So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ….
A lot of people believe that if a dog is wagging his tail, he is friendly and approachable. This is flatly incorrect and it gets a lot of people bitten.
As with any other body language, we must look at how the dog is wagging and at the rest of his body to get a better idea of his mood. Different tail wags can indicate friendliness, happiness, uncertainty, fear, and threat.
This topic has been well covered elsewhere, but I wanted to share a marvelous bit of video a friend took of one of her dogs. This little Jack Russell (her name is No. 5, as you can hear one of her owners saying in the video) is ferociously resource guarding a trash can. As you can see, her owner is easily able to call her off of her little guarding project to distract her before removing the interesting item from the trash. It’s amusing that this dog is willing to (apparently) lay down her life to protect her access to the empty gummy bears bag, but the reason I am posting this is for her body language. The guarding is unmistakeable, but look at that tail! Wagging madly the whole time! (It’s wagging high, stiff and fast, which is a typical “threat” wag.)
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.
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.
I have a dear friend who was a support to me during some difficult years. I spent some periods living in her home with her parents and siblings, and felt close to all of them. In time, her youngest brother grew up and went to medical school. Shortly after he emerged as a newly minted MD, he was hiking with his dad on a mountain. His dad was in amazing shape, a lifelong long distance runner, but this did not prevent some disaster from occurring during the hike. (I don’t recall what, exactly.) He couldn’t breathe. His son, in desperation, performed a rough tracheotomy with his pocket knife, but it did not save his beloved father’s life. I was horrified at the time at the sense of helplessness and (probably) guilt that young man must have felt, along with the expected grief, loss, and other overpowering emotions that must accompany the loss of a loved parent. I am certain he felt that he should have been able to save his father, that he was the one with the special skills and training to allow him to meet this emergency and conquer it. But he could not.
This memory has come back to me in recent days as I mourn the passing of my littlest dog, Nano. Nano came to me at two-and-a-half years from a bad situation. I finished his flyball training and he had a wonderful career as a steady, reliable flyball dog. But this was only part of the picture. He already had a lot of social anxiety and compulsive behavior patterns, and a very inflexible temperament that locked into rituals with the greatest of ease. I spent the last five years and five months trying different medications, teaching him new skills, managing what I could not train, trying to protect him from the consequences of what was broken in his brain. One of the most difficult problems he presented was aggression toward other male dogs in my house. This was getting steadily worse, and for various reasons, could not be managed with crating or other kinds of separation. Every day was extremely stressful for me, for him, and for the other two dogs who were the targets of his outbursts of frustration.
In January 2015, Nano experienced a serious injury to his back playing flyball. While he could still walk and run after this, it was not safe for him to play flyball or fetch. This deprived him of his only real outlet. He was learning to be a fine little nosework dog, but it was not enough to make him comfortable. He was still constantly watching 30 TV screens at once, unable to focus on one thing and unable to make behavioral choices that might reduce his conflict with other dogs in my house. Then, the other shoe dropped: I learned that I would need to accelerate my plans to sell this house and move to another. In a few days, I will be moving out, and living in a small travel trailer for a few months. Then I will buy another house. But I knew that living in a travel trailer with Nano and the other dogs was not going to be safe, and it was going to be purely miserable — for all four of us.
And so, a few days ago, I did what I knew I had to do to protect the other dogs, and to protect Nano himself from the consequences of behavior that none of us could control. I took him to my vet and we sat in a quiet room while he very quickly went to sleep. I imagine he was tired from that lifetime of vigilance, from the thousands of hours of circling and pacing he used to cope with his anxiety. My vet and I sat there, tears running down our faces, while we said goodbye. Nano would have been nine on January 24, 2016.
As a dog behavior consultant, I think I must feel something like my friend’s brother watching his father die on a cold mountaintop in New England. I should have been able to fix this. I should have been able to do something. My sense of sadness and loss is compounded by guilt and shame and helplessness.
Losing each of my other beloved pets who has died was horrible. In some cases, they died before I had to make a decision. In the cases where I chose the time, the end was near and I knew I was helping them avoid only suffering. There was not much left, for each of these beloved friends, to live for.
It was different for Nano. I took him to flyball the night before he died, and he had a great time! Of course he was quite sore the next day and could not have done this repeatedly, but he was thrilled. He remembered his job exactly and he did it well. He even jumped up into my arms once, something he hasn’t offered to do since the back injury. He loved the few minutes of agility I gave him last week, and did a great job with his final nosework searches. There was still some quality in his life.
I took that away. I had to choose, and I chose the members of our little family who have longer to live, a better quality of life, and less responsibility for the intense stress and anxiety we felt when Nano would have meltdowns at unavoidable daily occurrences. It was the right choice. But it still hurts like hell.
