Hundreds and hundreds of dogs that aren’t sighthounds, qualified for conformation rings or even of single-breed heritage have competed in American Kennel Club coursing ability tests since February 2011.

A Chinese Crested goes airborne during its AKC coursing ability test. Photo by KC’s Snaps.

Bob Mason, an AKC field representative in Oklahoma City, might well be called the father of coursing ability. A lure-coursing enthusiast since the mid-1970s, Mason has traveled all over the country attending and assisting at trials since it became an AKC performance event in 1991. As he attended lure-coursing events, he started hearing from people with AKC-disqualified sighthounds that they wanted to course their dogs too. That was the “seed,” he says, that started the coursing ability program.

Those comments led Mason to contact all-breed clubs across the country to see if they would consider hosting trials for non-sighthounds. His efforts turned into a program for all kinds of dogs, including those enrolled in the registry’s Canine Partners program. “Our first events were down in Georgia,” Mason says. “When the people saw how much fun the dogs were having and how much fun they were having, it just blossomed.”

A Bernese Mountain Dog races for the lure, which is made of white plastic, at an AKC coursing ability test. Photo by Gaines Photography/Courtesy AKC.

Dogs chase white plastic strips – kind of like a plastic grocery bag – secured to a nylon string that runs along the ground, propelled by an electric or mechanical motor. A lure operator, perched on a ladder, controls the speed of the string with a remote control, keeping the lure 5 to 30 yards ahead of the dog, depending on its size.

In 2011, Australian Shepherds, Boxers, Bulldogs, Doberman Pinschers, a Parson Russell Terrier, a Dogue de Bordeaux and many other purebred dogs, plus 37 mixed breeds, got their first titles, Coursing Ability (CA). Twenty-five breeds went on to get their Coursing Ability Advanced (CAA) titles. One particularly enthusiastic dog ran 25 tests in 2011; another ran 10.

Of all those, it was the Bulldogs that most surprised Mason, despite the fact that smaller and brachycephalic breeds run a 300-yard course. “What really surprised me was how many Bulldogs were good at this,” he says. One coursed in 27 seconds, he says, another in 23 seconds. “I had to check my watch to make sure it was running correctly. Now, they can’t run a long distance, but they’re very, very quick.” He also says Terriers really love it, and Dachshunds “look like little porpoises out there.” Other breeds and larger mixed breeds chase the lure for about 600 yards.

All breeds, and even mixed-breed dogs, are welcome at coursing ability tests. Photo by KC’s Snaps.

To ensure the safety of dogs not necessarily designed to chase rabbits, the CA courses have no angles sharper than 90 degrees. In fact, the AKC regulations say, “Safety is of utmost importance. Many of the dogs running the Coursing Ability Test will not possess the agility of a sighthound, and this must be a consideration in the design of a course.”

One concern of newcomers, Mason reports, is that their dogs won’t return to them after completing the course, or won’t stay on the course, instead running off elsewhere. That’s not a problem, he says. “Once in a while, they want to run it again instead of being retrieved by their owners.” On the other hand, he says, retrieving dogs after coursing can be a problem with sighthounds, the original lure coursers.

To see a video of a coursing ability test, visit the AKC website.

Some dogs act like they were born to course, even though they’re not of the sighthound persuasion. Photo courtesy of Bob Mason.

Even non-sighthounds, Mason says, have no trouble grasping the lure-chasing concept. “It’s embedded in their DNA somewhere, and this just awakens it, I guess you could say. They must like it. They’re chasing plastic garbage bags. Anything that moves quickly across the ground like that, it’s just instinct that they try to catch it.”

According to the AKC, the purpose of coursing ability tests is “to provide all dogs and their owners an enjoyable, healthy activity in which they can participate.”

Unlike regular lure coursing, each dog courses alone. According to the rules and regulations, the dog must complete the course “with enthusiasm and without interruption within a maximum amount of time.” Dogs coursing 300 yards have one and one-half minutes to return to the start line. The 600-yard course has a two-minute limit. However, the test is pass-fail, and not based on speed of completion.

