A hierarchy of needs

My clients are good dog owners.  Their older dog is delightful: Healthy, happy, friendly and easy going.  The dogs get walks every day, play in the house and in the yard, attention and affection, clear rules clearly enforced, a good diet, and good vet care.  But the younger dog is not so happy.  He’s inclined to charge the front door aggressively, reacts with agitation and barking to dogs he sees on walks, and has lunged and nipped at people who approached to greet him.  My clients note that while he seems excited to go for a walk, his tail is tucked for most of the walk and he has never, not once since they adopted him over a year ago, urinated while out on a walk.  When he gets home, he rushes into the backyard to relieve himself.  But, they have worked hard to socialize him by taking him out, hanging out at cafes, and taking him to dog parks (until he got too aggressive there).  What’s going on?

Those who have studied psychology will have bumped into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

Now, I have never formally studied psychology, so I’m simplifying here and trying to avoid a level of detail I am not really qualified to discuss!

Maslow proposed that all people have universal needs, and that these needs must be met for an individual to grow and develop and eventually reach a state he called “self-actualization.” (If that phrase sounds familiar, this is where it came from.)  The hierarchy is represented in pyramid form, with the most basic needs at the bottom.  Here is Wikipedia’s graphic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs#/media/File:MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg):

First and most basic needs are physiological: Food, water, shelter.  If these needs are not met, the person is forced to disregard the “higher” needs to make sure these basic physiological needs are met.  Next: Safety.  If the person has enough food and water, then safety is next; avoiding steep cliffs, angry mobs, and saber-tooth cats all rise in importance. For modern humans, financial security and some kind of safety net against dire happenings are parts of this level.  A sense of love and social belonging is next.  This is a real human need, but a person cannot afford to attend to it unless safe and fed.  Above this are esteem — the need to be esteemed and respected both by self and others.  At the very top, self-actualization is the need to fulfill one’s potential.  A lot of people never have a chance to make this journey because their lives are consumed with meeting basic needs such as food, safety, or some degree of financial security.

The Maslow hierarchy is widely accepted and used as a model of understanding people and helping them improve their lives.

What I’ve noticed is that we can apply a similar concept to dogs, and a lot of the problems my clients have with their dogs is that they are focusing on the higher levels without taking care of more fundamental needs.  Now, it would probably be a strain to try to wedge dog needs and experiences into the human-termed Maslow hierarchy, but it’s pretty easy to see similarities, especially at the base the pyramid.

That’s one way of looking at what’s gone wrong with my clients’ dog.  They have done a great job of meeting many of his needs.  He has food, water, shelter, security in his living situation, and good physical health.  They love him, he receives affection and play, and he has a good dog friend as well.  But what he does not have is a basic sense of physical safety.

The tucked tail is familiar — it tells us he is afraid on those walks.  The inability to eliminate on walks tells the same story; he’s just too vulnerable out there to stop and let down his guard while he pees or poops.  The increasing pattern through adolescence of defensive aggression suggests he has not been able to escape intrusion on his space by dogs or people.  While no one is out there beating him with a 2×4 or holding a gun to his head in exchange for his wallet… he feels about that scared when he is out and about.

His people had the information in front of them, but they know themselves to be good dog owners, and they also believe they have been doing the right thing by getting him out and socializing him.  This belief has obscured clear vision.  Once we identified what is actually happening, they could see it.  This (really charming) dog is now feeling better with greatly reduced walks and some basic training in coping skills.

I see this a lot: The dog is super well taken care of, but is scared.  And failure to meet this one primal need, for basic physical safety, is blocking everything else.  The owner says “he knows how to sit! He knows watch me! But he won’t do it when there’s another dog across the street!”  That’s because a socially cooperative activity like following a command is always going to take second place to trying to ensure monsters don’t kill you and eat you.  (Yes, we know intellectually that the chihuahua behind the fence is not actually going to kill and eat our fearful 80 lb Shepherd mix, but our Shepherd mix may still feel that way.)  Until we meet that need for a feeling of safety, there will be no easy response to obedience cues.

