Five Criticisms of Transport Rescue (A Rant!)

Today I’d like to continue my ongoing blatherations on the subject of transport-based rescues with a few thoughts on ethics and criticisms of this particular subgenre of dogdom. Specifically, I want to talk about five of the most common charges that people aim at transport rescues — some of them accurately, some of them less so.

1. “Transport rescues are stealing homes from local animals!”

Not generally, no.

Here’s something a lot of people fail to grasp about the animal shelter population in the United States: it’s not uniform across regions. In major East Coast cities, shelter kennels are overwhelmingly crowded with pit bulls and pittie mixes (well over 90%), with a smattering of other dogs who tend to get adopted or pulled by local rescues within days. There aren’t many puppies, there aren’t many small dogs (and most of the ones who are there are from mill stock and have behavioral and/or physical issues), and there isn’t a lot of variation in available breeds. An adopter who doesn’t want a pittie — for whatever reason — may not have an easy time finding an alternative dog in the shelter system.

Meanwhile, in rural Southern areas where spay/neuter cultural norms aren’t as strong and family pets are routinely allowed to breed unchecked, there’s a much wider variety of dogs in the local shelters. It’s not uncommon for entire litters of puppies to be dumped in cardboard boxes on the shelter’s doorstep, or for pregnant mothers to get dumped before they deliver. Labs, beagles, German Shepherds, and their mixes tend to dominate the kennels.

As I write this post today, there are 16 adoptable dogs listed at Robeson County Animal Shelter. 6 of the 16 are puppies under 4 months old, and only 3 of the 16 are pit mixes.

To the extent that an adopter’s preferences cannot be shifted toward locally available dogs — that is, to the extent that a given adopter is determined to have (let’s say) an 8-week-old retriever mix puppy and is not open to considering an older dog or a bully breed — that home isn’t available to most of the local shelter dogs anyway. Therefore a transported dog isn’t “stealing” a home, because that home wasn’t open to the available local dogs regardless.

To the extent that the transport dogs fit the same profile as local dogs, however, then there is a fair argument to be made here. Which brings me to my next point:

2. “Transport rescues cherry-pick the most adoptable dogs!”

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

My feeling is: If they’re doing their jobs right, they better be cherry-picking the most adoptable dogs.

Long-distance rescue ain’t cheap. Between pull fees, vetting, quarantine boarding, transport, and foster care, it costs several hundred dollars at a minimum to provide quality care for each and every dog that goes through the system. It’s a big investment.

My opinion is that a responsible, ethical rescue should be focusing that investment on the very best dogs it can find. That rescue should also be pulling dogs not available in the local shelter population (to minimize the problem of siphoning available homes away from local dogs) and free of serious behavioral or health problems (because (a) that’s a major resource drain; and (b) it’s unfair to adopters who just want a nice family pet).

Sorry to be so blunt about this, but my view is that there is no good reason to spend several hundred dollars moving a rowdy adolescent pit mix from Georgia to Philly. Not when there are several hundred versions of that exact same dog being euthanized at ACCT monthly. Not when any adopter who wanted that dog could adopt a homeless animal matching that description for free (or at greatly reduced cost) from a local city-supported shelter or foster home, versus spending several hundred dollars to adopt the same animal from a transport rescue that’s still losing money on the adoption. It doesn’t make sense for the adopter, it doesn’t make sense for the rescue, and it doesn’t win a whole lot of friends in the local shelter network.

The one party for whom it does make sense is that individual dog. And so here’s where we get into one of the thorny questions of rescue: whose interests take precedence? Do you pull a “less adoptable” dog purely because that one life holds value and meaning equal to a “more adoptable” dog’s? Do you pull that dog to show that your rescue isn’t just about saving the cute fluffy Golden mixes? Do you do it even when that means you are taking homes from local dogs, and when it means that your foster home is probably going to stay occupied for months rather than weeks while waiting to place that less-in-demand dog?

