With photographs by Mary C. Huff
All dogs have prey drive. The instinct to chase is hardwired into their DNA. From the smallest Chihuahua to the largest Mastiff, chasing moving objects is a game, a sport and, for many, a passion. Without this prey drive, wild canids would never have survived.
This instinct is a gift that has been passed down to our domestic canines for centuries. It is likely that one of the reasons our early ancestors wanted to domesticate the dog was observing the efficiency with which the wild dog could chase and dispatch his quarry. Harnessing that proficiency to benefit our own species was certainly one of the contributing factors in our survival.
In its earliest inception, coursing was more than a pastime; it was a vital means to fill the stewpot, and once humans began using the dog to hunt, we also began selecting those animals with the physical and mental attributes to achieve greater success. We know that dogs of Greyhound form were depicted on the carvings and murals of ancient Egypt in the Valley of the Kings dating back to at least 1400 B.C. The ancient Greeks such as Virgil and Ovid were writing about the coursing of hares by Greyhounds as early as 400 B.C.
Centuries later humankind became more agrarian, yet our passion for the hunt and the sustenance it provided persisted. The dog with a high prey drive was still highly valued, and the Sighthound evolved as well into a gentleman’s sporting companion. The most powerful and efficient hunter continued to be prized throughout the world.
Although dogs became specialized and purposefully bred for many different disciplines (fur and feather, guarding and herding, vermin killing, household companions), coursing contests became major events. While all dogs retained their genetic propensity to chase, the Sighthounds excelled at it, and continued to be selectively bred as they had been for ages.
Open field coursing was a sport that evolved as a contest to compare the ability of these “longdogs” to chase and turn live game. It was a gentleman’s sport in England, and only the landed gentry was legally allowed to own Greyhounds. The sport was focused more on the hunt and the chase, and less on the kill, as the hare sometimes escaped, being familiar with his own terrain. But it was still considered a blood sport, and as the 20th Century progressed, other forms of canine contests were invented to satisfy our insatiable desire to compete, to enjoy bragging rights, and to honor the history and athletic ability of these specialized hounds. Dog shows became a way to compare breeding stock, but the Victorians still sought to preserve the athletic qualities of the native Sighthounds. At the same time in other parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, the hunting hounds had never stopped doing what they were bred for.
In the late 1960s, Lyle and Phydelma Gillette of the famed Rancho Gabriel Borzois, Whippet fancier Betty Blalock, and several others in Northern California sought a way to encourage the preservation of the ancient instinct of the coursing Sighthound. Open field coursing was pretty active in California, but they wanted a way to run their dogs in a more controlled environment so that the participants could enjoy the contest without having to ride horseback for miles or kill the quarry. Thus the sport of lure coursing was invented. Lure machines had been around for decades, both hand crank and motorized, for use in Greyhound and Whippet racing, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine them being used in a large field for coursing.
What started out as an amateur pastime for like-minded friends and their hounds evolved into a sport that is now enjoyed by many, and it has spawned many other events that encourage our dogs’ specialized talents. In addition, it is just plain fun!
The American Sighthound Field Association (ASFA) was the outgrowth of these gatherings, drawing on the experience of those Sighthound pioneers, and establishing rules to safely regulate the sport. It went from a local means to exercise their hounds to a nationwide organization promoting the beauty, grace and speed of the gazehound in both breed and mixed competition, and this enthusiasm has never waned.
Watching these animals in full pursuit of the plastic lure is not only breathtaking and thrilling, but also educational and enlightening for people wishing to understand Sighthounds and the logic behind the wording of their standards, and how form truly does follow function.
For almost 20 years the AKC watched the development of the sport with interest. The early ’90s signaled a time when the growth of conformation dog shows began to slow. The AKC was examining ways to introduce new people to the world of purebred dogs and encourage more canine activities. The success of ASFA did not go unnoticed, and in 1991 the American Kennel Club began sponsoring its own version of lure-coursing tests and trials under its umbrella. Agility and Earthdog trials were added in 1994, all of which enlarged the mission of the AKC, and expanded participation in canine sports.
As I’ve mentioned, lure coursing, or Sighthound field trials, are a means by which our dogs can be tested in a controlled, safe and humane environment. Trials require a large open field, a continuous-loop lure machine, numerous pulleys that are set in the ground to configure the course plan, and lots of plastic bags!
But most important is having an experienced committee to safely conduct the trial.
