After three decades sharing my life with Bernese Mountain Dogs, I had developed clear expectations about the breed. Each energetic puppy would turn into a less energetic young adult, who would gradually become an adult couch potato who loved everyone.
These biddable dogs would do their best for me in the obedience ring and gladly partner with me in Rally because they’d get lots of treats. Most wouldn’t mind pulling a cart because they are hardwired for it. They’d also love therapy work because they are Berners.
Then my husband and I got Tara, who upended all expectations created by our previous Berners.
Biddable? She was intensely stubborn and independent. She had an un-Bernerlike indifference toward most people. Above all, she had a powerful urge to chase animals. None of our previous Berners had any interest in animals that didn’t come fully processed in a bag, box, or wrapper, so we were utterly unprepared for an 85-pound dog who went into a frenzy at the sight of a squirrel or rabbit.
Clearly, we weren’t going to rid our mighty huntress of her urges, so we decided to try an event I’d never dreamed of doing with our other mountain dogs — lure coursing.
This sport taps into dogs’ natural hunting drive. No live animals are harmed; the rabbit substitute is usually a white plastic bag, propelled on a line anchored close to the ground and driven by an engine at high speed.
An Uncommon CAT
A few forms of this activity are open to all breeds; the first to be established was the Coursing Ability Test — CAT for short. The CAT has a 600-yard course full of turns, angles, and crossovers. Passing depends on whether the dog stays with the lure for the total distance.
When I learned that our local all-breed club was offering AKC-sanctioned CAT, I sent in our entries. On the first day, we watched each entrant from outside the fenced-off course. Some dogs followed and stuck to the lure like glue, others chased until they grew bored and sought their own diversions. A few showed no interest at all.
While other dogs ran, Tara looked through the chain link and grew noticeably excited every time the lure came close enough to see. There was hope.
When our turn finally came, I followed the judge’s directions and brought Tara to the starting spot. The bags sat there, limp and motionless, some distance ahead. I wondered if Tara would really chase them.
I had little time to ponder this, though, because within seconds, the judge asked if we were ready. After nodding yes, she shouted, “Tally ho!” and I released Tara’s collar.
Tara took off after the bags, running with a speed and focus I had never seen from her before. I watched in amazement as she followed the lure around turns and corners. When she finished, I called her in, headed for the exit gate, and heard the judge say “Congratulations, you qualified.” With those words, my doubt gave way to elation—my dog could do this!
Tara’s successful first run was followed by a second that afternoon, and a third the next day. With these three runs, she fulfilled the requirements to earn an AKC Coursing Ability title, rare for a Bernese Mountain Dog.
Trying Something New
Following this unexpected success, we decided that since Tara clearly had some aptitude at this, why not go after more titles?
That lead us to Fast CAT, the only other AKC lure coursing event open to all breeds. A Fast CAT course is a simple 100-yard, straight sprint after the lure. Each dog’s run is timed, with points awarded based on speed. Our first foray into this newer sport was not auspicious—Tara ran halfway up the course and then doubled back. But she quickly figured out that Mom was waiting at the end of the course and soon was excelling in this canine version of the 100- yard dash.
At these trials, we also learned that Tara was not quite the outlier we had thought. Breeds found at these trials range from massive Leonbergers to tiny Pomeranians, so different in size and type, but all sharing a centuries-old instinct to chase prey.
This drive spurred Tara on to speeds of 22 mph—not fast by Greyhound standards, but darn fast for a Berner. Gradually, she racked up enough points to earn several titles.
We loved coursing with Tara and learned some important lessons. Don’t be afraid to try something new, listen to your dog, and, above all, never box them in based on assumptions. We all start out with hopes and expectations for our dogs, but ultimately, they will let us know what they really want to do.
Wendy Hess, of Akron, Ohio, has been involved with purebred dogs—Great Danes, Bichons Frises, and Bernese Mountain Dogs—since 1972. She has participated in conformation, obedience, rally, drafting, agility, pet-assisted therapy, and, most recently, scent work.