Dogsavers: How NOT to Design a Course Plan

PATRICIA GAIL BURNHAM

(The Worst Course Plans of All Time)

Here we have the winners of the wretched course plan contest - thirteen of the worst course plans of all time. What qualifies a course plan for competitive dreadfulness? 1) Turns in excess of 90 degrees; 2) short distances between sharp turns; 3) starting the dogs down a short straight into a sharp turn; 4) a turn total for the course in excess of 700 degrees (360 degrees of total turn is about the minimum needed for a course; more does not improve the judging. On the contrary, it usually confuses judges, as well as punishes the dogs); 5) having the dogs actually run the short legs that are put into a course to get the line over to the lure machine; 6) having all the sharp turns at one end of a course so when the course is reversed the dogs start right off into the turns; 7) switch-backs and running W's. It was really hard to rank these against each other to say which was the best of the worst. I have tried to list them in a gradual worsening order with the worst saved for last.

Plan #1. This is the course plan that inspired both me and one of the exhibitors to separately say, "Are we really going 3000 miles to judge and run on that?" This is a course plan with close to 900 degrees of total turns, including five 90-degree turns and several that are about 135 degrees. What saved the day is that this course plan was not the one actually laid on the field on Saturday. The one on Sunday looked even less like the one shown in the premium list; in both cases the courses were simplified and improved into reasonable plans. After having spent a few years running dogs on little bitty courses, I enjoyed watching these (the ones actually run, not the ones shown here), and loved the enormous field. It made lure coursing seem fun again.

Plan #2. After that judging assignment, I went home and entered a couple of novice dogs at a lure course which was being run at a college that has a lovely, large athletic field. The course plan did not look too bad on paper. This is what was put on the field. The first article about how course plans should be designed like rabbit courses had just been printed. I was delighted to have some of the open field coursing participants mention how right they thought it was. We kidded a little and suggested that perhaps we should give a copy to whomever had designed that day's course plan since it was exactly the kind of course I had condemned in print.

This course has 900 degrees of turn. Only one turn is slightly less than 90 degrees. Half of the turns are more than 90, with the real winner being the two 135-degree turns with 30 yards between them. This course was merely difficult in the preliminaries. When it was reversed for finals, dogs were down the 100-yard straight into the 30-yard switch-back. All of the Greyhounds did the same thing their turns carried them past the lure and they were running at the lure head on as it zipped through the switch-backs. On the next acute turn they had a chance to do it all again. A Whippet club was hosting the trial. I was fuming about how they had wasted such a lovely, big field when a stranger came up and asked, "Is this a bad course plan?" "Yes," I replied. He said, "I wondered. I am new at lure coursing, but thought the Whippets look like idiots out there."

I was puzzled about why a club of old-time Whippet fanciers couldn't get a course plan that would at least make their own breed look good!

Plan #3. I would love to know if this was actually set this way in the field, but all I have is the plan itself. This course has five 90-degree turns within 145 yards. I think that may be some sort of record. Five 90- degree turns total 450 degrees, which is enough for an entire course. This entire course has a total of 810 degrees almost twice what is needed. This course has another interesting feature: all those 30-yards legs called a "running W." It is quite often on the left side. This configuration is seen in tracking tests where it is a lot more useful than in lure coursing. A shallow running W like this one (one with short legs and mild turns) really brings joy to the experienced dogs. The lure zigs and zags while the dogs run straight down the middle and have a good chance of catching it. Even dogs who follow the lure closely on the preliminary run know better than to do it on the final.

Plan #4. Here we have deeper running W's. With 40 yards between turns, the dogs may think about following the lure it is about a 50-50 chance they will decide to. The turns are so sharp that by the time the dogs have turned, the lure will have made the following turn and be coming toward the dogs, giving them a chance to meet it head on. This is the same thing that happened on the plan #2 switch-back. As one lady commented there, "It makes good dogs look like idiots." This course has nine turns, six of which are very sharp, acute turns. The turn total is 1050 degrees. We are really getting up there. This course plan does have an eye-catching shape. We will see another with that same quality when we get to plan #9.

