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.

 

My dog is a quarter wolf

No, no it’s not – or at least, you can’t know whether this is true.

Actually, this isn’t about my dog at all. I don’t have a dog with a wolf grandparent. This blog is about the idea that we can say any particular dog is “87.5% wolf” or “one-quarter Jack Russell” or most of the other fractional values we assign to describe a dog’s heredity. This concept is confusing and hard to explain, so really, I’m writing this as a blog so I have a handy reference for when it comes up in discussion.

Some very basic genetic principles applying to sexual reproduction:

1. When two parents have babies, each baby’s DNA is half mom’s and half dad’s.

2. We have chromosomes, which are conglomerated chunks of DNA, broken up into segments called genes. (There is also “filler” which does its own complicated stuff.) Chromosomes come in two matched sets, with congruent addresses on the matching chromosomes.

For example, on dogs, gene locus R306ter contains genes that code for the presence or absence of “e-locus yellow” — the color of Golden Retrievers and yellow Labradors, among others. The dominant gene, E, is a slightly different shape than the recessive gene, e. If the dog has E on both chromosomes, its coat color will be the underlying black or chocolate. If the dog has E on just one of the chromosomes, the same result occurs, because E is dominant (will express and the recessive version will not express). If BOTH chromosomes have the recessive e, then this protein will be expressed, creating that yellow-gold color of some of our favorite breeds. All Goldens are e/e, so they will never show up in chocolate or black (but you can tell what’s there by looking at their nose leather). Labs can have any combination, so you can get yellow or chocolate or black.

3. One of those gene versions came from Mom. The other one came from your Dad. This is true for every single gene locus, whatever the gene does.

4. If we are talking about two individuals able to reproduce together, we know that they have an awful lot of DNA in common with each other.  This means that for a whole lot of gene loci, both Mom and Dad are contributing the same version of the gene — that is, two protein-generating chunks of DNA which create the same protein.  Within a breed, there is even less variation from one individual to the next.  But still, some of the gene loci could have  different versions of the gene.  For example, Mama Labrador might have E/e at her R306ter locus, while Daddy Lab might have e/e at his R306ter locus.

5.  Back to the puppies of these two Labs:  here is where those Punnett squares from high school come in.  Blue collar puppy got E from Mama Lab (could have gone either way) and e from Daddy Lab (only option available).  She is E/e, like Mama.  Since the dominant version of the gene, E, is present, the recessive e/e yellow color cannot express and  Blue collar girl will be either chocolate or black.  (That’s another whole puzzle which we are ignoring for now.)  Now let’s look at Red collar boy.  He got e from Mama (could have gone either way), and e from Daddy.  He is therefore e/e and will express a yellow or golden coat color.  He will be a yellow Lab.

Now, let’s just imagine that a bad thing happens and Blue collar and Red collar have an unchaperoned fling and an accidental litter.  With respect to yellow coat color, we have one E/e parent and one e/e parent… just like these two dogs’ own parents.  And likewise, these new puppies, Purple and Green, could end up either E/e or e/e.  We would just say they are black (or chocolate) or yellow.  We would not say that Purple (our third generation E/e)  is “one quarter yellow.”  Purple’s yellow coloring genetics are exactly the same as her Mama’s and her Mama’s Mama’s.  She has a fifty percent chance of passing on E to one of her own puppies, and a fifty percent chance of passing on an e.  Same as the others. And even more important, we would not say that Green (e/e) is “one quarter black” or even “half-black,” even though one of his parents and one of his grandparents are black.  Because even though those dogs were black, we know that Green has ONLY the e version of the gene and that is why he is yellow colored.  The fact that an ancestor had the other version which allowed black to be expressed has zero effect.

Now that we have worked through that thought experiment, switch the two original parents to Border Collie and Whippet.  (This is a popular purpose bred sports mix in flyable, not to mention an old-fashioned lurcher.)  Our first litter of puppies will have half BC genes and half W genes.  Because this is a primary cross between two breeds, it is referred to as an F1 generation or F1 litter.  So at every single gene locus, we have BC/W — that is, the Border Collie version of the gene, and the Whippet version of the gene.  (See additional comment below.)  These pups will tend to look a lot like each other because they are in fact half-and-half.  Further, Whippets and BCs share plenty of DNA and have very few super-divergent traits anyway, so there won’t be genes creating traits that obviously belong to another breed to create different looking puppies.

