Group Post: Lessons From Difficult Dogs

One of the things you’ll hear a lot if you participate in dog sports with a non-traditional dog (read: anything other than a perfectly healthy and sane specimen of whatever three or four breeds dominate your sport) is “oh, you’ll learn so much from working with that dog!”

This refrain is not always as helpful as the people handing it out seem to think. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s a downright bummer. Like an apprentice who’s been knocked too many times upside the head by a particularly hard sensei, there definitely comes a time when I feel like, you know what, I would be totally okay with having less wisdom if that also means fewer bruises.

But as dispiriting as those struggles can be in the moment (and, oh, they are, they are!), there’s a good bit of truth to the sentiment. We at Team Unruly know difficult dogs — and we’re not talking about doing agility with an Aussie instead of a Border Collie. We have actually difficult dogs. Reactive dogs. Fearful dogs. Dogs with three legs. Dogs with low drive. Dogs of non-traditional breeds. Dogs of non-identifiable breeds.

And we have learned lessons from these dogs that no other dog in the world could have taught us.

Of course, occasionally you DO win, even with a difficult dog.

Rebecca, Cerberus and Fly

(1) We were never alone.

When I first got Cerberus, I jumped head-first into the world of dog shows and competitions. In that environment, you (usually) see dogs at their best. You don’t see all of the hours of training the owners put in, and you generally don’t see really reactive dogs because, well, they don’t often get to compete. It’s easy to look around and think that you’re the only one with a “problem child” and that you don’t belong there. At first, Cerb’s fear issues made me feel alone. There we were, struggling just to keep his reactivity in check in the group ring, while his littermate brothers and sisters racked up titles. I blamed myself for our problems and felt sure that nobody else could be struggling like we were.

Luckily — amazingly — acknowledging Cerb’s reactivity and seeking help put me in touch with people who have become some of my best friends. I met Karen, my saintly trainer who changed my entire perspective on dog training and taught me pretty much everything I know about positive reinforcement training. I also became closer to all of the friends who eventually formed Team Unruly. I realized that there are no perfect dogs and that everyone is struggling with something, so I was never really alone.

(2) Just when you think you have it all figured out…

Along comes a game-changer. I learned so much from working through Cerb’s reactivity and training with him for weight pull and rally. I learned even more by working with my trainer, Karen, as her assistant for her Control Unleashed and BAT classes. I wouldn’t say that I was over-confident or cocky, but I definitely felt like I had a pretty good grip on “dog training,” in a general sense. I had worked it out with Cerb, right? I could totally do that again. So I adopted a second dog, Fly.

Game changer! Fly is so much like Cerb and yet so very different. She has fear issues, too (d’oh!), but expresses them in different ways. When it comes to things that make her nervous or afraid, I feel like I have the tools to work through that – the same practices that helped Cerb will help Fly. When it comes to teaching her tricks, though? Very, very different dog. See, Cerb now has this four-year background of positive reinforcement and shaping games. He has always been an enthusiastic (ballistic, really) participant in training. Once he realized I would reward him for trying, he couldn’t be stopped. He offers behavior after behavior until he gets the answer, and I… totally, totally took that for granted. When I adopted Fly and started working with her, I quickly learned what it’s like to have a dog with no reinforcement history. Where Cerb responds to the “pressure” of me asking for a behavior by throwing out his entire repertoire, Fly quails. If she doesn’t get the answer right on her first attempt, she just curls up and looks worried.

I don’t know if Fly’s behavior was caused by history of corrective training methods or if it’s just her personality, and I guess it doesn’t really matter: the point is that Fly requires a very different approach than Cerb, and she is challenging me to be a better trainer and dig deep for solutions. I have to take it very, very slowly with her and train in very short sessions, then give her time to recover, something I never had to do with Cerb because he will work until he drops. I often find that I will work for several days on something with Fly and feel like we’re making no progress, and then we’ll come back to it a week later and she’ll have figured it out on her own time. This is frustrating for me, but also an extremely valuable lesson that I needed to learn.

Batty-eared crazy creature learns to concentrate in a busy environment - note our distance from all the action!

Batty-eared crazy creature learns to concentrate in a busy environment – note our distance from all the action!

Jennifer and Pongu

As I’ve talked about at length elsewhere, Pongu wasn’t a dog that I got with competition in mind (I didn’t even know dog sports were a Thing back then, much less a Thing that would end up consuming major chunks of my life), and our journey has been a long series of struggles and setbacks punctuated with occasional brilliant flashes of joy.

I have learned many things along this road, but if I had to distill them down to three main points, they’d probably be:

(1) Patience makes possibility. Working with a fearful dog is not a quick process, and it isn’t one that lends itself to major forward leaps. Progress, for us, is always tiny and incremental; whenever I get tempted to push too far too fast, I end up setting us back (and yet I still keep doing it, because I’m an idiot). But when I can force myself to rein in my impatience and work in teeny tiny bits, we move forward. It happens in slow (often frustratingly slow!) steps, but it happens. Patience and practice have enabled my fearful dog to do things that I once believed would be totally impossible for him.

(2) Failures only affect you. Victories can affect the world. No one really cares when we NQ a Rally run (least of all me; at this point I’m only tracking to see if we NQ in some new and interesting way that we haven’t previously accomplished). But when we succeed, we can be a little spark of light out there showing that yes, you can participate in dog sports with a scaredy dog; yes, you can do it with a pound mutt; yes, you can do it force-free. All of those messages are worth creating and sending out to the world, because all of them have the potential to give people hope and improve their relationships with their dogs. That belief helps keep me going on days when I don’t necessarily feel all that excited about stepping back into training.

(3) My greatest victory is a joyful dog. I’ve had Pongu’s ARCHMX certificate sitting in an envelope on my counter, unopened and collecting dust, for about a month now. At some point I’ll take it out and put it in a frame and hang it on his Wall o’ Trophies. But it’s really not a priority anymore.

These days, I don’t generally keep ribbons or placement rosettes in WCRL; one per competition, just to hold the memory that we were there, is enough for me. I don’t worry about the points or scores except as a measure of whether we’re making progress overall. Triple Qs are nice, but I don’t especially care about those either.

At this point in the game, the only victory I really care about is having a happy dog who wants to be there with me. I want to look down and see Pongu’s face smiling back up at me as we heel off the start line together. I want to see him grinning confidently as he snaps through a left finish, or bounding along with his tail in the air on a recall. Everything I do is aimed at building a happy, confident dog who can work in the ring with joy.

I got into dog sports because I hoped they would build Pongu’s confidence. It would be a lie to say that’s the only thing I care about, of course; I do want precise heeling and high scores and a clean performance in the ring. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Pongu is that those aren’t and can’t be inconsistent goals — the only way I get those things is if I have a happy and confident dog at my side.

I started doing this for my dog. He started doing it for me. The point of all these games, as far as I’m concerned, is for us to find joy in this partnership and in working together to bring happiness to each other. That’s what we’re out there to win.

Kelsey and Nellie

When I was initially trying to figure out who to write about here, my first idea was to write about Lucy, my hyper-reactive dog who has taught me like 90% of what I know about training.  After thinking about it a second, though, I realized that the dog I’ve had the saddest and most frustrating experiences with is Nellie, my cute little tripod pit bull.  In a certain way, Nellie is probably the easiest of my three dogs: she’s a total people-pleaser, friendly with everyone, reasonable with (most) dogs, loves to train, is very easy to motivate, etc. etc. etc.,.  She is also a BLAST to play with and when we’re working, everything else melts away and the rest of the world outside of me and my dog ceases to exist.  Nellie and I have competed in rally and trained in flyball, and she’s always up for learning tricks and dancing around the house with me. She’s also super athletic and pretty well-structured, so doing sports should have been no issue for her.  And frankly, the issue has generally not been Nellie: it has been, not to put too fine a point on it, everybody else.  Which leads me to the things I’ve learned playing sports with a tripod pit bull.

(1) Try very very very very hard to think about what you CAN do, not what you can’t.

and the corollary to that:

(2) Ignore anybody who tells you what you can’t do.

nellie runs b/w/color

Poor sad, disabled dog. What a shame that her life is going to be so limited.

I got a lot of pushback when I started thinking about doing sports with Nellie.  I cannot tell you how many classes we signed up for but ultimately were not allowed to participate in: because she’s three-legged, Nellie is not allowed to compete in most rally venues (though she’s allowed to compete in APDT/Cynosport) and before the AKC’s recent rule change, she was not even allowed to test for her CGC.  As a consequence, we weren’t allowed to participate in any AKC-endorsed CGC classes (because what would be the point, right? she wasn’t allowed to test!) and the first three rally classes I tried to sign up for wouldn’t let us in when they found out that Nellie was a tripod (because those classes all taught the AKC version of rally, and Nellie was not permitted to compete in AKC rally, so what would be the point, right? she wasn’t allowed to play!)  I only tried to sign up for one agility class before I got discouraged: the person on the phone told me flat out that pit bulls were not appropriate for any group classes, and that ‘disabled dogs’ were not appropriate for agility, and that “maybe you should just try to appreciate the dog you have instead of trying to turn her into something else”. Oof. That one did a number on me, I admit.

On the other hand, even though I was feeling shaken and sad, I DID know the dog I had: I had an athletic, happy little dog who was in great shape, loved classes and was dying to work in some structured way.  Bless the good people at the K-9 Kamikazes Flyball Team in Richmond, VA who were nice to me when I first got in touch with them, didn’t think the idea of running a tripod pittie sounded crazy, and were totally happy to help me figure out the best way to teach Nellie flyball (and were also happy to help me work out nice practical ways to accommodate her missing leg: for example, we spent one interesting night trying to figure out whether a left or a right box turn would best help her activate her core muscles which would in turn support her through the motion of coming off the box).  They never once told me that this was something we wouldn’t be able to do, they never suggested just going home and wrapping my dog in cotton wool, and they absolutely rebuilt my confidence in both myself and my terrific dog.  And so gradually I stopped thinking about Nellie as this problem waiting to happen and started seeing all of the things that made her an awesome sport dog.  So she’s missing a leg: the important part is that my little dog is fast as heck, works incredibly hard, is beautifully handler-focused (most of the time!) and gets a tremendous amount of joy from playing with me.  She also has a gorgeous box turn that would, frankly, be screwed up by the addition of another leg, and in rally, she has a lovely pivot honed from years of swinging around on her front leg when she’s trying to chase down a ball.  So there!

Dealing with the nonsense of people’s low expectations has thickened my skin, and it has also given me a little chip on my shoulder.  I admit to feeling a little bit of snarky pleasure when my dog runs a heat faster than a purpose-bred sporter collie or when we outscore somebody’s oh-he-comes-from-a-long-line-of-obedience-champions Golden in rally.  I love, love, love blowing people’s minds when they come in expecting nothing from us and then see something great.  I love telling people that Nellie isn’t some dog I bought and raised from a puppy who lost a leg to cancer: she was a chained pit bull with neglectful owners who dumped her on the street with a badly-healed leg break, and look, here she is making friends with your Aussie and then outscoring him.  Now, we don’t always turn in rock-solid performances, but oh, those days we do: those are amazing days.

(3) When you do it, celebrate mightily.

For the longest time, when I showed up at a trial, I heard a lot of “Oh, you’re the one with the three-legged pit bull! Well… nice that you’re giving her this experience!”  I knew that I was doing something right the first time I heard, “Oh, you’re the one who always picks up your dog and dances around with her when you Q!”

Nellie sometimes does a little dancing herself.

(4) When you don’t, try not to internalize it.

