In which I admit I am not too bright

(Note: I have added to this blog since it was originally posted, with some information that I forgot about the first time around.  The new material is mainly after the paragraphs about finding lost frisbees. It’s referred to in some of the discussion following as well.) 

I have written before about how I decided to stop doing nose work with Mellie. As I’ve moved on to working successfully with Big Barley (NW 1 under his belt, now trying to get into a NW 2 trial) and even starting Jad, I’ve had more time to process the long history of events in Mellie’s life which led to quitting. This makes a good cautionary tale, and I thought I’d share it because it might help other nose work handlers with dogs having “out of the box” difficulties (*snork*). It might help anyone having difficulties in any dog training process, because some of the take-home lessons generalize pretty big.

Mellie came out of the womb loving to tug. That’s one reason I chose her. She would, and still will, tug anything I tell her is a toy: a sock, a wristwatch strap, a wallet, a stick, a yogurt lid, a fork. And she likes to shred things that are easily shredded. To this day, she will shred open any plastic baggie that she finds, both because it might contain food (but honestly, I think she knows the empty ones are hopeless) and because they’re fun to dissect.  Early on, we liked to play “101 Things to Do With A Box.” Our version involved some shaping games, and one thing she learned was to bring me a large box, climb inside it, and close the flaps, ready to be mailed somewhere. She always loved to shred cardboard, as did Cedi, and I allowed it. It was a great outlet for Cedi (first title: Shredder Dog Excellent) and I had no problem with Mellie engaging in it too. The stuff was still recyclable, after all. Over time, she sometimes would seek out cardboard to shred – with vigor and abandon. She’d hold down the box and rip it madly with her teeth, having a grand time.

When Mellie was six months old, a friend and I joked about whose dog was smarter.  Farli was a very, very smart and well-trained adult dog with numerous performance titles and other achievements, so I was probably tempting fate with my humorous boasting.  However, in the moment, I started teaching her to find my keys.  She already had a cued retrieve of any object, so I had her retrieve my keys from a few feet away.  Then I put them further away in the same room; she brought them back and we played tug to reward her. (I have a little strap on my keys, which she could grip easily.)  Then I hid them in the same room, told her to find them and bring them; she did this; more tug. Then I had my friend restrain her while I hid them in another room, inside a dog crate.  She’d seen where I went, and when we released her to go find, she was back in about 15 seconds.  It was her first scent find, and her reward was to tug with me, using the keys.  We performed this parlor trick many times over the years, almost always ending up with a rousing game of tug-the-key-strap.

“Find it!” –> nose search –> retrieve source –> play tug!   

Mellie came out of the womb loving frisbees. Her breeder founded the Canadian Disc Dog Association and many of her relatives are disc champions of various types. She loved them from the start and was an adept catcher and fetcher within a few weeks as a roly-poly puppy. I bought a number of bite-resistant competition discs to use with her, as they lasted forever. They’re spendy, however, so I was careful not to let them get lost in the field by my house. This field was mown 2-3 times per summer, so the grass got deep between cuttings. The park dropped down a steep wooded bank to a creek, and Mellie would regularly run down there when she was thirsty for a drink. Because she has never concentrated urine well, she needed to drink often, and this meant that her Jawz discs ended up along the creek banks, functionally beyond my reach down the steep bank. So, I’d send her back.  “Go find it. Frisbee, go find it!”  And she did; we lost very few of those precious discs over the years. But at times, she didn’t want to run all the way back down into that ravine to find the disc. I don’t blame her; it wasn’t as fun as catching and fetching. She’d get frustrated, and her displacement  behavior was to start pulling grass. She’d put her head down and grab it and bite it and pull it. If I pressured her more, she’d pull more grass. I eventually worked out a way to finesse the situation, but meanwhile, I set her into a pattern, and the pattern was this:

“Find it!” —> frustration! —> displacement behavior of pulling grass frantically.  

