Do’s and Don’ts for getting a sport dog from a shelter

It’s no secret that we here at TU are big fans of shelter dogs as both potential sport partners and awesome pets. We’ve written several posts on the subject before: here’s Ten Reasons Why Your Next Sport Dog Should Be a Rescue, and here’s Jen’s post on how rescues and shelters should go about marketing dogs for sport homes.  Michelle has also talked about going in with a plan when you’re going to adopt from a shelter.  However, it occurred to me recently that while we’ve always encouraged shelter adoption, we’ve never actually given any practical advice on how to go into a shelter and come out with an awesome sport dog.  We’re going to correct that right now with a short list of do’s and don’ts for people who are looking to adopt their next sport dog.

Don’t lead by saying you’re looking for a dog to do agility* with.

*or your sport of choice

Here’s the thing: most dog people don’t do dog sports. It’s easy to forget this if your weekends are wrapped up in trials and training and classes, but truly: dog sports are a niche thing. You’d be surprised how many dog owners have never even heard of dog sports. As a shelter worker myself, I will tell you that shelter workers are no exception: even when they are familiar with, say, agility, they may not have enough specialized knowledge to know what makes a good sport partner. When you say “I’m looking for an agility dog”, what your average shelter worker may hear is “I’m looking for a super high-energy dog”. If you’ve spent much time in shelters, you probably know that most shelters are chock-full of super energetic teenage dogs who have a surplus of anxiety and a surfeit of manners: these are the dogs who are surrendered because the owner “just doesn’t have enough time to meet their needs.” If you come in asking for an agility dog, you will often be introduced to a dog who is bouncing off the walls with shelter stress and pent-up energy. Captain Wall Bouncer might be a terrific sport partner; however, it is also possible that he’s just an anxious dog who had a bad start and who is going to need a ton of remedial work before you can even think about, say, developing toy drive or handler focus.

Do go in with specific criteria in mind.

A better approach than saying, “I want a [sport] dog” is to tell the shelter worker who’s helping you that you do dog sports, and you’re looking for a dog who has [x] qualities. This means, by the way, that you should have a sense of what qualities you’re looking for before you go in!  What you’re looking for will depend on several things, most notably what specific sports you play; if you’re looking for a nosework dog, you might go in looking for a dog who likes to work independently and is into find-it games, but if you’re looking for an obedience dog, you might be more interested in a dog with a lot of handler focus.  Your list of criteria will be specific to you, the sports you play, and your lifestyle!  However, there are also some basic qualities you can look for that can help set you and your future dog up for success in sports: when I polled the TU members in preparation for this post, here are some of the criteria we came up with:

  • Confidence: is the dog comfortable in new environments? How do they do when presented with new distractions and challenges?
  • Biddablity/handler focus: is the dog interested in you (in the absence of treats and toys)? If you engage them in basic training or play, are they interested in engaging back?
  • Structure: there are a lot of good books and websites that will help you get a sense of how to evaluate a dog’s physical structure. Here’s a post on Susan Garrett’s blog that will give you some preliminary pointers.  For me, I tend to look a lot at shoulder and rear angulation, gait and topline, but everyone’s got a different list of things that matter to them.
  • Drives (food, play, hunt, toy): you won’t get a perfect picture of this in a shelter setting, but if you’ve got some time to play with the dog you’re interested in, you should be able to get some sense of how they respond to food, toys, find it games, tag and so forth.  The shelter workers can give you good input here: remember, they’ve known the dog for longer than you have, and they can probably tell you if he’s generally into toys, treats, etc.
  • Ability to recover: if the dog is startled or if something happens that she doesn’t expect, does she bounce back quickly or does she stress about it for a while?

Don’t go in looking for dogs of a specific breed

When I’m looking for dogs, I’m personally much more interested in temperament and personality than breed. That said, I know there are a lot of people who like particular breeds and breed mixes and specifically seek them out when they’re looking for dogs: to each their own! However, thinking about breed can actually get in your way if you’re looking for your perfect sport dog at a shelter.  If you’ve spent any time at all in shelters or browsing Petfinder, you probably have figured out that a) most (though certainly not all) shelter dogs are mixes and b) the stated breed on the Petfinder listing or kennel card is usually just somebody’s best guess. Some shelters are better at guessing than others; that said, I have worked at several pretty great shelters, and still, I can tell you that in my experience, breed designation usually goes down something like this:

Scene: Several shelter workers stand around squinting at a random medium-sized brown dog who’s just come in.