I think that frequently, people with, let us say, non-traditional sport dogs are cowed out of the ring, and that is both a crying shame and frankly antithetical to the whole premise of dog sports.  It is true that too many sports and too many classes contain people who have purebred dogs from ‘traditional’ sport breeds and who give you a condescending smile when you walk in, then go back to talking to the people who they consider to be real competitors.  In my experience, you can do one of two things when confronted with that: you can feel awkward and out of place and then quit the class and go back to training tricks in your living room, or alternately, you can feel awkward, push through it and then work hard with your dog to make sure that he has the prettiest heel/smoothest A-frame/best retrieve of anybody in class.  I try hard to always choose the latter of those two options; being kind of a stubborn jerk helps with this.

Of course, Having Something To Prove means that it becomes even harder when you have bad days.  And you will have bad days: let me just refer you to my post Sometimes Everything Just Sucks because, well, sometimes it does.  The really important thing to remember when these kinds of days happen is that these kinds of days happen to everyone. It’s not just you and your imperfect dog.  It is tempting to think about quitting your sport or discipline altogether.  It is tempting to fantasize about how in the future, you’re going to just get a purpose bred dog that you raise from a puppy and that dog is not going to have ANY PROBLEMS EVER, unlike your current/imperfect dog.  It is tempting to go hide under the covers with your dog and watch old episodes of 30 Rock while contemplating never training anything again ever.  It is doubly tempting to do all these things if you’ve been hearing a constant refrain of “you can’t, you can’t, not with that dog” for a lot of your training career.  But it’s also doubly important not to let those voices win. Because you can succeed and you know it: if you’ve learned Lesson One, you have a whole set of great experiences with your dog to draw on, and remembering those experiences will help you get through the bad times. You know that your dog is awesome; you have seen it. Don’t let negativity win. Seek out people who will not shut you down, learn as much as you can, and above all, just keep going.

me & nell 2

Bad photobooth picture/good pit bull.

Michelle and Dahlia

dahliaDahlia is not difficult as in reactive, dog aggressive, fearful, hard to manage or any of the things most people associate with difficult dogs. Dahlia is, in fact, the perfect pet. But the perfect pet does not make the perfect agility dog. Ultimately, I started agility class with Dahlia because she was smart, I thought it would be fun, and she liked to leap over snowbanks. That’s it. The whole reason I started it with the most mellow dog on earth. At the first class, when they released dogs from a stay and other dogs had to remain sitting (hello impulse control!), it was mass chaos. The dogs who were supposed to stay didn’t. They took off running and it was crazy time for the dogs.

Except Dahlia, of course. Who sat in the middle of it all looking rather befuddled.

Couple a mellow personality with a complete lack of confidence and you have the recipe for agility “disaster.” I’ve walked out of classes and trials in tears as my dog simply did not do anything. So what have I learned from working with Miss Dahlia in agility for over 4 years now?

(1) Enjoy the dog you have. She’s quirky, she’s goofy. Recently she hesitated at a jump because she wasn’t sure if she should take it and once she decided that yes, she really should take it, she was too close to make a proper leap over. And so she put her foot on the jump bar and launched herself over it. And did not displace the bar. It was hilarious. It was adorable. This is the dog I have. She has rolled over at a trial when she decided it was too hot to work. She has left me in class to go to the trainer who was a 100 feet away with treats. She’s an absolutely ridiculous dog and I walk out of more classes than not thinking that at least everyone got a laugh out of her.

(2) Don’t let other people steal your joy in your dog. I know I’ve talked about this before in an older post. But I cannot reiterate this enough. If you were happy that your dog finally did an automatic sit or took the A-Frame or actually came back to you when called, don’t let someone else tell you that it wasn’t up to their standards. She’s your dog. And only you know how far she’s come.

(3) Make it fun. Dahlia was a dog who had almost no confidence and we struggled terribly in agility through our first years (I won’t lie – we still do on occasion). Making it fun for her, rewarding a lot, making it a game we play and nothing overly serious has helped her to see the joy in doing it. It’s not just a job. It’s a game she plays with her Mama.

(4) Reward…a lot. Even when you don’t think the dog deserves a reward. Even when you go out there in the trial and she misses half the jumps or blows past the dog walk or decides that the weave poles just aren’t her thing that day, thank you very much. Walk out of there and throw a party. She went in there for you. And she deserves to have the best experience of her life no matter what. She doesn’t know she didn’t Q. She had an awesome time and doesn’t realize that dropping that one lousy bar cost you the Q. So reward her, even if you don’t feel like she “deserves” it. She does. Because she went out there with you and gave it her all. Even if her “all” means weaving in between the last jump and the timer stantion over and over again until the course time buzzer goes off.

Dom and Julio

In the year that we’ve had Julio, we’ve gained an insight to some of the reasons why he was probably dumped by his previous owner. Unlike Dahlia, Julio is not the perfect pet! We’re not even trying to do anything along the lines of competing (or even going out in public!) but Julio provides a challenge at every turn. From eating underwear to peeing in the house to barking at the same two horses who have lived in our backyard for the last six months, Julio knows how to stomp on my very last nerve. But despite his reactivity, poor recall, and inability to learn anything beyond sit, down, and ‘go to your crate’, I love him to pieces. While having Herbie has been an education in bringing up a dog, Julio has provided lesson after lesson about dealing with what you’ve been given. In the last year, he has taught me countless lessons. Here are just a few things I’ve learned…

(1)  It’s not the dog’s fault. This one should probably go without saying, but it’s so easy to forget when your dog has just done something really, really bad. The truth is that dogs don’t premeditate and they don’t maliciously try to ruin our lives. In Julio’s case, his past life is responsible for his issues. A lack of socialization, attention, and training really left him with a slew of problems that are very tough to resolve.

(2) Treat the problem, not the symptoms. Along those same lines, it’s important to remember that if your dog is acting out, there’s probably an underlying reason for it. For example, Julio’s destructive nature stems from his severe separation anxiety. As he has accepted that we will come back, he has gotten more trustworthy. Working with him on his anxiety helped eliminate some of his destructive behaviors much more effectively than trying to tackle all those individual problems directly.

He’s so good at humoring me.

(3) Appreciate your problem child’s strong points. Julio is an escape artist who can’t be trusted to ‘leave it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be). He’s reactive with other dogs and skittish around certain new people. Sometimes, I’m not sure he’s actually housebroken. BUT, he’s also the sweetest dog I’ve ever met. He’s a cuddle bug. He is easy to exercise, and isn’t demanding more activity all the time like Herbie does.  He’s loyal and tolerant and hilarious. He brings so much joy into my life and I can’t imagine not having him. When those chocolatey eyes stare into my soul, it’s worth losing all that underwear (and that one t-shirt).

(4) Grade on a curve. Herbie was always a good learner. As a result, I got into the habit of looking for perfection. To get the treat, you have to do what I say (the first time). With Julio, I’ve had to let the standards slide a little bit. For example, ‘high five’ for Herbie means put your paw squarely and enthusiastically on my hand. For Julio, ‘high five’ just means ‘something about my foot’. At first, that was good enough. I had to learn to reward the little steps that form the bridge between ‘I’ve never heard that command before’ and ‘I know what that means!’

(5) No two dogs are the same and you have to be flexible in your methods to match the dog you’re working with. I think that’s pretty self explanatory.

Lindsey and Raiden

Raiden is the dog that every trainer never wants. He’s stunning, with a command presence in the show ring that judges comment on after awarding him Best in Show. A champion at 8 months, Best in Specialty Show and Best in Show winner at 9 months and with a German Excellent Select rating the day he was old enough to step into a Sieger ring. “I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” I’ve heard on countless occasions while taking group win pictures. Raiden wins by sheer presence- he commands the attention of the judges so they can’t look away at any other dog. He may not be the best (he’s enormously oversized) but he’s got the attitude. And in case you think he’s just beauty, Raiden has brains too. A spectacular working dog, he had the most impressive drive to work that made him a coveted asset of my search and rescue team. The head K9 trainer on the team, an ex-police K9 handler, was the head of the Raiden fanclub. My schutzhund trainer tried to bribe me weekly to sell Raiden to him, offering me two and three German Shepherd puppies in exchange for Raiden. He is a dream to see in action, clearing schutzhund blinds, completing variable surface tracks at a dead run, and with a precision to his obedience that led us to a high-in-trial obedience score one schutzhund trial.

Raiden and his BIS rosette

Of course, all that only happens on days that I can convince him to behave enough to not try and eat every other dog around. And, to be perfectly honest, that’s not very often. For every group win we have, Raiden has at least 4 ring excusals.  He’s the kind of dog reactive that results in instant euthanasia if he were to land in some sort of animal control facility. The sort they don’t even attempt to place in a home. To have a dog with the most amazing skill set, the kind of dog that could easily compete at the WUSV World Schutzhund Championships the day after completing a 40 mile track for a missing child in the most remote backcountry, but not be able to take him out of the house because he’s so extremely reactive?  It’s a trainer’s worst nightmare. But he has taught me a number of valuable lessons.

(1) You know your dog best. If I had a dollar for everyone that’s given me advice or opinions on Raiden- I’d be a millionaire. From all outward appearances, Raiden looks like The Hulk. Either that or an 8 foot tall Olympic triathlete. He’s massive for a German shepherd- a lean 110 pounds, tall, thin, with hulking shoulder and thigh muscles. When he reacts he does it in style. Hackles up all down his back, barking, lunging, snarling, foam flying from his mouth. I’ve been told I need to ‘show him who’s boss’ and ‘dominate him’ countless times *eyeroll.* I’ve been told that I need to not tolerate his ‘bad’ behavior, and give him a firm correction. I’ve had people tell me I just need to enforce a solid sit/stay and he’ll give up trying to gobble up every other dog. Not once have I ever had anyone hit the nail on the head on the first try. My dog is *fearful.* Inside his mind he’s a timid, quivering, nervous, anxious ball of nerves. At home, he’s a giant marshmallow. He’s soft, he doesn’t like yelling, he wants to be softly stroked, have his head massaged, and have his belly rubbed. He’s the complete opposite of what you’d expect from just looking at him. And not one of those above recommendations would do anything but make his problems even worse. How do I know this? Because I followed all the other trainer’s advice in the beginning. I would try to argue that he was just a soft, sensitive, fearful guy, and people would look at me like I’d grown 6 heads. 110+ pound dogs aren’t fearful! What do they have to be fearful of? Show that dog who’s in charge! His problems got worse, and it’s taken years to undo what careless advice I should have ignored because- I know my dog best.

My dog is a marshmallow

My dog is a marshmallow

(2) It’s ok to be fearful, nervous, or anxious. It’s ok to not be social. It’s ok for your dog to not be a cookie cutter dog. This was a big one for me. At first I saw this as a problem that needed to be fixed. Let’s work on this until you’re dead tired! We’re going to tackle this every day until we get this right! In all reality- it’s perfectly ok for a dog to be a bit leery of things. Forcing the issue can make it worse. Not every person likes everything, and we can’t expect the same of dogs. We can pair good things with scary things, do LAT and BAT and behavioral interventions, but at the end of the day, if Raiden just doesn’t want to be happy around other dogs, but is perfectly content to ignore them if they ignore him- that’s good enough for me. He doesn’t need to be social. It’s not a prerequisite to life. With years and years of hard work, we’ve gotten to this point in Raiden’s life. He’ll ignore other dogs if they’ll ignore him. And that’s fine with me. I don’t have a lunging, snarling wild animal anymore, and as long as other people respect personal space and listen to my directives to keep their personal dogs in their own personal space, we can lead perfectly productive lives.