Somewhere around this time, some brilliant trainers elsewhere were in the process of inventing Canine Nose Work. Of course, people and dogs have worked together with the power of the dog nose for probably millennia, but the nose work revolution has consisted of making it accessible for ordinary pet owners, outside of the competitive, purebred-focused rigors of obedience, tracking, or IPO. Eventually, inevitably, I got sucked in and I was sure that my brilliant, athletic, confident dog would love it.

And she did. The problem was the damned boxes. She would try to find the treats, and then the odor when we introduced it, and she would. But there were boxes.  Some boxes could be retrieved, and she automatically tried to retrieve those for a game of tug.  Also, boxes were fun to shred. I’d try to get her to refocus, not to retrieve, not to shred.  She would stop searching for odor, and she’d go into a frenzy of box destruction. It was often funny, and often frustrating for me.

OK, a lot of dogs have this issue.  A lot of dogs play with boxes, or stomp boxes, or at least just accidentally walk on the boxes which might annoy a judge or CO. And a lot of people saw my dog with boxes and decided she had one of these problems and wanted to help me fix it.

What they didn’t know, and I hadn’t fully realized, was that this wasn’t a problem of lack of odor obedience. Her odor obedience is great, always has been. I remember her searching odor at a flyball tournament and moving right past things like plastic bags containing food, the trash bag at our setup, treats loose in someone’s chair’s cupholder… only stopping when she found the birch. She could easily finish Elite level searches in mock trials. Her problem wasn’t odor obedience, or my body language, attitude, or handling skills (all can use work — none were the problem here).

It was that long ago, she’d learned that if I said “find it,” she could expect to play tug with that object.  And then she learned that when she couldn’t immediately find it, it helped her to start pulling grass frantically out of the ground. And if there wasn’t grass, but there was a box… well, she had lots of practice pulling on boxes, in exactly the same way. One paw to hold it down so she could get a really good mouthful and shred. Oh my girl. I did this to you, and I saw it so late. Even now, my eyes fill with tears when I write it down. Because of her huge heart, and her huge brain, she could stay on track if there was no obvious target for her frustration. But when there were boxes, that old pattern kicked in. And then she would be off and running with the glorious release of pulling and flinging and barking and biting! And yes, that did eclipse her odor obedience.

Understanding, finally, what happened, I’m taking her back to some occasional nose work classes, just for fun. I’ll just avoid containers. I have a dog to compete with.  Barley’s a much easier dog to handle (though a much harder dog to work in public, as he’s sensitive to strangers, dogs, and new places). It takes the pressure off Mellie, and she can enjoy just searching, doing something with me. She did two searches at the end of Jad’s class tonight and even that has helped her settle for a snooze on the sofa.

I’ve needed to apologize to every one of my dogs for something, usually more than one something, and this is near the top of the list of things I have to apologize to my beloved Mellie for.

If you’re looking for take-home lessons…


  1.  For the love of dog, don’t recycle cues you’ve used previously. I should have known better, but it just didn’t occur to me that this one had baggage. (Now that it is all written out, yes, I feel really, really stupid.) For nose work in general, if you use a day-to-day “find it” for picking up food off the kitchen floor, or even for fun find-mom games at home, I recommend that you use a brand-new cue when you start formal nose work training. It’s just safer. You can always combine them later if you’re sure it will work out. The same is probably true of recycling cues when starting any new sport. I’d err on the side of adding a new, precise, purposeful cue instead.
  2. Box problems in nose work are not always about boxes being fun. Always give some thought to whether you’re seeing a frustration/displacement behavior. Shredding stuff when frustrated is a time-honored, species-typical displacement behavior. If that’s what you’re getting, video a bunch and ask a good behavior person (not a nose work person) what they see.
  3. Even if your dog is a genius, you may still be making it too hard for them. I know I did this to Mellie at times during her life and I hope to spend the rest of her life with me making up to her for it.

She’s still a genius, though.


Mellie on the way home, 7 weeks, Vancouver airport.


Retiring Mellie

Mellie is now my oldest dog.  She turned 12 in June 2017.  Her mama lived to be 16, and she’s still in pretty good shape, despite three knee surgeries and some peculiar health issues.  Her frustration tolerance is receding a bit – that’s always been hard for her.  In theory she is still capable of actively training and competing in a sport, perhaps Rally or Nosework.  But I think we are done with that.

