut the corner and take the lead. All the dogs have to get turned around. Usually they brake, run a small circle while keeping their eye on the lure behind them and have to sprint into the straight again. The ability to handle full reversal, by the way, is the mark of a really talented lure operator with good equipment. For some reason, lure operators seem to have fallen in love with the 135-degree turn. The reason escapes me, since anybody can make a dog look foolish in such a turn, and that is usually what happens. In fact, it takes a superior operator to avoid making the fastest dog look bad in a 135. It can be done, but only by tremendously increasing the lead that the lure has going into the turn. It is hard to do that without losing some of the dogs entirely as they become unsighted. The best lure operators are the ones who make the good dogs look best, who most closely can duplicate the kind of course that the dog would have with a rabbit. The competition in lure coursing is to be between the dogs. It is not supposed to be a contest between the lure operator and the dogs, although I have met a few operators who seemed to think that was the case. Once, when the dogs had been on top of the lure at the first turn in the preliminaries, I asked if the operator would like us to hold the dogs for a late slip if he was having power problems. This would give him a chance to get more of a lead and be able to have the lure out in front at the first corner. He replied that as long as the dogs did not actually pick up the lure before that turn, he would be able to knock them off the lure at the pulley. Indeed, that is true, but it is not good lure operation. What baffled me is that he seemed quite proud of it. There was no indication that he even suspected that it was the mark of a poor lure operator. Good lure operators may accidentally put a dog in an awkward situation because nobody is perfect.

Sometimes course plans are designed by the trial secretary; often they are contributed by the lure operator. There are a few things to keep in mind when designing a course plan.

The worst course plans are usually the result of trying to set too long a course on too small a field. The best thing a club member can do to produce a great course plan is to obtain a large enough field to set a good course. Very few high schools have enough space. I have seen good courses set on polo fields, college athletic fields, golf courses, parks, flood control basins and pastures.

The more turns a course has, the greater the drag on the lure machine. That means that it will use batteries faster, and the machine will also overheat quicker. If you want to run a smooth course that finishes before dark, control the number of turns in the course design.

I have talked to lure operators who set very complicated course plans simply because they did not want to shorten the line on their continuous loop. Fine. If you don't want to shorten the line to fit the field, then set a series of switch-backs out behind the lure machine and start and end the courses in front of the machine. Do not make the dogs run through the switch-backs that are only there to use up spare line.

The more turns a course has that are greater than 45 degrees, the more Field Champions are going to cut across and nail the lure. That will require reruns and delay the trial. Once a Field Champion or LCM has cut and caught successfully on that corner, you can bet your lure machine that he is going to try it even sooner on the next run.

Fields are generally rectangular and longer in one direction than in the other. Put the lure machine on the narrow end of the field so you have it as far as possible from the other end of the field. That gives you room for long straights in your course plan. Putting the machine in the middle of one of the field's long sides, as is popular, immediately chops what could have been one of the long straights in half.

Remember that the dogs do not have to run every foot of lure line set out. If you need to dogleg the line over 25 yards from where the machine is sitting and then put in a 90-degree turn to head into a nice long run up straight, go ahead and do it; but put the start out past that turn so the dogs have an even start onto the run up. The only thing that running them a short distance into the turn is going to do is scramble them and put the cutting dog in the lead going into the straight. Nineties right off the start make the judging tough, penalize the fast and true running dogs, reward the cutters, and display the course designer's ignorance.

When you are designing a course plan, review it from both directions. I have seen some course plans that were not too bad in one direction, but were impossible on the reversal. These were usually corners with a lot of sharp turns near the end of the course. On the reversal, all those sharp turns were right off the start where the dog had too much speed to handle them. The best plans have a long initial straight where speed is demonstrated, followed by a series of turns to test follow and agility, with a final long straight to test endurance. When that course is reversed, the initial and final straights just swap places, and the course will run as well in one direction as in the other.

The next article will be show and tell time. It will show examples of successful course plans and also a few diagrams of candidates for "worst course plan of the decade.

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

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