(3) Know your dog’s limits. This goes along with knowing your dog best. I’ve had Raiden for nearly 9 years- I’ve worked him in all sorts of various sports, dog rings and situations. I know his limits, and I know how to keep him from hitting that threshold. And as such, I have to be his advocate. Raiden gets nervous when lots of people come over unless he can be calmly introduced to each individual person. Not always possible, so he stays put away during family get-togethers. I have a walk-in closet in my office with (strangely enough) a window in it. We’ve outfitted this closet with vinyl flooring, frosted film on the window to let in light but not let Raiden see out, and an extra-tall iron pet gate across the door. This is Raiden’s ‘safe room.’ When people come over, Raiden gets put in here. (Also- when we leave the house, as Raiden suffers from pica and will swallow anything he takes a fancy to). When people come over and want me to let him out, or want to see him/play with him/irritate/antagonize him, I have to have to wherewithal to stand my ground. No, Raiden doesn’t need to come out and come play. No, you don’t need to meet him, or show him off to your friend you brought along. No, I most definitely am NOT taking out the bite sleeve for a ‘demonstration.’ Know your dogs limits, and keep them from reaching it.

Raiden's closet

Raiden’s safety closet

Marketing Foster Dogs For Sports

In today’s installment of my semi-regular series on hocking foster dogs, I want to talk a little about marketing foster dogs specifically to sport and performance homes.

This is a subject that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about, since I’ve been on both ends of the equation. I currently own and compete with two shelter dogs (and if you’re familiar with their stories from past posts, you’ll already know that neither Pongu nor Crookytail is what I would term an ideal competition dog, in large part because I adopted both of them before I had the first clue what I was doing), and I have also had several foster dogs that I think had excellent potential to succeed in performance venues.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to identify foster dogs as potentially promising candidates and how to market those candidates to sport homes, I want to lay out a few of my starting assumptions:

(1) Shelter and rescue dogs can succeed at the highest levels in sports. This shouldn’t be terribly controversial. Quite a few working and sport dogs get dumped in shelters precisely because they’re too much for casual pet owners to handle. They’re out there.

(2) However, not every dog — whatever its origin — can succeed as a performance prospect. Even if we totally remove the handler/trainer end of the equation, some dogs will not be able to consistently achieve top scores/times/titles/whatever in their sports.

Some dogs don’t have the biddability, intelligence, or drive. Some don’t have the physical ability. Some don’t have the emotional resilience. Some have behavioral quirks that cripple their capacity to compete. The simple fact is, not every dog can succeed in everything, and some dogs are going to require a lot more time, patience, and skill on the handler’s part to achieve things that come much more easily for other dogs. The more difficult your sport, and the more demanding your level of competition, the fewer dogs are going to be able to hack it at that level. Learn from my agonies, I implore you, and be realistic about what a particular dog may or may not be able to do.

(3) There aren’t that many performance homes out there, and the majority of those homes do not compete with shelter dogs. Most shelter and rescue dogs looking for homes will wind up in pet homes. This one is simple math. Dog Show Scores estimates that in 2013, there were 13,224 dogs entered in AKC competition obedience, 12,894 dogs entered in AKC Rally, and 24,716 dogs entered in AKC agility. I think it’s safe to say that there is probably considerable overlap among those dogs, as most people who are active in one sport are also active in others. It is also probably safe to say that the number of owners participating is lower than the number of dogs, since many people compete with multiple dogs. On the other hand, those numbers don’t capture dogs who are active in non-AKC sports and registries, of which there are many.

Because of that variability in registries and definitions, it is impossible to tally how many dogs are actively involved in performance venues, but the most convincing guess I’ve seen bandied around was about 50,000 to 75,000. Meanwhile, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that in 2012 there were about 70 million owned dogs in the U.S.

Thus, in terms of raw numbers (if I’m crossing out my zeros correctly), a dog has somewhere around a 1 in 1000 chance of ending up involved in a sport. However, those numbers are misleading, because dogs don’t have equal odds at birth. There’s pretty much a 100% chance that a purpose-bred performance puppy from a Famous Big Name Kennel is going to be involved in some working or performance venue, and a much, much lower chance that a random shelter mutt from rural Georgia is going to end up with such an owner. Regional variations matter too: it’s much easier to participate in sports if you live in a densely populated area like the urban East Coast. In other areas, your options might narrow considerably.

These three points frame the discussion for me because, taken together, they mean that there are great performance prospects waiting to be discovered in shelters and foster homes around you… but there are also many, many other dogs who would most likely be better suited to pet life. And even if a particular dog does have all the potential in the world, simple math makes it overwhelmingly likely that the dog will match up to a pet home before a performance home. That is, I think, a fact that any realistic foster should be prepared for: if you are absolutely determined that your dog can only go to a sport home, you may be holding onto that dog for a long, long time until the stars align.

Foster dog Dori went to a home that wanted to pursue therapy work for her (a vocation for which I think she had immense promise). Holding out for a Seriously Serious competition home might have caused her to miss the chance to use her talents in that way.

So now that we’ve gotten those framing assumptions out of the way, how does one go about marketing foster dogs to performance homes?

I. Participate In Dog Sports

This might sound really obvious, but there are lots and lots of people advertising shelter dogs as sport prospects without having competed a day in their lives.

I feel very strongly that it is only possible to make accurate assessments of a dog’s potential as a sport prospect if you have some experience in dog sports. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen shelter workers and rescue volunteers — none of whom had any experience trialing in any competitive venue — try to pitch dogs as “agility prospects” because they’re hyperactive and frenetic in their kennels, or because somebody suggested that this litter of 6-week-old puppies might possibly have a Border Collie somewhere in its ancestry, or the dog runs around like a maniac when let out into a yard to exercise after being stuck in a tiny cage all day.

These are, um, not suggestions that experienced competitors are likely to take seriously. An inexperienced competitor might believe them, which is pretty much how I ended up with Crookytail. And as someone currently living through it, I’ll just say this: it does neither the dog nor the person any favors to end up in a mismatch like that.

It doesn’t do the shelter or rescue any favors either, frankly, because putting a dog that struggles in the ring is likely to encourage the misperception that shelter dogs (or, at best, dogs from your shelter/rescue) cannot compete on equal terms with pedigreed performance dogs, especially if there aren’t a lot of other shelter dogs counteracting that image in that venue. That discourages other performance people from adopting.

An in-depth discussion of focus, drives, structure, environmental nerves, etc. would go far beyond the scope of this already overlong post. The point I want to make here is just that if you aren’t already familiar with those traits, and you have never seen or worked through them as applied to your sport of choice, how can you accurately identify promise in an untrained dog? How can you rightfully tell someone else to invest thousands of dollars and thousands of hours and one of a very limited handful of opportunities in their lives on an unknown rescue dog?

My opinion is that you can’t, and that humility and awareness of your limitations is really important here. At this point in my life, I feel reasonably confident that I can identify a solid prospect for obedience, Rally, and trick work. I can probably pick out a dog who’d have fun with casual recreational agility, but I would be out of my depth trying to select a dog for seriously competitive agility. I would have no confidence in my ability to judge a dog’s capacity for IPO — I just don’t know nearly enough about what is needed to excel in that sport or what those traits look like in an untrained dog. I don’t have the experience to make those judgments. Thus, I wouldn’t presume to market a dog for IPO.

This is from the 2013 WUSV international championship. Do I have any idea what a dog of this caliber looks like untrained? I do not! Not a clue!

Being active in the sport scene will also (hopefully!) enhance your credibility among other competitors, since if you are actively trialing and testing your skills in competition, people are more likely to believe that you do indeed know your stuff when it comes to spotting strong prospects.

And it broadens and widens your network of “dog people,” which can be really helpful in spreading word of mouth about a particularly promising pup. Most people who are active on the trial circuit already have dogs of their own, of course… but they are also often very active in training clubs, as volunteers with other rescue groups, as friends with other performance people who may be on a temporary dog-less hiatus, and so forth. Even if they don’t have room in their own homes, they might know someone else who does.

So step one is: get out there. Train your own dogs from beginning to… well, there is no “end,” but to readiness. Trial. Train your foster dogs through the beginning steps. Learn what it takes to do well, and what that potential looks like in its rawest form. The more you do it, the better your eye will become.

2. Show, Don’t Tell

Okay, so you’ve put your time in and you’ve got a foster dog who genuinely has performance potential. Now what?

Show it.

“This dog would be good at agility” is a conclusory statement. Like most flat conclusions, it offers very little information. Explain, or better yet show: why does this dog have potential? What have you seen or done with this dog that leads you to believe that this particular pup would be a strong candidate for a particular type of work?

An informative writeup is crucial for two key reasons. First, it establishes that you actually know what you’re talking about. “Dog X would be a good sport candidate because she’s got great natural focus, is highly motivated by play and praise as well as food, has superb body awareness, and is confident in new environments” is very different from “Eight-week-old Puppy Y would be a good agility dog because he’s half greyhound.”

(Protip #1: pitches based solely on the dog’s breed are rarely convincing, but pitches for off breeds are in their own category of Specialness.

“This dog would be a great agility candidate because she’s a St. Bernard mix!” = NO. NO. A THOUSAND TIMES NO. (She might turn out to be one anyway, of course, but not because of her breed mix.)

Protip #2: don’t pitch two-month-old mystery mix puppies as prospects. Just… don’t. It is impossible to accurately predict the size, structure, or temperament of a baby puppy of totally unknown heritage, and trying to pawn one off as a sport prospect is a dead giveaway that whoever’s doing the pawning has no idea what they’re doing.)

A good writeup also helps people determine whether that dog would be likely to succeed with their preferred handling methods. If somebody trains obedience using old-school yank and crank techniques, they are probably looking for a slightly different set of traits than somebody who trains using exclusively motivational methods. Personalities matter too. Some people like really enthusiastic, boisterous dogs. Others prefer a calmer and more controlled partner. A “good obedience dog” for one handler may not work so well for another. Spelling out the reasons for your conclusions helps people figure out whether that dog is likely to do well with them. Dog sports are team sports, after all, and getting that team chemistry right is extremely important.

A writeup alone isn’t enough, though. Videos are also important. Show the dog in movement, both natural (unprompted) and while going through some basic foundational exercises, if possible. When I was putting together foster dog Queenie’s Novice Trick Dog video, I was careful to include both cute tricks that I thought would appeal to pet owners and foundational behaviors that I hoped might catch the eye of a performance person.

Video can help a prospective adopter evaluate your dog’s structure, natural athleticism, response to cues and common distractions, engagement in training, level of interest in motivators, and more. Performance people, in my experience, really really like to have video footage of any dog they’re considering.

3. Be Aware Of Tradeoffs

Listing a dog as a performance prospect is likely to deter some pet homes.

I think this is unfortunate, because what I have found is that it’s often founded on the same misperception that leads shelters and rescues to label frantic, zero-threshold, high-energy dogs as “agility prospects.” But it’s still something to keep in mind. In large swaths of the public, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what qualities make for a good performance dog, and as a result, a lot of potentially awesome pet homes will take themselves out of the running because they think they’re going to get a crazy dog who’s constantly bouncing off the walls.

Sometimes, of course, these self-judgments are accurate: people who have no interest in doing any sort of advanced training and are looking for complete couch potato dogs probably shouldn’t match themselves to high-drive sport dogs. But in other cases, you will lose out on some great, perfectly capable homes because they just want a pet and are worried about or intimidated by the idea of living with a “sport dog.”

When I was trying to place Queenie, I saw many, many people pass her by for exactly that reason. At adoption events, Queenie was quiet, calm, and well-behaved — nothing frantic or frenetic about her at all — but because I had written that she would make a good sport prospect on her crate card, adopters turned away from her again and again. Many pet owners, for whatever reason, are scared off by the “performance” label.