Our last sport was NACSW nose work.  Mellie never earned a title.  I regret this.  We had this problem with boxes.  Now, a lot of dogs have problems with boxes, but Mellie’s was worse than most.  It didn’t take much for her to quit searching for odor and start destroying the boxes.  This wasn’t an “aggressive alert” problem or a “box stomping” problem or even your basic discrimination problem.  It went farther than that.  And at every single practice match, ORT and trial we attended, someone had to try to be helpful and tell me that I “really need to work on that,” or told me they knew how to fix it — without realizing that this was probably a bit different, and worse, than whatever box problems they’d dealt with before.  I became exhausted with constantly fending off these sallies, whether they were well-intended or catty.  Mellie was frustrated, but I was really hurting.

Being 12 now, Mellie was around  before NACSW was.  And, I didn’t leap into nose work right away.  She was a happy flyball dog, and we dabbled in other sports (rally, obedience, herding, agility, and tricks).  So Mellie had a lot of life experiences before coming to nose work.  Included in these life experiences were:

  • Learning to find my keys by scent when she was six months old, bring them to me, and play tug with them as a reward.  She learned this in four repetitions, which knocked my socks off, and has been doing this for fun and as a parlor trick ever since.
  • Learning from older sister Cedi what fun it is to shred cardboard.  Mellie is a tug monster, and cardboard will do.  There’s also the part about shredding.  Mellie is a very “high” dog, the kind who tended to want to jump up and bite your arm when you were running agility, who needed a much better handler than me to be fast and clear enough for her.
  • Learning to go find the disc she had carried down to the creek while we played.  It was hard for me to get down that slope, and those discs were expensive.  But if I pressured her too hard to get the disc (found by memory and scent, I assume, following the cues “find it” and “get it”), she started demonstrating displacement behavior — pulling grass vigorously, and eating some of it.
  • Learning flyball, where arousal could handily be dealt with by running really fast and tugging really hard.

As a result, in her mind, “find it” was to be followed by tugging.  And frustration in “finding it” could be dealt with my pulling grass.  And cardboard was for shredding.  So it’s not really a surprise that box searches, for this easily-frustrated dog, ended up being about displacing right over into a frenzy of shredding and throwing and very high arousal.  It’s not surprising that this topped odor obedience in magnetism for her.

If I’d really thought about it, I guess, I might have anticipated some of this and changed her search cue.  I think that would have helped.  But I didn’t, because nothing seemed more natural than using her already nicely honed “find” command for this new situation.  This was my fault — of course — but it ended up creating a very difficult situation.

So we quit.  It was a hard decision, but I realized that every nose work event we attended, and some classes, were excruciating.  I’d come home in tears, morose.  And while I think Mellie liked a lot of it, I don’t know that she loved it enough to justify putting me through the misery it had become.

A couple of days ago, I was working with a client dog who’s scared of things moving under her feet — the car is the worst.  I tried having her get a treat out from under the edge of a cardboard box lid, and she couldn’t — she was too frightened.  In fact she wouldn’t touch the cardboard at all.  So I got Mellie out of the car and brought her up onto the lawn and got her playing tug with the cardboard.  We played tug-shred-fetch-destroy with chunks of cardboard while my client dog chased a ball around, and gradually noticed that apparently cardboard was a lot of fun, and gradually switched to shredding her own piece of cardboard quite happily.

Mellie’s a really fine assistant, and it was wonderful to be able to use her powers for good.

So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ..


I work with many herding breed dogs, and, not too surprisingly, there’s a pattern to the types of issues which crop up with these dogs.  Border collies and Aussies are very popular in the Pacific Northwest and are justly appreciated for the intelligence, trainability, owner-focus, and athleticism.  That doesn’t mean they are easy!  I think this article does a wonderful job of explaining the dichotomy.
I received kind permission to reprint this article from the Border Collie Trust GB website (  Copyright Sue Kinchin.

So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ….