Different rescues — even different foster homes within the same rescue — are going to have different answers to that question. There’s no one perfect right answer. This issue gets complicated very quickly, and how you come out on it depends what your goals and values are.

3. “Transport rescues take dogs away from local adopters!”

Yeah no. This is a dumb one.

Local adopters pretty much always have first pick of dogs in their local shelters, either because the shelter has a formal policy in place that allows local adopters a certain number of days before the dog becomes available to out-of-state rescues, or because as a practical matter, even if there isn’t any official policy, it takes a couple of days for the rescue to photograph, list, and network the animal.

If the animal doesn’t move within that time, and an out-of-state rescue places a hold on it, and then a local adopter comes along and is interested in the animal that’s already on hold, then in my opinion the situation is no different than any other time somebody comes in and is interested in an animal that already has a hold. It happens. Don’t worry, there’ll be another dog just like it within a few weeks at the most.

4. “Transport rescues are just in it for the money!”

Yeah no. This is an even dumber one.

It actually makes me pretty angry when I see people raise this criticism, because it is so far removed from reality that I always wonder (a) what are you smoking?; and (b) what ulterior motive do you have for thinking that rescues are taking money from your pocket? Were you hoping to sell your own puppies to those adopters? Because if the answer isn’t “bath salts” or “yes I sure was hoping to sell my $3500 doxiepoo puppies to those people!” I can’t figure out where this one comes from.

Sing it with me: Nobody makes money off responsible rescue. The more dogs you pull and place, the more money you lose.

To the extent that these rescues appear to be cherry-picking the dogs most in demand: well, yeah. As discussed above, my view is that they should be doing exactly that. But it’s not to make money. It is to minimize the overlap between transport dogs and locally available dogs, and to maximize the number of animals that get saved and placed in good homes.

To the extent that this criticism is (supposedly) leveled at fake rescues that are puppy mill fronts: well, sure, we all hate puppy mills, and we all hate millers who frame their sales as “adoptions.” But those aren’t rescues. Criticizing legitimate rescues on the basis of what mill fronts do is sort of like criticizing tofu because it doesn’t taste enough like hot dogs: yes, they’re both kind of squishy and meat substitute-y, but… uh… you do realize they’re not remotely the same thing, right? Not to say there aren’t criticisms that can be made here, but let’s try to at least get them in the correct zip code.

5. “Transport rescues spread disease!”

This one is a legitimate criticism. I wish it weren’t, but it is. The mass South-to-North movement of dogs has been strongly implicated in the spread of heartworm, and less clearly to the spread of other diseases in areas that didn’t previously see them.

The problem with heartworm, specifically, is that there’s a long latency period between possible infection and when the most commonly used tests can detect that infection. It’s possible for a dog to be infected, test negative, show no symptoms of infection for months, get adopted out as “heartworm negative,” and actually be carrying worms. It is further possible for that dog to get bitten by mosquitoes and transmit the parasite before treatments are effective — sometimes even before the infection is detected and treatments are begun.

Most other common transmissible diseases — parvo, distemper, kennel cough, intestinal worms, etc. — are easily preventable by observing basic safety procedures. This is not, unfortunately, to say that they are always prevented. Slipshod quarantine procedures and inadequate screening are two of my personal biggest peeves with transport-based rescues. Not only is it unethical to take shortcuts on these issues, but it actively undercuts the long-term goals of any good rescue.

But that one does very much happen, and it is a legitimate complaint, and it is my fervent hope that responsible transport rescues who aren’t already doing everything in their power to reduce the problem will step up their efforts on that front.

So! Those are five common complaints that I hear directed at transport-based rescues, and my semi-ranty responses to each. Any other big ones that I missed? COMMENT AWAY.