Shelter worker #1:  He’s got kind of a …. Labby-looking head, right?

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not?

Shelter worker #3: He’s kinda short, though. Let’s say Lab-dachshund mix.

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not? [*writes it down]

If you go to a shelter, you will usually see a ton of dogs listed as lab mixes, shepherd mixes or pit mixes: the National Canine Research Council did a study that indicated that these are the most commonly designated mixes across shelters in the US.  However, the NCRC also did a bunch of blood-based DNA testing to see how accurate those breed guesses are, and whoops, not so much: it turns out that on average, they are only right about 18-20% of the time.  Here are some interesting posters the NCRC put out after that study was released: they show dogs who were identified as lab, shepherd or pit mixes and what the DNA testing indicated they actually were. [Note: these files are PDFs]

Lab
Shepherd
Pit bull

[Side note: my shelter has these posters hanging up all over the place, and we are still like, “Yup, looks like a pit mix to me!” when new dogs come in. Sigh.]

Anyway, the point of all that is this: if you go into a shelter and you say, “I am looking for a border collie or border collie mix” instead of saying “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker is not going to think “OK, this person is looking for an intelligent dog with herding instinct who is handler focused and good at teamwork”.  The shelter worker is, instead, going to start making a list of every black and white dog in the shelter, and you are going to see a bunch of black and white dogs rather than a bunch of dogs who have the characteristics you want.  If you say, “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker may bring you a border collie; they may also, however, bring you some awesome little non-black and white muttsky who has all of the characteristics you’re looking for and who you never would have seen if you’d asked to only see border collies.

Do bring toys and treats along when you’re meeting dogs

Bringing along toys and treats is a great way to test if the dog you’re looking at is biddable and wants to engage with you. If you’re a person who uses tug toys a lot in training, it will be useful to bring a tug along to see if the dog wants to play with you; it’s not a perfect metric, as some dogs are too stressed by the shelter environment to play, but if a dog gets excited about the tug right off the bat, that’s something to put in the plus column. Same thing with treats: lots of times, if you have good, tasty/smelly treats, you can do some basic luring and shaping with the dogs you’re looking at, and that can give you some good information about the way the dog learns and how motivated she is by treats. Note–bring the good stuff along: if you bring some dehydrated liver or some string cheese, you’re probably going to have better luck than if you use the stale Milk Bones that the shelter has sitting around.

Here’s a caveat, though: before you bust out your toys and treats, ask the shelter workers if a) the dog is a resource guarder [some extremely sweet dogs get verrrrrry intense about new toys, and this can really be exacerbated in a shelter environment] and b) if the dog has any food intolerances [nobody will be very pleased with you if you feed a dog a treat and later on they come down with hives]. Better to be safe than sorry!

Do try playing/working with the dog in as many contexts as you can.

Shelters have different policies on how potential adopters are allowed to interact with their dogs, but by all means, try to interact with them in as many different contexts as possible.  Take them into a quiet side room if one is available; take them on a walk; play with them in a fenced yard; interact with them near other dogs; walk them through a people-filled lobby and see how they do.  The shelter I work in right now is very liberal about the things potential adopters can do with our dogs: they can go on car rides, they can go on outings and hikes, they can do sleepovers, etc. Other shelters I’ve worked in have let potential adopters ‘check out’ a dog for a few hours and take them on a hike.  Find out all the things the shelter is willing to let you do, and then try to do all of them! Knowledge is power: the more information you have on how your potential dog acts in new situations, the better you’ll be able to determine if the dog is the right fit for you.

Any other do’s and don’ts you would like to add? Do so in the comments!

I have found my joy, and his name is Steve.

Years ago, when Steve was young and completely insane and I was new to agility and new to the special kind of insanity that is Border Collies, I had a trainer completely steal my joy. The club where I took obedience and rally also ran an agility program, and the instructors were some pretty accomplished people– multiple championship titles, Nationals, even someone who has been to Worlds. It was natural that I would just start off my agility journey there.