This can really bite you in the butt, because, going back to our initial discussion of framing assumptions, there are just not that many sport homes out there, and only a small minority of those homes are open to shelter dogs. Before making the decision to market toward this niche, it is important to be aware that it is a tiny niche, and it may not be your best course of action for a particular dog.

Mab was one the most promising foster dogs I ever had, but I still pitched her as a pet first, sport prospect second — and just made sure that her owners knew that if they wanted to explore that, she’d likely excel.

Many dogs are better served by a strategy that puts them forward as great pets first, and then by a gentle nudge to the adopters that suggests they might want to get involved in dog sports to explore their new pup’s potential. In other words, quite often it is more fruitful to try placing the dog in an active pet home, and look for adopters who can be persuaded to start sports with their new dog, as opposed to looking for already-established sport homes and trying to place the dog there. Creating a new opportunity might be your best option.

Washout: Crookytail’s Story

In January 2012, we added a second dog to the permanent crew here at Casa de Dog Mob.

His name in the shelter was Tye. He’d been picked up as a stray in Robeson County, North Carolina, emaciated and so filthy that his white coat was stained a dingy yellow with grease. The shelter had him listed as a shepherd mix, or maybe an Aussie mix; it was suggested that maybe, just possibly, he might make a good sport prospect.

At the time, I was struggling badly with Pongu’s fear and anxiety. We were training in Rally-O, but our instructors cautioned me repeatedly not to expect too much from my fearful dog. He might never be able to set foot in the ring, they said. For this dog, it would be enough if he could do the work at home, and maybe occasionally in class. Trying to push him beyond that might be dicey.

I really wanted to trial, though, and so in the back of my mind I was looking for a shelter dog who might work as a sport prospect. I saw Tye, and I thought: one of my instructors runs Aussies, and they are fabulous. My cousin runs Aussies, and her dogs are beyond amazing too. I wonder what I could do with a dog like that…

So I pulled him, this dog named “Tye.” He was supposed to be about a year or two old and 45 pounds — a good size for a sport dog, I thought, small enough to be light and nimble but large enough for me to live with. I told myself he was a “foster,” but from the beginning that was a lie.

Whether or not he had any potential as a sport dog, I was primed to foster fail before he ever came to PA. We had just placed one of our longer-term fosters, a sweet little pit/Beagle mix named Stella, and while I thought it was a good placement, I never heard from that family again and I didn’t know them as well as I’d gotten to know most of my adoptive homes, so there was always a nagging little bit of doubt and regret about whether Stella was really happy there. I was not about to go through a difficult goodbye like that again.

We brought Tye in and I promptly renamed him Crookytail, which was the first concession to myself that I planned to keep this dog. Usually I don’t bother renaming the fosters; unless I know what name the adopters plan to use, I rarely even bother teaching them their shelter names. But Crookytail got a new name, and not only that, but a vaguely insulting one, which meant he was destined to stay with us. All the permanent pets in this house get snark names. That’s how we roll.

From the first minute he came off the transport van, Crooky was a perfect gentleman. He was quiet, patient, careful, well-mannered. He never once had a potty accident in the house. He put up with Pongu snarking at him and biting him in the face for the smallest infraction, and never offered any resistance at all. The only thing he ever wanted was to love and be loved.

On his sixth day, I had him microchipped and registered the chip to our address. Crooky wasn’t a foster. He was staying.

I immediately embarked on the project of training him up to be my Super Awesome Competition Dog. I had dreams of doing everything with him: Rally, obedience, agility, nosework, trick work, you name it. And in the beginning, Crookytail showed flashes of real brilliance. He had a natural tuck Sit that was a thing of beauty: lightning fast and ultra precise. He slammed into Downs with speed that a Malinois would envy. His attention Heel was so attentive that Crooky, raptly gazing at my face, once walked into a light post with enough enthusiasm to bloody his lip.

But for all I thought, back in those early days, that he’d surely set the world on fire, we ended up fizzling instead.

The RL1 is the only title Crookytail ever earned in the ring.

Crooky had brief spurts of enthusiasm, focus, and speed. What he did not have was a high level of intelligence, sustained drive, or any resilience whatsoever for being wrong and trying again. He understood that Sit was a thing I wanted sometimes, and Down was a thing I wanted sometimes, but he never did figure out how to tell which one was the right answer in any given situation, and he quickly gave up guessing. It’s been almost two and a half years since Crookytail came home, and to this day, he cannot reliably distinguish the verbal cue “Sit” from “Down.” Or anything else.

Complex tasks proved to be entirely beyond him. I got Crookytail as far as his Novice Trick Dog title, and then I gave up for a long, long time, because even the relatively easy tricks required for the Intermediate Trick Dog level — carrying a purse, picking a card from a deck, or nosing the correct pail in a scentwork shell game — were too much of a stretch for Crooky’s abilities. It took almost 18 months before he finally added enough new tricks to his repertoire to qualify for the ITD. (By way of contrast, Pongu finished the entire five-step progression, from Novice Trick Dog to Trick Dog Champion, in 13 days.)

Physically, too, he didn’t develop in the way that I had hoped. Crooky turned out to be around six to eight months old when we adopted him, not one to two years. That meant he wasn’t really a 45-pound dog. He filled out to 60 pounds… and he didn’t stop there. He grew to 70 pounds. 75. 80. 85. Instead of being slightly smaller than 65-pound Pongu, he ended up being significantly larger. And, by the time he reached maturity, slower and more ungainly.

Even his breed mix turned out to be wrong. He wasn’t an Aussie mix (which, in retrospect, I probably should have figured out from his very first shelter picture, but I wanted to believe so hard that I made myself do it), and he wasn’t a shepherd mix. As he matured, we realized that Crooky is an Akita/pit bull mix — neither one a breed I would have chosen for a sport dog.

Nevertheless, it took a long time for the dream to die.

I trialed Crookytail in Rally Obedience shortly after I started with Pongu. He did… okay. His scores in Level 1 were mostly in the mid- to high 180s, with one peak score of 198 and one NQ for urine marking a sign in the ring. He finished his RL1 title in a couple of months, albeit without an Award of Excellence to match Pongu’s perfect string of AOEs.

But it wasn’t fun for him, and it wasn’t fun for me. Crooky did not enjoy the pressures of the competition ring. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t play with the other dogs he saw at the trial venues, and he didn’t understand why I wasn’t happy with his clumsy-but-enthusiastic attempts. I couldn’t hide my disappointment from him, and it deflated him. He rarely failed outright — Crooky’s Q percentage over that time period was much, much higher than Pongu’s — but he never did particularly well, either, and it was clear that the ceiling of his potential was considerably lower.

December 2012: the last bling Crooky ever earned.

It didn’t take long for my patience, and his confidence, to collapse. When Crookytail finished his Level 1 title, I retired him from the ring. It had become a poisoned place for him. And for me, because I knew it was my fault he didn’t love the sport. If I’d had more patience, more understanding, more ability to find joy in what he was trying to give me… then maybe things would have been different.

But I don’t have that much patience. I get frustrated when we don’t make progress. I wanted a dog who could excel in the ring, and that’s not what I got, and the mounting weight of disappointment was crushing us both.

So I stopped it. That was more or less the end of Crooky’s career. I briefly entertained the idea of trying him out in agility, just for the chance to practice a sport that I didn’t think Pongu was capable of doing, but after two foundation classes, Crooky washed out of agility too. In five weeks of practicing that one exercise and nothing else, he never learned to wrap a cone and return to me. He would run out to the cone and just whack it with his paw, over and over again. Sometimes he’d do the wrap correctly, but over a month of trying, his accuracy never rose much above 50%. Every week we’d go back to class and it looked like we’d never done a minute’s worth of homework since the last time.

So I fired him.

And we haven’t really done anything since. In May 2014, Crooky was diagnosed with lumbar spondylosis, a degenerative spinal condition that is already beginning to impair his movement at the young age of 3. His condition is not that severe — it wouldn’t impede him in less athletically demanding sports like Rally or nosework — but it’s a shadow on the horizon, and another reason for me to write off any hopes of reviving Crooky’s career.

Today, as I write this, my relationship with Crookytail is not where I would like it to be. There is a chasm of misunderstandings between us. Crooky didn’t turn out to be the prospect I hoped for, and I am not the owner he deserves.

I want to be clear about this: the fault for our failures is entirely mine. Crookytail is a wonderful pet dog. He is the easiest, gentlest, most affectionate dog anyone could ask for. He isn’t an angel — we went through a rough patch when he’d bully other dogs, his recall remains a thing of sadness, and he pees on everything constantly outside the house (including strangers’ legs, to my perpetual consternation) — but he is a Good Dog. As I type these words, he is lying at my feet under the computer desk, content just to be in my presence but happy to leap up at the first indication that I might want to play with him.

Crooky doing his job as foster dog guidance counselor.

He has always been a Good Dog. All he’s ever wanted is to be a Good Dog.

But for a sport dog, that isn’t enough. And Crookytail cannot be a seriously competitive sport dog any more than he can change the color of his fur or the shape of his ears or the funny namesake crook in his tail. It’s just not in him. It’s not who he is.

I don’t want to say his life is so terrible. It’s not. We love him, we cherish him, we spoil him. Crooky has a soft bed, good food, drawers full of insanely overpriced treats and toys. He comes on vacation with us and occasionally learns a simple new trick like filing his nails or going up the stairs backwards. He is a valued guidance counselor to the foster dogs, a role in which he truly excels. My husband loves him profoundly, so rehoming is not in the cards for Crookytail; he will have a home with us until the last day.

It’s very sad, Crooky’s life. Horribly deprived.

It’s a pretty good life, I think. If nothing else, it beats crouching in a cage in North Carolina, yellow with filth and starved down to nothing but bones and a bellyful of worms. Now Crooky vacations on Nantucket and chews upon only the finest organic free-range chicken feet from the Fair Food Farmstand.

…very, very sad. And deprived.

But it’s not what I imagined our lives would be when I shot off the first email saying I’d bring this dog home. And I still carry around a lot of regret and internal recrimination that I can’t just be grateful for my luck in having this wonderful pet.

As a total dog sport junkie, having a dog who cannot compete — not in any sport, not at any semi-serious level, and not because of age or injury but just because this is who he is — is a small and lonely kind of sadness. You have this huge and important part of your life, a part that revolves around sharing it with your best partner dog, and… your dog can’t do it.

Most people, even most dog people, don’t really understand. He’s a good dog. Why can’t that be enough?

I don’t know. It isn’t. That’s all.

So this is where we are, my washout dog and I. Every day is a struggle to adjust my expectations and accept my dog for who he is. Someday, maybe, I’ll get there. Someday.

Champion of Terror: The Tale of Pongu the Insane

This is the story of My Dog Pongu.

Pongu is my first dog. I found him as a 16-week-old puppy in a local city shelter, where he had been brought by a landlady after her tenant, a college kid who wasn’t supposed to have any pets in the property, moved out and left a little puppy in his empty room. Pongu was alone in there for two days before the landlady heard him crying and took him to the shelter.

I wasn’t looking for a puppy when I went to the shelter that day. We had just bought a condo and moved into the neighborhood, and the painters who were supposed to be working on the place cancelled unexpectedly, so I found myself with a free afternoon and thought I’d go to the shelter to practice doing Sue Sternberg’s evaluation protocol. I had read a lot of books on how to choose a dog for adoption, but being a complete newbie to the world of dogs, I didn’t have the first clue what any of this stuff was actually supposed to look like in real life. So I figured: I’ll just go to the shelter and practice the protocol with whatever dogs they happen to have there, and maybe then I’ll be marginally better at this later.