If you have a Border Collie you have a very special dog; a dog that is intelligent, sensitive, eager to please and very quick to learn. Sounds like the perfect pet? Yes, with our help they can make wonderful pets, but we need to remember that when we take one of these very special and complex dogs into our homes we have a responsibility to try to understand all the factors that make a Border Collie what it is. The more we can understand our Border Collies the less likely it is that we, and our collie, will encounter serious problems. Border Collies have been bred for generations in a very specific and restricted environment for a very specific task and, as a breed, are relative new-comers to life as pets. Some cope very well and others struggle. It is our duty to try to understand these beautiful, clever creatures and to help them to cope.
We can easily find books that tell us what Border Collies have been bred for. We will be warned about their sensitivity to movement and tendency to chase things and about the fact that they need to have their brains occupied, but what we are not generally asked to think about are those characteristics that are not necessary in a working sheepdog, but which make life easier for a pet dog.
Anyone who has owned Border Collies will be aware that they are generally cautious dogs. Without intensive and sensitive socialisation as puppies they are often wary of people, intolerant of unfamiliar dogs and anxious about anything new or changing. Even with intensive socialisation some retain these characteristics. Border Collies are prone to being affected by a single bad experience and have poor “bounce back” when something goes wrong for them.
They are very sensitive to reprimands, but equally crave guidance and instruction. Because they are very sensitive to movement, any fast movement that they cannot control can be very disturbing to them. No wonder so many Border Collies hate traffic. Remember though, it is this sensitivity and intelligence that we find so appealing.
So why are they like this? Why can life upset them so easily? To understand our collies fully we need not only to consider what they have been bred for,.but also what they have not been bred for.
When a shepherd is selecting dogs to breed from he is selecting for a specific task and characteristics that do not interfere with this task are likely to be ignored.
Over the generations your Collie has NOT been bred to:
Cope with noise… Collies need to have very acute hearing to hear and interpret a shepherd’s signals at a great distance, but sheep farms are generally quiet places and their sensitive hearing does not cause them problems. Urban and domestic life bombards our dogs with noise and this can cause them extreme stress. Be aware of this and if necessary protect your dog from excessive noise. Speak quietly to your Collie, he doesn’t need you to shout at him.
Cope with change… sheep farms tend to be relatively unchanging places, there are sheep, the shepherd and his family, the barn where the dog sleeps and an odd tractor or car. Sheep dogs don’t generally need to cope with change. Every time our urban collie leaves home the street outside will probably have changed (new vehicles, new people, rubbish skips etc.). Just going out for a walk, even if the dog looks forward to his walk, can generate stress and we need to be aware of this and help him cope.
Cope with the presence of strangers/visitors or groups of people… Sheep farms tend to be isolated places. It is not necessary to be at ease with people to be a good working sheep dog. In a pet home our dogs are surrounded by many strange people in the street and visitors to the home. If you get your Collie as a puppy make sure he is sensitively socialised to people at an early age. If he is older respect the fact that he may find meeting strange people stressful.
Cope with the presence of strange dogs…… apart from the familiar dogs with similar characteristics that live on the farm with them, working sheepdogs are unlikely to need to mix with other dogs. As pet owners we expect them to meet a lot of strange dogs, many with appalling “dog manners”, and often with our dog on a lead so that it does not have the option of running away. Even if your collie does not react aggressively in these situations he could well be very stressed.
Many sheepdogs will never leave their farms so traditionally they haven’t really needed to get on with other dogs or unfamiliar people. Sociability and resilience are not characteristics that have historically been important in the development of the Border Collie. Although your dog may not be directly from working stock he will still have many of the characteristics inherited from generations of working sheep dogs and equally he may not have inherited those characteristics that would make life in a pet home easier for him.
Shepherds are the experts with Border Collies and we can learn a lot from them. Yes, we’ve all heard of harsh and callous shepherds, but many value their dogs very highly, not just as working dogs, but also as members of their family. Watch a sheepdog working, it is referring back to the shepherd for guidance all the time. His impulses to chase and control movement are under very tight control. The shepherd is guiding the dog and the dog is exhibiting self-control. Ideally this is how we want our collie to be with us. If he is checking in with us to find out what do next not only is he under control and less likely to get himself into trouble, but he is also getting reassurance from us. He doesn’t have to worry; we will tell him what to do in any situation. Encourage your dog to look to you for guidance; it shouldn’t be too hard, it’s in his genesl
Watch the shepherd to, he has to keep very calm and guide his dog at all times. You just don’t see excitable shepherds, an excitable shepherd would mean an excited dog and scattered sheep! Be a calm owner. Think about this if you are considering Agility or Flyball with your Collie, a good working sheep dog is fast and has lightning reflexes, but is not in a state of over-excitement. Teach your dog calmly what you want him to do. If he understands and is enjoying what he is doing he will do his best; after all he has been bred from generations of dogs selected for their willingness to work as a team with their handler. There is no need for your dog to be roused to a hysterical state for it to perform well, and it is bad for its mental and physical health to be in such a state. If your dog shows signs of stress or gets over-excited ask yourself is this is really the best activity for him.
A final thought… when a working sheepdog is not working alongside the shepherd he is shut away in a quiet, non-stimulating place to rest and recover and to keep him out of mischief! Importantly, adrenalin levels that have probably been quite high while he is working now have a chance to return to normal. Your sensitive, alert pet Collie is being bombarded with information from his environment all the time; make sure he has plenty of opportunity to rest in a secure, non-stimulating place where he can relax.
Think Border Collies, think working sheepdogs… maximise their strengths,
understand and respect their weaknesses.