I Have a Really Cool Job: K9 Bed Bug Detection

Meet Leanna. She is a 3-and-a-half year old black Labrador Retriever. She came as a “career change” dog from Leader Dogs for the Blind. She didn’t make it as a Leader Dog because she loves people so much – it’s really hard for her to focus when there are people around who might want to love on her and rub her belly. Her puppy raisers taught her wonderful manners, and she is your stereotypical Labrador.


What makes Leanna so special? She’s trained to sniff out bed bugs. And I am her handler.

I work for a multi-national company that has multiple operations, but we work in pest control. To date, Leanna and I have been working together for a little over a year. She lives with me and my personal dogs. For all intents and purposes, she is my dog, except for being a drain on my bank account; I always joke with my clients that I get all the benefits with none of the bills.

Yes. She and I spend our days looking for bed bugs. Let me tell you a bit about this really cool job.

First, What Are Bed Bugs?
bed-bug-on-handThis is important, because yes, bed bugs have a smell, or odor (scent detection dogs are trained to look for an odor – it’s training semantics). Bed Bugs resemble a flat apple seed when fully grown, but they are a small, pale yellow bug when they are first hatched. They go through 5 life stages before becoming a full grown apple seed-like bug, and they eventually turn a reddish brown from the iron in our blood.

Contrary to popular belief, bed bugs do not only come out during the night. They are a hiding bug, and want to hide most of the time. Most people get bit during the night because that’s when they are sleeping and are the most still. If you were to work midnights and sleep during the day, they would come out to eat during the day while you are sleeping.

No, bed bugs do not jump or fly. Like I said, they want to hide, so if you see bugs crawling around, it’s likely you have a bigger problem than just one or two bugs. (Honestly, I’m more worried about bringing fleas home with me than I am of bringing home bed bugs.)

This is where Leanna and I come in.
Sometimes we’re called in to check a building as a precaution. Leanna and I have some accounts that we do on a monthly basis to make sure that there are no bed bugs being brought in – hotels, libraries, foster group homes, hospitals, etc. Other times, we’re called in because someone saw a bug, and they just want to make sure that there are some or none, or no more after the building had been treated.


Leanna searching for bed bugs in a hotel room

So, how do Leanna and I do our job?
Resident nose work instructor Sarah has already posted a fantastic overview of nose work that is worth the read. While Leanna and I essentially do the same thing, we were trained in a slightly different way. Our trainer is a former military K9 handler and customs officer, having handled narcotic and explosive detection dogs. Leanna was trained in the same manner as these military/police K9s, just with a different odor: bed bugs.

We are always training. On days that we are not scheduled for jobs, I am placing training aids (live bugs in vials) around different places – including open grassy fields, lobbies of various buildings, warehouses – and we are always “skills building.” When we are working, I am still placing training aids so that Leanna can be rewarded, whether we find bugs or not. If she isn’t finding bugs, she doesn’t get rewarded, and she will eventually just stop looking because she isn’t getting paid. You probably wouldn’t do your job without a paycheck, would you?

A couple videos of us doing work in a library. The descriptions of the videos, as posted on Facebook, give a basic breakdown of what I am trying to do with each hidden training aid.

Even having worked together for a year, Leanna and I are still a young team. We are always working to better ourselves; I am always working to make finding those bugs harder for her, because it’s not always easy out in the real world. I work for a great company who supports us, and I am lucky to have a wonderful trainer I can turn to for help.

Feel free to post any questions you might have. I will do my best to answer them – I am sure between Sarah and myself, we can answer any question you might have!

Service and Therapy Dogs – One of these things is not like the other

I own and regularly work with my therapy-certified poodle, Perri, and one slip of the tongue that always surprises me is that service dogs and therapy dogs are often lumped into the same category. While these two working dog roles are both very important to people, they are extremely different types of work.

A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with learning difficulties.

Perri and her friend Daphnee on the job as therapy dogs at a nursing home visit.

A service dog is a type of assistance dog specifically trained to help people who have disabilities including visual difficulties, hearing impairments, mental illness, seizures, diabetes, autism, and more.

