Although I’ve watched dogs in different performance events over the past few decades, I’ve personally never tried agility or obedience or any other event with my dogs. My mother actually started out in obedience. She earned CD titles on the first two Cairns she had, but fairly quickly was drawn into the conformation world. I’ve never attempted with my dogs any of what I think of as the more fun opportunities available under the AKC umbrella. I’ve been strictly a conformation participant.
But over the past half-dozen years, my breeding stock aged and my personal canine family steadily got smaller as my old buddies passed on. I’m not certain I’ll ever breed another litter. And although an adorable Norwich named Punkin joined my 13- and 9-year-old Toy Poodle girls last year as our newest family member, I know that my days of being very active in conformation are probably behind me. Still, I’ll always have a dog or two. They’re such a big part of my life, and there’s so much going on in dogs today other than conformation. So Punkin and I recently made our first foray into a new activity.
I’ve been thinking about doing earthdog with Punkin, a natural choice, of course, for a Terrier, but a month or so ago I accidentally stumbled on a notice that there would be a Coursing Ability Test not too far from me. The CAT is one of several new titles AKC has made available, approved in March of 2011. In this event, breeds other than sighthounds, which traditionally have been the only ones eligible to earn a lure-coursing title, can now compete for CA (Coursing Ability) titles. More than 1,000 CAs have already been awarded.
A friend of mine tried her Spaniels in a practice session for coursing several months ago and told me how much fun it was, so initially I just planned to go to Flintrock Farm, about a two-hour drive northwest of Raleigh, to see what breeds would run the courses and how much everyone was enjoying it. Only later did it occur to me that Punkin might have fun chasing the white bag herself.
Pre-entries closed Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. prior to the event on Friday, and to enter the two trials that would take place on the one day the total fee was $40, $25 for the first entry and $15 for the second. To enter on the day of the event would be $25, and those entries had to be completed at the site one-half hour before roll call, scheduled for 9 a.m. Test Secretary Brenda Adams, who is also the vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Hound Association, the host club, couldn’t have been more helpful or welcoming when I contacted her with a couple of questions about making my entry.
Here are a few basic points about the CAT:
• The test is pass/fail
• Dogs run one at a time
• Participants must be 12 months of age or older, and all AKC-registered, FSS, PAL or AKC Canine Partner dogs are eligible to enter
• No bitches in season may compete
• Dogs under 12 inches at the withers and/or “flat-faced” dogs run a 300-yard course, while dogs over 12 inches at the withers run a 600-yard course.
• AKC regulations say that “Since many of the dogs running will not be as agile as a sighthound, this must be a consideration in the design of the course.”
So the day after Thanksgiving I arrived bright and early at Flintrock Farm, a beautiful horse property in Reidsville, N.C. Dozens of people and dogs were already milling about on a hilltop overlooking acres of undulating pasture, with a beautiful wood stretched across the distant horizon.
It was fun to see the variety of breeds already gathered, including several Parson Russell Terriers, a Bull Terrier, two Bedlingtons, several of the Border Collie variety, a Springer, two Dalmatians, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, two Samoyeds, a Lab, two Pembroke Welsh Corgis, a Belgian Tervuren, two Standard Poodles, a Golden Retriever, two Dachshunds, numerous mixed-breed dogs and what looked like a Norbottenspetts. There were even two Berger Picards ready to compete. I’ve often found that my dogs are drawn to others that look like themselves, and sure enough, Punkin spotted a Norfolk fairly quickly, and later in the day found the other Norwich that came to run.
The first order of business is roll call, which indeed commenced just after 9 a.m. The test secretary and another official examine each entrant individually for any lameness and fitness to complete, which essentially means that they ask each owner to walk his or her dog away perhaps 10 or 12 feet and then back. Dogs on the smaller side are measured to see whether they fit in the under- or over-12-inch tall category. A white tissue is swiped on each female participant to determine if any are in season.