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.

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.

Picking a dog

At last count, you could find 12,772,630 posts on the interwebs on how to pick a new dog.  There are posts and tools to help you choose a breed, a breeder, a rescue or shelter, and a new puppy.  Some of the information is good; some of it is idiotic.  Most of it is too long and involved, and allows people to get hung up on relatively unimportant details, missing the forest for the trees. I think about this topic a lot.  First, I’ve picked dogs of my own.  A couple just sort of landed on me, while the others I chose carefully. And I did a pretty darn good job with the last dog I chose deliberately.  I found a good breeder who worked well with me, and she helped me choose a great dog who suits me.  (This is Mellie, for those who follow along closely.) But more important, I offer my clients the service of helping to find a breeder, a litter, a breed, a puppy or adult dog, from various sources.  I’ve evaluated dogs in shelters; I’ve evaluated entire litters; I’ve interviewed breeders.  Breeds have varied.  Many of the clients seeking help are those who have recently experienced a traumatic loss of a behaviorally troubled dog and who don’t trust their own judgment any more, so I’m under great pressure to identify the best chances at a great temperament.  The stakes are high.  I’ve come up with some shortcuts that can really help with the search. Here they are:

  1. Carefully research and take seriously all the bad, unpleasant information you can find on a breed you are considering.  
  2. If you are getting a dog from a breeder, only buy from a breeder who promises in a written contract to take the dog back at any time in its life, for any reason.  
  3. If you are getting a dog from a shelter, rescue or private owner other than a breeder, hire a good behavior consultant to help you assess before you commit.  
  4. If you can meet the dog’s parents, choose a dog whose parents are warm, relaxed and friendly with strangers, including you, and including the dam while her litter is present.  

Of course there is no such thing as a short answer that is also complete.  (There’s no such thing as a long answer that is also complete, really.)  There are other questions one should ask; these may depend on the breed, your plans for your dogs, whether the dog is in rescue or with a breeder, the dog’s age, and so on.  But these steps will hugely reduce the number of bad matches, and they should happen very early in the process.  Here’s discussion:

Focus on the bad about the breed.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?  But the time to do this is before you actually choose a breed.  If you are trying to identify a breed, identify breeds that you are considering or attract you.  Then go read everything bad you can find online about that breed.  Specifically look at rescue sites.  Search google for “[breed name] problems.”  Talk to people who own dogs of that breed and ask them to tell you the two, three or four worst things about that breed.  Now, ask yourself if you could live with a dog who exhibited these problems.  There is one special caveat about this, which is at the end of this section.