(thank you to for these clear definitions.)

1. Touching versus Not Touching
When we see a working dog in a public place or medical facility, it is important to take a moment to simply look at the dog before asking to pet him. Are they wearing a vest or identification? Often the answer is right there, “Pet Me!” or “Do Not Pet”.
A therapy dog’s work is specifically to offer comfort and joy to people other than their handler. Petting a therapy dog is completely welcomed and encouraged. A service dog, on the other hand, is specifically assisting only their disabled handler. Service dogs are not for public petting or enjoyment any more than one would ask to pet a police dog who is searching for drugs or a cadaver dog searching for human remains. These dogs are working and they are to be left alone unless otherwise permitted.

2. Access
A therapy dog has limited access to public places or medical facilities, and they are permitted in those places by pre-arranged permission or facility-request only. A service dog is permited to accompany their disabled handler in any public place to provide assitance when needed.  For example, a therapy dog is not permitted to go grocery shopping at the supermarket while a service dog is permitted to do so. The shoppers at the supermarket do not need to be comforted by a therapy dog, while a service dog’s handler will need their dog and the assistance that they are trained to provide.

3. Tasks
Both therapy dogs and service dogs have been trained for specific tasks and behavior, but those tasks vary widely. Both types of working dogs need to be polite, quiet and calm. They should not vocalize in excess, they should not jump up on or approach any person unless invited, they should be calm and polite. The similarities pretty much end at “behaves politely in public.”
A therapy dog’s tasks are generalized. They should stand, sit or lie down and tolerate petting. They should greet people politely. They should be remain fairly stoic in response to abrupt noises or the use of medical equipment. Many therapy dog handlers have trained their dogs to do entertaining tricks. (A crowd favorite for Perri is her “Sit Pretty” trick!)
A service dog’s tasks are far more specific to serve their individual disabled handler’s needs. I could not possibly list all of the tasks that a service dog may be trained to do. Dogs guide blind people, fetch household objects for people who cannot walk or see, they hear a doorbell or door knock and alert, they interupt panic attack, they alert oncoming seizures, they brace people who have poor balance, they turn light switches on and off.  The sky is the limit.
I think it is safe to say that by knowing the difference between a therapy and service dog, we are respecting the access rights and privacy of service dogs and their handlers.  Service dogs need to be able to go anywhere that their handler needs them, and they need to be left to work in peace – in doing this we are respecting their handler’s privacy and quality of life.

Happy Valentine’s From Pongu!

This year, since we’re on hiatus from Rally/obedience and the weather has wreaked havoc on our agility plans, Pongu and I put together a goofy little trick for Valentine’s Day:

My original concept for that trick was to have Pongu drag his butt over the remains of Crooky’s Valentine’s card, but it turns out that (a) it’s really hard to shape a butt scooch when your dog doesn’t want to do a scooch (at least with Pongu, who is a very clean dog and super conscious of not making messes); and (b) the closest approximation I could get — a hover-butt Sit with a couple of squatty steps forward — was a tough workout for Pongu’s core muscles, so he could only do it about 5 times per session, which was not nearly enough to get the number of repetitions we needed to build the entire trick.

So, since I realized with two weeks to go that we weren’t going to get that version of the Valentine’s trick done in time, I went with a remix of the Birthday Box trick. The one new behavior that I built in for the Valentine’s trick is the selective shredding of the card, and that is the topic of today’s post.

Before starting this project, Pongu had a very strong foot targeting behavior and a moderately strong retrieve, but I’d never asked him to destroy things on cue. Thus, most of our time was spent modifying those two starting points (foot target + retrieve) to build the shredding behavior.

Thin-slicing with a clicker got us there pretty quickly — if I had sufficiently good timing to catch the moment where Pongu’s existing behaviors overlapped with the desired one, I could communicate what I wanted with pretty good efficiency.