Very bad plan. Very bad. They begin with what they call Foundations, which is exactly the skills that it should be, but the problem is they have six young, green dogs all trying to

Big air Steve

Big air Steve

work, usually offleash, at the same time. Steve, young and overly excited about anything and everything that moved tasked with rear-foot-targeting a small board OVER AND OVER AND OVER again… well… let’s just say that didn’t keep him very occupied.

I did a lot of mat work with him. I did a lot of control unleashed games with him. But what it came down to was that there was no way for me to keep this dog under threshold far enough for him to learn much of anything with the class set up the way it was.

And none of the instructors either could understand that or were able to honor that and help me work around it.

We finally made it out of Foundations after several sessions and moved into Beginner 1. This class involved stringing several jumps together, maybe in a big circle. Stever dropped probably 85% of the jumps. So they found me special jumping instruction. She was going to teach my dog how to jump.

Never did anyone address that my dog was so over threshold that his brain was gone and the only thing his body wanted to do was GO AS FAST AS POSSIBLE.

I left class crying week after week.

I was taken out of the class and set aside and told to work on my relationship problems with my dog.

My heart broke. I got this dog to play agility with him, and I had failed completely before I ever got started.

They missed it. They missed it completely. The problem was not my dog, not at all. It was not me. I was doing everything I knew how to do.

The problem was the setting. The problem was instructors who just didn’t get it. Nowhere along the line did anybody suggest a different class, or private lessons. That was what he needed. No one said anything about thresholds.

Steve masters a different kind of teeter totter

Steve masters a different kind of teeter totter

I quit. I left class crying yet again and I never went back.

Finally after some encouragement from friends, I switched to another training club. I went to meet the instructor to see if my dog was broken. He wasn’t. He ran beautifully alone in her training building. What?

So we joined her classes. One dog in the ring at a time, for the most part. The rest of the dogs crated either in the building or out of it, depending on the dog.

And yeah, he was high at first. WOOHOO AGILITY! He crashed a lot of jumps. But as he learned the game, as he learned the environment, he started to settle.

And we made progress. I stopped crying. My dog learned. I learned.

Somehow, I had an agility dog.

We’re nothing amazing. I don’t like to trial, so he has a couple CPE titles and a couple legs in USDAA Performance 1 Gamblers (and I think 1 in Standard).

Here’s his first USDAA Gamblers run ever. (fast forward to about 50 seconds in)

Now most of the agility we do is on our own, just playing around in the training building, running whatever course is leftover from classes. I like it. He likes it. It works.

Recently I’ve put him back in Rally Obedience classes again. I love the instructor. I love the sport. Steve is a smartypants who pretty much knows all the exercises (he has one Rally Excellent leg, and I just haven’t managed to get out of bed to make it to another trial). But it’s good for him to go brain, and it’s good for me to go play with him in public.

And play we do. Sometimes, our play gets caught on camera, like it did before class last week. We were just warming up, fooling around, getting ready for class. The instructors husband caught us on film.

 

 

(and before anyone says it, yes, he forges terribly and no, I don’t care)

And what do you know, my old agility instructor, the one who broke my heart and stole my joy? She saw it and she commented on the “long way” that Steve and I have come and that it was “impressive”. And that would feel good if it were coming from somebody else, coming from someone who supported us and believed in us from the beginning. But she is somebody that we worked hard *despite* of, somebody that broke us down instead of lifting us up.

Steve and I? We didn’t need to work on our relationship. We have that in spades and we always have. We just needed somebody who understood what we needed to help that relationship shine in a particular environment.

I am so lucky to have this amazing dog in my life, and I am so very very grateful to have found people who would build us up, who would work through the hard stuff, who would sing his praises and help me toward achieving what I wanted with him.

That is what everyone trying to train a dog deserves, whether you’re just trying to learn basic manners in a beginner obedience class or you’re trying to learn a complicated game like agility. Respect. Honoring of your special relationship with your dog. Encouragement. Knowledgeable advice appropriate to your situation. We are not all cookie-cutters. We all deserve to be treated and taught as individuals.

The Problem of the Force-Free OTCH

One of the evergreen topics in competition obedience discussion (at least for now — I remain hopeful that in another ten to fifteen years we’ll finally have killed this one off) is whether it is possible to achieve an AKC Obedience Trial Championship (OTCh) via force-free training.

The simple answer is “yes.” It has been done. It will be done again — in the very near future, probably, since I know of at least two prominent R+ trainers who are closing in on theirs.

