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]

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!

Don’t be a Dull Walking Partner!

photo(2)A common complaint that I hear from friends and clients alike is, “leash walks are SO boring!” Mostly what follows after this exclamation is that they want their dog to have a perfect recall so they can only be exercised off leash and magically have all the fun in the world. Well… ok then! Don’t get me wrong: excellent recalls are vital to living a happy and safe life with your dog, and personally I hike off leash with my guys at least 2-3 times every week. I understand wanting to have the wild adventure of off leash play, but just like anything else in dog training, leashed walks are only as boring as you make them be. So here’s an idea: HAVE FUN!

The first, and I should hope the most obvious, advice I can give is to be engaging. Bring yourself to every walk 100%. Don’t you dare use dog walking time to chat on your cell phone or daydream about how many errands you need to run after this mundane neighborhood stroll. Your dog deserves better than that. Even if you are just on the other end of the leash to toss a few cookies to Fido for maintaining a nice loose leash or smile at him when he checks in with you, that is already a step up. While taking solo walks with each of my dogs, I also use this time to tell them how freaking awesome and beautiful they are. Really. Try it!


Client dog Delilah pauses her training walk for a game of tug.

Leashed walks are also an excellent time to practice heeling and obedience behaviors, as well as your dog’s repertoire of super cool tricks. I frequently take breaks during a walk to do a little heeling pattern or two then bust out a few spins and core challenging tricks. Bring along a tug toy to reward with and get crazy! Break out of that “living room training session” mindset and practice everything while on the go. While working their brain much more than a normal walk, Fido will also get the double benefit of proofing his training and focus on you in a variety of locations with distractions.


Another absolute favorite pastime on walks that I share with my dogs is GETTING ON STUFF! Some people call it urban agility, but I just call it being really darn cool with my dogs. See a park bench? Ask your dog to get on it. Tree stump? Hop up! Fire hydrant? First place the front paws on for an easier trick, then balance all four for an impressive balancing stunt. Encouraging your dog to use their body to jump up or balance on something is an easy peasy way to increase confidence on a huge variety of surfaces, and it makes for great photos as well (general public: please stop taking photos of your dog with the camera pointing straight down at their head. Really. It makes your dog look like a bobble head. Think their eye level or lower!). I proof my dogs’ stays very frequently using the “jump up and pose!” method. They absolutely love it and we have such a great time together figuring out what they can jump on during our walks. Many dogs find jumping self rewarding, and it is another entertaining way to change up a typical walk, but start off slow if your dog is ever unsure.

Owen and friend Marti practice their stays and position changes after jumping up on a picnic table.

Owen and friend Marti practice their stays, release by name, and position changes after jumping up on a picnic table.

Teaching a front paw targeting cue is a great place to start until you can work on getting Fido to jump confidently up onto something. I also always have my dogs wear body harnesses on leashed walks so I can help them jump off of something that might be a bit high off the ground; they are taught to automatically stay on whatever they jump on until released or helped.

Go new places! Don’t stick to the same neighborhood route over and over again. Change it up, choose a different path, or simply take a short drive to somewhere else in town. My dogs often ride along with me to lessons and classes in different cities, so I can easily stop to take a walk in a new places on the way home. You might need to have more planning for that option, but it is well worth it. Novel smells and sights are always stimulating to dogs, and can also help to break you out of the boring leashed walk rut. Many people take their young puppies out to new areas often for socialization and training, then forget about it when their dogs grow up. That IS boring! So go somewhere new this week for a walk, even if it is only a few streets over from your own.


“If you always give you will always have… friendship.” (River agrees… and would like you to give her that flock of ducks over there.)

No matter what kind of fun and games you choose to do on walks with your dog(s), do them often! Don’t fall into the rut of making leashed walks out to be a chore when they can provide the best bonding and training time that you and your best buddy have all day. So get out and be creative, engaging, and most of all: have fun on those walks!