Now, let’s imagine a breeding between two F1 “Borderwhippets.”  (Related or not, doesn’t matter.)  At every gene locus, each baby gets one gene from each parent. From each parent, Orange collar boy could get the BC or the W.  So the possible combinations are:

BC/BC, or BC (mom)/W(dad), or BC(dad)/W(mom) or W/W.  Or to put it another way, there’s a 25% chance that the combination at our sample gene locus will be all Border Collie.  And there is a 25% chance that it will be all Whippet.  And there is a one-half chance it will be  half-and-half.

This is true of every single gene locus on Orange collar boy’s chromosomes.

If we assume that assortment is truly random (it could go like the flip of a coin for each and every gene locus), then we can estimate that Orange’s gene loci will be about 25% all Border Collie (the BC versions of the genes), 25% Whippet (the Whippet versions of the genes) and 50% mixed.  If we take this average, it will generally average out, and these F2 puppies will sort of look like their parents.  But, it’s possible for one of these F2 pups to get way more than half BC DNA, just because it happened to get the BC version of the gene from both sides.  Or it could be way more Whippet.  It’s even theoretically possible for an F2 puppy to get 100% Whippet genes and be genetically indistinguishable from a purebred Whippet.

This is astronomically unlikely, but it’s possible, just like it’s very unlikely you will flip heads 100 times in a row, but possible.  And similar mixing or weird assortments can happen in F3, in F4 and so on.

Likewise, if you breed an F2 dog (half W genes, half BC genes) back to a purebred Whippet dad (W/W), your pups (generation F2a) might come out W(dad)/W(mom); or W(dad)/BC(m0m). In other words, we could see a purebred Whippet or another 50/50 Borderwhippet if the most unlikely case comes to pass.  But most likely it will be somewhere in between, with the biggest probability at around 25% BC genes and 75% Whippet genes.  So when we say a dog is “one quarter BC” because it had one BC grandparent, what we are really saying is that there is some statistical likelihood that the dog’s genes are one quarter BC.  But reality could very easily be 24 or 21%, or 29 or 33%,  and there is no way to know (at this time).

Here are some conclusions we can draw from this:

1.  F2 and F3, etc. puppies cannot be said to be “one-quarter” anything, genetically.  This is not paint mixing where every gene that has ever been present in any ancestor is in the pot.  Instead, in every single generation, half of the candidate genes for this new pup’s genome don’t make the cut.  (If it were paint, we could not go dive around in the pot and dig out every red molecule to get a purer green.  All we can do is add more and more green so that there is too little red to see.)  Once a particular version of a gene fails to make the cut, it can never crop up again.  That’s why all Vizlas, Dogues de Bordeaux and Pharaoh Hounds are genetically chocolate (liver nosed) — the version of that particular gene which codes for black hair has been totally eliminated. Anyway, any claim that a dog is “one quarter” anything, or “92% wolf” is based on the paint-mixing model — which is not how genetic assortment works.  You can be sure anyone who makes such claims simply does not understand genetics very well (and might avoid taking their other genetic claims too seriously).

As an aside, I have a hypothesis that a lot of the primarily flyball-bred sport mixes bred as height dogs from combinations of Border Collie and various terriers (Border, Jack Russell and Staffy Bull) are, in the later generations, much more “terrier” than their imagined “percentages” would suggest.  I think this is because the terrier genetics contribute the small size and breeders continue to select for that small size, thus effectively preserving terrier-specific genes.  For example, scroll down here to Blue Cedar’s Quasar, a very sweet little dog who is “said to be” half Border Collie based on his pedigree:  http://www.portlandtailblazersflyball.club/#!our-dogs/gdy0f

As you can see, he looks exactly like a mixed up terrier, and is the size of one (under 15″ at the shoulder).  Aside from being quite biddable and peaceful with other dogs, he also acts like one (he has many squirrel kills to his name, and his terrier scream is unmistakable.) He’s about an F4 mix.  I have no doubt that if we could magically map every gene on his genome, he would favor terrier much more than 50%.