The complicated answer is “yes, but.”

The truth is, nobody who asks this question — which is, in fact, not usually phrased as a question but as an assertion that “you can’t get an OTCh without using forcible compulsion” — really cares whether someone else has done it. If they actually cared, they would already know the answer. We live in the age of Google. The answer is not hard to find.

But the people who ask this question don’t want that answer. What they want is to confirm their own belief that it is necessary to use force in pursuit of those titles, or at least that it is necessary for their own personal circumstances. Instead of saying “this is what I choose to do,” many of them will say “this is what I have to do.” They don’t want it to be a choice. A choice implies moral agency. Not a lot of people have the honesty to admit that they chose to use pain compliance when another option was available.

That’s why you’ll see so much goalpost shifting: “okay, fine, so that one trainer did it, but she was only able to do it because she had herding dogs.” Or: “okay, she did it, but it took her a really long time.” Or: “okay, so she got an OTCh, but she didn’t win the National Obedience Championship.” The line has to be moved to wherever it might make force “necessary” again.

This problem is not limited to competition obedience, by the way. You’ll see the same pseudo-innocent question being asked about IPO titles and regional/national/international competitions. You’ll see it asked about field trials. In any area of seriously competitive dog sports where R+ training is not already the prevailing norm among top trainers (i.e., in any sport other than agility and canine musical freestyle), some version of this discussion will pop up.

And arguing with people who ask that question is a waste of time. It is a huge waste of time.

The reason it’s a huge waste of time is that naysayers do not actually want to be persuaded that it’s possible. As a result, they’re right. If you don’t want to do it — and you don’t want to do it badly enough to first develop the necessary skills and then put in the long, long hours of work on top of that, then hey, guess what? It’s not possible. Not for you. Correspondingly, saying that it’s possible for Person A does not mean that it’s possible for Person B. You can never prove that it’s possible for Person B until that person actually does it.

(Corollary: do not claim that you could do it unless you have done it. Just don’t. This is, thankfully, a rare occurrence, but it makes me gnash my teeth on the infrequent occasions that I see someone saying that it would be “easy” to achieve that level of training with R+ methods. Saying that just shows a profound ignorance of how difficult it actually is to achieve an OTCh. Getting that title is not easy. Not with any method. Claim otherwise and you will be dismissed as delusional, and rightly so.)

Crooky doing his best impression of an armchair OTCh. Reality behind the keyboard: he barely got an RL1 and his scores sucked.

Now, having noted that it is possible to get an OTCh with force-free training, the obvious follow-up question is “well then, why haven’t more people done it?”

That’s a fair question. It is also one that’s impossible to answer, because each person has their own reasons and unless you actually survey each and every one of them individually (and they all answer you honestly!), we’ll never know what they’d say.

But here’s my guess.

1. The structure of the championship favors longtime competitors.

To earn an OTCh, you must beat all the other teams in your field and finish in first place at least once in Utility B, once in Open B, and then a third time in either of those classes. On top of that, you must also earn 100 points by beating other dogs on a schedule that varies depending on the number of other dogs you’re competing against.

Your absolute score doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters for the OTCh is whether you beat the other teams in the class.

In my opinion this is a pretty sociopathic way to structure a championship in a dog sport, but the AKC didn’t ask me for any input, so that’s how it is. You beat other dogs and handlers, and you beat them a lot, or you go home empty-handed.

One of the effects of this championship structure is that somebody who’s been doing competition obedience for 30 years has a pretty sizable advantage over somebody who’s been doing it for 3 years. More experienced competitors tend to have more refined training skills, more ring experience, and often more carefully selected dogs. This translates to a considerable advantage in head-to-head competition, which is what the OTCh is all about.

Most R+ competitors I know of, and I definitely include myself in this number, are fairly new to the sport (or, at the very least, are new to doing it this way). Their training mechanics often aren’t that sophisticated, in large part because they haven’t been doing it long enough to develop their skills to that level. Most people who have been doing it for 30 years, meanwhile, have been doing so with some degree of force. They have had a long, long time to practice, hone, and perfect their skills. In a purely mechanical sense, setting aside all value judgments, they’re better trainers. Consequently — and unsurprisingly — they beat the pants off the newbies.

It doesn’t mean their methods are better. It means they’re better at using those methods.

