group post by Kelsey, Michelle, Rebecca and Sarah
This is a post directed at sport people: we’re talking people who tried out dog sports at some point for fun, got bitten by the bug and are now thinking about their next dog(s) with sports in mind (we’re talking to you because we are you: please see our most recent puppy post for confirmation!) This is also a post where we’re going to encourage you to consider adopting a rescue* to be your next sport dog. But before we get to the post, we want to make sure a few things are clear:
*When we say ‘rescue’, we’re using it as a catch-all term for dogs who are adopted from a shelter or private rescue, dogs who are found stray and some dogs who are privately rehomed [i.e. you got your dog from the mean, dog-hating guy who lives down the street]. We’re NOT talking about the “I Consider Him A Rescue” types, who annoy us.
1) We’re not anti-breeder or anti-purebred/purpose-bred dogs here. One of our members is a fantastic AmStaff breeder (Merissa, of Gekko Staffs), another member has breeding ambitions down the road, and several of our members do conformation and are involved heavily in the world of their breed. Our own dogs are both purpose-bred and rescued: some of us have both. We know that there are tons of cool things about getting a dog who has been carefully and deliberately bred, and this post is not here to knock those dogs or the people producing them. This is simply to remind you that there are also tons of cool things about rescue dogs, and to make a case that they should be considered with the same seriousness as a purpose-bred puppy.
2) We’re not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on the sad plight of shelter dogs in this post, because you’re a smart person and you already know that. Yes, we wish that every dog had a home. No, we’re not going to tell you you should adopt a dog because you feel guilty about the situation of shelter dogs. No SPCA/Sarah McLaughlin/sad pictures here. We want you to adopt a rescue dog because you think that dog is amazing and can go head to head with any dog you could buy.
3) We are big competitive jerks pragmatists who enjoy winning, too. We’re not making a ‘The Best Q Is a Res-Q’ claim here. We like ribbons, we’re ambitious, we want to play at a high level. We think you can do that with a rescue dog (just ask TU’s Katie, whose dog Luce (aka ARCHX Siren’s Eleusinian Mystery CD CD-H RA RL3 RLV RL2X RL1X CGC TT) was the first American Pit Bull Terrier to ever be ranked nationally in APDT Rally. Just ask Wallace.)
So bearing all that in mind, here are ten reasons why we think your next sport dog should be a rescue.
#1) An average owner’s “much too much” is often a sport person’s dream dog:
I volunteer at a local shelter (the shelter that, in fact, produced both my Superpuppy Widget and Sarah’s genius nose work baby, River.) I have volunteered at a lot of different shelters, actually, and I am going to tell you the same thing that everyone who’s ever been involved with a shelter will tell you: shelter dogs generally do not get surrendered because they’re ‘bad’. This is not propaganda: it is an absolutely true fact that has consistently been my experience in shelters. The dogs who are surrendered to us are nearly always surrendered for human reasons: people lose their houses and have to radically change their living situation, owners die, people move and can’t handle the hassle of bringing their dogs along, people have babies and all the sudden can’t manage the needs of the dog and the new kid, etc. We get a lot of strays in and we get a very small number of dogs with medical issues the owners can’t deal with (frequently either the dog or human has allergies). These circumstances, I would say, comprise about 85% of the dogs we get in. The rest are surrendered for ‘behavioral reasons’ (we file all the dogs we get in whose owners say they ‘just don’t have time’ or ‘can’t give him what he needs’ as ‘behavioral’ dogs.) These are the ones I want to talk about.