This brings us to one of the major flaws of some of the popular “dog psychology” dogmas.  The most damaging is this:  “If my dog recognizes me as pack leader, everything else will fall into place.  He won’t disobey or misbehave, because he knows I’m in charge.”  Listen — a wolf attacked by a bear, or a human, is going to fight, regardless of whether he is or is not an alpha, or lives in a pack with an alpha wolf, or respects that alpha wolf or is in constant conflict with that alpha wolf.  Social structure is not going to prevent him from engaging a direct external threat to his bodily safety.  Likewise, no matter how much your dog respects and trusts you, if someone is hitting him with a baseball bat, he’s probably going to fight back at some point.  And from your dog’s point of view, if he is afraid of men in parkas, he’s going to try to threaten men in parkas to make them go away because that’s a simply more fundamental need, in that moment, than obeying you, his questionable “pack leader.”

And here’s another situation where a hierarchy of needs can get us into trouble.  Food!  The need for food is even more basic than the need for safety.  Thus, a dog will put herself into danger to get food.  If she’s starving, she’s going to try breaking into a yard with a nasty yard dog patrolling to see if she can steal some of its food.  But since dogs are scavengers, they act as if they are always pretty desperately hungry, and that means even a happily plump dog will creep up to a scary stranger for an offered treat.  The imperative to obtain food overcomes the requirement to stay out of reach of those scary hands.  This is why I never want a scared dog offered treats by strangers; the dog will probably take the treats, but it will still be scared, and if the slightest little thing goes wrong, the dog is now close enough to bite.  (Slightest little thing could be the person talking or standing up, or worse, reaching for the pup’s head to pet “because now we’re friends.”)  It’s much easier to understand how this happens so often if we refer to a hierarchy of needs.

One final example of how disregarding this type of hierarchy gets us in trouble.  It’s this:  “Fluffy is very scared in the shelter, but all she needs is some love and she will blossom.”  I will leave it to readers to work out the flaw.

In the past, I’ve seen a proposed hierarchy of needs for dogs.  I can’t find it right now.  It would take some study to validate one for dogs.  But, the Maslow hierarchy can still provide some insight into knotty behavior problems.  Hope it helps.



The Internal Locus of Control

A few months ago, I saw a client who had a shy agility dog.  The client was a little stuck on application of Control Unleashed principles and I helped her get unstuck.  She’s making progress.  It was not a particularly dramatic case.  But I’ll always remember that consultation for what *I* learned.

This client is a psychologist who works at a prison.  As we discussed the training of impulse control, I shared with her my mantra:  I want the dog to control the dog.  She then told me about working with prisoners who were preparing to be released.  Many of these men (in the prison where my client works) have been in prison for a lot of their lives, and do not know how to handle the less structured environments on the outside.  They have to figure out when, where, and what to eat; they must appear for official meetings on their own, with no one coming to collect them at the appointed time; they must find a job and show up on time, repeatedly, on their own.  Even those determined to stay out of trouble have difficulty with this.  These gentleman tend to perceive their problems as being caused by others and themselves as powerless to change their situations.  My client told me she is working to build an internal locus of control in these prisoners, rather than letting them rely on the external locus of control (authority, constant rule enforcement) in the prison environment. Returning soldiers often struggle with the same issues, making their reentry even more challenging.

Ka-ching!  This, I realized, was exactly what I have been trying to teach my clients to teach their dogs for years.  Now I had a handy new vocabulary to help the owners understand.

I teach almost every client how to teach their dog better impulse control.  We start with some simple Zen exercises.  In these exercises, we’re asking the dog to choose to sit still and look at the owner (or handler) to earn a treat, rather than staring at or licking a hand holding food.  The key here is to say nothing.  We make it easy for the dog to figure out the right answer, and reward him for each successful response.

Owners are often puzzled.  “My dog already knows Watch Me” they say.  “We learned Leave It” in class.  Why are we doing this?

The answer is the internal locus of control.  The dog has learned (to some degree) to follow a command.  Some dogs are very good at this, indeed, and it’s easy to see why the owner may be miffed at the insinuation that he’s failed to train the dog or that the dog is anything other than brilliant.  But — as I immediately explain — this isn’t a failure of previous training or learning ability.  It’s a whole new skill.

Yes, dogs need to learn how to follow at least a few critical commands.  Every dog should understand Come, Stay, and Leave It.  Those are lifesavers.  But there are many other behaviors I hope dogs learn to perform automatically.  Automatically means “cued by the environment or the context.”  If your leash is attached, that should be the cue to walk nearby and keep the leash loose without the owner having to command it.  If you are greeting a person, that should be a cue to sit and hold the sit for the duration of the greeting, without being told “off!” “down!” or even “sit.”  For behavior modification purposes, I’m often trying to teach a dog to look briefly at the trigger and then back at the handler… without being told.  The difference is the internal locus of control.  It gives the dog power to control his own agitated responses.  It gives the owner a break from having to helicopter around the dog and constantly cue the desired behavior.  It is peaceful and calming.