If you look at a compulsion trainer and an R+ trainer who have the same amount of experience and the same skill level and the same dogs, my personal experience has been that the R+ trained dogs are not at all handicapped in their performances. In fact, what I have personally seen is that the R+ dogs tend to be better. But there are not that many trainers out there with 30 years of experience doing it this way, and that makes a big difference at the OTCh level.

2. It is often difficult to find extremely skilled R+ trainers in a sport where that is not the norm.

If I want to train with an OTCh-level handler who uses compulsion-based methods, I’ve got my pick of two or three within decent driving distance of my home. If I lower the bar to UD/UDX handlers, I’ve got even more.

If I want to train with an OTCh-level handler who trains force-free, I have to train online, because the one and only R+ OTCh handler who used to teach classes in my area retired and moved to another state last year. There are other R+ obedience instructors in my area, to be sure, but they’re not OTCh handlers. Only maybe one or two are at UD/UDX level, and those are about two hours away — too far to drive for regular instruction.

And this is in an area with a strong, solidly entrenched culture of R+ training for other sports (for example: if I want to train with world-class handlers in agility, I’ve got no end of awesome choices within 90 minutes of home). I can only imagine how much worse it is for people who live in regions where there isn’t such a vibrant R+ dog sport culture.

If you want to compete seriously in a sport, you have to learn from the best. R+ handlers who want to compete at the top levels in obedience and don’t have a force-free OTCh instructor nearby have a couple of choices: (1) learn from the most motivational and least forceful of the mixed-method trainers in their area, then try to invent their own solutions to problems that their teachers would normally solve with force; (2) learn on their own (or online) and, to some degree, make stuff up as they go; or (3) switch over to mixed methods.

Options #1 and #2 impose some real, practical disadvantages. The Fenzi Dog Sport Academy is starting to fill in the gaps and make #2 much more feasible (and it’s beginning to build an impressive record of student successes to prove it), but there are still some things that are best learned (or discovered) via in-person classes. Thus, people who stick to their guns regarding training methods will likely be at a disadvantage not because their methods are inherently flawed, but because they don’t have mentors who can help them through the inevitable bobbles and weak spots that will pop up during a dog’s sport career. They’re slowed down by having to constantly problem-solve along the way (with the trial and error that unavoidably entails), instead of just taking someone else’s established solutions and implementing them.

Option #3, therefore, may seem like the only viable choice for a Seriously Serious competitor who would like to be force-free, in a perfect world, but doesn’t know how to make that happen and isn’t willing to risk failing in public as they learn to invent their own solutions.

The net effect here is that some of the Seriously Serious competitors, believing that force is necessary to win as a practical matter even if they don’t like it and accept that it’s not theoretically necessary, switch to alternative camps. This leaves a disproportionate number of less serious competitors in the R+ bucket. These people, who may be perfectly happy to continue playing for fun and who never wanted to chase after OTChs in the first place, may then be perceived as the best possible outcomes with R+ methods, simply because they’re the only ones left trying to do it.

3. Some R+ handlers get driven out of the sport by a hostile environment.

I think this is changing in obedience — either because the sport culture is finally starting to shift or because obedience entries have dropped to the point where nobody wants to chase away interested newbies anymore — but it’s definitely very much still true in bitesports (and possibly in field training, although I don’t do gun dog stuff so I am 100% speculating on that front) that there is a lot of entrenched hostility toward “cookie trainers” in some quarters. And that is still at least a little bit of a Thing in competition obedience, too. I’ve gotten the snarky comments on the sidelines at trials myself (and I wasn’t even competing!).

Some of this is a self-created problem: waltzing in and blithely making idiot mistakes while lecturing everybody else about how they abuse their dogs is not going to win a whole lot of friends in any endeavor. Don’t add to the problem, I implore you, dear reader. If you go into a new sport where you don’t actually know anything and don’t have any accomplishments (or, really, even where you do), please please please do not pull that crap.

But even if you are polite and respectful and humble, there’s going to be some hostility. Some people are threatened by the idea that it’s possible to succeed without inflicting pain on their partners. Some people legitimately don’t believe that you’ll get anywhere and don’t care to have you waste their time while you figure this out. Not everyone is gentle in expressing those opinions.