This particular shelter doesn’t generally have a ton of dogs. On that day, it was just Pongu and a handful of small fluffy dogs of the Shih-Tzu/Maltese persuasion. I skipped right over the little fluffies and went to Pongu’s cage. His kennel card said “German Shepherd/Doberman mix,” and I — so infinitely ignorant! — thought “hey, I like both of those breeds. Those are smart, strong, courageous breeds. This’ll be great!”

haaaaaaaa *whoo, lemme take a breath* aaaaaaaaaaa

I didn’t adopt him right away. For one thing, Pongu didn’t have pointy ears, and in my head I had always imagined that my future dog would have pointy ears. More importantly, even I, Supremely Clueless Newb that I was, could see that this puppy was shy. He stayed in the back of his cage, paralyzed with terror, while the other dogs barked and jumped in excitement around him. He was a statue of fear when I took him out to the concrete-floored yard for introductions. I don’t know if he even blinked that whole first visit. And I knew from the books that this was, in some vague theoretical sense, not a good sign.

But I didn’t know what that meant. And I couldn’t get that terrified little puppy face out of my head. So when Pongu was still there a couple of days later, and the shelter staff told me no one had expressed any interest in adopting him, I took the little guy home. August 13, 2010 was the day I signed the papers and the puppy named “Bandit” officially became Pongu the Insane.

That was when I began to learn what it actually means to live with a fearful dog.

Pongu as a baby. He was frozen stiff during that whole visit.

There is a paragraph from Kelsey’s post “Normal Ain’t Easy” that hit me like a lightning bolt the first time I read it, so perfectly did it capture my experience with Pongu. This is the quote: “She was the wrong dog for a first-time owner; I know that now. From the start, Lucy was an Issue Dog. She did, however, have the good fortune to wind up with an owner who was both deeply stubborn and blithely unaware of how deep her problems really went.”

That was how it was for us, too. Pongu was not a dog who should have gone to a first-time owner. But, looking back on it now, I don’t think anybody but a first-time owner would have taken him. A wiser and more experienced person would have seen the warning signs and stayed away.

But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. So I wound up with a fearful dog.

There are no happy baby pictures of Pongu. They all look like this.

Pongu could not cope with the world. Maybe in a quieter, rural environment it wouldn’t have been so hard for him; maybe if his early life hadn’t been full of deprivation and neglect/abuse, his issues wouldn’t have been so severe. But our condo was in the heart of a major city and his first few months of life sucked and all of these things compounded what was already a crap hand dealt to him by genetics.

He had OCD. He would self-mutilate by chewing holes in his legs, feet, and tail. He had separation anxiety, and (not too surprising, given how he landed in the shelter) the sight of us packing our bags for an extended trip would send him into a fit of absolute screaming panic.

Above all else was his generalized fear. Everything was a terror to him. Everything. Buses, strangers, flapping awnings, honking taxis, plastic bags, imaginary radioactive spider monsters that existed only in his hallucinating doggy brain. And all of it immediately sent him into total meltdown.

The first time I took Pongu to a groomer, he evacuated his anal glands and was so stressed out that he had explosive, blood-streaked diarrhea as soon as he got out of the salon. Our whole walk home was a 20-minute continuous bolting episode that did not end until Pongu was safely back inside.

The first time I took him to a puppy class, he panicked, bolted from the room, and had diarrhea for two days after he got home. We didn’t go back. The second time I took him to a puppy class (taught by an excellent positive reinforcement trainer), he spent the entire six-week session hiding behind a barrier, shaking and shivering and drooling uncontrollably. His black fur turned gray with dandruff and his paws left sweat prints all over the matting. While the other students practiced loose-leash walking and Stays under distraction, Pongu practiced calming down enough that he could finally take little pieces of grilled chicken behind his barrier at the back of the room. By the end of the six weeks, we’d gotten that far… and to this day, I am so incredibly impressed and grateful that our trainer helped us achieve that much. Seriously, Philly peeps: Opportunity Barks. They are awesome.

I read everything I could about helping fearful dogs cope with the world. We worked with Leslie McDevitt in person, faithfully practiced Dr. Overall’s Relaxation Protocol, and used Prozac and Xanax to help Pongu get into a headspace where he could start to learn alternative ways of coping with all the things that distressed him so badly. We played around with training tricks because it kept Pongu engaged and happy, and it was something he could do in the comfort of our home without having to venture into the big scary outdoors.

From there, we got into dog sports because I had read in a book that doing sports could improve a fearful dog’s confidence. Initially we started in canine musical freestyle, but while Pongu showed a decent amount of promise in that sport, my dancing skills could best be described as “headless chicken stumbles into electrical wires.” So we switched to Rally Obedience, where my total lack of choreography and coordination skills was less immediately fatal to our prospects.

And Pongu did okay. Better than okay, sometimes. For all his problems and phobias, he is a smart dog, and from the beginning he loved to work. Together we began to bumble down the long road to the competition ring, neither of us altogether sure what we were doing.

In August 2012, we debuted in APDT Rally. I was so nervous before our first run that I had trouble sleeping for two weeks ahead of time and couldn’t see straight on the start line. Pongu was not a whole lot calmer. Both of us look like zombies in the video of that run; the ring nerves are so cringe-inducingly palpable that even today I cannot watch the whole thing in one sitting. At the end, when the audience applauds, Pongu flinches and startles visibly in fright.

But he did it. Pongu earned a Q with a decent first-timer’s score of 196 out of a possible 210 points.

That showed me he could be marginally functional in the ring, and once I knew he could do that, then I was hellbent on taking my little scaredybutt dog just as far as he could go. Two months later, Pongu finished his APDT Rally Level 1 title with an Award of Excellence for high scores. Four months after that, he got his Level 2 title with another Award of Excellence, although now the title certificates said World Cynosport Rally, since the organization had been sold to USDAA. Two months after that, Pongu earned his first combined championship title, the ARCH. And in September 2013, just over one year after we stood on the start line for the very first time, he finished his Level 3 title with a third, final Award of Excellence.

Pongu at a winter trial. Yes, it was very cold in that ring.

Getting there was not easy, and it was not quick. Living with a fearful dog is hard enough. Competing with a fearful dog opens a whole new universe of challenges beyond that.

A great competition dog is smart, driven, athletic, physically sound, and confident. The importance of confidence cannot be overstated. Fear erodes every aspect of competitive performance: it slows your dog, it derails his focus, it causes him to flinch away from touching scary dumbbells or approaching scary jumps. It makes him break Stays to flee toward you for comfort when some little noise startles him in the ring. It causes him to veer out of position while Heeling and it causes him to miss cues while focused on those merciless radioactive spider ghosts again.

Trialing with a dog like this is hard. It’s demoralizing. But you cannot punish fear. Not if you want your dog to ever be able to function in that ring again, instead of coming to view it as a Thunderdome of terror. All you can do is swallow your frustration, be encouraging and supportive, train harder and try again. And again. And again.

In 2013, Pongu and I racked up 55 NQs in the World Cynosport Rally ring. Two of those NQs were my fault (missed a sign, touched my dog). The other 53, every last one of them, happened because Pongu was afraid.

We pushed past it. I took our little PVC practice jump out to the park and drilled every day. When that wasn’t good enough, I bought a bigger practice jump that looked more like the actual trial jumps, then drilled with that every day, until Pongu was happy and confident and dead certain he could nail that stupid jump from any angle, any distance, no problem. We worked on straight Fronts (when Pongu wanted to spin out sideways to keep an eye on monsters creeping up behind him) and focused Heeling (when Pongu wanted to stay alert to ambushes) and moving Downs (when Pongu was completely convinced that this would only enable bogeymen to jump him while he was vulnerable).

I swallowed infinite frustrations. I ate hundreds of dollars in entry fees on NQ after NQ. It actually became sort of perversely hilarious how many NQs we racked up on our way to that white whale of a Level 3 title. Pongu would score beautifully in one run, then we’d get 7 or 8 consecutive NQs, then another beautiful run, then another 13 or 14 NQs. The final tally was somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 to 23 NQs to get the three Qs we needed. Sometimes, when I wasn’t driving, I’d bring a bottle of vodka-spiked juice to our trials so I could drink on the sidelines. It was spectacular.

I stuck with it out of bullheaded stubbornness and a determination that if my dog could do it, then by god he would do it, because I am not a person who accepts failure as an answer. As long as Pongu’s performances were on an upward trajectory, and his confidence seemed to be improving over time, then I would stick with it and brute force NQ to infinity if that’s what we had to do.

Something funny started to happen amidst all those NQs. Pongu started to be less fearful. He came off his medications. His OCD and self-mutilation diminished. As he racked up ribbons and letters and title certificates, his confidence began to blossom. I know it’s anthropomorphizing like crazy, but I fully believe this: Pongu discovered he could win.

So he did.


He earned his ARCHX and his ARCHEX and then, one day before his fourth birthday, the ARCHMX: the APDT Rally Master Championship, the final and most difficult title that exists in World Cynosport Rally. In order to obtain this title, your dog must have earned all the previous championships already, then earn ten sets of triple Qs in Levels 1, 2, and 3 with scores of 195 or better out of a possible 210.

Very few dogs go that far in the sport. Almost exactly 20 months to the day after his very first Level 1 run, Pongu became the 25th mixed-breed dog ever in the history of the world, and the 168th dog overall, to earn the ARCHMX.

While we were chasing the ARCHMX, the national rankings came out for 2013. And it turned out that my fearful little pound puppy, Pongu the Insane, was the number one dog worldwide in his competitive division. In his first full year of competition in any sport ever, he became the number ten dog in the U.S. over all divisions of World Cynosport Rally.


Not only that, but in January 2014 we started trialing in AKC Rally, and Pongu blew through the courses like they were nothing. He would have finished his Novice title with all first-place finishes if not for my handler errors on his first run; even with me screwing him up, his scores were 93, 98, 100. His Rally Advanced scores would have been three straight 97s if not, again, for handler errors on my end knocking one of those scores down to a dead-last 77. (Poor Pongu. He keeps getting tanked by the incompetent at the other end of the leash.) He earned his Novice title in CDSP obedience with all three scores above 190 (out of a possible perfect 200) and all three placements in the ribbons.

My crazy little fearful shelter puppy — my dog who could not walk down half a block without panicking and pooping himself, who could not choke down a treat outside, who bolted in abject terror from an empty soda can rattling down the street — that dog, on his final qualifying run in AKC Rally Advanced A, recovered like the champ he is from the working dog charging out of the ring at him and exchanging snarks and growls. Less than a minute after their ringside spat, Pongu turned in a clean run, off leash with no cookies in a strange venue he’d never seen before in his life, to earn a first-place score of 97 and a nifty title rosette.

After finishing his Rally Advanced title. He was still a little freaked out. But he got first place!

I’m proud of that. I am as proud of that recovery, and that run, as I am of anything else we’ve accomplished together. On that day, my fearful dog did something that would have been hard for any dog, and he did it well.

I don’t know what the future holds for us. Pongu is still a fearful dog. He will always be a fearful dog. His confidence has improved by leaps and bounds from where it was in the beginning, but he still flinches from unexpected sounds and movements, he still panics in unfamiliar environments, and he’ll never be a dog I can board or even leave with friends on vacation. His competition career remains limited in many respects because his psyche is so fragile.

But he has a career. Pongu has been more successful than I could ever have imagined when our journey together began, and with any luck, we are far from its end. He’s only four. We still have, I hope, many years left together.