Some dogs do this on their own.  Some need help.  That is what I do.

Identifying sports dog prospects in rescues and shelters, part 3: Behavior

It’s obvious that most sports place unusual demands on the bodies of athletes.  Clear to experienced competitors but not, perhaps, to those new to dog sports is that the athlete also faces unusual mental and emotional stresses.  Exposure to many dogs, people, places, and potentially stressful processes during training, travel and competition all makes difficult demands on dogs.

Dogs placed as sports prospects really should be stable, comfortable, resilient, and confident.  They should be comfortable in new places, meeting new people, and around new dogs.  They need not be extremely friendly and pro-social with dogs or people, as their work will be with their handler, and not (usually) with strangers or strange dogs.  But they must be comfortable learning to ignore all the distractions that they may encounter as sports competitors.

To help avoid a lousy placement, consider the following.

Dogs who want to work for a variety of reinforcers are desirable: One of the most insightful comments I’ve heard on this comes from flyball teacher extraordinaire Aaron Robbins.  Asked about picking a good performance puppy, he said that after identifying a promising litter, he would pick the puppy who wanted to get in his lap and play with him and his tug toy.  (Note the total absence of complicated temperament testing here!)  This is a puppy who likes people, wants to play with them, and likes to tug — a great combo for a sports pup.  Desire to play ball is also useful, but please note that true ball obsession is a serious negative for flyball (really, just trust me on this).  Desire to work for food is the most common and it is very useful, though most active-speed-sports handlers will want some good toy drive as well.  It’s great to be able to use food for early skill building and then switch to toy play to build speed and style.

Tug: Overall, a lot of the active sports handlers would prefer a dog who loves to play tug.  Tug is a great reinforcer for sports training, for various reasons.  Dogs who take the toy off into the corner to chew or guard it probably don’t love the game, but rather like to possess the toy; this is not the right fit for a sports home.  Dogs who shove the toy at you to get you to play more are the ones sports handlers will be looking for.  If you are considering a dog as a sports candidate, make a point of trying to get it to play tug.  Run around with a long floppy tug dragging behind you on the ground and see if the dog wants to chase and grab it.  (Don’t shove the toy into the dog’s mouth — don’t even stand facing the dog, as this can intimidate some. Face away, move away from the dog, wiggle the toy enticingly on the ground.)  Video of a dog loving a game of tug can be a great marketing tool if the dog looks like a good sports candidate overall.

Drive is usually good!: To be clear, “drive” is not a scientific term and people disagree on what it means.  The working (ring sport/protection sport) crowd utilizes a behavior model encompassing various drives (prey, pack, fight, etc.), although it seems to be some use to the people in that particular subset of dog sports.  More generally, I’m going to refer to drive as “an intense desire to do some kind of work.”  If we define the type of work as activities that are useful in training for sports, then drive is good.  To break this down, high drive for playing fetch with a ball, playing tug, and/or earning food rewards is a good thing.  This means the dog will work in an intense and sustained manner for the opportunity to engage in the play or get the food.  As training progresses, this is the dog who will persist in performing the behavior when external reinforcement events get further and further apart.  In obedience, a dog must perform with spirit and precision for several minutes with zero conventional reinforcement.  No food or toys are allowed in the ring.  The best obedience dogs quickly find working with their person reinforcing and are happy to persist in fine work until they’re out of the ring and get to eat some liver brownies or play with their toy.  Many dogs just don’t have this in them, and this kind of persistence for the enjoyment of the work is one of the primary traits working breeders are selecting for.

A “low drive” dog is pretty happy to hang out on the couch, doesn’t get too interested or excited about the opportunity to train or play games, and doesn’t last long even when he’s having fun playing.  Sports competitors don’t look for these; it’s hard to teach a dog to put more energy into something he just doesn’t enjoy much.