Shelter Medicine: Intro to a Series

As a vet tech at a low cost spay/neuter clinic, I see a lot of shelter medicine first hand. Granted, I deal primarily with cats, but the general rules and attitudes concerning shelter medicine seem to be the same across all species. Given my history of working in horse rescue, and my current involvement in the placement of sato dogs from Puerto Rico, I’d like to think I have a pretty good grasp on how and why shelter medicine does and does not work.

Despite the fact that working in the setting I work in can be difficult both physically and emotionally, I keep at it. That’s primarily because I feel this need to help homeless animals. Even when I come home completely drained, crying my eyes out, and ready to drink vodka until the pain is dulled, I am grateful for the opportunity to help do so much good.

I have been the one to hold dogs as they are euthanized due to over crowding, preventable medical issues, and sometimes-severe behavioral problems. Sometimes, I am the only kind hand a dog knows in its life, and it’s only at the very end, when it’s too late. I am haunted by the dogs that are lost, every single time.

As the barn manager for an extremely well-known non-profit that gave retired racehorses a soft place to land, I often had to make difficult decisions regarding welfare, vet care, and, let’s be real, finances. They were not easy decisions, and the emotional toll they took drove me to both leave my position at the organization, and to start my own horse training business, so I could help troubled, remedial, and rescued horses on my own terms.

My drive to help animals of all kinds* has put me in the trenches, so to speak. I have seen things that are gory, hard to swallow, and absolutely, insurmountably heartbreaking. I have come home covered in tears, sweat, and blood; my own as well as the animals’. And yet, I get up every day and do it again, even when my body hurts and I feel like I can’t look at any more examples of how awful humans can really be. Because, let’s face it, humans are mostly to blame for the suffering of the animals around them.

*Cats, dogs, horses, wildlife that crosses my path in need of aid (like the baby possum I bottle fed just this past summer).

Vito, my baby possum.

Perhaps all of these reasons are why I get so defensive when I hear people criticizing shelter medicine, rescue groups, pounds, animal control, etc. Don’t get me wrong; I am well aware of the failings of the system. I have seen, firsthand, the consequences of limited resources, under-qualified staff, and politics– so many politics.

It’s easy to hate a system in which animals die, and in which care is often ‘sub par’ compared to the care our own pets receive. As an animal lover, it is hard to see dogs shaking in kennels, covered in their own urine. It is hard to see animals dying from preventable diseases or, worse, treatable ones.

However, I think a lot of the hatred stems from a lack of understanding. It is very, very hard to grasp why shelter medicine works the way it works without being on the inside.

In the upcoming weeks, I plan to address many aspects of shelter medicine from my point of view. I hope to provide insight into a world that is often swept under the rug because it is unpleasant to think about.

These posts are not intended to defend shelter medicine practices, but merely to shed some light on the reasoning behind them. Perhaps it is just me venting about things I face every day in my work-related travels.

What is shelter medicine?
Shelter medicine is defined as “a field of veterinary medicine dedicated to the care of homeless animals in shelters or other facilities dedicated to finding them new homes.” (

Shelter medicine differs from private practice in many ways. Perhaps the most obvious is that the animals in the shelter don’t have a human of their own. Cost, population, resources, and space all set limits on what care animals in a shelter setting receive. These limitations set the stage for everything from spaying and neutering homeless animals to care of senior pets awaiting homes to the burn out experienced by staff and volunteers alike. In this upcoming series, I hope to discuss these topics and more.

Team Unruly’s Quirky Dogs

I arrive home, unlock the door and open it to…nothing. There is no dog there to greet me, no wagging tail, no barking or whining or anything of the sort. It’s quiet.

You might think this is the beginning to a sad story about the loss of a canine friend. But it’s not. I step further into the house and look over and ah hah, there is my dog. She’s still laying in my recliner, but her eyes are focused on the door, her ears are up, her tail is wiggling.


When I walk toward her, her lips pull back in one of her “doggy grins” and when I’m standing over her, she throws herself on her back and sticks a paw on me.


She’s happy to see me. She just has her own unique way of showing it.