Today he is ARCHMX TDCH Pongu the Insane, CD-C, RA, RL1X5, RL2X4, RL3X2. My special little monster, my crazypants wigglyhead, my number-one dog that I love more than anything in the world. My first partner to walk alongside down this strange and wonderful road.

My Dog Pongu.

Sign 57 – Getting Mr. Ein over our Biggest Training Challenge

Warning: This post may only be interesting to lovers of Rally Obedience!

Bane of my Existence.

Bane of my Existence.








World Cynosport Rally Obedience Sign 57.  I underestimated you.  Big time.
“This exercise requires two signs. The team halts at the first exercise sign, at a spot 10-15 feet away from the jump and 4-6 feet offset to either side of the jump upright. The handler leaves the dog in a Sit and walks to the second exercise sign, at a spot 10-15 feet to the other side of the jump upright and directly facing the dog.  At this sign, the handler cues the dog to jump. Points will be deducted if the handler steps towards the jump while cuing the dog. The dog must come over the jump. As the dog is jumping, the handler may turn slightly so that the dog can come to front position but does not move forward towards the dog. The handler then cues the dog to Finish or Forward either Right or Left.”

My dog sport fever all began with my little corgi, Ein, in an agility class in January 2012.  Straight from the beginning we learned jumping.  Ein is okay with jumping.  Right?  RIGHT?  It was the teeter and weave poles that really freaked him out and sapped his enthusiasm for agility.  But jumps?  He’s got that.  Sure.  Sure he does.

Ein and I started trialing in AKC Rally Obedience and (then) APDT Rally Obedience in August 2012.  What a fun year we have had, with plenty of ups and downs, as a green handler and anxious dog.  We have collected up to the Rally Excellent title (AKC) and the ARCH title (WC Rally).  But not the elusive Rally Level 3 title.  And why?  You guessed it.  Sign 57.  (I was mostly worried about the heeling backwards required in the Moving Backup sign.  It has not been an issue.  Not once.)

Due to my inexperience, I never imagined that Sign 57 would be a problem.  It’s a jump, my dog was taught to jump.  Therefore he will jump when I point.  Simple!  Not simple.  (The errors in my thought process are clear to me now.  Not so much back then.)
Two things I failed to consider: This sign is a variation on a Utility Level Obedience exercise.  So: not easy-peasy!  Also, this sign requires more independent work than any other rally sign ( in my opinion.)    Approximately 30 feet of independent work.
Ignorance is bliss: I attempted three Level 3 entries with Ein and received Non-Qualifying scores for every single one. What can I say, I am a “learn from mistakes” type of person.
Ein is great at holding a stay.  He is so splendid that when I left him in a stay and sent him to the jump, he continued to stay.  And stared at me.  Because, much to my naive surprise, he had absolutely no idea what I wanted him to do.  I was shocked and ashamed of myself that I had asked Too Much of my little red dog.

Well, it had to be fixed!  My initial attempt at “training” this was to simulate the exact same set up and ask Ein over and over again to take the jump.  Ridiculous, I know.  It didn’t work.  The next logical step was to get Ein and I closer to one another.  I would leave him half a foot offset from the jump, and position myself – facing him – on the opposite side, about 2 feet from one another.  That worked, but unreliably – yet it has still been my favorite method.  Next attempt was to put a target (we use a can cover) in front of the jump and send him to target that.  That worked okay.  I moved the target to the other side of the jump and Ein would: walk around the jump to target, stare at me, or rarely actually go over the jump for the target.  Everything was Not Working.  We have been struggling with this for months with little to no resolve.

A few weeks ago, Ein performed this sign two different times in a rally-o class.  I was ecstatic.  But then the next week, we were back to square one.  I think about this sign so much.  And the more I think, the more I realize that I would find our solution only by breaking the sign down to its basic fundamentals.

IMG_2659Part 1 – Leave the Dog in a Sit.
You must heel up to the sign.  Your dog must sit.  You leave the dog and the dog must stay.  It seems very simple, but in order to help Ein understand what is being asked of him, something had to change.
Our instructor suggested that instead of saying “Stay” I might say “Wait”, or something different so that Ein knows what is coming.  I like this a lot.  This helps me communicate to Ein “I want you to stay, but you will be asked to jump soon.” versus our normal “Stay.”  Ein has a very reliable “Recall Over Jump” when I leave him directly opposite of me, so telling him “Get Ready.” before asking him to jump in that situation, and only in that situation, should help him learn his new cue word.  “Get Ready” will be exclusive to “Staying Until Jumping.”

einlPart 2 – The Handler Cues the Dog…
Dogs need clear direction when they are being asked to do something.  It only makes sense to consider my own body language and cue Ein in a way that communicates most clearly with him, and takes his personality into consideration.
Without listing everything that I have done wrong, I know that I need to: Say his name.  Say our new cue word loudly and clearly.  Point to the jump in a grand sweeping motion with open hand (or two hands!) and keep my arm(s) raised.  Look at the jump during all of this, not at Ein.

Part 3 – The Dog Must Come Over The Jump. That jump needs to be a Really Good Thing for Ein.  And previously?  It really was not.  Again, a new cue word (bar”) and more concentrated emphasis on the bare bones concept of the jump. (starting at a low jump height is ideal for teaching the basics of a jump, and for building confidence.)
When I taught Ein agility jumps, I was told to wait for him to make the decision to jump, and then throw the reward out in front of him after he took the jump.  So, we revisited: I sat by the jump standard with a bag of yummy treats.  Ein got a treat thrown opposite the jump for: looking at the jump, for taking the jump.  He would initially stare at me.  It did not take him long to realize that that would get him nowhere fast.  Soon he began some glances at the jump.  Jackpot!  I threw the treat opposite the jump with a verbal praise-marker (Ein is afraid of the clicker sound.)  Since I started off sitting by the jump standard, Ein didn’t have the option of running around the jump.

It wasn’t long before Ein realized that he was Getting Food and Being Right and I soon had a corgi who actually wanted to jump.  I had succeeded in making jumps fun again!  We repeated this process with my moving one foot, three feet, and so on away from the jump standard.  Same process with me sitting in back of or in front of the jump.  It took some time, but now I can actually stand rather than sit and tell Ein “Bar!” and he scampers over that jump and smiles at me.   Mission accomplished.


Part 4 – Front and Finish.
Though I have obviously had issues with underestimating the above three parts of this exercise, I feel confident that this will be our strong area!  Ein is always happy to return to the safety of Me, and by now a Front and Finish are non-issues.  At eight years old and obsessed with Me, Ein is not prone to a zoomie run following the fun of taking a jump.  But hey, I don’t want to jinx us – especially not if we survive the sign to this point!

Sign 57?  You are going DOWN.  

So how about you?  Have you ever had a training challenge that baffled you and your dog?  What did you do about it?  Still working on it?  Please share!

Sometimes Everything Just Sucks

I am totally getting this plate someday

If I ever get a dog-themed vanity license plate, it’s going to be this one.

You know, when you (co-)write a blog about dog training and dog sports, it’s really easy to slip into a pattern of just talking about the good stuff: your training successes, the things you’ve done well, the ribbons you’ve won, the obstacles you’ve conquered.  It’s a little bit like Facebook: if you spend too much time over there, you can come away thinking that everyone you know is constantly winning awards, getting married, having babies, getting promotions at work and so forth.  One of the unintended consequences of Facebook is that it sometimes makes you feel like your own life–with your messy kitchen and your half-eaten bowl of cereal and your pile of unfinished work–just doesn’t measure up to the lives of everyone you know.  And it’s the same thing when you read dog blogs–you read about other people’s trial successes and the cool training they’re doing and the huge ribbons their dogs picked up last weekend–and then you look over at your dog, who has dirt on her nose from digging a hole in your yard and is in the process of chewing on something alarming, and you think, “Nope. That is not my dog, that is not my life, those are not going to be my ribbons.”

So it is in the service of balance that I am now going to come over to our usually sunny and positive blog and tell you this: I went to a trial last weekend, and it was awful.  The dogs and I all performed terribly, I didn’t learn very much from the experience, and I didn’t leave feeling like, “Hey, this is something to build on, and it’ll be a great baseline for when we start practicing again” (which is generally how I feel at the end of trials: usually, while I know that things weren’t perfect, I am proud of my dogs and ready to start fixing the places where we made mistakes.)  Not this time, though. This time I left just feeling depressed and frustrated, and the thought of going home and picking up my clicker and my rally cards again just bummed me out.

My trial experience was stressful for a lot of reasons: it was multi-day, it was far from home, it was expensive, it was one of the few trials in my area that my tripod dog is allowed to participate in (which meant that it was high stakes, title-wise), it was going to be my puppy’s debut; most importantly, though, we didn’t do great when we competed at the same venue last year, and I was full of determination that I was going to Show Them This Time, blah blah blah.  So I worked hard with my dogs to prep for this trial.  We practiced the exercises to the point where all three dogs could do them in tandem anywhere we were. We trained in novel venues–the pet store, the hardware store, the busy park–and we worked a lot on focusing through distractions.  I did perch work with Nellie and Widget, working hard to get their heels nice and snappy.  We did some mock trials with a training friend of ours, and I even enrolled the older dogs in a class, just so we could get some practice performing in front of a group of people and dogs. We practiced in the hotel room the night before the trial, and everyone looked gorgeous. And I was confident! I was sure we were going to leave the trial with a new title for every dog! I put my entry forms in, paid my fees and showed up early to the venue, ready to take on the world and show everyone how awesome my dogs were.

We bombed. Every one of the dogs NQed in every event I entered them in.  And true to their natures, when my dogs NQ, they do not mess around. Some people NQ because, say, their sits are a little crooked or they misread a card and do the wrong kind of turn.  When my dogs NQ, they run out of the ring and go roll in poop under a tree, or get so fascinated by the smell of the grass that they they forget I exist completely, or they ping-pong around on leash so much that it looks like I’m trying to walk a kite in a windstorm. It was the kind of thing where I didn’t bother to wait around and hear scores afterward, because there was no possibility at all that we’d Qed. And after all the work we’d put in, and after the effort and time and travel and money….it was embarrassing, because it truly looked like I’d just walked into the ring for a lark without doing any training at all.  I left the trial early, feeling ashamed and sad and like I never wanted to do anything like that again. I wasn’t mad at my dogs–things like this are always the human’s fault–but it was definitely not the fun experience I was hoping to have with them.

And I want to submit that this is something that happens more often than we admit in dog training: sometimes you are hopeful and confident and have plans of action, but sometimes you are frustrated and sad and don’t know how to fix the problem that you’re having.   And increasingly, I think it’s important that we acknowledge to ourselves that this is a real thing: dog training isn’t a constant process of building on your successes, and even careful preparation doesn’t always result in the outcomes you hoped for.  Sometimes things go wrong and you don’t know why.  Sometimes things just suck. And sometimes you don’t want to hear people’s advice about how to solve the problems you’re having and listen to the way they got THEIR perfect dog to do the things your imperfect dog isn’t doing: sometimes you just want to wallow and feel crummy about everything.

What is important, I think, is what comes next after the urge to wallow starts to fade away.  I will admit: it’s been three days since I got home from our bummer trial, and I have had zero desire to work on any training stuff formally.  But I have thrown the ball endless times for my dogs, and we went on a fun hike, and I’ve cuddled on the couch with them watching movies and they’ve sat on my feet and mugged me for bits of my peanut butter sandwich.  They are my buddies, regardless of what they do or do not do at trials, and I love them; that is solid, always.

