My dog is in my car. He’s fine.

“I don’t want to be educated.”

 

I finished up my meeting with a happy client.  The young dog, who leaps on people in greeting and has bitten a couple of times, is already doing a lot better since our first meeting.  We talked about door manners and agreed to touch base in a few weeks.  Feeling pleased, I headed outside toward my car.

Then my heart sank.  A huge black pickup was parked right next to my car, blocking most of the narrow street.  A teen on a Razor scooter was blocking the driver’s door, a smaller kid was wandering around, an older lady was standing by my car holding a Chihuahua, and another woman (the middle generation) was behind the wheel of the pickup.  I smiled at the teen blocking my access and said, “I’m getting in my car.”  Staring at me, she moved a bit so I could get in.

Then it started.  I was told that my dogs should not be in the car; that they did not have water; that I should have left them at home; that they were distressed.  I explained that they were used to traveling with me. I pointed out the sign on my windshield and asked if they had read it.  Yes, I was told.  Then why, I asked, hadn’t they texted me?

“I shouldn’t have to.”  Instead, this person had called the police.  It turns out that she had read the sign on Barley’s crate explaining that he has separation anxiety and would be dead if I couldn’t bring him with me, and she had no answer for what I should do with him if I couldn’t leave him home — she changed the subject.  She claimed his panting was because he was hot and not because people were hovering around my car.  She said this was no different from leaving a child in a car and she hoped I never had access to anyone’s children.  The grandmother raged at me because they had no water.  (In fact, Mellie’s bucket was empty, though I had checked before I went inside.)  They had to get very close to the back window to see Barley’s sign or Mellie’s bucket, and they couldn’t have seen Barley’s bucket at all.  My poor dogs.

The deputy arrived.  He was very calm and quiet.  He asked me some questions.  I showed him the windows and the Vent-Lock holding the lift back open about 8″.  I showed him the Aluminet I can use if it’s hotter, and I showed him the sign on my windshield with my text number on it.  He concluded there was no problem and told me to leave while he went and talked to the complainers.

Last time this happened, I was asked: “What kind of person are you?”  The complainer literally pulled into a parking space near mine as I had just parked and was pulling the Aluminet over my car.  I explained the Aluminet would cool the car.  She told me she could break into my car, and I said, “not unless the dogs are in distress and you have called the police first.”  She was on the phone and waved it at me.  I came back out within 15 minutes, and she was still sitting near my car.  Since I assumed she had called the police, I sat there for another 15 minutes under my Aluminet.  No cops, so I stepped over to ask her if they were coming.  When she saw me approach, she slammed her car door shut and gave me the finger.

The time before that, I was told that the complainer had called the police.  It was 71 degrees and dusk.  I tried to explain that my white car wasn’t going to heat up much when there was almost no sun hitting it, and that outside temperature had less to do with interior temperature than light did.  She told me,

“I don’t want to be educated.”  She told me to stop harassing her.  The police arrived, told me there was no problem. I left.

Would you like to hear about the time before that, or the one before that?

Dogs can be fine in cars.

 

Here is the deal.

Mellie works with me with some of my client dogs.  She’s what we call a neutral, decoy, or helper dog.  Sometimes I let client dogs see her so I can assess their responses toward a strange dog.  Sometimes she parades around so owners can practice new skills in handling their dog’s reactions.  Sometimes she meets them so the dogs can practice their new greeting skills.

Barley has clinical separation anxiety.  True separation anxiety is a panic disorder.  These dogs panic if left alone.  They will distress-bark nonstop and try to escape, often damaging their crates or house doors in the process.  In severe cases, they will eat through doors or walls, damaging their teeth or claws in the process.  They may throw themselves through closed windows.  They may lose control of bladder or bowels.  This isn’t about dogs who are sad when you leave and excited when you get back; it’s about dogs who panic as if they are drowning.  It can be a life-threatening disorder involving a huge amount of suffering for dog and owner.  I fostered Barley for 14 months and tried to place him twice before deciding to adopt him. He’s a lovely dog, albeit somewhat high-maintenance.  Since I moved to a new house, he has regressed and really can’t be left alone.  If I do leave him, he has to be fairly heavily sedated and he’s still very stressed.  While I’m working with him to help him learn to relax when alone again, it’s slow going.  So, I bring him with me.  He’s a lot happier in his car crate.  We get by.  A couple of weeks ago, temperatures in Portland rose to record levels — it was near or over 100 for almost a week.  Since I couldn’t leave Barley home and couldn’t really bring him in the car, I cancelled everything and went to stay with friends on the coast.  This cost me money and caused some stress (not that the beach wasn’t lovely).  Please don’t tell me I’m a bad dog owner.

Because I have dogs in the car with me, I bought a white car.  White cars heat up more slowly than dark colored cars.  I bought a Vent-Lock, which enables me to open up the lift gate and lock it to prevent entry.  I have reflective windshield screens.  I have a huge Aluminet to drape over my car, with a selection of magnets and clips to hold it in place.  Aluminet is a woven aluminum shade cloth: both highly reflective and allowing air flow, it can lower interior temperatures by 15-20 degrees and is the single most effective way to control temperature inside your car.  I seek out shade when I can.  My dogs have water buckets in their crates.  I use whatever of this gear I need to keep the temperatures safe.  Yep, sometimes the temperature inside the car is 80 or 85 degrees.  This is warm, but it’s not dangerous to a healthy dog with a normal head shape.  (Overweight or brachycephalic dogs, or those with certain health issues, may be less tolerant of higher temperatures.)

