Sports prospects at the shelter

This blog arises, like so many things in life, out of a conversation on Facebook.

A shelter volunteer posted pictures and video of a dog who showed great enthusiasm for sports activities.  He tugged, fetched, and was very engaged with the handler.  The volunteer asked for feedback on whether he was a good sports prospect and whether the shelter should promote him as one.  Since he is a high drive dog and can be a bit reactive, the shelter quite rightly wanted to find a home that would immediately feel invested in and appreciative of this dog’s strengths, to increase the chances of him finding a suitable home and staying in it.  I was very impressed with the shelter for doing this homework!

Unfortunately, the dog’s structure was not so hot.  He had some fairly serious issues:  Very straight angulation, a very short upper arm, probably some weakness through the loin.  A dog with structure like this is simply at greater risk for injury while doing high impact sports, jumping, weaving, etc.  Casual sports involvement with a skilled handler, as long as he is well conditioned, should not present too much of a risk.  But if he were promoted as a sports prospect, he would likely find himself in a home with someone expecting to do a lot of sports: Catching discs, jumping, doing agility contacts or weaves, doing repetitive jumping and box turns in flyball, etc.  With his structure, he was a lot more likely to sustain a serious elbow or knee injury that would sideline him and maybe end his career.  Then the owner would have:

  • A frustrated dog who could not engage in the high energy activities he loves.
  • Large to massive vet bills.  A TPLO (knee surgery) by a board-certified orthopedist in my area is $3000-$4000, and you rarely do just one — usually, the other knee follows at some point.
  • Less space in the house for a better-suited sports partner.  Some people really can’t get another dog because of family, legal, or landlord constraints, so if their sports partner is unable to participate, that’s it for the human, too.

Assessing a dog’s suitability for performance needs to happen before the dog is placed as a performance prospect.  This is no different from expecting a breeder, rescue or shelter to assess whether an individual dog is a good fit for a house with children, other dogs, or cats.  Some dogs are going to be a good risk  in these situations; some are not.  Making a smart placement choice up front will hugely increase the chance of the adoption sticking, and is also so much fairer to both the dog and the human.  A dog asked to do sports even if he finds it painful is as unhappy as a dog asked to live with toddlers even though he finds them scary.

On the thread that prompted this blog, quite a few commenters related stories of how their imperfectly structured dogs were sports stars.  This is great, but it’s irrelevant.  The question is not whether it can work.  The question is whether a responsible shelter goes out and advertises a dog for a specific purpose when the dog has a high risk of not being able to fulfill that purpose.

Others commented that any dog can rupture a knee.  I know this.  My own beautifully structured dog is currently recovering from her second TPLO.  But if we know the risk is actually higher, doesn’t it make more sense to steer that dog into a lower-impact home?  Many obedience competitors actually appreciate a dog with strong tug and toy drive; maybe this dog could become an obedience or rally star.  (He was a pit bull, and I love the image of him kicking butt in the obedience ring!)

Still other commenters mentioned they didn’t see anything wrong with the dog’s structure.  The dog didn’t appear to be actually broken — he wasn’t gimping around on a lame leg (yet).  But anyone who could not see the multiple red flags in this dog’s structure in the pictures and video provided simply does not know what he’s looking at.  And not everyone needs to be an expert in structure.  That’s OK.  When we go to a shelter to adopt a pet, we rely on the shelter (or breeder, or rescue) to have superior knowledge about the dog: About what the dog can do, is good at, is not good at.  The shelter has had access to the dog for days, weeks, or longer.  The shelter should have employees who have more experience realistically assessing dogs than most adopters do.  We expect doctors, HVAC repair persons, and car salesmen to know more about, respectively, medicine, furnace repair, and the new model year specs, than we do.  It makes more sense to well-educate the “seller” than every one of the buyers, and buyers should be able to rely reasonably on the accuracy of the claims made by sellers.  That includes shelters.