Initially I was using an actual store-bought Valentine’s card for this, but it turns out that cardstock is tougher than you might imagine, and it took Pongu way too long to destroy it. Figuring that nobody really wanted to watch my dog struggle with shredding cardboard for a minute and a half, I switched to regular paper to speed up the destruction time. I used the same markers and colored pencils on the “demo cards” as I planned to use on the final version, just in case Pongu might need to get used to the smell/taste of those.

Here’s a sample session to show how we did it.

This is a speeded-up version (because nobody wants to watch the 45 minutes or so it took us over the course of a week to get to the final version in reality), but it shows the steps in accelerated format: (1) click for knocking the card over + nose touch to card; (2) click for nose touch while holding card down with foot (this is important because it distinguishes the behavior from a retrieve — Pongu can’t retrieve the card to me while stepping on it); (3) click for rumpling the card with a foot (partial step toward destruction) + open-mouthed nose touch to card (I would have clicked these separately but Pongu happened to offer them together on this repetition); (4) click for stomp/scratch of card (distinct from but overlapping with the mouthing — I wanted Pongu to get in the habit of using his feet to scuff up and hold down the card for easier ripping — so I rewarded that too); (5) click for open-mouthed nose touch while holding card down again; (6) click for biting/tearing the card (I could have clicked the first one at 0:30 instead of waiting for the second at 0:31, but I wanted a slightly more vigorous tear since Pongu didn’t actually need to learn the behavior at this stage. If he were still in the learning phase, absolutely the one at 0:30 would have warranted a click).

Once Pongu grasped the basic concept of “wreck this card,” it was just a matter of building in duration, speed, and intensity — all of which came naturally with increased confidence and use of more desirable reinforcers.

Then we added in the other pieces, and — voila! — the trick was done.

Fear Periods in Puppies

“Help! My puppy, who loves everyone, just did something awful. A friend of mine wanted to pet her when we were out walking and she growled at him. I can’t believe it. She’s really well socialized, too. What am I doing wrong?”

(Credit: Michelle Osborne)

This is a common complaint with puppy owners: a formerly outgoing, friendly puppy overnight turns into this shrinking, stranger-danger baby dog who doesn’t want to meet anyone. The puppy’s owners are understandably shocked by this behavior change.

So why is this friendly puppy suddenly unfriendly? And why is she growling at people she would otherwise want to interact with? The answer lies a series of developmental milestones called “Fear Periods.”

(Credit: Michelle Osborne)

Fear periods are episodes in the puppy’s emotional development where they may become increasingly suspicious and fearful of items, situations, or people. Even people and places the puppy has been formerly comfortable with may suddenly become anxiety-producing and unsettling. These periods can occur at any time during the puppy’s development, but the most common ages are:

• Seven to Nine Weeks
• Four to Six Months
• Approximately Eight to Nine Months
• Approximately Twelve Months
• Approximately Fourteen to Eighteen Months

(Credit: Michelle Osborne)

These periods are important for the puppy, as they help him or her establish caution that they will need later in life. The sudden change in behavior is distressing to dog owners, however, and very likely to lead the person on the end of the leash to make entirely preventable mistakes. Many dog “experts” advocate forcing the puppy to confront his fears (“flooding”). Unfortunately, this often leads to the puppy’s instinctive and irrational fears becoming more acutely realized and reinforced as valid. 

(Credit: Michelle Osborne)

Training through a fear period isn’t difficult–you just don’t do it. You recognize the fact that this is a developmental stage in your puppy’s life and that, like all developmental stages, it will pass with a little time. Limit introductions to new people and new things, keep your puppy’s environment calm and comfortingly familiar. And if you must encounter someone new, keep those encounters short and overwhelmingly positive. Give your pup a treat and walk away to go play tug and give the puppy space. 

Above all, let your puppy set the pace, because socialization is more than just meeting and greeting. It’s also about how your puppy interprets the world you’re both exploring.

