In our ongoing series about working animals, we've covered the dogs from Detroit Metro Airport and the Ann Arbor Police Department, therapy dogs (Alpine and Belle), and a dog involved in charity fundraising. In a bit of a change, in this edition we're going to be covering the "work" done by sighthounds— dog breeds that hunt by using their speed and sharp eyesight.
When we talk about a "working" animal, we mean an animal doing what it was bred to do. In the case of the sighthounds discussed in the following Q&A, working means running after a lure, which simulates chasing live game, which is what these dogs were bred to do and they love doing it.
Many thanks to Bradley Nelson for answering our questions!
What breeds of dog are used?
For AKC coursing, all AKC recognized sight hounds plus Rhodesian Ridgebacks can run, and now this year they have introduced CAT (Coursing Ability Test). Any AKC breed can do this. The breeds eligible for ASFA (American Sighthound Field Association) coursing are Afghan Hound, Azawakh, Basenji, Borzoi, Cirneco dell'Etna, Greyhound, Ibizan Hound, Irish Wolfhound, Italian Greyhound, Pharaoh Hound, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Saluki, Scottish Deerhound, Sloughi, and Whippet.
Is one sex preferred over the other?
No, but females in season are not allowed to run.
How do you find or recruit dogs for your program, i.e., where do they come from?
It is a field event and people who want to put field titles on their dogs run them. Just like people who want to put show titles on their dogs show them. My dog Balor is both a show and a field champion. He has one show title and two field titles.
Are the dogs temperament tested before allowing them to proceed to the training phase?
Dogs must prove that they can run safely with other dogs before they are allowed to compete. They must pass a test run with an already-qualified dog.
Do you buy trained adult dogs or young dogs that you train (please describe training)?
There is not a lot of training. Chasing things that run is hard wired in sighthounds— it should be, anyway. There are a few things that you can do to encourage your dogs to run. Something called a lunge whip is used for puppies. A lunge whip is a toy that consists of a whip with a plastic bag tied on the end. White plastic bags are used for lures in the actual trial, too. Coursing is meant to simulate the running down and capturing of live game.
Are you required to re-certify your dogs? If yes, how often?
Only if they get disqualified for bad behavior. If that happens, they must re-qualify.
How do you stay abreast of new dangers or changes in their environment and how does that translate to new and different training?
All sorts of thing can happen and you have to play it by ear. Sometimes if a dog gets run into, they will become afraid of running with others. Running them alone for a bit may cure this. Owners know their dog best and what works for them, though. There are no set answers. Asking for advice from others that are more experienced is the best thing to do if problems arise.
What medical conditions, injuries, or on-the-job hazards do these dogs develop or encounter?
Despite the great speeds attained and collisions that occur, injuries are less common than you might think. Scuffed pad, broken claws, broken toes are the most common injuries. More serious injuries like broken legs do happen but only very rarely.
For this strenuous activity, what do you feed your dogs? Do they get any special treats?
Raw diet is getting more popular all the time. Mine get raw chicken necks in the morning. I look for a high protein content premium kibble for my guys. I am also concerned about disorders like bloat so I mix in a baked kibble and can food, though I don’t want to advertise any particular brand here.
Where do the dogs stay when they aren't working?
In my back yard with access to my garage to get out of the elements. They come inside the house with me in the evening.
Do the dogs have different handlers or do they only course with one, specific person?
Owners handle their own dogs if they are physically able.
How often does a dog work?
It’s a seasonal sport. Spring and fall are busiest.
How do you determine if a dog is successful and do you track "success statistics"?
There is a scoring system that the two organizations (AKC & ASFA) adhere to. Once they reach a certain number of points and victories, they are awarded a title.
What is a dog's length of service?
That varies a lot. As long as they can still run safely.
What happens to them when it is time to retire?
They sleep on the couch a lot.
Are there any funny stories can you share with us about your working dog?
Lots of funny things can happen once dogs learn the game and start “cheating” Some dogs will just run out to the center of the field and take stabs at the lure when it comes near and then sprint into the end of the course for a big finish. I once saw a borzoi find the line that the lure travels on and just lie down with her mouth open like an alligator and wait for the lure to come to her.
Are there volunteer opportunities or events people can take advantage of who want to get involved with these particular types of working animals?
Sure, just come to a trial and ask to help out. We will put you to work doing something.
For competitive working animals, as opposed to those who have a working vocation, are there beginner or novice events?
We do sometimes hold practices after the trial is over or we have even scheduled full day practices.
What websites or other resources exist for people who want more information?
What else would you like readers to know?
We do this for the dogs. They love it.