When I got Mellie, the plan was always for her to do flyball. That was my main sport. I wanted to do other stuff – agility! herding! and whatever. I picked her out, the “highest” pup in the litter. The most precocious, with a gorgeous build and intense toy drive. The breeder knows I do flyball and so her guidance reflected this. Mellie had a pretty good flyball career. I made some mistakes. She wasn’t perfect. It’s amazing how well I trained her to spit the ball on the line before someone pointed out I was actually reinforcing this! Live and learn. Still, she loved it, she gave it 110%, and we had a lot of fun together. She was totally unflappable, nailing pass after pass on the line, in anchor. One time a loose dog trotted across all four lanes at a big tournament… right in front of Mellie as she approached the box. She didn’t break her stride, completing her run perfectly. We won the heat with a superb time and I was relieved the judge did not call interference. (There was no interference!)
We dabbled in agility. She Q’d a couple of times, but we never got into the ring until after The Disaster. The Disaster was an injury playing disc when she was 7. She loves disc. She was practically born with a disc in her mouth. Her breeder was the founder of the Canadian Disc Dog Association; her sire held a Canadian disc record. On this particular day, she must have landed wrong, perhaps putting her foot into a hole. I was throwing balls for the other dogs, and when I turned around, Mellie was lying on the ground, the disc at her side. This was weird, but I hadn’t seen anything happen, so I called her. She didn’t move. I started to panic. There was nothing in heaven and earth that would stop her from bringing me her disc. My roommate and I sprinted over to her. We gently lifted her up, and she lay right back down. Her right rear leg was not bearing any weight.
I took her to my vet right away, and saw someone other than our regular, beloved doctor. This vet could not get a drawer sign. “Partial rupture,” she said. My regular vet called the next day. “Get her straight to an orthopedist,” she instructed. “Dr. ___ does not know how stoic and athletic Mellie is.” The x-ray showed a horrifying situation. The knee was completely luxated, the upper and lower leg bones totally disconnected. It took a couple of weeks to get her in to surgery, where an excellent surgeon performed both a figure-8 repair and a TPLO. Mellie cannot take NSAIDs so we relied on ice to reduce inflammation. We did a lot of rehab, but in the end, that leg has never been really OK. She has permanent damage and degeneration around the tendon insertion points. And, predictably, the other knee eventually had a partial tear. Mellie has now had three knee surgeries; the first big one, a second TPLO, and a plate removal from the first leg.
She was able to return to do some flyball and agiilty before the second rupture, but after that, we knew she had to be done. At age eight, long before she should have had to quit, she had to retire from what she loved most. We’ve been searching ever since.
I decided that we would work more on obedience. She had been in many obedience classes and she was pretty good. When she’s on, her heeling is flashy and gorgeous. She’s inconsistent, and she is impatient. There is not enough running, jumping or barking! Her stand stay and down stay are great. Her sit stay, not so much… and all the knee problems did not help. However, I persevered and finally, last weekend, I got her in a ring. It’s a race against time, against the day her knees just won’t put up with sit stays any more.
It was not pretty. She barked! (I watched the judge marking her (Friday) and his (Saturday) clipboard each time.) She wandered out of heel position! She bounced around too much on the fast pace! On Friday, for the first time in over a year, she anticipated the recall. On Saturday, we made it to the group stays, but she stood up on the sit stay (and stood nice and still for the rest of the time). In a moment of confusion, I went to leash her to retire, but the judge reminded me to stay. At this moment, Mellie turned and snatched the leash of the other dog in Novice A — a friend’s dog — and tried to get me to tug. (Judge marking clipboard ominously.) She did a perfectly lovely down stay and off we went.
I felt like crap on Friday. By Saturday, a sense of acceptance started to fill me. By Monday, I was laughing looking back on her antics. She is who she is. She wants to tug, run, jump and bark. She does not want to walk slowly, sit still, remain silent. It’s not who she is, and she’s had nearly a decade of being allowed to bark, and run, and actually have fun — her fun — in the ring.
Despite misgivings (I’m a trainer, I should be able to fix this; she’s a Border Collie, what kind of idiot am I anyway? Why didn’t I do a better job on the frustration tolerance when she was a baby?), I get it. She doesn’t want to do this, at least, not in the ring. And she’s not quite old (ten in June), but not young, either. We’re not going to waste time not having fun.
Rally didn’t make her too happy when she was younger. But she really does like heeling, and maybe the rapid movement changes won’t whip her up as much as they used to, especially if I can talk to her more. It’s also in and out faster, so less of a wait until she can tug, or have some cheese. No lengthy sit-stay. As long as she can do the repeated sits, maybe she will like it.
We will also return to nose work. She knows all her odors and is a decent searcher. We have more to learn, but she’s pretty good for never having taken a class.
I have to let go of proving something. I have a somewhat naughty and disobedient Border Collie, but she is happy. I’m not going to fight that to prove something. It’s hard. I’m a competitive person. I’ve been expected to excel since I was born, and I have trouble motivating myself without a competitive goal. I need to get past that, for my dog.