Intense predation:  For specific sports, we might see other drives being useful: a desire to herd is useful for exactly one sport (herding); a desire to catch and kill critters is useful for go-to-ground terriers and some other hunting sports.  But note that these drives involve reinforcers that are very difficult to use in training something else.  It’s hard to set things up so your dog gets to kill a squirrel every time he really nails his obedience routine.  Strong herding and hunting behaviors are much more commonly a real PITA for competition trainers because they mean there are distractions which will require a lot of training to overcome.  Dogs who are known to have killed cats or other dogs, or who are visibly obsessed with hunting squirrels outside the shelter, or cats inside the shelter, are probably not great sports prospects.  Most sports have outdoor competitions where cats, squirrels, birds and other critters can easily appear in the environment.  Intense predatory behavior can be extremely difficult to modify with training!

Arousal is not drive, and arousal is a problem. This is the dark side of “drive.”  It’s really common for well meaning shelter workers to decide that a very hyper or busy dog would be a great sports prospect because she has so much energy.  But energy is useless when it’s hard to get the dog’s attention and the dog is so “high” that she can’t focus, can’t hold still, and has trouble learning any impulse control.  A certain amount of arousal is a good thing, but high arousal without impulse control is not only hard to work with in sports, but is very hard to live with.  Please, do not put these dogs into sports homes.  They need something different, and so do the sports handlers you’re trying to market them to.

Shyness and fearfulness don’t work well.  It’s easy to convince yourself that a dog is just nervous because of the shelter environment.  (Certainly, this can happen.)  That he will come out of his shell in a stable, loving home, and because of other features (loves to retrieve, perhaps), he will be able to overcome his shyness to become a sports star.  This is not really likely and it’s often extremely unfair to the dog.  As noted, sports training and competition involves a dog being exposed much more than most pet dogs to novel environments, loud noises, strange people, strange dogs, and frequent change.  For a dog who is already vigilant and nervous, this is exhausting and damaging.  When I see people trying to force their wallflower dog to run fast in agility class — when the dog can scarcely breathe normally in the facility — it breaks my heart.  Sports can be confidence building, but they can also be unbearably stressful.  Please do not place a shy or fearful dog into a sports home.  It is much more likely to backfire and cause suffering to the dog than to help him.

Low sociability: Very nonaffiliative dogs probably won’t make good pets, period, and they don’t generally make good working or sports dogs.  These are dogs who can really pretty much live without people.  They may show no fear or aggression, but they also aren’t that interested in you.  They can take or leave you, your attention, your play and toys, and even your food.  They will never really bond with anyone, and sports is all about an intense working bond.  This is just plain a bad fit.  Additionally, I feel these dogs are somewhat more likely to show potentially serious aggression toward people because their lack of affiliation reduces inhibition.  Every shelter worker should learn to spot this; a dog who puts up with interaction you initiate, but who never initiates interaction with you.  Who seems to tolerate petting, but isn’t enjoying it.  These dogs may not seem dangerous, but they are trouble.

Shut down:  This is another presentation all shelter and rescue staff should learn to recognize.  Shut down dogs often seem very calm, not very needy, and low-energy.  They just don’t do very much at all and seem pretty pliant.  They don’t react badly to people or to other dogs, and can therefore seem like great potential pets.  However, you’re not seeing the real dog.  It will show up after a few weeks to months in its new home, and what shows up may not be pretty.  These dogs present some tough placement decisions because you’re forced to guess at what “is in there.”  These dogs probably won’t strike shelter workers as good sports prospects — because they seem calm and low in energy.  However, occasionally there are some hidden gems in the “shut-down” crowd.  If you can get the dog away from the shelter in a safe place, and it seems to light up and show interest in reinforcers and interaction, don’t rule it out.

Aggression: It should go without saying, but any dog showing aggression to dogs or people is probably not a good sports prospect.  A few sports can be managed with dogs who are somewhat aggressive to dogs who get very close to them.  But any sport is going to involve dogs at some distance and accidents can happen.  Group stays in obedience strike fear into many handlers’ hearts because of repeated incidents of one dog charging and harming or terrifying another.  In agility, dogs must pass close to each other getting in and out of the ring.  In flyball competition, there are eight highly aroused dogs in the ring during each race, passing each other inches apart, at high speeds, with toys and food in the environment.  Sports have judges, stewards and other people who will have to be near the dog, and may have to touch the dog (obedience, measuring for various sports).  It is grossly unfair to an obedience judge to have to examine a dog who bites her, and grossly unfair to that dog to be placed into a situation where he feels the need to bite the judge.