One of the things people love to talk about with their dogs is their oddities, their quirks. They all have them. Some are endearing. Some are annoying. Some are a bit of both.

One of Dahlia’s other quirks is one of the endearing ones. Before going out for a walk, she has to get a belly rub. We call it the “pre-walk belly rub.” And it’s become a routine. We ask her if she wants to go for a walk and if she does, she rolls over with a big grin on her face, we pet her belly for a few minutes and then she’s ready to go.

Of course, she has her annoying quirks too, like stealing the butter any chance she gets and hiding it under my pillow. Or always have to walk in the direction I go, but in front of me, which means she’s always in the way. But the endearing ones far outweigh the others!

But Dahlia is not the only quirky dog on the TU team. Check out some of the rest of the teams’ quirks.

Molly makes me laugh because every single time I give her a squeaky toy, she races around with big exaggerated t-rex toy shake and butt wiggles…but unfailingly settles into a frog leg position when it comes time to really get down to business and rip her toy apart.  It is like she has to get really cozy before she can really focus on eviscerating her toy!

Another funny quirk about Molly is that each and every night that I settle down on our sofa to read a book or watch TV, she has to be in the same spot – I lay on my side with my legs bent, and Molly has to be curled in a ball behind my legs with her head draped across my knees.  No options!  She stares at me and paws me until the arrangement is made her way!  My other two dogs shift around with where they sleep during the evening: on the dog beds, on the couch, snuggled with me, wherever but not Molly.  It has to be in that spot!

Widget has a thing for knives.

Actually, Widget has a thing for silverware of all kinds. There’s nothing the kid won’t put in her mouth, but she’s got a particular fondness for metal (I know! She is a weirdo!)  When I lived in a house with a Widget-accessible dishwasher, I had to be really quick shutting the dishwasher door when I was doing dishes because otherwise, Widget would be all up in the silverware caddy grabbing everything and hiding it all over the house. With spoons and forks, it was exasperating but cute: with knives or anything else pokey, it was alarming! Widget does not tend to discriminate cute from alarming, though, and so, until we had really great leave it/drop it cues down, I had to be very vigilant to make sure she wasn’t grabbing anything that could hurt her.

However. Once, and only once, I happened to have my camera in the kitchen with me while I was doing dishes, and when Widge started rifling through the silverware, I thought to myself, “I’ve got to take a picture of this; nobody’s ever going to believe me.” So I got my camera ready, and as she grabbed her first piece of silverware, I snapped a picture. The split second after I took the picture, I realized that what she had in her mouth was not a spoon; it was a knife! Even though this was not my best dog-parent moment, in my defense a) it was a very dull knife and b) I took it from her the minute I realized what it was. I just feel compelled to tell you that I don’t routinely let my cattlejack run with knives in her mouth before I show you these two pictures.


Widget Quigley, silverware bandit


Widget Quigley, pirate.

Pongu likes to grab a toy and run around, wiggling his head and making crazy motorboat “rrrRRrrr” noises, every time I come home. Of course, scheming little Machiavelli dog that he is, these displays aren’t limited to when I get back from work. He also breaks out the routine whenever I hug the spousal unit or threaten to pay attention to another dog — because Pongu has learned, correctly!, that I’ll drop whatever else I’m doing and pay attention to his jealous little nerd butt whenever he does the wigglyhead dance.

Crookytail has a bunch of quirks. He likes to do high-fives when he’s happy, or rear up on his hind legs and wave his front paws in the air. Sometimes he wakes us up by rubbing his head all along the perimeter of the bed, pushing the edges of the sheets up over his nose, and clacking his teeth in the air. We call it his “shark routine” because he really does look like he’s trying to play Jaws with the bedcovers.

Fly is the quirkiest of quirky dogs – I haven’t even had time to figure all of them out yet and she has lived with us for eighteen months! Her funniest behavior is the way she plays fetch with herself and her nylabone. We have a large family room with durable wood composite flooring. Fly will pounce on her nylabone, grab it with her mouth, and then flip her head back and throw the bone into the air. When it lands in the middle of the room, she will pounce on it with both of her front feet and then skate across the floor on it! I’ve been trying to get a video of this behavior for months and can never catch it in time, but it cracks me up.

