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.