A dog who shows some resource guarding over food or high value chewables toward very nearby dogs or people may be successful at sports.  This is quite a normal behavior, and it’s not terribly hard to manage in sports training and competition environments.  An adopter experienced with this type of behavior is preferable.  Other types of aggression are going to be triggered in more critical and less manageable ways and should rule a dog out of consideration as a sports prospect.

In conclusion: I could tell a million stories like this one: I had a student in a behavior class, a retired gentleman who’d bought a dog of a sporty breed to learn agility with in his retirement.  He had bought half the inventory of Clean Run in his enthusiasm for his new sport, and his dog was doing very well learning the obstacles.  The problem? She was cautious of strange people and outright aggressive with dogs who got closer than about 30 feet.  He was not in a position to get another dog and he was not going to euthanize this one, so he soldiered on.  Unfair to the dog, sad for the owner.  Shame on (in this case) the breeder who sold a fearfully aggressive puppy to someone she knew was counting on doing agility with this pup!

If you’ve gotten the impression that very few dogs are going to measure up as potential sports prospects… you’re right.  Again, sports handlers are looking for prospects, not projects.  They can probably get what they want from a breeder, but some prefer, or are willing, to consider a second-hand dog if they can find what they want.  Don’t try to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse: you will lose credibility and alienate adopters.  If you would like to try to market some dogs as sports prospects, consider (a) getting an outside pair of eyes to assess the dog physically and emotionally, (b) getting some decent video of the dog playing and moving, and (c) getting some quality “stacked shots” of the dog standing still.  Remember that sports adopters have unusually specific requirements — much more so than most pet homes which need not be so picky about size, structure, or confident, drivey temperaments.  There are some absolutely amazing rescued sports dogs out there.  I hope you have the privilege of placing one soon.



Identifying sports dog prospects in rescues and shelters, part 2: Body

Part 1 of this series provided background in what the life of a sports dog looks like.  It’s important for rescue and shelter workers who want to market dogs as sports prospects to understand what their lives would entail so they can pick dogs who match this well. You wouldn’t want to place a rambunctious 8 month old Lab mix in a home with a frail older person seeking a quiet lap dog.  Sports dog matching takes some extra work because it requires more in-depth knowledge of both physical function and behavior.

Sports dogs need to have sound bodies.  Of course, all dogs need sound bodies, but a wonky knee is not going to be nearly as disastrous for a quiet lap dog as for an active, restless agility dog.  Understanding anatomy and structure is hard, and even a lot of general vets may not be focused on issues that are really critical for a sports dog and its handler.  This blog cannot possibly substitute for years of orthopedic study with a specialty in sports medicine, so I’m hoping to provide at least a few relatively obvious pointers: features you can, with a little study and practice, see without needing X-rays or a lot of specialized training.

Before getting into details, a couple of caveats:

Different sports present different demands.  Some are highly physically demanding: Agility, flyball and disc are the popular sports which require the dog participants to use their whole bodies efficiently and fast.  Some are much less demanding.  Nose work is accessible even to partly crippled dogs, or those with hearing or vision impairments.  Barn hunt requires some jumping and crawling, though the surface is forgiving and extreme speed is not needed.  Obedience and rally don’t require a lot of physical competence compared to the more active sports; however, the judge will excuse a dog who is visibly lame.  Also there is some jumping and the dog should be able to perform these jumps without pain or danger.

Also, I am not spending a lot of time on specialized sports which tend to be highly limited by breed.  These include ring sports such as French Ring or IPO (Schutzhund); herding; retriever trials; pointer trials; and other activities based on breed-specific functions.  Suffice it to say that most of these are physically demanding, so if you find yourself considering placing a Dutch Shepherd in a ring sport home, or an Aussie in a herding home, assume you need a body as sound as that required for agility.

OK – moving right along, let’s get into some details.  Remember, I’m trying to keep this pretty simple and I’m picking and choosing what I think are the few most important physical traits which a normal, intelligent shelter worker can learn to spot.  If you would like more detailed information, I recommend checking out the tutorial on Diane Jessup’s Working Pit Bull site.  http://www.workingpitbull.com/soundness.htm

When assessing the features I’ve listed, it’s important to try to get the dog into a nice square stand.  Yes, I know this can be very hard with an agitated, untrained ball of muscle. Good trainers learn how to use a treat to lure the dog into a stand position — perhaps at least long enough to get someone to snap some nice side shots.  The photographer should try to get low, e.g. sitting on the ground, for the clearest, most helpful images.  Those dog show “stack photos” are the ideal for this.