Lucy, bless her weird little heart, does not totally get other dogs: by this, I mean that most of the time, she approaches other dogs like an alien who’s learned about dog behavior from a badly translated book. Case in point: her bizarre playbow.  She’s watched a lot of dogs do playbows, and kind of gets the basic jist, but try as she might, she can’t quite pull it off. When Lucy wants to do a playbow, she puts her head on the ground and kind of squishes her body up above it like a toddler attempting to do a handstand.  She then starts skittering backwards like she’s doing a crabwalk: it’s pretty clear that the front of her wants to play, but the back of her wants to flee. Also, she knows one word, which is “WOOOOOO!”: she yells “WOOOOOO!” all the time, but never more when she’s attempting to playbow.  So picture this: you’re a nice polite young dog, and you are approached by this ludicrous Airedale Schnauzweiler. You playbow at her, and in exchange, she stands on her head, starts doing a combination of a breakdance and a reverse moonwalk, and as she skitters away, you hear  “WOOOOoooooooo!” echoing further and further into the distance.

It’s no wonder Lucy only has very patient friends.

Ein is your regular bossy, noisy corgi and he loves his toys.  He regularly keeps a stash of no less than four nylabones surrounding him at all times.  But his cutest quirk by far is his “detailing” of plushy toys.  After the bigger dogs have completely destuffed and destroyed a stuffed toy, Ein grabs the carcass and takes it with him everywhere.  He will settle into place and nibble, nibble, nibble that toy until he has nibbled the entire surface area.  He keeps it up until the carcass is torn to shreds and I steal it and throw it away.  If he has to bark while detailing, he barks but each bark is chattery with the nibbling action.  Ridiculous!

Nellie is the sweetest and most perfect of dogs, but she has this one quirk which drives me bananas: she always, always feels that she must assist with bedmaking. It doesn’t matter how sneaky you are taking your armload of sheets into the bedroom: she will sense it, and before you can put your sheets down, your bed will have a sprawled out pit bull on it. You will patiently remove the pit bull, but as soon as you’ve got the first corner of the sheet on, there she is again, laying on top of the sheet you’re trying to spread out. You remove her again, only to find her laying right on top of the blanket you need. It always takes three times as long to make any bed in my house because of Nellie.  On the upside, this is a pretty good excuse for just never making my bed!




What about your dog?  Does he or she have any silly little quirks that make your heart melt?  Share in the comments!

BAG BRAINS!!: TU Goes Lure Coursing

Late last summer, TU’s Danielle and I got together with our assorted fuzzy miscreants and went out to a lure coursing fun run hosted by the Hilltown Dog Club Lure Coursing group. It was the first time that either of us had done it, and neither of us knew whether our dogs were going to like it.

Lure coursing, for the uninitiated, is a dog sport wherein your dog chases a plastic bag tied to a string that zips around a big grassy field, going through a certain number of turns, for several hundred yards. The number of turns and the length of the course vary depending on your dog’s breed, size, and (sometimes) experience or competition level. There are breed-specific trials, mostly geared toward sighthounds, but at fun runs and non-breed events like the AKC’s Coursing Ability Test, any dog can play. In most cases, your dog is not racing against other dogs, but just trying to beat a fairly forgiving standard course time. If your dog’s in good health and interested in the bag, this isn’t a difficult game.

Not every dog, however, wants to chase that bag. I’m no expert, but from what I’ve seen, lure coursing seems to break down into a pretty binary, black-and-white yes/no as to whether your dog is going to enjoy it. This is 100% instinct, so there’s not a whole lot you can train in or out. Dogs that don’t have especially high prey drive, and/or are easily spooked by the noise and smells of the generator used to power the lure, tend to be unenthusiastic about the experience. (Also, and I’ll totally admit I’m biased on this one because My Dog Pongu is not a lure courser, but I think some dogs are like “pfft that is a plastic bag, you think I’m falling for that? That is not even close to a cat. Go catch your own stupid bag, I’ll see you in the car.”)