I will admit that this is a little like reading all the warnings on any medication insert. It can be daunting. They pretty much all have the risk of death, coma, and seizures, if something goes wrong enough.  Likewise, any dog of any breed can become aggressive to dogs or people, develop severe separation anxiety, etc.  So we are looking for common themes; behavior problems that can be hard to avoid, or are at least not uncommon, especially with an inexperienced owner or in certain lines.

The worst fairly common problems with Border Collies are things like intense chasing of cars, bikes, kids, etc.; fearfulness and noise-phobias; dog is easily bored and may do awful things when bored, so lots of training time and mental stimulation is a must.  If you have a kid and live in a noisy neighborhood full of skateboarders, you’d want to be a very dedicated and experienced herding breed owner to take on these challenges.  Now, what about American Staffordshire Terriers? These dogs tend to be people friendly, bouncy and active when young, relatively easy to train and less likely to outsmart you, but there is a higher risk of severe aggression toward other dogs.  If you have other dogs in the house, or plan to do any kind of dog activity in close proximity with other dogs, or are frail and easily injured if you fall down, this may not be the right breed for you.

These are just examples.  You will see trends about the type and severity of problems that can occur, which differ from breed to breed.  This is important information. The main point is:  If you see the same information repeatedly on lists of problems with a breed, take it seriously!  Do not allow yourself to be convinced that it is all in how you raise them (it is not, and I would be thrilled never to hear these words again).  It is very easy to fall prey to confirmation bias when you are researching breeds.  You have a positive impression of the breed and will start to automatically tune out information that contradicts what you feel.  Resist this.  Pretend you’re a lawyer taking apart a witness on cross examination.  Think critically!

Here is the caveat:  Pit bulls.  It is nauseatingly easy to find information online insisting that pit bulls are killing machines who will eat your children for breakfast.  The truth is far more complicated.  There are millions of dogs referred to as “pit bulls” in this country.  Some are American Pit Bull Terriers (bred and registered).  Some are American Staffordshire Terriers (same).  Some are what I might call “street pits,” which have the look of, and similar ancestry to, APBTs or AmStaffs, but are not registered, do not have pedigrees, might be mixed with all sorts of other breeds, etc.  This makes for less predictability in looks and behavior; and a number of other “bully breeds” that are related to “real pit bulls” in various ways and in varying degrees.  These include American Bullies, American Bulldogs, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.  These breeds and types do vary, from each other and within the type or breed.  None of them is bred for human directed aggression, but some of them are very poorly bred.  The motor pattern common to all these breeds is a very powerful grab/hold and/or grab/shake behavior which can be extremely damaging.  Thus, if your bully-type breed dog were to go after a person, either because of lousy training and treatment or because of genetic factors (or both, most likely), he may do a lot of damage.  Doing breed-specific research on these guys, especially “street pits,” is virtually useless.  My advice?  Try to pick a dog whose parents you can meet, and who are friendly and relaxed with you and other human strangers, or who is at least 2.5-3 years old, and who is friendly and relaxed with you and other human strangers.  And don’t be an idiot by assuming this dog is especially good with children. Use normal precautions.

Breeders who take dogs back

I figure this one will tend to select for, if not guarantee, breeders who are careful about the health of their breeding stock, the behavior, and the number of litters they produce.  If they know they will have to take some dogs back, they are not going to be as careless about producing really sick or miserable or dangerous dogs.  Sure, there are breeders whose contracts specify the dog must come back to them and then don’t honor it. Things can change, and some people lie.  There is no perfect system.  But investigating this will yield a whole lot of information about how seriously the breeder stands by her dogs, and therefore, how hard she is trying to create puppies who will be loved in their homes, not costing their owners an arm and a leg in medical bills, so that they will stay.

Here is what does not qualify:

  • An oral commitment to take the dog back.  It’s not that oral contracts are unenforceable, but they are much harder to enforce in court and it’s much easier for a party to weasel about the exact terms.
  • Any commitment to replace the dog with another puppy in lieu of taking the dog back.
  • Any commitment to pay you money in lieu of taking a dog back.  (Some breeders will take a dog back, or refund your purchase price, or pay for medical care of genetic issues, or provide another puppy, and this is fine, if you have the choice.

