Origins of the dog races: coursing

Narrated from: Dog Sports

Everybody has heard of the famous greyhound races held on special tracks. You know the drill - an electric rabbit starts “running” and pop go the hounds, merrily chasing after the toy while hundreds of spectators cheer them on and wave their betting tickets around.

What you may not know are the origins of dog racing. Greyhound races are actually a modernized version of a traditional British hunting sport – coursing.

History of coursing

Coursing used to be not so much a sport, but a kind of hunting. The basic idea was to watch your hunting dog pursue game – and the ownership of a hunting dog implied that this sport was practiced exclusively by nobles. The chase usually took place on an open, grassy field, and the dog had to rely on sight, not sound. Hounds were the favored hunting dogs of course, and more specifically the sleek breeds belonging to the “sighthound” group - these are hounds bred for speed, mobility and good vision.

It is hard to say how old coursing is, but some people date it back to Ancient Greece. In the old days, the prey was not only chased, but killed as well. Hares were popular prey for coursing dogs, but coyotes, deer, gazelles, antelopes, rabbits and other species have been used in different countries.

Often, more than one dog was released on the field, thus adding a strong competitive factor.

Controversy and animal cruelty

Coursing has sparked controversy for centuries.

Back in 1516, the famous philosopher Thomas More criticized it in his Utopia, claiming that “all this exercise of hunting is a thing unworthy to be used of free men”. Strong movements for the prohibition of coursing started in the UK and in the USA at the end of the 19th century. However, it took more than a hundred years to limit the use of living rabbits.

The debates have always been fierce, as many of the animals used in 20th century coursing were generally viewed as pests. In the USA for instance, coyotes were the main victims of the blood sport, while in many other countries hares were a pest for every farmer – and needed to be exterminated.

However, the problem with coursing is that the animals usually die in a terrible way. For instance, for many years a form of coursing in which the hounds were muzzled was practiced in the UK. Many fewer hares died in this way – however, those that did die often perished in a horrendous fashion with broken bones and severe injuries. Also, many hares actually died because of “significant stress” – being attacked by an animal ten times larger than you is something to stress about!

In 2005, coursing was finally banned in Britain. For a long time Northern Ireland was the last UK region to allow the sport, but in 2011, after many years of campaigning by the League against Cruel Sports, hare coursing was banned in Northern Ireland as well.

To a large degree, this is due to the fact that the hare used in coursing is an endangered species on the islands. Still, the sport is still widely practiced in Ireland, with the main sporting event in Clonmel, County Tipperary, annually attracting a crowd of up to 10 000 spectators.

Also, coyote coursing is still legal in many parts of the USA, and different forms of coursing are practiced in Portugal, Pakistan, etc.

The compromise: modernized forms of coursing!

Blood sports have no place in a humane society. However, it is also unfair to take away from all hound-owners and lovers the feeling of pride and exhilaration as they watch an agile canine demonstrating its prowess on the field.

So, new sports had to be invented. The bloodless forms of coursing are perhaps the best answer to the controversy surrounding coursing.

We have already mentioned greyhound racing. They are the modernized, mass form of coursing, allowing hundreds of spectators to feel the thrill of the chase. And of course, the rabbit never gets caught!

For those who want to feel the joy of the hunter, there is “lure coursing”, in which a mobile lure resembling a running rabbit is used instead of an actual living animal.

Of course, to enjoy lure coursing one has to be the proud owner of an eager hound!

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