Finally, I’m planning to add some photos and diagrams eventually.  However, these are much more time consuming than the writing, so I’ll publish the text now and add the images later.

Shoulders/front assembly: Almost all sport activities put pressure on the dog’s shoulders.  If there is jumping, the dog lands on the front feet, so a lot of force is transmitted into the feet, pasterns (wrists), elbows, and shoulders.  The higher, faster, or harder the jump, the more force is transmitted.  Frequency makes a big difference.  Obedience jumps can be fairly high, but they are very infrequent.  Flyball jumps are quite low, but the dog will jump dozens to hundreds of times a day in competition.  Also, the flyball box turn is a hard jump onto the box, with lateral motion as the dog turns.  Disc can involve some extremely high jumps at many angles.  Shoulders take a pounding in all sports, so I am listing them as the first most important physical feature that must be sound in your sports prospect.

What to look for?  The key here is good angulation.  We will use this word again, so here’s what it means.  Angulation is the angle between two bones which meet, when discussing animal skeletal structure.  There are a lot of resources on the internet to learn about angulation and structure and I am not going to reinvent the wheel.  Suffice it to say that we are looking for greater shoulder angulation.  A more angulated shoulder is much safer and more functional than a “straight shoulder.”  We don’t ask perfection, but a dog with a very straight shoulder should not be placed as a sports prospect.

Elbows:  We already looked at the vertical angle of the elbow in the previous section.  Notice one other feature: does the elbow show movement side to side when the dog is moving in a straight line at a walk, trot or gallop?  To see this, you must stand so the dog is moving directly toward or away from you; it’s hard to see from the side.  If the elbows seem to be rotating a little as the dog moves, you will the point of the elbow going in closer to the rib cage and then out wider as the dog moves through the gait.  This is unstable and inefficient and is going to create trouble for the dog down the line. A somewhat less active home would be better.

Hips: Everyone has heard of hip dysplasia and knows it’s bad, but we don’t know what it looks like.  Hip dysplasia is deformation in the hip socket, so that the ball of the femur is flopping around and eventually riding bone-on-bone.  Even relatively mild HD can end up painful and crippling as a dog gets older.  Mild HD is often benefited by staying very well muscled, but severe HD really needs surgical intervention to be fair to the dog.

There are two clues you can look for here.  First is the muscling in the back of the thighs.  Feel the muscle while the dog is standing pretty still and square.  It helps if you have felt the same area on a number of dogs so you have a sense of what is normal.  Find a pit bull with really thick thighs with defined muscles and see if you can sneak a squeeze.  Most dogs won’t muscle like this, but that’s what hard thigh/hamstring muscle feels like.  If the dog has long hair you must rely on feel!  If the muscle on one or both thighs feels soft and easy to compress, small, or like a soft rubber band, it can indicate a problem in the spine or hips.  The problem is severe enough that the dog is already choosing not to use his rear legs much for propulsion; you may notice his chest and shoulders are very well developed, in compensation.  The second clue is his gait when he gallops.  Does he ever separate his back legs or does he tend to keep them right next to each other?  The “bunny hop” gait results from using the muscles of the trunk to pull the rear legs together, as a unit, forward, rather than using the leg and butt muscles to move them separately.  This is a bad sign.  This dog will not have much speed or agility, and will probably be living in pain pretty young if he is not already.  A vet exam and hip x-rays can reveal more.

Knees:  Besides straight shoulders, straight knees (also known as stifles) are the most common serious issue I see in shelter dogs being proposed as sports prospects.  Straight knees are common, period.  Learn how to spot them! Fortunately, this is usually an easy problem to spot.  Once you learn to identify them, you will see them everywhere.  The basic question here is:  Does the knee bend?  And if so, how much?  If the leg is pretty much straight up and down like a broomstick… Whoa, Nellie!  You may have a very happy pet dog, but probably not a sports prospect.  There are some wonderful sports dogs with straight knees, but the lack of angulation in that joint sets the knee up to rupture a ligament very easily under strain.  Knee surgery is about $3-4,000 per knee (and once one side ruptures, the other is quite likely to rupture at some point down the line); the recovery is fairly grueling; and not doing the surgery can horribly compromise an active dog’s quality of life.

