Dogsavers: Lure Coursing From You

PATRICIA GAIL BURNHAM

"How quickly a trial runs depends on the organization and determination of the host club members."

Thanks to the readers for all your comments on the lure coursing series. I especially enjoyed hearing from some of the founding members of ASFA, as well as both old timers and new fanciers.

Rose Bednarski: "What concerns me most about a course is the sharp turns, the amount of turns, obstacles on the course, and mostly the crossover lines. Having Afghans and Ibizans, there are the problems I find on a course. If the course is acceptable, then I expect the lure operator to do his/her job correctly. I think everyone should have the knowledge of the different breeds and run the lure correctly. They should practice at fun trials and practices. Anyway, I agree with you and the way the courses are lately. I've only been coursing dogs for four years, so I'm one of the newcomers.

One thing I've noticed is the amount of time it takes to hold a trial. I don't mean the planning, but the actual day. I don't know how it is done near you, but here in the Midwest a trial usually takes about eight hours!

The course is laid out during roll call (if that is on time), then about 45 minutes after roll call they finally have the test run, draw order and first course.

During the day there are dogs loose on the field (they either won't run the course or afterwards the owner can't catch their dogs). I love to course my dogs and watch others have fun, but by the Best in Field runs people and dogs are so tired, bored, grouchy, or just want to leave. What do you think?"

I think that some trials in this area take nearly that long to run. How quickly a trial runs depends on the organization and determination of the host club members. If they are holding the trial in their hometown and do not have any urgent reason to want to end it early, it can really drag on. In general, the exhibitors will have come from much greater distances than the club members. That means that each group will have different ideas of what is an acceptable finishing time.

There was a time when I regularly left work on Friday afternoon and drove 300 miles from Santa Barbara to the San Jose trial, attended two field trials, and drove home after Best in Field on Sunday evening. I was not alone. People who do that care far more about when a trial ends than host folks who can drive home and be cooking dinner in 30 minutes. What is the solution to trials that take all day, whether they are running 30 or 80 dogs? The best single solution is to have Don Papin be the paddock master. He can shorten up any lure trial by 40%. Any determined paddock master can do the same. What do they do? They nag people and keep things moving. They call out courses and make sure that the dogs of the next course are ready to run as soon as the current course comes off the field. If nothing is happening, they find out why and get things moving again. In a poorly run lure trial there is a tremendous amount of slack time: judges wait for all three dogs to get to the start line; clerks wait for judges' results to arrive; handlers wait until somebody tells them their course is next before they get their dogs blanketed; people turn up on the line with the wrong dog. A good paddock master eliminates that: "First course Salukis on the line. Second course Salukis blanket up. Where is the blue dog in the first course? The next breed is Afghans. Afghan judges to the field. Move people!"

Some course delays are built into the trial by the secretary who assigns the judges. Swapping judges back and forth on the field takes time. If you can schedule a judge for a block of breeds and then get him off the field, that saves time. I personally do not like to judge and run dogs at the same trial, but sometimes it cannot be avoided. If you have a judge who is running his own breed, try to have his breed run before you send him out to judge. Do not have him judge the breed immediately before and after his own. That way, the entire trial will not have to wait while he takes care of his dogs.

How good is your lure equipment? Do you have a backup? Actually, lure equipment is more reliable than it used to be, but breakdowns could be further avoided by simplifying the course plan. Each pulley adds drag. The sharper the turn the more drag it creates. Very complicated courses are invitations to equipment problems. They also cause rerunning of courses due to the lure being caught by the experienced dogs.

Do you have judges who take forever to figure out their scores? The best help you can give is, again, to simplify the course plan. Having dogs scrambling all over the course, and taking turns at cutting, makes scoring very complicated for the conscientious judge.

It is possible to run a well-organized lure course. At the 1986 International Invitational, it took from 8:00 a.m. until dark to run 140 dogs on Saturday. On Sunday, with the incentive of needing to get the judges to the airport, the course plan was simplified and the same numbers of dogs were run with a savings of several hours. In the old drag lure days, courses often ran until dark. The continuous loop was hailed as the solution to that problem. It would save stringing time and make the trials run faster. It can do that, but only if the time saved by not stringing the lure is not wasted in other areas.