The field chairperson secures the location and sets the course design, which can range from at least 600 to sometimes more than 1000 yards. The field trial secretary takes the entries. The inspection committee checks each dog at roll call for lameness, bitches in season, and breed disqualifications. All Open Whippets must be measured. Once the entered dogs are all inspected and deemed fit to run, the field clerk does the random draw for each breed in the categories of Open, Field Champion and Veteran stakes. Then the huntmaster calls the dogs to the paddock in the posted order. It is the huntmaster’s job to make certain that the order is correct and the dogs are wearing the proper colored blanket (yellow, pink or blue, as per the draw) at the starting line.
Then there is the judge, who stands in the field in a location where he or she can observe the entire course and score the dogs. But arguably the most important member of the field committee is the lure operator, whose job is to run the lure safely and keep it ahead of the dogs (often not easy), but not so far ahead that the dogs become unsighted. It is the most difficult job of the trial and very tricky when there are three dogs often running at different speeds and sometimes cutting corners and changing places.
The dogs run in trios or braces depending on the entry, and sometimes alone in a small entry. With the dogs lined up at the start, the huntmaster calls out, “Handlers ready?” Then “Judge ready?” Then “Lure operator ready?” Then again, “Handlers ready?” When all the answers are in the affirmative, the huntmaster signals the lure operator and yells, “Tally ho!” and the dogs are slipped.
Dogs are judged and scored by the following criteria:
Speed: How fast is the dog, especially on the straightaways? Does he pass his competitors?
Agility: How agile is he at making the turns and using his body?
Endurance: Does the hound slow down or “wear out” before the finish?
Enthusiasm: Does he run the entire course with vitality and gusto?
Follow: Does the hound follow the path of the lure? Many hounds try to second-guess the path of the lure, cut corners, and get “creative” in their running.
All dogs run at least twice, with scores for both the preliminary and the final, which are added together. If there are ties, runoffs are called, then the winner of each stake (Open, Field Ch and Veteran) in each breed will run for Best of Breed, and then most clubs offer a mixed breed final for Best in Field. So some dogs run four or five times in a trial. At any point the handler has the option to forfeit his hound if he feels the dog has had enough. One should never run an exhausted hound, as that is when most injuries occur.
So that’s lure coursing in a nutshell. I have left out some details, and ASFA and AKC trials have a few differences. Championships are awarded in both disciplines, but are calculated differently. The ASFA FCh is a suffix title added to the end of the dog’s name, while the AKC FC is an official AKC prefix title.
The bottom line is, it is generally a very safe sport if the lure operator is competent and the owner is conscientious enough to run only a well-conditioned, fit and healthy hound. The sport is exciting, thrilling and fun for both people and dogs.
As the years progressed, and AKC lure coursing caught on with the fancy, it was observed that many breeds other than Sighthounds enjoyed chasing the artificial lure. Terrier races and Dachshund races became popular, as did fun runs at fairs and other informal gatherings. Many Sighthound fanciers who owned other breeds would bring them to practices to test their interest and drive. So why not open up the sport to all breeds?
And so, a few years ago the AKC developed the Coursing Ability Test (CAT) and the Fast Coursing Ability Test (FastCAT). These events are open to all AKC registered dogs, FSS dogs, foreign dogs with acceptable registrations, dogs with PAL numbers and Canine Partners. The events are pass/fail, and each dog runs alone. The dogs are still inspected prior to running, but only to determine that they are fit to run – not obese or infirm, not lame, and, in the case of bitches, not in season.
The CAT course is shorter than a field-trial course, with fewer turns to accommodate dogs of all shapes and sizes. Larger dogs run a 600-yard course and are given two minutes to complete it; dogs under 12 inches at the withers and brachycephalic breeds run a 300-yard course with 1½ minutes to complete the shorter course. To pass they must complete their run without interruption or owner intervention, and with enthusiasm.
FastCAT is a straight 100-yard dash open to all dogs as described above. Each dog runs alone, and it is timed. There are size handicaps to make it fairer. While 100 yards is a great distance to test the speed of most dogs, it is often too short for the faster Sighthounds. If a Sighthound does compete in FastCAT, the runout distance should always be the recommended 50 yards and not the 30-yard minimum, since a 30-yard stopping distance is far too short for a really fast dog.
All these events and tests are competitive and very enjoyable for owners and dogs alike. They allow the dogs to demonstrate those instincts that most still possess. I know that some people turn their nose up at dog sports such as these, but, really, what’s more fun than watching a dog owner extolling his best friend’s innate instinct and reveling in the thrill of the chase?
And what is more glorious than watching a Sighthound fulfilling his genetic destiny in a sport that simulates his ancient past? Centuries of history have made him what he is today as he runs with grace, beauty and powerful abandon, answering the call of his ancestors, and celebrating his reason for being.