Dogs that do have the instinct to chase things, though… weeelllll…

…they will knock you off your feet with their screaming, rearing, laser-focused-totally-insane enthusiasm.

With Dog Mob, I got one of each reaction. Pongu thought lure coursing was super dumb: the generator was scary, the bag was obviously fake, and if we weren’t going to be doing any heeling exercises then he was Not Interested.

Crookytail, on the other hand, was a howling, raging, bug-eyed maniac for that bag. The first time he got a chance to go after it, he yanked me off my feet. I put him back in the car when his turn was over, and he went so crazy watching the other dogs chase the bag that he jumped out the half-rolled-up driver’s side window and bounded to the field. I put him back and rolled the window even tighter, and he got stuck with his head and one arm sticking out.

Finally I had to borrow a secure crate from Danielle (who, thank god, had one to spare) and stick Crooky in Doggy Jail, because he could not hold his brains in his head on his own.

The only way to keep Crooky from gate-crashing when it wasn’t his turn.

Eventually he got a second try and was, for a glorious 60 seconds, the Happiest Dog On Earth.

Danielle Here!
On our fun run outing I also got one of each reaction!  The ironic thing about lure coursing was that I thought that Perri would absolutely love it, and that Molly would be too lazy to care.  (In fact, I actually drove away from home without Molly, stopped, turned around and went back and got her. !!!)  Dog Reaction #1: Perri was mildly interested in the bag, slightly disturbed by the generator and absolutely, “Screw you guys, I’m going home!” when the coursing line was rude enough to not just touch her leg, but move against her leg.  For Perri, lure coursing means ‘bark at the bag, generator and coursing line, all from the safety of the snow fencing holding you inside of this terrible place.’

Dog Reaction #2?  When I told the owner of the coursing equipment that I thought that Molly would be too lazy and uninterested she laughed and told me that she had yet to see any pitbull that did not love lure coursing.  She was right!

Molly very impatiently waits her turn to Course!

Two important things in Lure Coursing: Proper cool down procedure and a LOT of laughing at your dog!

A couple of months later, Danielle and I met up again to take Molly and Crookytail to an official, AKC-sanctioned Coursing Ability Test. (Perri and Pongu, being decidedly less enthusiastic about the whole “run like a maniac after a plastic bag” thing, did not participate.) This event is open to all breeds; the only requirement is that your dog must be at least 12 months old, and you must prove your dog is able-bodied by gaiting her back and forth before the scribes’ table prior to doing your run. (Also: wiping her lady parts with a tissue.  No bitches in heat will be flying under the wire of the coursing ability test screening!)

It works pretty much like a fun run — the dog chases the bag for a course of several hundred yards — and after collecting three legs, your dog earns a Coursing Ability (CA) title. After ten passes, your dog can get a Coursing Ability Advanced (CAA) title. 25 passes, and you’ve got your Coursing Ability Excellent (CAX). Since there’s basically zero training involved and the dogs have a blast chasing the bag, this can be a great way to have some fun at a dog event and get your feet wet in that environment without the pressure of having to perform in a more competitive field like agility or obedience.

Plus, you get spiffy ribbons. Who doesn’t love ribbons?!

Crooky picked up two legs toward his CA that day, and I’ll likely take him to a trial to finish off that title sometime this spring. He’s not much for formal training, my Crookydog, but he sure does love chasing that bag. And I love watching him, because it’s so much fun to see how excited he gets about playing this game.

If you want to try a dog sport purely to watch your dog go out of his mind with exhilaration, lure coursing should definitely be on your short list.