I point this out to the people who stalk my car and scare my dogs, but many of them don’t care.  Those people today — if they actually cared about my dogs’ comfort and safety, they would have texted me.  I could have filled those water buckets inside of three minutes.  Instead they called the police and waited around for the chance to confront and harass me.  It could not be more obvious that they are interested in being self-righteously angry, no matter how illogical their position.  It could not be more apparent that they are not interested in “being educated.”  Facts mean nothing.  They don’t know what a heat-distressed dog looks like and they don’t care.  They read memes on Facebook with false information about how fast cars heat up and have heroic fantasies about breaking someone’s car windows.  It seems almost inevitable that my car window will be broken someday.

When Barley was a young puppy, he was chained to a tree for three months, from the ages of two to five months.  He is much more reactive on leash.  He’s (to all appearances) a Border Collie/Great Pyrenees mix.  He has some breed-normal reserve with strangers, is territorial around my house and a bit around my car, and isn’t comfortable when he feels trapped. When he’s in a crate inside my car, he is trapped.  I would like him to feel safe in there.  A lot of times, it’s the only place he can be.  When I say he would be dead if I couldn’t bring him places with me in the car, I am not exaggerating.  I was very close to euthanizing him before I adopted him, and when I decided to keep him, I knew it was going to be tough because my other male dog tormented him mercilessly.  (My younger male is now tormenting him and I have to do a lot of management and feel a lot of guilt over this.)  I rearranged my life in many ways to accommodate him.  I adore this dog, but on top of the many arrangements I have to make just to keep him in my home and life, I am now dealing with angry, irrational people like those described above about once a week.  I fear that the people staring in and hanging around will upset him and make him even more defensive.  The sign on his crate warns he may bite, and I feel this is true.  I dread the day someone breaks my window and panics him.

You’d think that if you saw a car with highly visible special equipment to create shade and airflow, plus an informational sign with a text number for concerned onlookers, you would assume the owner was aware of the risk of hot cars and had mitigated it, was available to deal with it.  Apparently, this is not the case.

Here is some crucial information for people who are concerned:

  • Outside temperature is not that important in causing a car to heat up.  Think about it — cars don’t get that hot at night.  It happens during the day.
  • Mostly, what makes cars heat up is light hitting them.  A car in direct sun heats up faster than one in shade.
    • The sun is stronger when you are closer to the equator.  (That is why there is ice at the poles but not at the Equator.) There is literally more energy hitting the car surface per square inch in Louisiana than in Seattle.  I live in Portland, Oregon, which is north of the 45th parallel and most of the rest of the continental US.  Portland is north of Ontario, in Canada.  The sun here is relatively weak.
    • Reflective surfaces turn away the sun instead of absorbing the light and turning it into heat.  That’s why white cars don’t heat up as much as dark ones.  It is also why Aluminet works so well; aluminum has a very high albedo (reflectivity).
  • Larger cars heat up more slowly than smaller ones.  My car is a Subaru Outback – a middling volume.
  • Airflow matters.  The farther windows are open, the slower the car will heat up.  The more windows are open, allowing air to flow through instead of getting stuck, the slower the car will heat up.  Four open windows and an open lift back allow a lot of air flow.  (Aluminet if full of holes, so it also allows a lot of airflow.)

You know that sign you’ve seen as a Facebook meme stating the temperature inside a car based on the temperature outside the car?  That’s full of hot air.  As noted, exterior temperature is not the main determinant of interior temperature.  That meme is based on a study done on a car in New Orleans in July.  The sun in New Orleans, in July, contains a lot more energy to turn into heat than sun can ever get in Portland.  And it doesn’t take into account the effect of overcast, shade from trees and buildings, shade added by the owner, or car color.

If you are hot under the collar about dogs in hot cars, please do dogs everywhere a favor.  Learn the signs of heat distress in dogs.  (Hint: If they are barking, they probably aren’t in any trouble, but would like you to go away. Dogs in heat distress will generally be pretty still and lethargic — they will look “calm.”)  Learn to assess the actual conditions.  Is there shade?  What’s your latitude?  What color is the car?  If the owner has left contact info on the car, use it.  Just because a dog is in a car doesn’t mean something is wrong.  Many dogs go in many cars and are fine.  Your concern should be actual signs of distress or a car that is actually likely to be dangerously hot because it’s closed up and in bright sun.  Your index of concern should be far higher in Arizona or Florida than in Oregon or Wisconsin.

At this point I am seriously considering buying a cargo van just so people can’t see in.  I really do not want a cargo van, but this harassment is eating a hole in my stomach.  I promise you, no one loves my dogs more than I do.  I am more knowledgeable than most about how to keep them safe.  I have spent a lot of time and money gearing up to keep them safe.  Your rage does not change that.

 

 

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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 (http://www.bordercollietrustgb.org.uk.  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.

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 (http://www.bordercollietrustgb.org.uk.  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.

But he was wagging his tail!

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.)

Enjoy.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-2qcuAccnA

 

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

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

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

To help avoid a lousy placement, consider the following.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The most painful choice

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.