And I’ve slowly started going over the trial in my mind, and I’ve slowly–very slowly–started to figure out what the trial actually taught me.  I learned that my girls still need practice in the actual ring, and that the faux-ring work we did in advance didn’t quite prepare us well enough.  I learned that my own ring nerves are probably getting transmitted to them, and eventually I’ll need to figure out how to fix that.  I learned that we’ve got to prepare better for specific kinds of distractions.  I learned that the puppy can go into the ring without completely losing her mind.  I learned that Lucy, my reactive dog, is actually at a point where she can go to trials now without threatening to rearrange everyone’s face.  I learned that bringing stuffed frozen Kongs to trials is a very effective strategy for keeping the dogs quiet in their crates.  And I learned that the next venue I try needs to be smaller, lower-key and closer to home. Next week, I will take the girls back to rally class, and I will do my best to consider all of these things and to integrate them into my training. Slowly, slowly.

Ultimately, there’s no bad experience that can’t teach you something. All a trial (or an encounter with the scary dog down the street, or a practice run on a difficult obstacle, or an offleash hike in a strange place)–is, really, is information: your dogs are always learning, and if you never give them a chance to show off what they’re learning, you never get the chance to make an assessment.  Sometimes what they tell you is that they are ready for whatever it is you are asking of them; sometimes what they tell you is that they are decidedly not.  Either way, you can’t know unless you give them the chance to tell you. If you can get something out of an experience, it’s not wasted, even if what you’re getting isn’t what you’d hoped for.

But that kind of Zen-like acceptance comes later.  If you’ve just had a bad experience with your dog, be it a blown trial or a training failure or a snarky episode in the park, you have my permission to not leap into thinking What Does It All Mean? and How Do I Fix This? and How Can I Find The Silver Lining In This? right away.  You don’t have to decide to quit your sport forever, or never trial again, or never go on a walk during the middle of the day; you may decide that eventually, but for now, sleep on it.  For your sake and your dogs’ sake, don’t rush right back into training to try to fix the problem.  Go have some ice cream, take your dogs out somewhere quiet and peaceful and just be with them, give yourself a break for a while.  And know that even if you don’t see it on dog blogs or hear it from the trainers you admire, everyone has the kind of day where they just hit the wall.  Everyone has felt hopeless and like they don’t know what to do next occasionally. We’re not superhuman, and neither are our dogs. As long as your relationship is solid, and as long as you have some hope that someday, down the road at some point, you’ll be able to get something useful out of the experience, then go ahead and wallow. Because everybody’s been there, and sometimes, things are just the worst.


From the hike we took before our second day of Epic Trial Fail. They may be monsters, but they’re MY monsters.

Copping a Heel: Teaching heeling from scratch.

"Heh heh, heeling is dumb!"

“Heh heh, heeling is dumb!”

No bones about it: When I adopted Fly, I had competition in mind. The performance bug bit me good and hard when I started competing with my American Bulldog, Cerberus, in local UKC events and I knew I wanted to keep going in that direction. I also knew that I wanted to avoid the mistakes I made early on in Cerb’s training. I’ve learned so much in the past few years and I was eager to apply it all right from the start. With Cerb, I took a crooked and winding path through several different training philosophies before I found a great community of positive reinforcement (R+) and force-free trainers. Once I found it, I never looked back, and I knew that my path with my next dog would be much more straightforward!

Enter: Firefly. ‘Fly is a Jack Russell/bully mix (the shelter said Bull Terrier but I don’t see it – she’s more APBT-y). She’s approximately one year old and is best described as a motley combination of Jack Russell teeth, Yoda ears, bulldog snort, and the personality of a three-year old on a five-day PixyStix bender. She’s a little bit bigger than I was looking for my second dog (I had wanted something a little more Jack Russell in size), but from the moment I met her I knew we’d be leaving the shelter together. She just has so much GO. She’s sweet and affectionate, but driven and willing to please. She works well for food and I have an inkling she might work well for a toy, too. She has approximately zero focus right now, but focus can be built… right?


Cerb says “Put that thing back where it came from or so help me…”

I didn’t have a very structured plan for Fly beyond “Let’s do all the things!” My first task, of course, was to get her settled into her new home. That’s probably not so big a deal for other adopters and their new pets, but I had to integrate Fly into a household with two cats and a dog-reactive American Bulldog. I had amazing support from my trainer and my friends and I felt like I could make it work, and I’m pleased to say that it is going really, really well – I guess I’ll have to write a post about it one of these days! The first few days weeks were rough, but I’m now able to walk both dogs through our neighborhood by myself with absolutely no trouble (though I don’t, because I’ve got no desire to partake in Urban Waterskiing — that, and I don’t want to be by myself with two dogs if something goes wrong).

So, integration (mostly) complete, it was time to think about my competition goals and pick a place to start. While I’m interested in eventually doing all kinds of crazy activities with Fly – agility! nose work! weight pull! freestyle dancing! – I knew that I wanted a solid foundation of basic obedience. For me, everything starts with a solid heel. This means heel position, Fly’s shoulder by my leg, her head up and eyes on me. I picked this task as our starting point.

My view during heeling practice. Her eye contact will laser-fire those cookies right out of my hand.

My view during heeling practice on our front porch. Her eye contact will laser-fire those cookies right out of my hand.

I started by simply rewarding Fly for being in heel position. I wanted to make that spot next to my leg pay off BIG TIME. When she sat there and looked up at me, treats rained from the sky. I would do this if she put herself there or if I encouraged her to take up that position, and once she understood the concept, I rewarded only for what I wanted – a straight sit, square front, and eye contact. This was a change from when I first started working with Cerb. At that time I really didn’t appreciate how important it is to tell your dog there is only one right answer. I would reward Cerb for anything even resembling a sit in heel position, long after I should have raised my criteria, and as a result it took quite a long time to get a consistent, competition-worthy sit in heel position. I was determined not to make that mistake again! So for Fly, sitting in heel has only one right answer. Everything else is a blown opportunity for cookies.

I also introduced a new activity for both of us, something I hadn’t known about when I was training Cerb: perch work! I learned about perch work only a year or so ago when I needed to teach Cerb that he had a back end. He had a solid heel at the time, but I wanted to teach him to heel in reverse, and we were really hitting a wall. He just had no idea how to work his back legs – it was like he didn’t know he had them! Perch work is a great way to teach spatial and hind-end awareness, and I thought it would really benefit Fly’s heeling and left and right finishes if we incorporated this activity into her heeling lessons.

What is perch work? Good question! A “perch” is just something your dog can put his or her feet on. You could use an upturned bucket, a concrete block, a tupperware dish — anything that is size-appropriate for your dog and sturdy enough to support her weight. I went through a couple of options with Fly. At first, I tried an upturned bucket. That was a good height for what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t sturdy – Fly kept leaning too far forward and flipping it over, which certainly wasn’t encouraging her to get up on it again. I eventually settled on an old “kitty condo” thing we had stashed in the basement. It still tips a little too easily, but it’s heavier than the bucket.

Okay! I had a perch. Then I had to do some shaping with Fly to teach her to put her front feet up on the perch. I used a clicker for this and click-treated any interest in the perch. Then I click-treated for pawing at it, and within moments I had her doing her circus pony thing with two feet up on the perch.

Now the tricky part. I had to teach her to move her rear feet in a circle around the perch while keeping her front feet up on it – basically, to pivot around the perch. This was easier than I thought it would be! Fly caught on to this much more quickly than Cerberus, who tends to be a little more ballistic with his guesses when we’re shaping something new (see: Cerberus learned to launch himself OVER the perch, but refused to pivot gently around it). I grabbed a handful of treats, stood in heel position next to Fly, and encouraged her to turn her head to the left while I shuffled to the right. The movement of her head turned her body and she shifted her back feet – click! In just a few attempts, I had her following me dutifully around the perch:

I also introduced movement to our heel position practice. I started off with just a few steps at first, rewarding Fly for staying in heel position and maintaining that stellar eye contact. Over a few days of short mini-sessions (which is all Fly’s brain can handle right now), I increased the distance Fly needed to move to get her reward, but I also maintained a random reinforcement schedule – she could get a treat for one step in heel position, or she might need to give me five steps, or seven steps, or two steps. It’s important to be random and not fall into a pattern like giving the reward every five steps, otherwise you might end up with a dog who lags/looks around for four steps and just looks up at you for the fifth, the delicious cookie step. While that might not sound too bad, in a competition setting it could mean the difference between a bang-on halt and a late, laggy halt, or the difference between a sexy left turn and… tripping over your dog, who was looking at that-lady-in-the-hat-over-there because it was only the third step and the cookies don’t come until step five, right?

Put it all together, and after two weeks it looks something like this:

Not bad, I think! From a multi-dog kennel at a county animal shelter to… um, somewhat attentive short-distance heeling champion in only a few weeks! In the future, we’ll be working on increasing distance, incorporating left and right turns, getting a snappy insta-sit when we come to a stop, and polishing up her left and right finishes.


Yes you SHOULD teach an Old Dog New Tricks.

My corgi, Ein, was no spring chicken when we started our first sport.  He was 7 years old.  I had always wanted to do agility with Ein.  I would do internet searches for agility clubs and classes and think, “Someday.”  By the time my lifestyle finally allowed for enrollment in a class, Ein was a whole 7 years old.  He had never been to a training class of any kind.  I taught him basic obedience at home.  What did Ein know before turning 7?  Sit, Down, Stay, Shake, Roll Over, Heel, Sit at Halt, Recall.

The agility training center that I looked into asked me to bring Ein to an obedience class, to see if he had the basic skills needed for an agility class.  It was a bit of a competitive obedience class, with strict walking patterns and other things that are commonplace in such a class.  They made no sense to me.  I was acutely aware that Ein was the oldest dog in the class.  It was clear by the end of that hour that when it came to basic obedience, Ein knew what he was doing better than I.  The instructor was training ME, not my dog.

We were a shoo-in for the Foundations Agility class that I wanted to join.  The class would be Foundations Agility one week, Obedience the opposite week.  We waited a month for the class to begin, and in that month I wavered between excitement and concern that Ein was Too Old.  When the night of our first class finally arrived, Ein was indeed the oldest dog there.  None of the other dogs were older than 2 years.  Was I doing the right thing?

That was last January.  The months flew by, and they were fun.  I loved the agility classes!  The Obedience classes?  Ein already knew that stuff.  How boring.  My old dog was learning stuff, though.  He learned hand touches, target touches, weave poles, teeter, “2 on/2 off” target touches on contacts, running through tunnels.  And one class, he started offering “sit pretty” to me for treats.  “Sit Pretty” was a trick that I had tried and failed to teach him for years.  Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Ein’s age was not our obstacle.  It was his social anxiety.  But something funny started happening outside of class.  Ein stopped plastering himself to the sides of the aisles in Petsmart.  He stopped full-body shuddering when somebody wanted to pet him.  He began sniffing people instead of hiding behind my legs.  He ate a treat that the vet gave him.  He ate a treat that a dog bakery owner gave him.

Class time continued to progress and we switched over to something called “Rally Obedience” in the opposite week to our agility class.  And something else switched over.  My brain.  I began looking forwards to both weeks equally.  While Ein was progressing and learning agility, he was slow with it.  He was in no hurry at all.  Some of the obstacles were still frightening to him.  While it improved Ein’s confidence to work through that anxiety, I could see that he did not wholly enjoy what he was doing.  What Ein did enjoy doing was walking at heel with me.  He enjoyed working closely with me as a team, instead of being sent away from me.  In Rally Obedience, we could do just that!  But we had a lot of learning to do.  Rally Obedience was more than just heeling and sitting.  Each class we learned a few new AKC Rally signs, practiced them, and worked on heeling patterns.  And I fell in love with the sport.  Ein learned, at 7 years old: Call Front, Right Finish, Left Finish, About Turn, About Turn Left, About U Turn, Stand, Moving Down, 270 Right/Left, 360 Right/Left, Figure 8 Heeling, Serpentine Heeling.  Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks??