But only the commitment to actually take the dog back puts enough pressure on the breeder to breed very, very carefully.) Sticking to this rule also helps put a lot of market pressure on breeders who are making dumb genetic decisions and worsening the health of dogs overall.  It may never affect your puppy, but it will affect the larger population of dogs and their health.  It’s just a good idea overall.

Hire a behavior consultant to pick a dog other than from a breeder

This probably sounds like a “full employment for Greta” kind of recommendation.  But it’s not.  This one comes from long, hard experience.  Even people who are pretty good at picking puppies in low-stress environments (e.g. breeder’s home) make terrible decisions in shelters.

First, it’s hard not to be overcome by compassion and pity, and you may make an emotional decision.  This is often not a good decision.  It will be a better world when shelters and rescues can all do a really good job of assessing temperament and not offering for adoption dogs who are likely to be miserable, dangerous, unable to bond, and so on.  But so far, many shelters are rescues either do not know how or refuse to protect adopters from their own ignorance and emotional responses.

Second, shelters, even good ones, are extremely stressful environments for dogs.  You will see behavior in shelters that is not typical for dogs.  Now, everyone is aware that dogs who are doing a lot of jumping and barking may not be so highly aroused once settled into a home, and may be willing to give that dog a break.

But the other side of the coin has ambushed so many of my clients that I now thing everyone really should have an experienced second pair of eyes on any candidate for adoption.  This other side of the coin is “shelter shutdown.”  Some dogs who are more fearful will simply shut down in the shelter.  They don’t do much of anything.  They just sit there.  Our normal human interpretation of this is: “This dog is so calm.  She’s not reactive to people.  She’s not barking at other dogs. I’m sure she’d be just a darling enjoying some petting while we sit in the living room drinking tea.”  More often than not, though, these dogs are afraid and have gone into a “freeze” response to threat.  Once the threat predictably lifts, and they have been in a lovely home for a few weeks or a few months, though, you will see the rest of the dog.  You may see terror. You may see extreme predation.  You may see resource guarding, an ingrained tendency to chase, hatred of men with hats, and so on.  These problems can be severe, and they can be totally masked in the shelter.

Less commonly, in shelter, dogs who have zero real social interest in humans can also appear very calm, and these dogs are not good pets.  Whether they are perfectly happy to aggress to get their away or handle threat, or are just completely detached, they do not have the ability to become loving companions.  And how awful to be in the position, six months later, of euthanizing a dog who is not dangerous, but has no use for you and no relationship with you?  This doesn’t seem to be common, but it’s a risk and these dogs tend to show as “calm” in the shelter.

Not uncommonly, dogs who seem very friendly and affiliative in the shelter are very affiliative… and also have separation anxiety.  There is some data suggesting that separation anxiety is overrepresented in the shelter environment.  Whether this is a cause or effect (or both) is not really known, but in any case, a dog who is wiggling all over you in the shelter may be a dog who will destroy your oak front door in two days of being left in the house, once he’s settled in. Unfortunately, these are very hard for even a good behavior consultant to spot, but there can be clues you would miss and your helpful consultant will notice.  I think this risk is generally lower in dogs who are fostered (shelter or rescue) since the SA will show up if the dog is fostered for any length of time.  Even then, however, there are a few dogs who are OK if there’s another dog in the house (as in virtually every foster home), but not if left totally alone, and they can slip through the cracks.

Finally, although I hope that the breeder you associate with is great at matching, you might want to hire a behavior consultant to help you pick a puppy or assess the litter.  Most breeders are quite happy to accommodate this, in my experience, and if they’re not, I’d consider it a red flag.  This is important if you have very specific needs (sports competitor, service dog candidate, etc.), since a lot of specific traits are needed, specific problems must be avoided, and the signs can be more subtle.  Someone just looking for a nice family dog may be able to weed out the shyest and the most overactive on their own.