Be prepared II: Making a dog emergency kit for your car

A while back, I wrote a post on making a tiny first aid kit to take along on hikes with your dog. I love that little kit, and I still take it along every time I hike.  However, I recently took a pet first aid and CPR class, and it got me thinking about putting something a little more elaborate to carry in my car in case of emergencies.  ‘Emergencies’, in this case, means a couple of different things to me: first, I wanted to have something on hand for my own dogs in case we run into some kind of crisis when we’re out on adventures, and second, I wanted to have supplies ready if I came across a loose or hurt dog.  Loose dogs are not uncommon in my area, unfortunately, and it’s a terrible feeling to not be able to help a dog get back to safety because you don’t have the right gear on hand.  Now of course, it is possible to go really big with a dog emergency kit: my pet CPR teacher’s kit took up an entire backpack and had everything you might possibly need for any emergency situation.  Since I don’t live completely in the middle of nowhere, however, my goal was to make a small, low-profile kit that would allow me to handle a situation for long enough to get back into a town where I could get help. I decided to divide my supplies up into three categories: first aid, dog wrangling devices and food/water. Here’s what I included in my kit: if there are other things you think might be good to include, please feel free to leave a comment! Here’s my full kit:


First Aid


  • Saline solution: for swishing out wounds. You can find pure saline solution in small, portable, squeezable containers in the eye care section of the pharmacy. Don’t get regular contact solution, which contains a disinfectant that’s not great for open wounds: just get saline.
  • Benadryl (or similar antihistamine): for bee stings, allergic reactions, etc. You don’t want the fancy multi-symptom kind, which contain some ingredients that dogs can’t tolerate: you just want nice cheap plain Benadryl (or the dollar store generic, which is what I got)
  • Vet wrap: I love this stuff. It’s self-sticking, it tears easily, and it can be used to wrap wounds up quickly and on the fly.
  • Little scissors: for cutting away fur to expose wounds, and to cut vet wrap and gauze.
  • Asprin: not the absolute best painkiller for dogs, but regular buffered aspirin is generally considered safe for dogs in small doses, and it’s the kind of thing you can carry around in a first aid kit (much less challenging than, say, Metacam). I got a little cheap-o four pill pack from the gas station.
  • Antibiotic gel in little packets: You can squeeze this right on wounds–it’s generally non-stinging–and then cover them up in gauze and vet wrap. When I’m home and have all my luxurious first aid supplies, I prefer a liquid disinfectant like Betadine, but this works in a pinch and is easier to carry than a big Betadine bottle.
  • Gauze & medical sponges: wound covers. Put some vet wrap over the gauze or sponge to hold it in place and you’re good to go for a while.
  • Heat pack: you can use this for swelling and also to help defrost really cold paws.  I am using a self-heating hand warmer (again, the kind of thing you’d find in a gas station) for my heat pack: they don’t require an external heat source and they heat up quickly but don’t get too hot.

Things I included but randomly forgot to photograph

  • Rubber glove: So handy to have! I have used them as impromptu paw covers before, and if you cut the fingers off, you have a little stretchy water-resistant cover that can go over a bandage. Also, you can use them as regular gloves if you have to handle something especially gross.
  • Styptic powder: I included some small packets of Wound Seal, which can be used to stop bleeding.
  • Tweezers: for getting cactus thorns and other nasties out of paws.

Dog WranglingSONY DSC

  • Cheap leash & collar set: I got this in the dollar bin at PetSmart: it’s just a small adjustable buckle collar and a four-foot leash. I picked this one because the collar adjusts a lot, meaning that I could probably wrangle quite a variety of dogs with it! If the loose dog I’m catching is mellow enough to let me put on a collar and adjust it, I vastly prefer using a real collar to a slip lead: I think they can be easier to get on in a calm way, and because they don’t tighten like a slip lead, dogs tend to panic and flail around less in them.  Also, I wanted to have a spare on hand in case one of my dogs somehow gets out of their collar and loses it: it has happened to me before! [*shakes fist at Lucy]
  • Slip lead: Even though I prefer a regular leash-collar set for actually moving dogs around, a slip lead is still handy to have. You can get it over the head of a really skittish dog, you can use it to make an impromptu harness to help hold an injured dog up, you can use it to elevate an injured leg, and you can make an emergency muzzle out of it.
  • Squeaker: This is a squeaker that I pulled out of one of my dogs’ destroyed toys: it’s really handy to have on hand if you want to get a loose dog to come over and see you. You’d be surprised how many scared, injured dogs still want to come over and check out a fun squeaky thing! Pair it with treats, and boom: you’ve often caught your dog.