Sports which require rapid and/or unpredictable, propulsive direction changes will be hardest on knees.  Disc, agility and herding are the worst culprits here.  Flyball is quite a bit easier on knees, and the slower sports (obedience, rally, barn hunt, and nose work), should be quite safe for dogs with lousy knees, especially if the owner is aware of the problem and can take appropriate steps to strengthen and protect the dog’s weak point.

Neck: Neck? Really?  Yep.  Necks can have quite a surprising number of problems, but I am going to focus on just one which is particularly relevant here.  And that is length.  Very short necks are a real problem for a sport dog.  They prevent the dog from fully extending her forelegs out in front of her, which slows running, makes jumping difficult and clunky, and generally puts strain on the whole body by producing a choppy, rocking horse or bungling bear gait.  It’s not an accident that Greyhounds tend to have very long, arched necks!  An otherwise sound dog with a short neck may enjoy recreational sports, but will not perform well physically in competition in the longer term and will break down more quickly.

Feet: Often overlooked, feet are really important.  Standing on concrete surfaces with no give, or living in wire cages, can permanently ruin feet.  So can having nails left consistently too long.  With dysfunctional, broken down, or painful feet, a dog could hardly be expected to run/jump at speed.  High drive dogs will run on bad feet (and bad knees, hips, shoulders, backs, etc.) but it will hurt and shorten their careers.

“If there is a lot of space between the toes, or they are all pointing in different directions when the dog is standing at rest on a firm but natural surface, or if when viewed from the side they appear to be almost straight, with no upward bend in the knuckles,” then the feet are not sound and the dog is not a good prospect.  (Thanks to Anna Abney of Thunder Mountain Central Asian Shepherds for this succinct description.)

Hearing and vision: This may seem obvious, but hearing and vision and deficits will make sports training and competing more difficult.  Dogs with these deficits do compete, but they may need extra and more specialized training to be able to participate safely.  If a dog is surrendered because “he won’t listen,” check hearing before assuming the problem is the surrendering owner’s skill level!  It’s not hard to learn whether there’s some functional hearing.  Make a contrasting noise out of the dog’s field of vision (in a neighboring room, behind the dog, etc.) and see whether the dog seems to notice it, and if so, where the dog orients.  Repeat a few times.  If he orients correctly, he probably has some functional hearing.  If he reacts but cannot orient, he may have one-sided deafness.  For vision, place a low, inconspicuous, non-smelly barrier (a piece of 2×4, a pool noodle perhaps) across a path where the dog has walked before.  Walk him through and see whether he easily steps over the barrier, or bumps into it, or takes time examining it before crossing.  It can be a bit hard to rule out distraction in these tests, but if you run the tests on several dogs you will get an idea of what the normal range of response looks like, and an unusual response will be clearer to you.

A personal story: Years ago, I volunteered for a large rescue organization.  I was experiencing some burnout after years of work when, one day, I attended a public event where our organization had an information table and some adoptable dogs to meet.  One of the dogs was a bright, eager young bitch.  I was told she was being marketed as an agility prospect because she was keen and driven.  Then I saw her walking around.  Her knees were very straight and one seemed a little wobbly.  I mentioned this to the representative, adding a strong caution about putting this dog into an agility home with knees like that.  She was adopted within days by an agility enthusiast and one week later, the dog’s cruciate ligament ruptured.  The adopter was angry and so was I.  That was the end of my time with this rescue, a last straw.  Please don’t frustrate a well meaning adopter by allowing them to adopt a dog who is unlikely to be able to do the activity the adopter dreams of.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a prospect who looks good so far, read on.  The next part will address behavior.

Identifying sport dog candidates in shelters and rescues, part 1: Understanding the market

As a trainer and flyballer, I’m sometimes asked by shelters or rescues to help place a dog in a sports home. There are a lot of great sports dogs from rescue backgrounds and I will always help a solid candidate if I can.

Identifying a good sports candidate takes some special training and skill and most rescues and shelters don’t have someone available to make this assessment. A rescue employee or volunteer who wants to place dogs in sport homes first needs to understand what sport dogs do and what dog sport homes are, and are not, looking for. Part 1 of this series will discuss this question.

Dog sport homes tend to be multi-dog homes. Some handlers have a lot of dogs! Sometimes they have more dogs than most pet people can care for adequately. This may not be a problem since dog sport handlers spend an inordinate amount of time caring for their dogs, with excellent food, exercise, training, and enrichment. The dogs may spend part of the time crated, but their time out of the crate will offer more mental and physical enrichment than most pet dogs receive.

