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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, there’s only so many ways a mechanical bunny can dart, so they start anticipating. They start cutting corners (called “cheating” by many). It is very common for a dog to start off as a courser with excellent follow and then have their follow start to deteriorate the more they course. To my knowledge it is the only sport where the dogs get “worse” at it over time. It’s also interesting because the scoring system punishes them for using their brain.

In Open Field Coursing, my dogs would never try pulling the same cutting and cheating stunts they pull with plastic bags. That means the rabbit goes to ground in a hurry and the chase is done. Incidentally, Amalu also doesn’t care about who she runs with when she’s running after a rabbit.

And so, yes, dogs know they’re playing a game with Lure Coursing. It’s a fun game. It stimulates their instincts. And it simulates their original purpose of coursing game, but it is an imperfect simulation.

Even though I knew better, it was easy for me to think of running sports as drivey, mindless chasing. But it’s just not. If a dog cuts badly enough, they can pull even keen dogs off the lure – those dogs curious about what the other dog is up to. You’ll see savvy dogs adapt to the weather conditions and terrain. They won’t run the same course in 95 degree weather that they would in heavy rain.

And yes, even the keenest dog might give up with they’ve injured themselves or if the lure is too far away. I was convinced by dogs would run no matter what, even when injured. They’ve since shown me they’re smarter than I give them credit. Once on a continuous loop which has more likelihood of dogs getting caught in the line since they run along the line the entire length, Anubi jumped a spot in the course where the lines crossed, but the line jumped and cut him across the hock. The second he landed I knew something was wrong. He took about three awkward strides and pulled to a stop. I had never seen him stop for anything before and I absolutely ran to him understanding in that split second something was wrong though the Huntmaster told me I should encourage him to keep running. Similarly, one day at LGRA, Ash pulled something in his hock. He pulled up and turned back. Something I had sworn would never happen. But boy, I was s proud of him for recognizing it wouldn’t be good survival instinct to keep running. Those were the only two times my dogs have been injured running (beyond pad injuries which can happen whether your dogs are coursing or running in a field) but my dogs showed me that they would in fact stop for a good reason.

Similarly, I have seen both Ash and Ami slow to a lope when the lure was so far out ahead of them they knew they couldn’t possibly catch them (ideally your lure operator makes sure this doesn’t happen, but if they’re running with a dog much faster than them, it can be tricky). In both cases their muscle memory carried them the rest of the way, but they didn’t expend energy when they knew they couldn’t win. It’s why with your green dogs it’s so important for the lure to stay close enough to them they feel they could actually get it and that they should be able to get to the bags at the end of a run. Dogs can get discouraged. They have to feel like they have a chance to win. It’s also why running a very fast dog with a slower one can be discouraging to the slower one, which is something keep in mind.

Last but not least, let’s talk about the various forms of pressure in running sports. The big ones are spatial and social pressure. Anubi’s second time running Fast CAT he ran with a club that ran the lure right through the fence. He chased the lure right through the fence, snapping one of the fence supports. He was incredibly lucky not to be injured in any way, but he has never run with that type of unseeing drive ever since. One instance, one negative experience and you can absolutely ruin a green dog. Once again, I got lucky. Anubi still loves to play the game. But he’s careful now.

When the next year I ran with the same club, they had an odd Fast CAT setup. Instead of temporary fencing down one side they had one side fenced and the other side was a natural barrier, but they were using timing lights that had to be set at a fix width, which was narrower than the corridor. So to get the dogs to run between the finish lights at the end, they put up a line of cones to narrow the channel towards the end and funnel the dog toward to finish lights. Well Anubi got to those cones and saw a barrier, especially after he’d gone through the fencing the year before, and he stopped and turned around. The club put up a visual barrier which slowed the dogs. I heard it proponed that if your dog was keen, they shouldn’t have a problem with the setup. But I saw experienced dogs time and again pull up that day.

Racing has both spatial pressure and social pressure. The spatial pressure mostly factors in with the box break. Firstly the box can be incredibly intimidating to many dogs. It is both similar and very different to a crate. Then the dogs break out at high speeds in close proximity to each other. The confident, extremely driven dogs might break straight out with no deviations in their path, but most green dogs are going to pull away from that proximity a little, making them slower. Or they’ll purposefully break slower so the other dogs can be out of their way. I would say I see less sensitivity to that close proximity in breeds that have been bred for racing for generations like Whippets and Greyhounds, but regardless, boxing is a definite learning curve.

The social pressure in racing comes in a couple different forms. In racing you need one person at the end to catch the dog and one at the beginning to box/slip the dog. For some dogs you could have complete strangers boxing and catching and it wouldn’t matter. I ran my friend’s Portuguese Podengos all this weekend and my husband, who only knew them in passing, had absolutely no problem boxing him. The Azawakh on the other hand? Getting boxed by a stranger is a huge deal. Yes, this strange person is going to put you in a small, dark box. That was the hardest part of racing for Anubi. He hated getting handed off. Oh, he tolerated it, but he wasn’t amused.

