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.



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