May 19, 2008

Cry Havoc!

And let slip the couch potatoes of war. Yeah, the Bard has nothing to fear from me.

Lure Coursing. When I first heard the name I had no idea. The proliferation of abbreviations that follow show dog's names is mostly Greek to me, and the ACK Greek is no exception. But dear Belle, the other blonde in my life, has earned my respect and a couple of letters to tack behind her name now.

This weekend. Texas. Hot and dry and big. Texas is damned big. A local rancher there loaned a group of AKC lure coursing people a sizeable pasture of theirs to use as a lure coursing grounds. Nice fences, privacy, and plenty of open grassy ground that went up and down a lot. Before I get too much farther, though, let me give you an idea of what lure coursing is all about, other than being yet another way to put your registered dog to work as a money siphon.

(I couldn't help it, the grass and flowers were just too pretty not to stick my dog in the midst.)

You start with a Ford starter motor, about 1000 yards of heavy nylon twine and a handful of pulleys mounted on long metal spikes so you can secure them at ground level. Mix in a few acres of land. Sprinkle liberally with a Huntmaster, a lure operator and some judges. When you've got that all stirred up you get an irregular, angular pattern in the grass in pulleys around which the nylon line runs, you've got three white plastic grocery store baggies tied to the line a few feet apart (the "bunny") and when you hook the starter to a battery and a switch and loop the line around the starter motor's shaft a few times you get a line that runs the pattern very very fast, hauling the bunnies around at breakneck speed.

Then you get a couple of dogs that like to chase things and you slip them. Hence the Shakespeare reference. *g*

The thing is, we didn't know if Belle would chase the bunny. We'd tried it a few times in the yard with a tennis ball in a white baggie, and she was rarely impressed. She'll chase the squirrels and cats, though, so we figured we had an even chance.

Now, I've never seen a lure coursing event. Never been near one, so this was all new to me. Honestly, I had a lot of misconceptions, too.

It all starts at one end of the lure line, with the Huntmaster and your dog and what's called a "slip collar." This is just a wide, soft collar that lets you hang on to your dog while she flails around desperately trying to tear the plastic guts out of the bunny and is arranged so that all you have to do is let go of two fingers and the collar slips away, leaving the dog free to run. The lure operator flips the switch, the lures go screaming off across the ground and a few moments later the Huntmaster says "Tally Ho!" and you slip your hound.

(That's the Huntmaster there, and Mrs. I preparing to slip Belle.)

Now, I thought that dogs would simply follow the lure, running full tilt until stopped, but there I was wrong. Most of the competing dogs I watched would get distracted, would run way wide in a sharp turn and simply never come back. They'd go here, they'd go there. And naturally, Borzoi are the world's best at this. Trained competition dogs with a will of their own, they're easily distracted from the lure by things like food, butterflies and the presence of trees, plants and other animals.

I watched a whole series of magnificent animals go roaming far and wide while distraught owner/handlers screamed and cajoled and pointed at the madly fleeing bunny. I shook in terror at the thought of my dog being compared to, say, a Basenji who decided that he wanted to head for the hills after turn 2. I was afraid she'd behave like most of her breedmates who simply refused to run, or wanted to run far away quickly when called for their return. What did happen was not expected.

The Huntmaster said "Tally Ho." The lure operator send the bunnies whizzing away. Belle's ears perked up, Mrs. I slipped her, and Belle took off like she'd been fired from a howitzer. She ran. My stars and garters did she run.

My sweet hound, who prefers sleeping to all other activities, my out-of-shape two year old pup ran like her very life depended on catching that plastic bag. She ran over 700 yards that Saturday morning in the bright Texas sunlight and my heart leaped and ran with her, struggling against the cage of my ribs. She was incredible to watch, a clockwork thing of flesh and bone and muscle doing what it was designed to do better than anything else in the world: run.

When the bunny whipped back to the starting point and stopped Belle was right behind it. When it stopped she spun around and tore one of the bags from the line, ripping it to shreds, then popped her head back up as if to say "Make it go again! I wanna go! I wanna RUN!"

The Huntmaster sauntered over, patted Belle and handed Mrs. I a green rosette ribbon signifying her first of two lure course tests passed. She'd run clean, with good focus and speed, and "completed with enthusiasm." Sunday was even better. For her second test run she spent the entire time alert, yelping and struggling to get out to the bunny long before it was her turn. She wanted that bunny with a vengeance! When it was her turn there was no question she was going to run, it was simply a matter of how well. Honestly, it was even better. The course was a little shorter but this time she seemed to expect the sudden changes of direction as the line whipped around the pulleys. She tracked with her eyes and her body followed, her muscles pouring out their all in a beautiful symphony of movement.

The Huntmaster, after the course was complete and Belle secured, complimented her on a beautiful run and complimented Mrs. I on an excellent handling job. Belle took it in stride, which is to say 'wading in the stock pond cooling off and having a drink.'

Now that she's successfully completed her two tests, to make sure she is physically able and willing to run cleanly she's now allowed to compete against other dogs. A regular lure coursing would pit three hounds of the same breed against each other, and they are judged not on who gets across the finish line first but on a number of things, such as how well they run, how accurately they judge changes of direction, how cleanly they perform (not crashing into each other) and with how much enthusiasm they finish. Points are awarded and eventually a champion is crowned.

Belle, however, isn't worried about all that.

Us? We get to put a pair of letters behind her AKC registered name now: Aria Svora Cascabel, JC. "Junior Courser." I couldn't be more proud.

For more on lure coursing or to get some clarity from my muddled descriptions and to see the silly pastel coloured blankets they have to wear in competitions with other dogs you can visit the AKC lure coursing site.

H'okay, pictures are up on Flickr!


Nancy Dancehall said...

How wonderful! She must be beautiful to see in action. I love the photo of he leaping through the grass. You MUST be a proud papa!

meno said...

That is a beautiful animal.

I'll leave it up to you to figure out which animal.

Gordo said...

Wow. You can see the power in her in that shot of her flying down the field. I love watching dogs do stuff like this. Especially when it's obvious to all concerned that they enjoy it, too.

Batgirl said...

Those are incredible shots of your K-9. Sounds like you all had a blast.

Scott from Oregon said...

She looks fast...

It's that pointy speed nose thing...

Mona Buonanotte said...

Congratulations! Didn't know you were raising a champion, huh?

Clowncar said...

I like that the Huntmaster really says "Tally Ho!" And that he's called the Huntmaster. It's all so very English, eh?

I love that first shot of her running, front paws up, body arced. What a beauty!

Irrelephant said...

Nancy, I am, quite proud. To watch her, and then to watch two and three run at the same Now I see what people see in dog racing.

meno, I'm going to withhold comment on the grounds that it'll probably land me in the doghouse if I say anything about my bitches.

That's the key, Gordo. She was having a BLAST! It took quite a bit of cajoling to get her back off the field (but no work whatsoever to get her into the pond, oddly enough.)

Thank you, BG! I'm learning, slowly but surely. It's great to see you back in the blogosphere!

It's the same principle as the sharp-fast nose on the 1971 Plymouth Roadrunners, Scott. Pointy = fast.

Thank you, Mona! You know, I had very vague, ill-formed hopes but now that she's blossoming it's so fun!

CC, that tickled the hell out of me too! We did all our reading but thought surely no-one was going to actually say "Tally Ho" and such, but oh yes. It does have a very English feel to it, and I'm certain it's roots are way back there somewhere, only probably with live bunnies and much meaner dogs. *lol*

Thank you for the compliments! I'm so proud of her, and how far she's come in such a short time.