And sometimes that makes R+ handlers give up on the sports that are most hostile to them, because pretty much all of us are doing this for fun as a hobby, and it is not actually a whole lot of fun to have people constantly being dicks in your face about not putting a prong collar on your dog. Dog sports are hard. There’s plenty of disaster and demoralization to go around without your fellow club members adding to your woes. Everybody needs encouragement and support sometimes, and the people who don’t get it are likely to drop out. In some sports, those people are primarily the “cookie trainers.”

So they leave, and the perception becomes “lol those guys can’t hack it,” and the myth lives on another day. The more you have to be a pioneer for unpopular and under-explored techniques in a given environment, the fewer people are going to have the fortitude to stick it out.

4. It’s a numbers game.

How many people who start out in competitive obedience go on to get an OTCh?

I have no idea what the actual number is, but let’s say the answer is 1 in 100. Let’s pretend that one person out of every hundred people who takes a basic competition obedience class will go on to compete, and will keep doing it long and successfully enough to get an OTCh.

The other 99 people drop out because they lose interest or life gets in the way or their dog doesn’t have the capacity or they don’t have the capacity. Or maybe their first-ever Novice A run is a disaster and they get all humiliated and demoralized and nobody bothers reaching out to pull them back into the game, so they quit on the spot and never go back. Whatever. Something happens and they don’t make it to the top.

Now, how many of those people train force-free? Let’s say that the number is 15% (again, I’m totally making this up out of thin air, but we’ll just pretend that’s the number and run with it). So 15 out of those 100 people are R+ handlers, and the other 85 are not.

What are the odds that the one person in a hundred who gets an OTCh is also going to be one of the 15 people who trains without force? Not great! Especially not great in light of all the other disadvantages we’ve talked about!

If the numbers were swapped, and it was 85% force-free and 15% not, then R+ OTChs would soon become so commonplace that they wouldn’t be remarkable anymore — which is more or less where agility already is. (When was the last time you heard anyone ask whether it was possible to get a MACH without a prong?)

But instead, in this sport, the non-compulsion handlers are the minority, and they’re also a minority made up disproportionately of newbies with dogs who weren’t specifically bred or chosen for success in this venue (crazy pound mutt holla!), and so, not surprisingly, there are not a whole lot of them getting OTChs or winning NOC. There are not a whole lot of people doing those things period.

If there are only 15 people trying to do X without compulsion, and it would be no surprise if a randomly selected group of 15 people with identical skill levels, experience, resources, and dogs would not be able to do X with compulsion, then that is not exactly a fair benchmark. The fact that none of the 15 R+ people succeeded might not tell you anything other than that it’s unlikely that any group of 15 similarly situated people would do it.

 

I could go on — I do think there are some other things that factor in here — but if you ask me, those four points cover most of the big reasons that you don’t see more force-free OTChs. As the requisite knowledge spreads, access to excellent instruction improves, the sport culture changes, and the numbers shift, I expect that R+ OTChs will start to seem less noteworthy. They’ll still be awesome, because any OTCh is awesome, but it’ll become unremarkable in the same way that an R+ MACH is unremarkable. It’s a great achievement for dog and trainer, but it’s not like throwing the first bomb in the revolution.

So what are you to do, if you are an advocate of force-free dog training and firmly believe that it’s possible to achieve the highest levels of obedience without compulsion?

Simple. Not easy, but simple. Prove it.

That’s it. That is the whole thing. Do the work. Develop the skills. Campaign your dog. Show people that it can be done, because talking about it convinces no one.

Even if you don’t make it to an OTCh — as Pongu and I will never make it, because after some 18 months of training in competition obedience I’ve finally been forced to admit that my fearful dog’s mental problems prevent us from ever approaching that level — it is worth making the attempt.

Pongu will never have an OTCh. He will probably never have a CD in AKC obedience, for that matter. He’s a scaredy dog. Obedience, or at least obedience with the scores I’d like to see, is just plain too hard for him. Admitting this caused me a fair amount of heartburn, because I wanted so badly to go out there and prove that we could do it, and it was a bitter pill to swallow that we couldn’t.

But I don’t regret the training, because I did learn the skills and I did show my dog to top levels of competition (albeit in Rally, not obedience), and I did at least get to demonstrate that this approach works to push a pathologically fearful dog far beyond what any other method could have done. A lot of dogs like Pongu never even get to live semi-normal pet lives. Pongu went far beyond that. So we did get a success story. Not exactly the one I was aiming for, but a success story nonetheless.