If a club enjoys putting on leisurely lure courses (sort of the equivalent to benched shows) then it would be a good idea to not have all the breeds check in at the same time. It is quite possible. It used to be popular to list two different check in times: 8:00 for breeds A, B, C, D & E and 9:30 for the rest of the breeds. That way, you have enough dogs to run if you should start on time, and at least half the owners don't have to be standing around wondering about the delay in starting.

It also, in the old drag lure days, used to be considered common sense to first run the breeds that give a lure operator with a fading battery the most trouble. This is generally Whippets, Greyhounds, plus whatever breed is exceptionally fast in the area. I don't want to hear from fanciers protesting that their breeds are just as fast as any Whippet or Greyhound. Tell that to all the lure operators who have called a break in a trial to change to fresh batteries before these breeds. If they are run first, that delay can be avoided, at least until the finals.

Stacy Pober: "Things have finally calmed down enough that I can enjoy the puppies. I intended to send you course plans for that series, only moving, etc., made me forget. I agree with your judgment of the poor course designs. In New England, most of the clubs run their trials on postage stamp sized fields, and then try to squeeze in too much yardage. The best trials in the east are run by Am/Can Border Runners Association, simply because they use these tremendous fields on mountainsides. Because of the long straight stretches, follow is less important and endurance becomes much more of a factor.

"Have you noticed how almost all the lure operators are male? And how almost all the trial secretaries and field clerks are female? Maybe the dangerous course plans reflect a male sensibility, a macho attitude about risk?"

I would prefer to think that most lure operators are male because they like to tinker with bulky machinery and have a strength advantage when it comes to hauling all that equipment on and off the field. By the way, in the old days, not only did the participants get to string the lure, but it was considered very poor manners to leave the lure operator all by himself out there setting up and taking down the course. Is it that pulleys have become more complicated, or exhibitors less involved, that keeps them from helping out? Even if you have a possessive lure operator who does not want his pulleys touched, it is in the dogs' best interests to have some of the exhibitors walk the course plan before it is run. What do you do out there? Collect trash, which could cause a rerun. Look for holes, gopher holes, or open sprinkler heads that could injure a dog. Most clubs bring sandbags or plywood to cover hazards. But, in order to cover them, you first have to find them. Yes, the rules do require that the judges walk the course, but they only see a fairly narrow area when walking a course and cannot find everything.

Once, when judging a trial single-handedly, I was dismayed to find that the half of the course farthest from the start was littered with aluminum cans, which had been mowed by one of the big tractor mowers. Feeding a can to one of those mowers converts it into the equivalent of razor blades. I picked up as many as I could find on my walk of the course, and told the exhibitors what was out there, urging them to get together and pick up the field for the sake of their dogs' feet. The idea must have been too radical because nobody did it. I was astonished.

About having one club use nice big fields: it can have an interesting effect on the trial entries. In February there was a two trial weekend here. The Saturday trial was being put on by a relatively inexperienced club, using the same workers as the experienced club that was the host on Sunday. The field they used was the same. It was a nice, big field, but the courses set on it are often unnecessarily choppy. For the Sunday trial, the course plan was about what we usually see there, but the Saturday course plan was a lovely, simple one that used the space well. A newcomer, who had just moved to town, came to watch and commented on the large number of dogs entered. It was the largest entry I have seen in northern California in years, and I had to admit it was not the usual entry. Everyone I talked to said they had come out because the course plan would give their dogs a chance to really run and have fun. Quite a few of those people had only entered Saturday. If entries have fallen off in your area, you might try offering a simple course plan to entice the folks back who enjoy spending a day letting their dogs run but who do not think it is entertaining to have their dogs risk injury, learn how to cut, and "look like idiots," (from a Whippet fancier on the same field at a different trial). The result of the difference in course plans was that the new club got a much larger entry than the experienced one.

Bonnie Dalzell: "I wish to say HOORAY for your article on course plan designs! I hope that field chairs and lure operators take it to heart.

"I think that the (what I call) 'star shaped' course plans, which reward the slow dogs and teach the fast dogs to cut, arise from an attempt to lay out too long of a course on too small of a field, and to provide novel courses in small fields that are overused. The need for the novel courses is that the experienced dogs have become bored and tend to cut or anticipate the course plan.