Plan #5. Here we have a course that was set on too small of a field. It is a high school field with three small ball diamonds. It looked much better than this on paper. The 60-and 75-yard switch-backs were drawn as mild turns, but this is what actually turned up on the field. They were getting ready to run the test dog in the clockwise direction when I suggested that they would hurt fewer dogs if they ran the preliminaries counterclockwise. After a few minutes of thought, they agreed. The reason for this is that the first run of the day is likely to be the fastest, and running counterclockwise gives the dogs some room to tire before they have to deal with the switch-backs. (When a running W gets this deep, the dogs are going to try to go with it and it becomes a switch-back.) Once again, any dog with decent speed was nowhere near the lure in the switch-backs. In addition, the judges were stationed between two of the switch-backs, so the dogs were trying to turn, dodge each other and the judges, and keep an eye on a lure that was headed back past them all at the same time. The amount of complaining that went on was exactly what this course deserved. Nobody had fun. People generally go to trials because they enjoy seeing their dogs run their best. No fast dog runs its best on this kind of course plan. How much pleasure can the owner of a slow dog get from being rewarded for being slow?

This course had another noteworthy feature. In the preliminary direction, the dogs were slipped right at the lure machine on a leg so short that when they were slipped the lure was in the corner pulley. I have never been asked to slip a dog with the lure in a pulley before. It makes for a very uneven start. The sensible place to put the start would have been at the X which is the head of the 100-yard straight. That way, the judges could have judged run-up speed from an even start. There is nothing in the rules that says you have to slip on the tallyho. I just waited to slip mine until the lure got to the head of the straight. It saved a lot of scrambling for position.

Plan #6. On the subject of switch-backs, here is a course with 800 degrees of turn that is nothing but switch-backs.

Twenty-five yards is not enough distance for a dog to completely reverse its direction. A running dog is moving at 35 mph, which is about 51 feet (or 17 yards) per second. Giving a dog 25, or even 50, yards to kill all his forward momentum, turn around, and accelerate to 35 miles per hour again, is nonsense. When he is running he will cover that 25 yards in a 11/2 seconds.

There are two ways for a dog to turn. At running speed, a dog has a minimum turning radius which is the arc he can run while maintaining his speed and stride rhythm. That is the sharpest turn that he can run in his stride. The faster and heavier the dog, the larger the turning radius. If a turn is sharper than that radius, then the dog has to brake his forward speed, break the rhythm of his stride, turn, and then re-accelerate. A dog's breathing is assisted by stretching and contraction if his running stride, and when its timing is disturbed the dog is going to enter serious oxygen debt.

That is why you see dogs that have led their course easily get crunched when in a corner, and not recover from it for the rest of the course. They haven't tired or quit they are in pain and trying to recover their breath an stride. I see this a lot when I am judging. It really makes me unhappy to see a lure operator crunch a good dog, and then have the dogs who could not touch him earlier dominate the remainder of the course because their stride has not been broken. If the course is long enough and the dog is good enough, he may recover to retake the lead before the end but he should not have to do this.

Plan #7. Here we have 800 degrees of turn that was not complicated enough so the grass barriers were added. I like the idea of hurdles, but a simpler course plan would seem prudent if you are going to add anything that might break the dogs' line of sight.

Plan #8. Another 800-degree turn course, this time with hay bales for obstacles. No matter which direction this is run, the dog is going to find a 135-degree turn at the end of his first straight. This is the worst possible location for them since the dog has his highest speed at the end of that first straight.

Plan #9. Now we are really getting into the realms of fantasy. Can you look at this course plan and envision dogs flying past the acute corners? I can, and you should be able to. So should whomever drew up this course plan. One- and two hundred-yard straights leading into 160-degree turns are both difficult to judge and very punishing to the dogs. One of them in a course would be poor design. Four makes a very appealing graphic design, but it is nothing dogs should have to run. The only hope for this course plan would be to have the lure so far ahead of the dogs at the acute turns that they would see it turn well in advance and would simply round off the corners. If you are faced with this kind of a course plan, don't be shy. Ask the lure operator for lots of additional lead. That, or not running your dog at all, is the only way to save the situation. Then complain to the field committee, preferably the secretary, and, if necessary, lobby ASFA to put restrictions back on course plans. Bringing back the old rules about no turns greater than 90 degrees would solve a great deal of this problem and would give the owners some control over what kinds of courses their dogs run on.