With Amalu and Tabiri, I’ve been lucky enough that Whitman was there their first couple races so he could box them. And with Amalu we’ve transitioned to anyone being able to box her. But it took some time to build up to that point. In general I think racing has been incredible for helping my Azawakh be able to tolerate social pressure and building their confidence. When I first handed Anu off he would pull to the end of his leash trying to get away. Now, he trots along with whoever I had him too and bays his head off trying to get to the lure. Same with COVID puppy Amalu. At her first running event (she was nine months old) she was terrified but now she walks off easily with whoever I had her to. We’re not yet to that point with Tabiri, but I do think we’ll get threre. You see, the dogs who love to run will tolerate the strange people as long as they are rewarded with running. I know I’m so far from alone in seeing dogs gain a huge amount of confidence in the racing environment.

The other type of social pressure is dogs passing others. It is hard for dogs when a dog comes blasting up from behind to pass them. That can startle them, get them to pull up. Or the dog that’s passing pulls up alongside another dog and isn’t quite confident enough to pass cleanly. This weekend I saw a lot of green dogs run side by side staring at each other, unsure of how to proceed. It maybe doesn’t seem like it to us, but that can be tough on the dogs. It can also look a whole lot like a foul to the inexperienced eye. A dog comes up alongside a dog and looks at the other to check out what’s happening – no movement toward the other dog, just looking. Then the other dog gets a bit nervous and slows down. The dog starting to pass did nothing wrong, the other dog just lacks confidence to put on the speed and yields to the other dog. It’s frustrating to the owner, but if you really think about the social interaction happening there, it makes some sense.

Ash was the slowest (and least confident) Saluki running in the region for quite awhile. He was always being passed or just trailing the other dogs. So the first time he had the opportunity to pass a dog, he had absolutely no idea what to do. He looked and looked and slowed down and just didn’t know what to do. It’s taken him probably a solid three meets where he had the opportunity to pass for him to learn to not worry about the other dog and to focus on the lure.

This whole dynamic is why I am entirely in favor of people calling to and encouraging their dogs. There is this whole unnecessary conflict in running sports. It’s common to see the opinion: if you’re just recalling your dog, you shouldn’t be playing the sport. Here’s the thing, if your dog is having fun, why does it matter? If a dog is running to their human faster than another dog is running to the lure I still find that impressive in regard to speed. It speaking to a potential lack of prey drive (awesome pack drive) but that still tells you things about the dog, their structure, and their drive (or lack of prey drive).

Additionally, calling and encouraging your dog can be very helpful to green dogs who are new to running with competition. A dog start to pass your dog and your dog hesitates, call to them and encourage them. It can help them understand there’s nothing to be concerned about and to focus forward again. A dog starts to eye another dog thinking about playing, call to them to encourage them to face forward. Encouraging your dog during a race can help them build good habits so you don’t have to call them in the future once they know the game. There’s nothing wrong with that, you’re helping them succeed. I’m calling Ami at the moment to hep her remember that no one is going to mess with her and that she can power through the finish line. Once her confidence is back, I’ll fade that out.

The last thing to note about the mental component of running sports is knowing when to scratch your dog. Today Amalu chose not to get out of her crate. And I scratched her. She’d skinned one of her dew claws the day before and while she wasn’t lame (I wouldn’t have run her if she was) she was a little bit tender. But she chose when to be done. There have been times when Ami and Ash didn’t want to get out of their crates. And I scratched them. When Amalu gets overly tired, that when she tends to try to play instead of chase the lure. When she is in false pregnancy, she wants to play more than course the lure too. Chasing her housemates is easier and so it’s the route she takes. It’s not malicious, but it is proving to be borne of hormones and fatigue. So I won’t run her in false pregnancy again. I’ve learned that lesson. I can run Ami no problem. Amalu, not so much.

These sports have to be about the dogs having fun and enjoying themselves. They just have to for the dogs physical and mental well-being. There is not a dog that I have scratched. Whether it is for environmental, physical health, mental health causes or something else entirely, our dogs happiness and success relies on us advocating for them in that way. And some times we make mistakes and run our dogs when we shouldn’t have, but we need to learn and do better by them.

Because these sports are so rewarding for our dogs. But there’s more mentally at play than it first appears and it will serve both us and our dogs to remember that.

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Karen Comer
Karen Comer
15 jun 2021

Thank you for this post. I am sorting through how to reinstall confidence in Skate. After 2 incidents of another dog acting aggressively toward him during a trial, he appears to be unsure about running with others. Never a very confident dog, I think some of his "cheating" was and is due to figuring out how to cut the field to get to the lure while avoiding contact with the other dogs. I think this stems from growing up with a very confident and possessive terrier. When playing with toys in the yard, if the terrier wants it, he gets it. So Skate learned that if another dog wants the "toy" he will back off. Last year he enjoyed coursing…

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