"The best field our club has located so far is a polo field. It is large enough for an 800 to 1000-yard course, and I have not noticed experienced dogs becoming bored or cutting. Of course, we only use it two weekends a year. We alternate with a hillside site for the other two weekends. Courses with a long run-out before the nest of turns (the 'agility test,' as Gail says), brings out the best in a fast dog. We try to lay the course out into sections a long straight section for speed; a small, tight agility section placed in such a way that a dog who cuts will not get a positional advantage over the fast dog; and then another straight speed section. When I read your article, l was pleased to see that your description of an actual course corresponded to this general principle of course design.

"We hove found two things that seem to help prevent dogs from developing the habit of cutting. One is to use crossovers. When the lure comes up to what looks like a right angle turn in the string and then keeps going straight, the dogs learn to ignore what they can see of the string pattern. Secondly, a course that has, as a return, an approximation of its outgoing plan seems to be different enough to confuse the dog that is thinking of anticipating the course and cutting.

"We try to avoid turns tighter than 90 °.

"We find that we have trouble keeping the speed up on the lure on 800+ foot courses with more than 10 corner pulleys. We have a number of Greyhounds and Borzoi back here that are fast enough that we have trouble keeping the lure ahead of them on a 150 yard straightaway (or longer). Thus, despite the best efforts of the lure operator, these dogs will be on top of the lure at the corner. A good course plan will have the turn set up in such a way that the fast lead dog, going wide, will not get positional advantage to the slower dog just because of that first turn. I have seen so many runs where a dog who is just about as fast as the lure, going first into a sharp turn after a long straightaway, never regains the lead because of the position problem after going wide.

"I strongly urge you to send a version of this article not only to FAN, but also as a complaint directly to the ASFA board. It is my feeling that the owners of the small and slow breeds are most likely to design these star-shaped, sharp turn course plans. However, the breeds that suffer from them are the larger, fast ones.

"Sometimes I get so fed up with the subjective component of lure coursing that I don't feel like going out any more. What good does it do to breed a fast, athletic dog if the slow, stiff backed ones win because they don't go wide on the turns?

"Here in the east, <...> has been very influential in coursing, and a trademark of his many field trials is a complex, tight turned course laid out on too small of a field. Since he has been a dog judge for many years, he has influenced a large number of new judges, with his emphasis on follow and agility on such tight courses as being more important than speed. The result is that a fast dog has a hard time of it. This is sort of like selecting for a dressage horse instead of a flat racer. I have always felt that speed should be the most important criteria in sighthounds. If you don't catch it before it gets to its burrow, you are not going to catch it. If you just want to follow it, use a scent hound . . . "

I couldn't have said it better myself. I am more inclined to try to enlighten new fanciers than to complain to central organizations, but it may well be time to reinstate some restrictions on course plans. My choice would be: #1. No turns greater than 90 degrees. And #2. Each 90' turn to be followed by a straight that is a minimum of 100 yards long. These were ASFA rules for years. Even if the board never reinstates them, there is no reason why we cannot use them informally. A good rule is only a way to enforce common sense. There is nothing preventing us from using it on our own.

In a time of declining entries, the solution to making lure coursing more popular is to make it more fun, instead of a chore to be survived in earning a dog's title. For me, at least, how much fun a lure course is has a lot to do with the course plan. It is not worth a day's effort to watch dogs scrambling through the turns on a postage stamp field. Give me and the dogs nice weather, some shade in the afternoon, a simple course plan, a good lure operator, a clean field and clean-running competition, and it will be a worthwhile day. If we also get a club that hosts a home cooked lunch, a civilized restroom closer than five miles, and judges who can tell the dogs apart, and whose criteria are close enough to mine so that I can understand their scores, than that is a bonus.

Since John and Beth Anne Gordon were responsible for suggesting the lure coursing series, I would like to take this opportunity not only to thank them, but to run one of my favorite dog photos, which happens to be a family one of them, Shadow and Beauty. It arrived in a roll of film that I was supposed to choose an ad photo from, with the injunction that I could pick anything but this picture. Of course, it was my favorite. I later got permission to print it. Meanwhile, it has hung in my office to amuse lots of non-dog folks, and test their powers of observation. It was shot with a time delay camera, so there wasn't even a human photographer clicking the shutter at just the right moment. Sometimes you get lucky.

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

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