2.  F2 puppies tend to be pretty consistent with each other and predictable.  F3 and F4 puppies tend to be a lot more diverse and can be pretty bewildering if the original breeds that went into them are divergent (e.g. very different in build, leg length, or head shape).

I know of an F2 Borderwhippet litter of 8 puppies who all debuted in flyball around the same age, and all put in times between 3.4 and 3.6 seconds at their first tournaments.  These are literally world-record class times which only a handful of dogs is capable of achieving to begin with. Getting an entire litter which could do this is a level of consistency most dedicated purebred breeders only dream of.  Of course this is partly luck.

I realize that this is a complicated subject and many may not have made it this far.  I suppose if I understood this better myself I could produce a shorter, more succinct explanation!  I also realize that I have oversimplified a great deal and made some broad generalizations which will enrage people with more genetic background.  For example, we did not talk at all about sex-linked traits (where there may not exist two copies of a gene because the X and Y chromosomes are not congruent shapes, among other things) or maternal DNA or the fact that actually, the vast majority of the DNA in any two dogs of any breed is virtually identical, and the number of genes that create breed differences are actually very few.  It would be more accurate to say that in an F2 dog, half of the genes which may differ between breeds will be from one of the breeds, and half of the genes which may differ between breeds will be from the other, and these comprise maybe just a fraction of a percent of all the genes on all the chromosomes.  But that is very cumbersome to say and does not add to the basic point.

I will be open to revising this if I have the energy and also if people have corrections (if I have made material mistakes which are not just oversimplifications).  I am not a geneticist, just an interested amateur.  Thanks for reading.

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.

This is more obvious to my dog than it was for me.

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.

Picking a dog

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

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

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

Focus on the bad about the breed.

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

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

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

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

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

Breeders who take dogs back

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

Here is what does not qualify:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friendly parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

Making it easy to do the right thing, and hard to do the wrong thing

A standard piece of advice in training dogs and horses has long been to make it easy for your learner to do the right thing, and hard for your learner to the wrong thing.

This comprehensive directive embodies a great deal of the training we do. I like it a lot as a rule of thumb to help clients learn how to problem solve. On the other hand, it’s ambiguous.

Ambiguity occurs when a statement is equally susceptible to more than one meaning (usually conflicting meanings). In the practice of law, there are rules for dealing with ambiguity in the language of contracts or laws, but in real life, we have no such guidance.

“Making it easy to do the right thing” is reasonably clear. If I want my dog to sit to greet, I might exercise her first so she’s not bursting with energy; I might practice sits a lot outside of an exciting greeting context so that she is likely to choose sitting as a recently reinforced behavior; I might move slowly and quietly so that she doesn’t get excited and feel like becoming airborne. I might hold a treat in my hand at nose level to keep her focus low. Or I might stand on her leash to prevent her front feet from leaving the ground.

The problematic phrase is: “making it hard to do the wrong thing.” “Hard has a lot of meanings. Ignoring those which don’t really apply here, it can mean “arduous” or “strenuous” (the opposite of “easy”). That could come into play: for example, standing on the dog’s leash would make it arduous to get up high enough to jump on the person being greeted. It could denote difficulty (being puzzling, complex, or intricate — the opposite of “simple”).

But “hard” has quite a few other meanings which some trainers invoke. “Hard” can denote “tough,” “uncomfortable,” “distressing,” or “awful” (opposite of “comfortable”). It can also be “harsh,” “firm,” “strict,” “exacting,” “callous,” “hard-hearted,” “unkind,” “ruthless,” “merciless,” “cruel,” and “pitiless.” (Antonym here is “kind.” My goodness, my thesaurus has an awful lot of synonyms for this particular meaning of hard. Such focus on the grim!)

Another set of meanings involves “sharp,” “powerful,” “heavy” and “violent.” The antonym here is “light.”