Here are two points about the CAT that I find interesting. In an official AKC lure-coursing trial Hounds with disqualifications, as listed in the AKC breed standards, are ineligible to enter. Not so with dogs that enter the CAT. Breed standard disqualifications don’t matter, and dogs that are spayed or neutered can also compete. This all makes sense, of course, since the whole point of approving the CAT was to get more people involved in AKC events.
As soon as roll call was finished, the trial got started. The test secretary is responsible for fixing the order in which the dogs will run, although at this test they were flexible enough so that, if someone wasn’t present at the line when his turn was called, they just allowed another dog to run. It was clear that the intent for the day was for everyone to relax and have fun with their dogs. The paddock master calls each dog as its turn on the course comes up.
Two judges sit or stand where they can see the entire field. At the top of a tall ladder is the official lure operator, and standing at the spot on the course where each dog will be released is the huntmaster. She (in our case) is “in complete charge” of all dogs and handlers on the field, according to AKC regulations. The huntmaster makes sure the handler has the slip lead, if used, in the proper position on the dog, then asks the judges, lure operator and handler if each is ready, before giving a hand signal to the lure operator to start the lure. At the same time she shouts, “Tallyho!” as a signal to release the dog.
A slip lead is specially designed to release itself from the dog’s neck with one quick tug. Any lead that serves the purpose adequately is allowed in the CAT, and in the case of my own dog, because she’s so small, the huntmaster simply let me hold onto her until she signaled for the run to begin.
At this test the course was laid out in a kind of lopsided figure eight, with one loop (the 300-yard course) half the size of the other loop (the 600-yard course). The string that the lure is attached to runs is one continuous line tracing the entire figure eight, so it made sense to start in the center, run a big dog on the long course, then, with the lure back at the center, run a small dog on the short course, and then continue with a big dog, then a small dog, then another big dog, and so on.
The huntmaster would, if necessary, determine if a dog was released too early, which is called a pre-slip. If a dog fails to complete the course, the huntmaster will tell the handler when to retrieve the dog. It is the huntmaster who really runs the show down on the field.
The job of the lure operator requires him to pay careful attention at all times. He sets the lure before each run, and starts it at the signal from the huntmaster. During the run, he is to keep the lure 10 to 30 yards in front of the dog at all times. Of course, he also stops it at the end of the course, at least 20 yards from the lure machine or the final pulley, which marks the end of each course. No doubt the potential for dogs to become entangled in the string is greater during a trial where packs of Hounds run together, but in any case the lure operator must be prepared to stop the lure if any potentially dangerous situation arises.
It is the judges, of course, who determine whether a dog’s run is a pass or fail. The first consideration is that the dog must “complete the course with enthusiasm and without interruption.” Then each dog must complete the course within a maximum amount of time, one-and-a-half minutes for the short course, and two minutes for the long course. AKC notes that “the maximum time is not meant to be difficult to achieve. It is meant to prevent a dog that ‘walks’ the course from passing.”
The post-Thanksgiving CAT included about 40 entries, according to test secretary Adams, who said that the last CAT hosted by MAHA was bigger, approximately 60 dogs. Although there were three or four dogs that “peeled off” the course before they finished – including my Norwich! – from my perspective every one of the dogs chased the lure with at least some degree of enthusiasm.
Punkin’s turn came about two-thirds of the way through. For the first hour I held her up in my arms most of the time, as I wanted her to be able to see the dogs chasing. I’ll be honest to say that I think my dog was decidedly more “relaxed” during the entire experience than any other dogs there. She showed mild interest once or twice when the lure went by near us, and she thought it was kind of interesting the first two or three times she saw a dog take off like a shot, but after that, not so much. Quite a few of the dogs were over-the-top intense, barking and carrying on, while the other dogs ran, doing everything in their power to break away from their owners every time they spotted the lure out on the field and generally just making it clear that they were dying to get out there and get that bunny! OK, that white plastic bag.