The program has grown by leaps and bounds since that first event in Georgia.

“Last Monday I was in Spokane, and in Milwaukee this past weekend” at the Midwest Coursing Club of Wisconsin, Mason says. “I went up for regular lure coursing, and they had added the coursing ability test.” The club ran one on Saturday and one on Sunday with 47 and 43 entries, respectively. “That’s how popular it’s really getting to be,” he says. In March in Prairie, Ga., a four-day conformation show with about 2,000 dogs a day saw 780 dogs take the coursing ability test. “People out there in their show clothes were cheering the dogs on,” he says. That’s one of the reasons the event has caught on, he believes. People are standing around talking after they show their dogs, find out the coursing is going on and decide to go watch. Most tests have a “regular gallery” of audience members, he says.

Mason says he, himself, never gets tired of watching.

Catching the lure is not normally part of a coursing abilty test, but this Golden Retriever seems to be enjoying it just the same. Photo by KC’s Snaps.

“When I first started in lure coursing, it was just an enjoyable thing to watch the dogs run. It has never gone away for me. I really enjoy it. The people that come out and turn their dog loose, they don’t know what to expect. This one woman, she had a Whippet. She brought her dog out there. She had never seen a Whippet in full run before. She went, ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh. I did not know he could do this. We must do this again.’”

Mason says that what really surprises him is how much people enjoy it. “They come out not knowing what to expect,” he says. “Then their dog takes off. It’s just another event that they can participate in with their dogs. They’re really having fun with their dogs. That’s basically it.”

Lure coursing has traditionally been the sport of sighthounds. The American Sighthound Field Association allows Afghan Hounds, Azawakh, Basenji, Borzoi, Cirneco dell’Etna, Greyhounds, Ibizan Hounds, Irish Wolfhounds, Italian Greyhounds, Pharaoh Hounds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Saluki, Scottish Deerhounds, Sloughi and Whippets to test. The American Kennel Club also includes Foundation Stock Service breeds for suffix titles only, including Norrbottenspets, Portuguese Podengos Medio and Grande, and Thai Ridgebacks, and, as of Sept. 1, 2012, Peruvian Inca Orchids and Portuguese Podengos Pequeno.

Lure coursing began in the United States in the 1970s, according to ASFA, as a “safer, more controlled sport for sighthounds that would recreate the physical requirements of open field coursing, allowing them to continue testing the functional abilities of their sighthounds.” Prior to that time, sighthound owners let their dogs hunt jack rabbits in open fields, risking “harm caused by barbed-wire fencing.”

In standard lure-coursing trials, dogs run in groups of three, each wearing a lightweight vest, called a “blanket,” in bright yellow, pink or blue to distinguish it from the other dogs on the course.

Even big Working breeds can enjoy running full speed under American Kennel Club coursing regulations. Photo by KC’s Snaps.

In ASFA trials, each dog runs the course twice, a preliminary run and a final run. The scores from the two runs are added together. Dogs receive placements and points based on how they performed in their two runs and the number of dogs in each run. They receive points for how well they follow the lure, up to 15; their enthusiasm, up to 15; agility, 25; speed, 25; and endurance, 20. The top dogs then run for Best of Breed, and the breed winners compete for Best of Field.

ASFA dogs earn titles such as Field Champion (FCH) and Lure Courser of Merit (LCM), which is numbered. The highest current LCM is a 20. ASFA also offers veteran titles.

Dogs competing in AKC trials earn Junior Courser, Senior Courser, Master Courser, Field Champion and numbered Lure Courser Excellent (I, II, V, etc.) titles.

Asked if he has any advice for people who might want to try the AKC coursing ability test, Mason responds, “Just come out and have fun with the dogs. Any dog can run,” he says. “You might be surprised how well your dog runs.”