My experience has shaped my perspective.  I spent ten years volunteering with a breed-specific rescue and I’ve worked with shelters.  I’ve also counseled thousands of dog owners who were having behavioral trouble with their dogs.  A common theme among my clients is that the dog is unable to do, or be, what the owner wanted the dog to do, or be.  Some people are able to adjust gracefully; others fight it; others stop fighting it but stay resentful or frustrated.  Some lucky people are in a position to adopt another dog with better planning so that they can carry on with their goals. But for many people, this is not an option.  

I parted ways with the rescue I spent 10 years with after I saw them place a dog with terrible knees. I told them: “She’s a lovely dog, but she has terrible knees and is a sitting duck for a cruciate rupture. Please don’t promote her as an agility prospect.” They then placed her as an agility prospect and one week later, she ruptured. The owner never got to do agility, spent the next several years trying to rehab the dog, who ended up pretty reactive partly because she was frustrated and in pain. The owner had a one-dog limit in her renter’s agreement.  Now, it’s easy to say that “a good owner can work around that.” But the fact is most owners simply don’t know how. They don’t get how much it costs and they don’t have much access to great rehab. Hell, my sports vet just died rather unexpectedly and *I* am feeling kind of lost. And they don’t know how to prevent the behavioral fallout as happened with this dog.

I worked with another owner who brought his dog to my Control Unleashed class.   The man had retired, and he’d been waiting eagerly for retirement so he could buy an dog to do agility with. He’d bought out half the inventory at Clean Run, and was amazingly well equipped with bait bags, clickers, good books, tug toys, and so on even before he came to class.  He’d picked a breed known for athleticism and gone to a breeder, explaining his desire to do agility in his retirement.  He was sold a pretty puppy and she grew up fearful.  I’ve seen a lot of dogs from this breeder and many of them are, in fact, fearful.  The man didn’t do a whole lot wrong.  The dog was scared of other dogs running around.  She’d spook and become reactive, or shut down.  She was OK at home, but had trouble out and about, and most especially in sports environments with a high level of activity and arousal.  I suggested she was not a great fit for him, but he said his wife would allow him to have only one dog, and so she was that dog.  He worked really hard with her, put her on medication, and tried and tried to get her competing.  I don’t know that she ever earned a single Q.  So much for that nice, dedicated owner’s retirement!  Just write if off because the breeder was either unable to assess her own puppy or didn’t care.  (Based on other experience with the breeder, I suspect the latter.)

Another scenario I see often is an adopter looking for a buddy to walk with. “Walking with my beloved companion” is a very attractive and common vision dog acquirers have when they get their pup or adult.  If the dog turns out to have problems (usually behavioral) that make walking it into a chore or worse, these owners tend to get very frustrated, perhaps resentful or depressed.  If a buyer or adopter shows up indicating she’s looking for a walking buddy, it behooves the rescue, shelter or breeder to find out more about where they will be walking.  If it’s a breed that may not be cut out for long walks physically (e.g. many Pekingese), the purveyor should tell the adopter this.  Should refuse to sell to or place with this person.  If the dog is showing behavioral traits that are likely to make walks hard (significant reactivity toward other dogs, extreme loss of focus when outside, fearfulness of new things or people, etc.), then this dog is not a good candidate.  Yes, maybe with work, they can get there.  But the owner does not want to work; she wants to walk.  Place a hard-to-walk dog with her and she will be unhappy; the dog will be unhappy; the owner will go somewhere else for her next dog; she will badmouth the person who placed the dog with her.

There are no guarantees.  People make mistakes.  Mismatches happen.  Freaky accidents happen.  None of this justifies just not trying.  The fact that you or I could make it work does not mean someone else could.  And it does not mean someone else should have to.  Why on earth not let this person start with the odds stacked in her favor rather than against her?  That’s really all I’m getting at.

One of my “someday” projects will be producing some material to help shelters and rescues identify performance prospects (and avoid common pitfalls such as thinking a dog with extremely high energy must automatically be cut out for sports), so that appropriate placements can be made.  For now, this blog expresses some of my thoughts about the process.