Friendly parents

We don’t always have the opportunity to meet a dog or puppy’s parents, mostly if we are adopting an adult dog — especially one of unknown parentage.  But if you have that opportunity, take it.  It’s good to meet dad.  Dad provides 50% of the genes.  You’d like to see a healthy dad, and preferably one who’s had the requisite health tests for the breed and so on.  You’d like to see a dog who’s friendly and relaxed with strangers.

If it’s an “aloof” breed, make sure what you are seeing is “aloof,” not actually fearful or aggressive.  Don’t let a breeder tell you that a growl, spooky barking, or cringing and hiding qualify as aloof.  Aloofness means not rushing to greet, and calmly sizing someone up for a few minutes before greeting politely.  More important is the temperament of your potential dog’s mother. Not only does she also contribute half the genes, but her behavior around her baby puppies tells and teaches the puppy a great deal about the world.  If she is afraid or defensive when people come to see her babies, her babies are learning that people are scary and threatening — while they are at their very most impressionable, from the most important being in their world.  Same if they react badly to dogs approaching. If the breeder says she doesn’t want you to meet the dam, that is a huge red flag.  If the litter is in rescue, the same rules apply.

Unfortunately, a lot of litters in rescue come from less than optimal circumstances, and some of those mothers are feral or nearly so; terrified of people, defensive, and also chronically stressed.  The pups may be undernourished and they have certainly already learned the world is a scary place. These puppies have so many strikes against them that I could not in good conscience recommend adopting one.  However, if the mom is friendly and welcoming to all and seems healthy and nourished, things can still work out all right.

It’s often impossible to bring a strange dog in to meet a litter, but sometimes it can happen. The last time I assessed a litter, after checking with the breeder, I let my dog out of the car and allowed her to run right up to the pups’ kennel.  The mom calmly acknowledged my dog.  The pups ran over to sniff her nose.  No one was alarmed, upset, or afraid. That’s what I want to see!  This breeder had done a good job (and the pup I picked for my traumatized clients is doing wonderfully, and is quite bulletproof).

I know some rescue/shelter activists will be angered by my cautionary comments over adopting a puppy from rescue.  Many of them are unaware of the severe disadvantage these pups are at.  But puppies are not blank slates, and there are numerous factors (genetics, prenatal environment including nutrition and stress hormones, postnatal nutrition and stress hormones via milk, behavior of dam, treatment by other dogs and people, and so on) which can set the stage very, very early.  This is another blog post, but for purposes of picking a puppy, I would think long and hard before adopting a puppy from a stressed, undernourished, and/or unsocial/fearful/aggressive dam.  Cute does not cut it.  Love does not fix it. So there you are, the short version and the long explanations.

You’ll notice a bunch of stuff I didn’t put on my list and you may be confused or outraged.  Some of it (health testing, early puppy socialization, etc.) will tend to be covered by some of my broader recommendations.  Plus, if you get a puppy at 8 weeks, you have another 6-8 weeks to do proper socialization, so a breeder’s or foster’s failure to do what I would do is not a deal killer.  I specifically will always leave out the following:

  • Puppy is a purebred. Nothing about pure breeding guarantees health or good temperament or good breeding practices.  Judge those on their own merits, without trying to use “purebred” as a proxy.”
  • Puppy is AKC registered.  See above.  This gets you nothing except the ability to show in AKC conformation or certain other events.  If you care about those, you can still use information in this article.  Most people don’t care and shouldn’t care.  Unless you are playing squash on an indoor floor, you do not need crosstraining shoes with nonmarking soles.  This is the equivalent.  You really only need AKC registration if you have a specific need for it, and if you do, you already know that.  Otherwise it’s worthless.
  • Breed/conformation champion parents or grandparents.  This can feel glamorous, but it tells you little to nothing about your future dog’s health, behavior, or aptitudes.  This is another huge discussion, but for all practical purposes, it is irrelevant for the vast majority of dog owners.
  • Other stuff I’m sure people will attempt to call me on and will be outraged by the omission of from my list.  I’ll try to respond individually to respectful posts.  I will respond once the first time an issue is raised, and then I’ll be done, so if you don’t get a response to your question, please read the comments.

Thanks for reading.

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.