Food & Water


  • Portable/disposable food and water bowls: I have a couple of portable bowls that CloudStar makes–they are both cheap and sturdy, and they live in my emergency kit all the time.
  • Sample packs of kibble and treats: both of these were pet store freebies.  Lost dogs can be lured over with the treats, and while there’s not a ton of food in that sample kibble pack, it’s enough that I can feed a hungry dog if I find one.  Also, it’s nice to know that if I break down on the side of the road or something, I’ve got at least a small meal for my dogs to munch on if necessary.
  • Water with electrolytes: Electrolytes help really thirsty dogs get hydrated, and while the efficacy of these infused waters is….up for debate, my feeling on it is a) it’s not expensive and b) it couldn’t hurt.  Pedialyte is also a nice thing to have in an emergency bag, and I am going to pick some up just as soon as I can find a non-flavored one (my town seems to only carry the weird fake grape kind).

Here’s my kit all packed up! I found this neat little Kurgo zip-up bag in the freebee bin at work, and it’s perfect for the kit, but any bag that shuts will do: I’d just recommend a zipping/snapping/velcroing bag, because otherwise, if your dogs are anything like mine, you will look up at a stoplight one day to see them tearing through your emergency bag in search of treats. Not that I know from experience or anything, DOGS!!!


Do you have an emergency kit for your dogs? What are your go-to things to pack in it? Share in the comments!

Online Class Review – “Get Focused!”

I will level with you, I totally suck at “review” posts.  But this past August I was lucky enough to score a Gold Level (working spot) in a Fenzi Dog Sports Academy class called “Get Focused” with instructors Deborah Jones and Judy Keller, and I loved it so much that I really wanted to try to write some words about how much the class meant to me.  (A new session of this class opens for registration on January 22nd, by the way.  Hint, hint!)

I, like many other people, jumped right in on the training of skills with my dogs: the straight sits, the pivot work, the targeting, etc…but overlooked the simple act of actually building handler focus. (Never mind understanding how to do so!)  When I saw that low confidence was actually listed as a reason that a dog might lose focus (among many others), I felt like the class might have actually been created for Perri and I.  It felt like where we needed to be.

The class is billed as a foundation level class, best taken early in a dog’s “career”.  It might have been easy for many teams to feel that they were advanced beyond the work offered in the class, or that the exercises were simple.  The exercises are simple ,that is the beauty of them.  They are the building blocks of an incredible foundation for a human and dog team, all we had to do was pick them up and start building at our own rate of speed.  It was beyond tempting to rush through the exercises.  I fell into that trap myself before my dog told me she was not willing to rush along with me.

At the Gold Level we were guided to do a lot of introspection about our dogs and ourselves.  Since I am a deep thinker and analyzer, probably to a fault, I really enjoyed this aspect of the class and found it to be very valuable.  The questions being asked helped me to answer a lot of my own questions and think about my roadblocks, not to mention the attention of two experienced and skilled instructors to guide me through.

Was the class a magic trick to “fix” Perri spacing out when she became nervous or worried about being wrong in a class or trial situation?  No.  Nothing works like that.  But Perri and I were dedicated students that worked hard on the exercises at our own level and speed.  I went into the class feeling like I knew why Perri loses focus: she has no confidence and shuts down and cannot focus.  But with “focus” in the spotlight, I was encouraged to do a lot of thinking on the subject and to think beyond the obvious.  I won’t say that this class and this class alone “fixed Perri”.  Perri is indeed blossoming and taking this class and everything that it had to offer us was definitely a part of that.