Several of the owners told me that this was the first time their dogs had ever tried the CAT, and a few said that they had been to practice sessions beforehand. But most of the participants were dogs that had done this numerous times, and many had legs toward their titles. My Punkin seemed to be the only one that didn’t immediately take off after the lure when it started. But once she did, she gamely chased it, until about halfway around the course when she looked away from the lure, across the field, and promptly forgot all about the chase and ran to me.
As I mentioned, several other dogs peeled off the course halfway through, including one of the Bedlingtons and a Siberian. But even those dogs seemed to be having so much fun!
Several owners told me that their dogs were also conformation show dogs. The Norfolk Terrier’s owner has been showing dogs for many years, and has finished many champions, but she’s started doing more of the performance events with her dogs because she feels that’s what they really enjoy. In fact, she came all the way from New Jersey to hopefully complete her little guy’s title that day, a goal I believe they accomplished handily. When I wondered which of the AKC disciplines most of the CAT entrants typically come from, Adams said, “I think it is a good mixture of conformation, agility, obedience and some earth dogs.”
One of the things that surprised me most, although in retrospect I know it shouldn’t have, was how much the Toy dogs clearly enjoyed their runs. At least four Chinese Cresteds completed runs that were as good or better than those of the big dogs, and a perfectly pristine little white Toy Poodle in a handsome pet trim belied his sophisticated appearance when he raced from the starting line at breakneck speed and didn’t stop until he had properly dispatched his prey.
Adams, who has bred Greyhounds, Whippets and Italian Greyhounds and now just breeds IGs, said that in the past she coursed her Greyhounds and Whippets, but “So far, I have not had an IG that would course, but am still trying!” Still, I didn’t see any evidence of hesitation from the smaller dogs that day, that’s for sure.
Mid-Atlantic Hound, which has been in existence for more than 30 years, has members who have both sight- and scenthounds. I wondered what convinced them to go to the extra trouble to put on a CAT event in addition to their lure-coursing trials. “Since we were already holding coursing events for the sighthounds and had the expertise for coursing events, we decided that it would be great to now be able to offer the coursing ability test to our members with scenthounds, and to any other breed of dog that would like to participate,” says Adams.
There was just one scary episode that day at Flintrock Farm. The Siberian that peeled off the course first stopped chasing the lure and kind of ran toward the center of the oval. He didn’t seem in a hurry to go anyplace. Then, all of a sudden, he began to run away from his owner, who was of course calling him, and away from the people watching. The crowd’s sudden realization was palpable, and I had that sinking feeling you get when you realize a dog has taken off and is not responding to his owner.
The huntmaster and the owner went after the dog, and when he disappeared into the woods in the distance, the lure operator and several other people made the long trek to help find him. After perhaps half an hour, the group emerged from the woods, and soon the dog and owner followed. But it was a frightening incident.
“Most dogs will not run away at CATs,” Adams says. “However, we have had two that could not be easily caught and would not come to their owners. That is why I would prefer to have a field that is fenced.” Facilities that are appropriate and available for coursing can be few and far between, however, and finding one that is fully fenced in a manner that would keep dogs in often isn’t possible. Flintrock Farm, for instance, has perfectly adequate fencing for horses, but there’s no assurance that a dog wouldn’t go through that fencing. “Usually if they are keen on the lure,” says Adams, “we can pop it several times and keep the dog’s interest until it can be retrieved.” But there’s no doubt that knowing in advance what your dog will and won’t do is the best insurance. “Owners really need to have a dog that will come to them when it is off lead, since many locations for coursing are not fenced for dogs,” she says.
I had a great morning at the CAT event, and will certainly give it another try with my dogs. I even got a few pointers on how to “train” a dog to want to get the lure, and look forward to seeing if Punkin and I can earn a CA title. I think almost any dog would really enjoy the thrill of the chase.