(Credit: Michelle Osborne)

And don’t be afraid to comfort your puppy. Distracting a puppy during a fearful encounter with a high value treat or a toy is a good thing–it gets his mind off his fears and returns him to a happier, more secure place emotionally. Rewarding a puppy (or a grown dog for that matter) during a fearful encounter does not teach them fear–it just offers comfort. And that’s important, because you are and will always be the most important, most comforting person in your dog’s life. So be there when he needs you most.

couch Luka
(Credit:  Zak Thatcher)

And lastly, just a thought…

We don’t make our children submit to the attentions of strangers. So why do we insist on it with our dogs? Strangers are not always kind, and it’s okay to be cautious of them.

(Credit:  Zak Thatcher)

So when your friendly puppy decides overnight that strangers are scary–this isn’t a crisis or even unusual. It’s only a fear period and it’s a sign that your puppy is just a baby dog who hasn’t figured out how the world works yet.

luka and boy
(Credit:  Tony Moran)

But she has you to help her learn.

(Credit: Michelle Osborne)

For a dog-centered method of dealing with scary things, please look into BAT–Behavior Adjustment Training.  It’s fun, it’s easy, and your puppy will enjoy doing it.  For a quick and easy explanation, please click here:



Pets as Lifesavers and Lifechangers: An example from the literature

When we first started the Team Unruly blog all the way back in July 2012 (happy 2.5th birthday to us!), I was three years deep in a PhD program and very unhappy. Readers who have been through grad school, especially for a PhD, might understand the feeling – those who haven’t can probably imagine. I used to describe my experience as “Imagine you’re walking through a dark and scary forest. You reach the middle and you’re terrified – you want to get out of this place. The problem is, it’s just as far to go back as it is to go forward. If you turn around, you still have to get back through a bunch of scariness before you get to safety; if you push forward, the path is even darker, but you’re fairly sure there’s safety on the other side.” When we started this blog, I was stuck in the middle of my metaphorical forest and wondering if I had the courage to keep moving forward.

One thing that kept me sane throughout my degree was my role as a pet owner. My then-boyfriend/now-husband and I brought Cerberus home in the same semester that we started our PhDs. People questioned us: how could we afford a dog? How would we have time to take care of him? How would we find places that would rent to us?

Having a dog is a lot of work. Cerberus needed high-quality food to avoid allergic reactions and to help him grow up to be healthy. We didn’t have a fenced yard, so he needed multiple daily walks to burn off his excess energy and keep him happy. There were vet bills and puppy classes, and then I tacked on more training classes, competition entry fees, and all the other associated costs of training and competing with my dog. Through training and competition, I met my trainer and friend, Karen, and I started helping her with her classes two nights a week.

It was a lot of work, but I credit these responsibilities and activities with keeping me sane while I finished my degree. Working on a PhD is difficult and lonely work. It’s easy to shut yourself away, to not get enough exercise, to not interact with others, and to feel guilty about ever stepping away from your work. I was able to balance out this guilt with my obligations to Cerb: I had a responsibility to do right by him, and I couldn’t duck out of that just because I was busy writing my dissertation. In Cerberus, I had a reason to get out of the house, a reason to exercise, a reason to interact with other people, and someone to keep me company when I did stay in and write all day.

My dissertation was about personal narratives, the stories that we tell about ourselves and how these stories make up our identities. We tell other people who we are and what we value by telling stories about our lives that emphasize certain events and downplay others. In the beginning of this post, I told you a story about myself: that I was a grad student, that I was unhappy, but then I got Cerberus and he helped me out of that rut and into a healthier place.

The “pets as lifesavers/lifechangers” narrative is not my own creation. It is very common – I bet you can think of a few examples right off the top of your head. It’s so common, researchers have published journal articles about it! I found one recently when I was doing some research for a paper I’d like to write, and I thought our Team Unruly readers might enjoy it.