And I learned enough to convince myself that yes, this can be done. I might not have convinced anyone else. Yet. But I’ll keep on learning, and I’ll keep on practicing, and someday, it’ll happen.

Because that is what we have to do, all of us, if we want to change the world.

Go Forth and Encourage

Just for a minute, I want you to think about who inspires you. It can be one person, it can be multiple people, it can be a group of people. Who inspires you to get up every day? Who inspires you to do better, to be better?

More importantly, who are YOU encouraging – who are YOU inspiring?

encouragers

The dog world is complicated, even if your dog is “just a pet.” What do you feed them when there are so many options on the shelves, so many colorful bags promising that each one is better than the last? Which vet do you go to when each person has the best one in the entire area? Which trainer? Which collar? It can be dizzying.

This is why controversial trainers like Caesar Millan are so popular with the general public: they relate to the owner first instead of berating them how horrible they are for using prong collars, or how stupid they are for feeding Science Diet. They are charming, they validate the owner, their problems, and their feelings. You can be the best dog trainer on the planet, but if you’re rude to the people you’ll lose the dogs.

Now, imagine how you felt as a new competitor, before you knew everything – the world of specialized dog training and competing is even more dizzying. It’s downright cut-throat. People are cruel to their competition, often treating new people who have questions as if they are worse than stupid, they are in they way. They are a waste of time. It’s a wonder that anyone gets involved at all, much less stays involved.

I am still wholly new to the competition world. I started approximately six years ago with a backyard bred pit bull, and he and I were going to conquer the world. It was tough figuring out the world of dog competition, and I thought I had what was a good group of people – until I became a real competitor. It wasn’t until I felt like I hit rock bottom (or rather, I felt like I was the rock on the bottom of someone’s shoe) and was ready to leave that I met people worth knowing.

In many of my social networking groups, I see discussions about clubs seeing less and less entries at shows, and I also see how some of these “newbies” are treated on the same discussion board. They are greeted with rude comments, they are mocked, and they are made to feel horrible for simply asking a question. Then I see how they are treated at shows – and it’s just about the same way.

Why are seasoned exhibitors treating new exhibitors like idiots? Why are we not stepping up to help them, to inspire them? Experienced exhibitors need to be ringside and be there to jump in and help a new exhibitor who is clearly struggling. We need to be there to be cheerleaders, to be a guide, to be encouragers. Even more so, experienced dog people need to be there to encourage the common “pet person,” even if they do not want to compete. We need to empower them to do better, instead of belittling them for getting a well-bred purebred instead of a rescue dog.

My group of people are not only my direct competitors, meaning that we are both in the ring chasing after that blue ribbon, but they are my greatest friends and my biggest cheerleaders. We give each other high fives for high obedience scores, and we cheer for each other when the other’s dog win best of breed. We celebrate the big wins, and we encourage the small victories.

These are the kind of dog people the dog world needs. We need to empower, we need to encourage, we need to befriend.

So, as you reflect on the people who encourage and inspire you, ask yourself, who is it that you encourage and inspire?

inspire

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…..how 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.

Life Goals

In July, many of you and the Team Unruly members chose one or a few things that our dog(s) needed to work on as our “Summer Homework”.  I chose to train Perri to heel for the Obedience ring.  That’s a simple sentence, but there was nothing simple about the work to come.  Because sometimes, oftentimes, training goals aren’t cut-and-dry simple.

Low Confidence.  Overwhelmed.  Shut Down.  Anxiety.  Hard To Motivate.  Those are phrases that have crept into my every day language when it comes to Perri.  These are things that I did not realize that I was dealing with at first.  Things that I did not particularly want to deal with.  Initially, Perri’s discomfort was very subtle to my untrained eye.  She does not shut down into an anxious and shuddering mess like my corgi, Ein, does.  Ein makes his case obvious.  Ein doesn’t leave me room for guessing.