Plan #10. This is an interesting course plan because of what it says about its designer. They knew enough to add an extra pulley to each of the 90-degree corners. The extra pulley gives the dog warning of the turn, the same way a rabbit warns of a turn when it shifts its ear and tail positions before turning. When a dog sees the lure round the first pulley in these turns, it warns him. If the designer knew that much, then why are the rest of the turns single pulley 135-degree turns? Why not add a second or third pulley to the sharper turns? This course does have one virtue because the dog will have run 550 yards before it hits the first acute turn. On the reversal he will be starting right off into the acutes. The turn total here is better than what we have been looking at, about 600 degrees.

Plan #11 (Worse second runner-up). We are getting close to the end. Here is a course with eight turns, six of which are sharp acutes. The turn total is 860 degrees. Do I really need to say more about it?

Plan #12 (Worse first runner-up). This plan shows that 135 degree turns are not essential for a really wretched course plan. Here is a plan that has 21 legs in a total of 735 yards. The average length of a straight on this plan is 35 yards. It also has a turn total of 1440 degrees. There is nowhere on this plan that a dog would not be just going into or coming out of a turn. There is absolutely no place where speed could be judged fairly. Which dog passes another will depend simply on what position they have in the turns. In any turn the trailing dogs have an advantage over the leading dog, so a course with endless turns gives the slower dogs endless chances to cut corners and gain unfairly on the leader. This type of plan, with dogs zipping around that many corners, is an invitation to collisions and aggressive interference. It does not give a clean-running dog anywhere to run in order to outdistance an interfering dog.

Plan #13 (Worst). Here we have the champion! Only one of seven turns is not a sharp acute. With 900 degrees of total turn, each turn averages 130 degrees. When Bonnie Dalzell wrote she referred to bad course plans as being star-shaped, but she didn't send any sample plans that looked like this. This was contributed by someone else. It suddenly became clear to me why someone would call a bad course plan star-shaped. Can you picture dogs flying off these turns and having their stride broken, being put into oxygen debt, and possibly suffering a broken leg here and there? I can. You should be able to.

If people are drawing these course plans and inviting owners to run their dogs on them, it is time that ASFA did something to control course plans. Rabbits do not run 135 degree turns, and neither do dogs. Our dogs were genetically designed to fit the running style of their prey, whether that is wolves or bears. Lure coursing is only a valid substitute for live coursing if the lure behaves in a manner similar to the game it represents.

The course plans shown in this article bear no resemblance to a live course. Many of them are invitations to stress fractures. A lot of them reward slow dogs that turn well. Ask anyone that hunts with his dogs how much use he has for a slow dog that turns well. As one contributor said, "In order to score well on these plans you have to breed a dog that performs like a dressage horse instead of a racer." She is right. But, breeding for success on this type of course would change the sighthound breeds from dogs who were created through the testing of live coursing into something new and different. I would hate to see that happen. Lure coursing was not developed to change the breeding stock by testing their centuries- old coursing skills.

In order to design a new course that truly tests the dogs' coursing abilities, first you have to know which qualities you want the course to reveal, and then how to design a course that will accomplish that. The guidelines given and the course plans shown as good examples in part four of this series are a place to start.

Several of the contributors said that they thought that these tight, over-complicated courses were generally put on by clubs of the smaller and slower breeds because it made their dogs more competitive in Best in Field runs. Is that a reasonable aim to make one's own breed look better?

After judging at one out of town lure course, there was a great potluck and several hours of question and answers in a mini-seminar. That question was asked. "If slow breeds look good on a very tight course, why shouldn't the host club be able to set a course that favors their breed?"

The answer is very simple. If a club sets an open course with some nice, long straights and moderate turns, the slow dogs will not do too well in the scoring, but they will have fun running and they will not be hurt. When fast dogs run on a choppy course, they will not only be hurt in the scoring, but a certain percentage of them will be really hurt. They may be crippled for life. I would like to think that there is no person in lure coursing who is willing to risk crippling a fast dog just to let a slow one score higher than it otherwise would.

Folks who really think that their breed looks best on a choppy course should hold specialty trials for their breed only. When a club holds an all-breed trial, the course plan should be safe for all of the breeds to run. That means designing it with running requirements of all the breeds in mind.

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

(to next installment)

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