The paper is titled “Animals as lifechangers and lifesavers: Pets in the redemption narratives of homeless people.” The author is Leslie Irvine, PhD, who is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Most scholarly articles are locked away behind paywalls and are difficult (and expensive) to access if you’re not currently enrolled or employed at a university, but luckily this paper available to anyone who wants to read it – you can find it right here.

Dr. Irvine conducted interviews in Boulder, CO, and Sacramento and San Francisco, CA, with people who were homeless and who had pets. She met people by attending special vet clinics operated specifically for homeless pet owners, like this one.

In her interviews, Dr. Irvine noticed that many of the homeless men and women she spoke with talked about their pets as lifesavers. She highlights the stories of Donna and Tommy. Both Donna and Tommy had struggled with addiction and credited their sobriety to their dogs. Donna said that her German Shepherd/Lab mix, Athena, had saved her life:

“Athena did everything for me. She got me out of an abusive relationship. And it was either the dog or him, and I chose the dog. […]

I realized Athena meant everything to me. I said to myself, ‘My dog comes first in my life. Would I rather use drugs, or feed my dog?’ And I fell in love with Athena, so I gave up the needle. Gave up the pipe. I gave up liquor. Everything.” (p. 8)

Tommy, a homeless man who struggled with depression and addiction, talked about his little dog, Monty, and how Monty helps him:

“He makes me come out and walk with other people. He gets me socializing with other people. And he’s like my best friend because being homeless, you don’t really have any friends unless you’re drinking and doing drugs and all.” (p.11)

“When I got out of jail, I told myself that I would never drink again or smoke again, and I told that to Monty, and every time I want to go and get a drink, he just looks at me, almost shaking that head, saying, ‘You know what you just went through the last 35 years!’” (p. 12)

In Donna and Tommy’s narratives, their pets are credited as lifechangers: without their pets, Donna and Tommy don’t think that they would have made significant life changes like leaving an abusive partner, achieving sobriety, and staying out of jail.

Dr. Irvine then goes on to talk about pets as lifesavers. She highlights the story of Trish, who had a little Jack Russell named Pixel. Trish had nursed Pixel back to health after a bout of parvovirus and the two became inseparable. Trish told Dr. Irvine that Pixel had kept her alive, even when she didn’t think she could go on:

“It was something to lose, you know? Yeah. I was [on the streets]. I hated it. I was totally at rock bottom. I just wanted to die. But I couldn’t, because he needed me. […] I couldn’t give up because I had something else to take care of besides myself. So he kept me alive.” (p. 14)

In their roles as lifesavers, pets gave their owners a reason to get up in the morning. Their owners’ feelings of responsibility and commitment to their pets had, in their owners’ minds, changed their lives for the better – in same cases, had even saved their lives. In the story of my life, Cerberus was there to help me when I was struggling and to give me a reason to exercise and socialize. It turns out that the pets of the homeless people Dr. Irvine interviewed played a similar role, although on a much more profound level.

I can see some of you nodding in agreement right now, all the way from behind my laptop screen. I think many of us know this feeling or one very similar. Tell us, TU readers: are your pets lifechangers and lifesavers?

Canine Conformation 101

About 4 years ago, I drove to Virginia to pick up Jax, the first dog that would teach me about the conformation show world. In those 4 years, he’s taught me a lot, but what has also taught me a lot about canine conformation is being able to stand ring side, talk to different owners, handlers, and breeders about all of the different breeds, and being able to talk to the judges who judge our dogs and interpret the breed standards.

Conformation isn’t just about pretty dogs trotting around the show ring. Correct conformation is important for sound structure and a healthy dog. Each breed is different, but I will describe a breed that can be pretty straight forward and many of the traits can be applied to many other breeds and mixed breeds: The German Shorthaired Pointer.