It is easy to imagine this latter, large, set of meanings informing training choices. These meanings easily encompass acts like hanging a dog from a choke chain, kicking or kneeing it, applying an electric shock, or pinching its toes when it jumps up. I don’t use these techniques for training* and I don’t want to encourage my students or clients to use them either.

I’ve found myself wanting to say “make it easy for the dog to the right thing, and hard for the dog to do the wrong thing” to students to help remind them of a simple problem-solving algorithm. But I keep regretting it since it leaves too much room for reactive, abusive, or unnecessarily aversive training techniques.

If it were me, I’d change the phrase: “Make it easy for your dog to the right thing, and inconvenient or impossible for the dog to do the wrong thing.” The problem is, this is really a lot less catchy sounding. Anyone else out there have a better suggestion?


Footnote: *I will lift a dog from a collar or knee it IF we are in emergency management mode; the dog is overaroused and/or behaving dangerously, and I need to get control fast. This is not the same as choosing a training technique and using it systematically.

The trainer’s role

It is not my job to make friends with a scared dog.   It is my job to make sure this dog feels as safe as possible.  It is my job to make sure the owners know that their number one job in helping their dog is to make sure the dog feels safe.  And the dog very rarely feels safe if it is close to someone it fears.  It is my job to teach the owners how to keep the dog safe, and then to train alternative behaviors, change emotions, use adjunctive tools as needed.

It is easy to imagine that if I show this dog that I am a nice person who gives out cookies, the dog will start to feel safer with people and make positive associations, and so its aggression will diminish.  Actually, this strategy fails more often than it works.  If I went to see a client and felt I’d done my bit because the dog liked me, took cookies from me, and did a sit for me, even though it bit the last person who gave it a cookie, I have failed my client.  I have failed the dog. The dog is not learning what it needs to learn. The owners are not learning what they need to learn.

Unfortunately, there’s a huge amount of information online, as well as coming from other trainers (who do not focus on behavior), inadvertently telling them just the opposite.  That they should have people make friends with the dog. Feed the dog.  Or that they must force the dog to deal with it, so they throw the dog in the deep end over and over, with more and more spectacular failures.  An awful lot of my clients’ dogs are now two strikes down and have spent years learning to be more scared and more defensive and less interested in what their owners have to say, all because of bad information that often came from other trainers.  Or the internet.  Or TV.

Unfortunately, these types of problems can be, and often are, made worse by well meaning skill trainers.  Skill trainers is a group term I use to describe people who are teaching skills: agility, obedience, puppy class, therapy, nose work.  I know plenty of skill trainers who can teach things I am not necessarily so good at.  My recent experience instructing someone on how to teach heeling didn’t actually go so well, but she did very well once she got into a real obedience class with an experienced obedience instructor.  It goes the other way, too.  Most obedience instructors don’t really know how to handle dogs whose behavior is being affected by fear, frustration, anger.  Most skill trainers will try to make friends with a scared dog, thinking they are helping.  Very likely, they are not… quite likely, they are actually doing damage.  Of course, they don’t know this, because of that frustrating problem: we don’t know what we don’t know!

I would like to see skill trainers, the hardworking group who comprise the great bulk of dog trainers, learning more systematically about handling fearful, reactive or aggressive dogs in classes.  And learning when to refer.  And knowing to whom they will refer.  They will give better service if they do not try to do something they don’t know how to do.  It’s tough.  Owners ask for help.  They don’t know they are asking the wrong person.  The trainer has superior knowledge and should be the one who recognizes when the question is not for her to answer.  If a dog is biting or snapping… refer!  If the dog’s fear or anxiety is making it hard for him to function in class… refer!  If you think a dog needs treats from strangers to learn to like them better… refer, please!  You are doing that dog and its owners a favor by doing the right thing.  They can get the help they need.  (Need I add that it’s almost always best to get these dogs out of group classes anyway, since they are often disruptive and take up disproportionate time and energy? May be dangerous to the other dogs or handlers? This is not what you’re supposed to be doing.  Refer so you can go back to what you’re getting paid for.)