The Mental Component of Running Sports

I got very lucky with my first three coursing dogs. With Anubi, I built drive with a flirt pole but then he qualified to run with competition at his first Lure Coursing trial and we never looked back. Ash ran Singles beautifully for a year, I qualified him to run with competition, and he has been ever since. And he’s run with a pretty wide array of Salukis. With Ami I did a few practices, built drive, and then qualified her with Anubi. She ran with her housemate without a single glance at him and is a wonderfully consistent, talented courser. Ash and Ami both have taken a Best in Field, all of my dogs have been ranked nationally.

That’s were my luck (and naivete ended). Certifying the Azawakh in LGRA was no issue. I handed them to a friend, a person they’d met but didn’t know well, he boxed them, they certified. Ash certified with a young male Saluki. They both ran focused on the lure. But the next several races Ash absolutely struggled.

The starting boxes that we use most often are roughly Whippet sized. Bigger breeds fit, but not all bigger breeds fit. For instance, a large male Saluki doesn’t fit in the boxes. So when that boy was running we hand slipped (released the dogs at the start line) instead of boxing them. That meant Ash some days ran boxed and some days ran hand slipped. And one thing Ash struggles with is confidence when there’s no clear system for him to follow. Such was the case then. He would lope down the track rather lack luster. One time he stopped in the middle and turned around and went back to the person slipping him (who he didn’t really know). One time we tried me slipping him and he turned around and came back. After three full weekends (six meets) I was ready to say that racing just wasn’t his sport. And of course that’s when it finally seemed to click.

When I started racing Amalu she didn’t run cleanly. She couldn’t catch Anubi but she is close enough in speed to Amidi that she would run up be side her and turn her head and solicit play. Ami is sensitive to pressure from other dogs, even those of her housemates. So Ami would slow down, swing wide, and let Amalu pass her. Eventually it began effecting Ami’s enthusiasm for running. So we did a practice with Amalu in her e-collar, I tapped her at her typical working range when she turned her head toward Ami and she immediately faced front again and started running focused forward. After the lure stopped and Amalu started toward Ami, I tapped her in that same working range again and called her to me instead.

And that seemed to be the fix we needed. Though you can see that when Amalu gets tired, she wants to play, she has run very cleanly in racing ever since. Why take the time to do the training run? How could I use an e-collar on my dog? I get that it’s controversial, after all, it’s just a game. And it’s absolutely true. But here’s the thing, Amalu knows how to respond to it at low levels even when excited, so it was a context she understood. For some dogs it wouldn’t work like that, particularly if they aren’t used to low level e-collar. And to elaborate on why I took the time and effort to do the training run.

I could have just not run her. But she enjoys chasing the lure, she honestly does. She’ll run after it when there’s no other dogs. But she is a COVID puppy. She spent 14 months playing with only her housemates, no other dogs. I wasn’t good about making sure she had time to play and explore without the other dogs along, something I’d been very good about with my other dogs. With the change in circumstances, Amalu was raised very differently than my other dogs in some ways and that meant she has much much higher value in playing with her housemates than my other dogs do. So it’s taking time to build value in the lure.

Additionally, I could just not run her, but what does that mean for her long term? All of my other dogs enjoy running sports. Tabiri doesn’t mind sitting coursing out, but he quite enjoys straight racing. Amalu in contrast is young, she has lots of energy, she’s in good condition. It would hardly be fair to her to bring her along and then let her become increasingly frustrated. And it would be hardly fair to leave her home for a long day because ultimately Whitman, my husband, will be going back to his usual schedule soon so she’d just be bored home alone. This was the dilemma is struggled with and I was happy that she started to relax into the routine of running LGRA and Ami relaxed with her. Long term I had to consider what would be better for her mental well-being: frustration at being left out or using a framework she already knows to try to fix a problem.

I am still struggling with her and lure coursing. I’ll be honest. After my luck with Anubi, Ash, and Amidi I took it for granted that Amalu would course keenly and true. It never occurred to me that she would want to play with her housemates instead because none of my other dogs cared. I knew that is actually quite common for housemates to have trouble running cleanly together, but it was very easy to think: oh, not my dog.

So I tried certifying Amalu twice. Once with Anubi who she chased and he told her off (very very fairly) and she stopped running. Once with Ash who she chased and he told her off and both stopped running. Keep in mind, Amalu had practiced very successfully before. She’d run with Anubi before I tried certing her. I had no reason to expect that reaction and so I was shocked. I gave her another four months to let her mature and tried her again, this time with Ami (who I knew it would be hardest for her to run with because the girls are only ten months apart). She certified and ran in the trial the next day.

Amalu's best (and cleanest) run I've seen.

She had a number of clean runs following that with the occasional Singles run to help solidify her drive. Then after she’d coursed beautifully on Saturday the next day she got excused for coursing Ami instead of the lure. It was a mild back slide after a hot weekend. I figured that she was just tired. But from that point forward (after I was sure things had clicked) she struggled. Sometimes she’d run distracted but clean and I’d pull her from the second run. She was excused once more.

And then at an ASFA trial again after running cleanly the first run, in her second run she pulled completely off the lure and muzzled punched Ami to try to engage her in play. Ami stopped dead in her track (she’ll never tell Alu off, she’s just too conflict avoidant) and Alu stopped beside her. I called Ami in and let her get the bags with lots of praise and then collected Amalu. I was so frustrated – so frustrated since in LGRA she was still running cleanly. Thankfully, Ami ran another ASFA trial five days later and took Best of Breed and ran absolutely beautifully, I’d worried that she would be tentative. However, she’s been nervous running LGRA with Amalu ever since – she’ll pull up at the finish line even though Alu is running cleanly. We’re working through it and I’m start to see her old spark and excitement come back. And there are a lot more training and Singles runs for Amalu in coursing to try to help her remember her to play the game.

So what is the point of all of these stories? Firstly, they’re dogs. And dogs do dog things sometimes. And we do our best but once we let go of them, they are going to do what they are going to do. Ash got excused in Best in Field for coursing a dog that he’s run with three times previously. He’s won Best in Field before. He’s certified so many dogs I’ve lost track. Yet he ran alongside that dog trying to solicit play. And again. I was shook. And he’s been unfocused running with other dogs since. But to quote the Lion King, “Sometimes bad things happen…and there’s nothing we can do about it. So why worry?” I’m going to be honest, I’m terrible about dealing with unpleasant surprises so these past couple months have been very good for me to cultivate a healthier response to that (or so I keep telling myself).

Next point. There is so much more to these running sports for the dogs mentally that we usually credit. Just the thought of three dogs of different breeds running together in Best in Field is difficult to fathom when you think about it. When I first started lure coursing those people who had been out Open Field Coursing on jack rabbits repeatedly told me that dogs know lure coursing is a game. And they wouldn’t play those games with rabbits. And I believed them, I did. But that point didn’t quite get driven home until I took my own dogs out Open Field Coursing.

In lure coursing, the dogs actually do understand that in a given size field, ther