The dogs in the following photos have all been bred by the same breeder, and she has kindly given us permission to use them in this post. If you’re not already familiar, now might be a good time to brush up on your conformation vocabulary!


The lines drawn on the dog show the angles that a breeder or dog show handler looks for when looking for correct conformation. These lines should flow and create a picture of balance.

The line from the withers to the pasterns (down the front legs) should be straight, with all points – withers, elbow, pasterns – lining up on that line.

The triangle on the chest shows the angles of the shoulders. The top line from the point of the withers to the point of the chest shows the layback of the shoulders; the shoulders should not be too steep or too flat.

The next two lines show the length of loin – this is measured from the point of the last rib to the first point of the hip. The above dog is male, and so he should have a moderate length of loin, in proportion to the body. Bitches will have a longer loin, but still in proportion to the body.

The hind end assembly is important, and you’ll often hear people talking about a dog’s angles in this context, meaning their rear angles. There are two important points here: the curvature from under the tail to the hock, and from the hock straight down to paws meet the floor. A dog should not be over-angulated, meaning that curvature shouldn’t be overdone. On the flip-side, a dog shouldn’t be straight in the rear, either.

The GSP in the example photo above has good rear angulation. The following two photos are to compare-and-contrast, and are of American Bullies. The first shows a dog who is over-angulated in the rear, and the second photo shows a dog which does not have enough angulation, but is not quite straight, either.


American Bully/APBT, over-angulated. Photo courtesy of Jamie Lower


American Bully/APBT, under-angulated. Photo courtesy of Jamie Lower

The front assembly of the dog, in addition to the angles of the shoulders, the toes of the dog should be pointing forward, and they should not toe-in or toe-out.

Poppy has a beautiful straight front structure.

Poppy has a beautiful straight front structure.

Frank is a good example of "toeing-out"

Frank is a good example of “toeing-out”

The topline of a dog is also something to take into consideration, and this will also be important. In general, the topline should not be arched (or over-arched for those breeds that should have a slight arch to their topline). Likewise, the dog should not sway-backed. The topline should be straight and level*.

*It is necessary to keep in mind that all of these rules will not apply to each and every dog or breed. For example: while a Golden Retriever should have a fairly straight topline, an American Pit Bull Terrier should have a slight arch to their back. This is why we have a written standard for each breed, and why a good judge will always refer to these standards if they’re not sure.

Combining all of this will equal a dog that moves properly. “If you’re not built right, you won’t move right.”


The lines in this photo demonstrate the balance of movement. The top line shows the balance along the topline of the dog – the spine. Ideally, the nose should be balanced with the spine and along the tail, but in this photo, the handler may be lifting the head a bit with collar. In a video, we may see the nose actually does fall in balance, which is also why photos can be deceiving.

Phoenix, an American Staffordshire Terrier, gaiting with co-owner Valerie Piltz

Phoenix, an American Staffordshire Terrier, gaiting with co-owner Valerie Piltz

When gaiting, or “moving out,” the front and rear legs of the same side should meet – that is to say, the back foot should fall where the front foot is leaving from (as shown in the photo of Phoenix, above). Both pictures above are also beautiful examples of “reach” and “drive.” Reach is the description of the front legs, while drive is the driving force of the back legs. A dog should not over/under-reach, nor should a dog over/under-drive.

Lastly, all feet should be level on the ground, as shown in the first gaiting photo of the German Shorthaired Pointer. The line along the ground shows us that all feet are level; next, looking at the photo of Phoenix the Am Staff without lines, you can clearly transfer that visual to his feet as well.

Now, you should be able to take away this information and better watch a conformation class. Westminster will be held on February 16th & 17th, with Best in Show being held on the 17th starting at 7:30pm EST. It would be a great time to put your new-found knowledge to the test!

**It is important to note that these traits will not be the same for every breed – especially breeds like a Corgi or a Dachshund. These can be mostly be applied to “boxier” breeds, but all breeds should follow their written breed standards.