Sport dogs will have to go to new places and meet new dogs and people.  Most sports involve both training and competitions at locations away from home.  These locations may be very intense, with a lot of new people and dogs, sudden noises, and so on.

Sport dogs may have to do a lot of traveling.  This means time in the car, perhaps even on planes.  They will have to stay in hotels, strangers’ homes, campgrounds, or RVs (usually with a lot of other dogs).  They will probably meet automatic doors, elevators, people in uniforms.  They will have to be able to be polite and under control in a lot of public places.

Many sport dogs will have to experience a lot of body handling.  In a lot of sports, dogs must have their height measured.  This usually involves the use of a wicket, which is weird and scary for many dogs, and always involves some close handling by their handler, holding still in a scary place, and being touched by a judge.  Further, a lot of training will involve handling by strangers: For restrained recalls, positioning, or the necessities of the sport itself.

They will be asked to work through stress.  Remember that stress can be obvious, like running agility on a hot day, but it can also be more subtle, like performing a stay while your person is 30 feet away or out of sight, or staying in heel position even though your handler is quietly hyperventilating.  It can involve doing something scary, like walking over a teeter or hearing a shotgun blast.  It can come in the form of maintaining performance for long periods despite fatigue.

Handlers like dogs who will work for a variety of reinforcers.  Most trainers love dogs who will eagerly work for food, since it’s a motivating and easy-to-use reinforcer.  Active sport handlers very often like dogs who love to play tug.  Tug is exciting and fun for many dogs.  It produces an upbeat performance, is highly motivating, and is even part of some sports (such as ring sport).  Handlers like dogs who like to retrieve and this is part of other sports (such as obedience, field, flyball, and disc).  But on the other hand, if a dog is too fixated on one reinforcer, it is often problematic.  A dog who is too obsessed with food will have trouble with distractors.  A dog who is obsessed with tennis balls will have trouble training in flyball (tennis balls are everywhere, and there are more potential problems here).  Being able to switch reinforcers with ease is highly desirable.

Sports require calm focus from the dog.  This means a dog who is seriously, systemically distracted will have trouble in almost all sports training.  Serious distraction sometimes resolves easily with good training. Sometimes it is a sign of an underlying anxiety or arousal issue and will remain a major barrier to success.  Likewise, while sports dogs need to have energy and interest to engage in training and competition, extremely high energy levels can become a distraction and a frustration.  An ideal sports dog has something of an off switch.  Super social dogs, whose primary interest and reinforcer is meeting other dogs and/or people, will constantly be distracted and their social tendencies may become a source of friction.

Sports require a sound body.  This may sound obvious, but it’s worth repeating.  Active sports mean repeated movement.  They may require sudden movement and strength.  A dog who is in pain or who has poor structure is going to find this difficult or even impossible.  This factor depends a great deal on the sport:  An agility, flyball, or Schutzhund dog needs to be in excellent condition and have excellent structure.  An obedience or nose work dog with certain physical issues can excel.  Thus, depending on the sport, a handler will be looking for:  A younger dog who’s not likely to develop age-related unsoundness too soon; decent knee, elbow, hip and shoulder structure; a decent length of neck; and a sound back.  I will discuss these features in more detail later.

Most sport handlers are not looking to rehab.  Yes, it happens, and we hear moving stories of dogs who were saved, in bad shape, and went on to become stars.  But for the most part, sports handlers are looking for prospects, not  projects.  Most buy from breeders because it gives them greater predictability and control over those traits that they most care about.  Genetics plays a huge role in the potential success of a Border Collie in herding, and trying to make a contender out of a rescue dog of unknown origin is a much bigger crap shoot than buying one out of proven parents, thoughtfully bred.  A sports handler willing to adopt will be, or should be, looking for a collection of specific traits that will make sports training fun for both the handler and the dog.  A potential flyball dog with shyness or a seizure history would have to be unusually fast and reliable to induce a handler to take it on and do the extra work needed to get it competing.

In short, a good sports dog prospect is comfortable with dogs and people, has good structure and health, is comfortable with body handling, has a stable temperament that handles stress well, likes to tug and play, and enjoys training and competing.  We will look at these factors in more detail in future blogs.