After about a year, I stopped agility with Ein.  We had had a good run.  And we, by chance, had found a sport that we enjoyed.  So I entered Ein in his first AKC Rally trial.  Terrifying.  He qualified and placed in Rally Novice.  My 7 year old anxiety-ridden corgi walked into a busy dog show and earned a qualifying score.  Good boy.  And I was hooked.  We continued to work up through AKC Rally, as well as APDT (now World Cynosport) Rally.

And now, this year, I find my dog to be 8 years old.  He is still learning new tricks.  He has to.  We want to earn our Rally Excellent and Level 3 titles after all.  At the age of 8, what has Ein learned? Ein has learned to walk at heel…in reverse.  Call Front, Walk Backwards.  Drop on Recall.  Moving Stand.  Moving Down.  Sit from a Distance.  Down from a Distance.  Perch Work.  Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks???

This past weekend, Ein and I made a second attempt to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test.  It was crystal clear that Ein’s confidence has improved by leaps and bounds. He allowed the instructor to pet him.  He did not shake or drool when I walked away for three minutes and left his leash in the hand of a stranger.  He heeled smartly without forging or worrying.  Ein still has his anxiety demons.  He failed the test, no way was he allowing that instructor to BRUSH him.  But it is clear that learning all of his “new tricks” was just the thing that my old dog needed to help him feel more confident about himself, and to not be so afraid of the world.

And as if that was not enough, Ein also earned his Veterans title in World Cynosport Rally this past Sunday.  (Veterans is a class for dogs 8 years and older.)  It seemed odd to have my dog, who is still green in so many ways, entered in a Veterans class.  After all, we have only just begun.  Old dogs CAN learn new tricks.  Lots of them.  And those new tricks can strengthen your bond, build teamwork, and enrich your dog’s life in ways that you cannot even imagine.


A serious case of the yips: Competing with a reactive dog

What do you do when you’ve got the yips about your yapper?

PS: I just totally gave away the ending to this post.

“The yips” is a slang term for the sudden loss of skills (usually the fine motor skills of accomplished athletes). There are some medical explanations for the loss of these motor skills, but in common language, having the yips is usually attributed to a loss of confidence in one’s abilities. Sometimes athletes recover their ability or change their technique to compensate, but others end up retiring from their sports.

Most people probably don’t think of dog sports as, well, “sports”, but those of us who do compete with our dogs know better. Agility, obedience, weight pull, rally – all of these activities require training, physical preparation and mental readiness. They require partnership between dog and owner and — in my opinion — they are influenced just as much by mental mistakes as by physical mistakes. A lot of people go into competition and blame failures on their dog. “He knows better than that.” “He missed that jump.” “She was distracted.” Ultimately, it is the handler’s preparation and competition mindset that makes the difference here. A distracted dog is not engaged – so engage him. A dog doesn’t “know better” unless you prepare him – so prepare adequately. A dog who misses obstacles or signs has not been directed properly – so direct him. In fact, I would venture to say that most errors that cost dog-handler teams points or qualifications are caused by mental mistakes, not physical inability.

About 18 months ago, I got a serious case of the yips.
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Play is for everyone: Some thoughts on the sale of APDT Rally to USDAA

I mentioned a while back that I’ve recently started competing in APDT Rally with my two dogs. I’ve wanted to do Rally for ages–I bought myself Click Your Way To Rally Obedience about two months after getting Nellie and have been slowly working my way through it.  I got Nell to the point where she had a handle on the entry-level signs, and, feeling full of myself, I started calling around to find a) classes we could take and b) places we could trial. And that is where I first encountered the labyrinth of dog sport venues and realized that things had just gotten a lot more complicated than I’d thought. I’m in the US, so I apologize for this being US-centric, but I bet wherever you are, there are similar multi-venue issues afoot: just replace AKC/UKC/ASCA/APDT with your local organizational alphabet soup.

Though I’d done a little bit of agility-for-fun with Lucy, when I started researching Rally, I still hadn’t quite grasped the whole idea that dog sports have multiple sponsoring organizations, that every organization has different rules, and that these organizations are, in many cases, highly regional.  The organizations also have, for lack of a better term, particular vibes: some are just-for-fun, some are very competitive, some are preoccupied with breed, some don’t care, some are easy for new handlers to get into, others aren’t, etc. If you’ve got an athletic young border collie you’d like to do sports with, you don’t really have to worry about this: every organization will accept you, and you have the luxury of shopping around to find the organization that best fits your style and geographic area. The rest of us, as I was soon to find out, are not that lucky. I didn’t realize it, but at the time, I was living in AKC country. Compete in AKC Rally with Nellie? In 2009? Ha. Nell has three strikes against her, as far as the AKC is concerned:

  • She is a pit bull (and very definitely NOT an AmStaff). The UKC believes that the American Pit Bull Terrier is a breed; the AKC does not.
  • She is a pit bull mix; until 2010, the AKC did not allow mixed breeds to compete at all. Now mixes are allowed to compete under the ‘Canine Partners’ category; individual clubs have the autonomy to run them in their own all-mixed breed classes or disallow them altogether. Mustn’t sully the purebred dogs with their filthy mongrel germs!
  • She has three legs. This is still a disqualifier from participation in any AKC event (including, depending on who’s interpreting, the Canine Good Citizen exam and the STAR Puppy program.) If you’ve bred a dog who’s dysplastic or can’t breathe, no problem (especially if he’s a purebred)! A dog with vision issues, however, or a dog who’s going a little deaf as he ages, or my healthy-as-a-horse, vet-cleared, speedy little tripod? Uh-uh.

(*I am not a real big fan of the AKC, in case it’s not obvious)

This also, as I found out, excluded us from taking AKC-based classes (this is up to the instructor’s discretion; the discretion of the three instructors I called was that if Nellie wasn’t eligible to compete in AKC Rally, there’d be no point in training her in AKC rally.) AKC did eventually withdraw its ‘no mixed breeds’ rule, so if I’d wanted, I could have trialed with Lucy, but by this time I had an understandably bad taste in my mouth.

So then I moved! And I moved to an area that had some APDT! And choirs of angels came out of the clouds to sing! OK, not really, but after my crummy experience with AKC-affiliated stuff, it was such a breath of fresh air to go to my first APDT trial. APDT Rally is open to all dogs (mixed/purebred) and explicitly welcomes dogs (and handlers!) with disabilities. Judges are empowered to make small course changes to accommodate physical needs: if, say, you’re running a 12 year old dog and would like to jump him at a slightly lower jump height, that’s permitted (on judges’ approval). And at least at the trials I went to, that open, inclusive attitude permeated the whole atmosphere. Everyone cheered for everyone; there was certainly no grumbling about how Maybe Some Dogs Just Shouldn’t Be Here; it was friendly, open, social, non-intimidating for newbies and a huge amount of fun. I loved it. My dogs loved it. I was totally hooked.

And then.
APDT Rally Transitions to Cynosport APDT Rally

In August of this year, APDT sold its entire Rally program to the US Dog Agility Association (USDAA, soon to be known as Cynosport). This was not unexpected: Rally began with the APDT, but they are, after all, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and running a sports organization with all of the attendant paperwork, etc. is not exactly their primary mission. I’m sad to see Rally leave the APDT, but I understand that decision: what I do not understand is the decision to sell to the USDAA (except, presumably, that the USDAA had the cash and the desire to pay it out.)

USDAA is a fine organization, and many people love competing there. It was designed as a performance venue for all dogs, so mixed breeds have never been a problem for them. In all other ways, however, USDAA Agility is the opposite of the friendly, inclusive environment that the APDT has worked hard to foster in their Rally program. USDAA is widely known as the most competitive of the various US agility venues: their courses are longer, their obstacles are more challenging (narrower dog walk, smaller tire), their weave poll spacing, at 22″, is smaller than that of any other venue (which has caused some controversy, as smaller weave entries are harder on a dog’s frame, and the risk of injury subsequently goes up.) Their jump heights are also famously high and don’t account for body type: Nellie is 16.5 inches at the withers, and as such, she’d have to jump 21 inches (almost higher than her own head). Of course, Nellie wouldn’t be able to compete anyway: the USDAA does not allow three-legged dogs (here’s an awesome story about a tripod who got kicked out of USDAA after she lost her leg to cancer and went on to rock out in CPE). The APDT’s press release about the sale says that Cynosport has agreed to keep APDT Rally’s rules through the transition period: they also say that they expect the transition to be complete at the end of 2012. No word on whether or not those rules will stay consistent once Cynosport has taken over completely.

USDAA also has a reputation as being an organization that exists primarily for border collies. This is not entirely fair, but also not entirely unfair: have a look at the 22″ and 26″ classes in this year’s Masters’ Standard Top Ten. See many non-Border Collies? In fact, take a look at all the classes. See many mixed-breed dogs at all? (note: every mix is classified by USDAA as ‘All-Breed’) There were so many border collies at this year’s Nationals that Susan Garrett (who runs border collies) posted about wanting an Anything But Border Collies class. And yeah, I get it: border collies are often good at agility. And yet, other sponsoring organizations don’t seem to have these same all-BCs, all the time results: here’s a photo of the AKC’s 2011 National Champs. Here’s the UKC’s 2012 Agility All Stars list: lots of breeds on there. Most of the people on the Fortune 500 CEOs list are men. Are we going to argue that that’s just because men are naturally more talented and capable? Or might issues of corporate culture and work environments play a part? I know border collies are awesome. I don’t think they are awesomer than 99% of all other dogs at agility. I think the attitudes of the sponsoring organization and the people who participate absolutely play a role, and I’m going to suggest that anyone who doesn’t feel similarly has never been to a trial or dog event where they felt unwelcome.

And finally, regarding issues of breed: USDAA held its Nationals in Commerce City, CO this year. Commerce City, CO, where city regulations make it “unlawful for any person to own, possess, keep, exercise control over, maintain, harbor, transport or sell within the city any pit bull [Any dog that is an American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one (1) or more of the above breeds or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics that substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel Club (A.K.C.) or United Kennel Club (U.K.C.) for any of the above breeds. A bill of sale of veterinary record that identifies an animal as a pit bull terrier mix shall be sufficient to establish that the animal in question is a pit bull terrier or a pit bull terrier mix for purposes of this chapter].” Katie wrote a great post on this over at her blog, and the only thing I can add to that is numbers: USDAA reports that 83 APBTs, 97 AmStaffs and 101 Staffy Bulls have titled with their organization. They also have titled 30 bulldogs, 332 boxers and a huge number of (presumably some) square-headed mixed breeds that might be affected by this legislation. They chose to have their Nationals there anyway, and when there was some controversy over that decision on their facebook page, they shut it down. No worries about the hundreds of dogs that would have been put in harm’s way if they’d chosen to show up! They’re a competitive organization, after all, and didn’t you see that most of the really good dogs are border collies? It’s right there in the top ten list!

I don’t know if anything’s going to change when the sale of APDT Rally changes over fully to Cynosport, I really don’t. I hope it doesn’t. I hope that the atmosphere and the rules stay exactly the same and the change in ownership is only reflected in what’s printed on the ribbons. All I’m saying is that my little three-legged rescued pit mix loves playing Rally and I love playing it with her: the deck has already been stacked against her enough, and if this sale becomes yet another thing that keeps us from living our lives and doing the things we love to do, I will be unhappy. So act right, Cynosport!