Perri leaves me a lot of room for guessing.  You could say that she is hard to get to know.  In fact, rather than “teach Perri to heel”, our summer homework branched out into many paths of things that we needed to learn and work on as a team.  Things like helping Perri work through being startled by loud noises.   Helping Perri learn to work even though there is a 200-pound newfoundland ringside, or a german shepherd in her agility class and she is unnecessarily worried that they will hurt her.  Helping Perri learn tricks so that our relationship can grow in a pressure-free environment.  Helping Perri to not be Afraid.  Stopping when we are successful in training, even if it is only after two minutes of work.  Even if I want to continue.  I had to learn what motivates Perri, and what does not motivate Perri.  I had to learn that this changes from day to day and accept that this is how Perri is, no matter how confusing it is to me.  (For example, one day Perri will turn herself inside out for her tug toy, the next day she could not care less about it and would rather have a piece of cereal.  It changes every day, the guessing game is a struggle sometimes!)  This summer while I tried to work on what I thought was one goal, I instead worked on many, and am still continuing towards those goals.  My summer goal really opened the door up for our Life Goals.

The best thing I took away from my summer homework was “Listen to your Dog.”  And you always should.  No one knows your dog like you do.  If I could make a goal for any dog and human partnership it would be that: for the human to always pay attention to their dog and adjust their goals or environment accordingly.  It is what I had to do.  I have to listen to Perri and work at her pace, even though it makes me sad that her pace is dictated by various anxieties.  The dog underneath that anxiety is brilliant.  I remember when I was in grade school, my teacher asked a question of the class.  I remained silent.  I knew the answer but did not want to volunteer it by raising my hand – because I was very shy and I might be Wrong.  The teacher called on me anyway.  Instead of offering the correct answer, I said,  “I don’t know.”  I think that is what it is like for Perri.  She knows what to do, but sometimes she is just too nervous to do that thing and would rather do nothing than chance being wrong.  My goal is to never make her feel that way again.  My goal is to listen to her.  My goal is to come back to where Perri can be certain that she will be Right, and work up from there.

So, we took a detour from our summer homework and learned some more important lessons on the way and that’s all right.  That’s better!  Goals can be wonderful things, but they can also put pressure on the relationship – for better or for worse.  Since we as the handler are the half of the partnership with the goals, it is our job to pick the right path towards that goal and to keep it fun and respectful for the individualized needs of our dog.  If it takes a day, or if it takes a year, then so be it.  What matters is the friendship that develops along the way.

How about you?  Have you ever had to alter your plan to reach a goal with your dog?  Do you have any goals for you and your dog for 2014?  Tell us in the comments!

10701712493_802b04b221_c

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?

twodogs

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.

 

The Road to UKC Rally All-Stars, Part One

“I’m ready, Mom. Let’s do this!”

Jax and I have one big goal this year: to be ranked in UKC’s Rally 1 All-Stars. This is an invitational event that is held at UKC Premier each year. Each dog and handler team attend Rally competitions each year and earn points to earn a rank among the top 50 dogs. These are the dogs that will be invited to compete in Rally All-Stars at Premier in June.

On Friday at Premier, we earned a score of 97 (out of 100); on Sunday, we earned a score of 96. Considering this weekend was one of the worst weekends I had to experience in 2012, I was pleased with these performances. Jax knew I needed him that weekend, and he stepped up to the plate after not competing in Rally since Premier 2011.

I apologize for the shoddy video quality. Indoor lighting and cameras don’t always get along nicely.

Continue reading

That’s gonna leave a mark: French Ring Trial at Cher Car Kennels

Last weekend, a friend of mine posted on Facebook “This may seem like an odd question to most but why don’t more people want to get bitten by dogs?”

Gumbo the French Bulldog puppy is ready to trial! Tiega the Malinois is not so sure.

I’ve gotta say, I wonder the same thing. Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a French Ring trial hosted by the local Cher Car Kennels. After spending the day with some amazing trainers and their phenomenal dogs, I definitely feel the itch to get involved in bitework sports – it looks like fun!

First, a bit of background. “French Ring Sport”, or just French Ring, is a dog sport that combines obedience, agility and bitework. Some of the elements are similar to Schutzhund and Mondio, other popular dog sports in the U.S. I won’t go into the history of French Ring and the structure of the oversight organization because this isn’t my sport and I’m not that familiar with it, but this weekend I learned that the judge for the trials was M. Serge Gladieux, the head of French Ring Sport, Mondio Ring and Schutzhund/IPO in France! In addition to this extremely well-qualified judge, the event also had two talented decoys, Jimmy Vanhove (France L3) and Wade Morell (NARA L1). The event was held at Cher Car Kennels in St Johns, Michigan.

Continue reading