Real talk: my puppy Widget was adopted by a couple in their 90s who returned her ten weeks later because she was a bitey little monster who never stopped moving. She is a really high-drive dog who is a mix of two very intense breeds and has no off-switch: she would be hell for, like, 90% of families who just want a dog to hang out with. I, however, wanted a working dog with good focus who could do a billion different sports with me, and though she isn’t a perfect dog, she’s a perfect dog for me. [Kelsey]
#2) An adult rescue is ready to go! I will admit it. I’m not keen on puppies, either adopting or purchasing from a reputable breeder. I don’t want the house training and time commitment and the worries about what their adult personality is going to be like and what if I screw them up for life because I took them someplace and some dog attacked them and Oh my God what have I done? Ok ok, needless to say, puppies scare me. So I adopted my dog as an adult (around 2 years old). As a sport dog, I found one big advantage to starting with an adult: She was ready to go right away. With puppies, you have to be careful of their growing bodies and so you cannot start weave training until they’re adults, you can’t jump them full height until they’re adults. You can do a lot of foundation training, but in some ways you’re slightly held back from doing it all until your puppy has become an adult. With Dahlia, we started jumping her at low heights (8-12 inches) as soon as we pulled jumps out whereas the puppies who were in class with us were on “jump bumps.” If I had started with a dog with some drive instead of having to build that drive (this comes not from being an adult, but from her personality), we could have advanced much faster than we did. My next dog will most certainly be an adult and will be chosen with his/her drive in mind. I’ll be ready to get started right away! [Michelle]
#3) Cost: Let’s be real. None of us are made of money, right? Well, you might be, I don’t know you. I’m not, though. I’m a student on a pretty limited income that has to cover a lot of expenses, and “dog stuff” just can’t outrank other priorities like, you know, rent, food and transportation. When I started thinking about my next performance dog, I started scrimping and saving because I figured I was going to pay out BIG TIME for our next puppy. I had my eye on a Bostom Terrier, which is a pretty pricey breed to begin with – around here, a pup from a responsible breeder will run at least $1,500, and that’s about half what the going rate is in nearby states (I saw a few breeders wanting upwards of $3,000 for show-prospect pups!). Still, I had resigned myself to forking over that kind of cash for what I thought I wanted – this specific breed, properly health tested, all that good stuff. “You get what you pay for,” I told myself as I mourned my hard-earned savings account balance. Things Happened, though, as they tend to do when you’re working with animals, and both litters of Bostons that I spent a year waiting for turned out to be a no-go. The breedings just didn’t take. Frustrated by the whole process of wait-lists and huge expenses and crushed by the disappointment, I abandoned my search for a high-end purebred and decided to adopt a dog in need instead. I could do everything I wanted to do, performance-wise, with a mixed breed dog. The only thing I’d miss out on was the show ring, and that didn’t really bother me. So I turned to PetFinder, combing the listings of small/medium-sized dogs up to one year old with those funny buzz-phrases like “I will need a lot of exercise!”, “I have lots of energy!”, “I will make you regret ever even thinking about adopting a dog!” (Okay, they don’t say that in the PetFinder ads, but sometimes you can tell the rescues are thinking it.) I found Fly at a nearby county animal shelter, drove out there, handed over $200 and walked out with her that same day. She was spayed, had been fully vet-checked, was up-to-date with her vaccinations, and they could tell me she was dog- and human-friendly and would make a great agility dog. I dropped a little more cash on new crates, toys, collars, leashes and treats, but it didn’t come anywhere close to what I would have spent on the Boston puppy after all of her puppy vet work was done. I ended up keeping my savings account intact, getting a great little performance prospect, and saving the life of this adorable, affectionate little JackPit. Doesn’t get better than that! [Rebecca]
#4) What you see is (pretty much) what you get: When you buy a puppy from a good breeder, one of the big things you are paying money for is hope: you have an ideal dog in mind, and you hope that the combination of their breed and their parents’ specific genes will produce the outlines of the dog you want. And then you get the puppy, and you work as hard as you can to shape them into that ideal dog, and then, a couple years into it, you take a step back and see what the combination of efforts and genetics have left you with.
If you adopt an adult dog*, however, you have a good sense of what you’re getting right off the bat. Yes, rescue dogs tend to relax after about a month in your home and you start seeing more of their ‘true colors’, but you can tell a TON of stuff about a rescue dog before you’ve even signed any papers. You can see how toy- and food-motivated they are, how handler-focused, how drivey (with the caveat that arousal is not the same thing as drive), their attention span and a whole bunch of other things. And there are a lot of structural things that are visible in an adult dog that aren’t visible in a baby puppy: my shelter, for example, will let you take a dog you’re considering adopting to your vet so you can get films of hips/elbows/etc., plus you can see their adult gait, have them evaluated by somebody sport-knowlegeable, and so on. When you’re getting a baby puppy from a breeder, you’re hoping that the structural soundness of their lines will be an indicator that your puppy will be equally sound, but any good breeder will tell you that sometimes you’ll get pups who are wonky even if soundness runs in the family (those same good breeders will generally offer you a replacement puppy). But with an adult rescue, you can actually look at a lot of different vectors and gauge their soundness with more clarity than you can with any baby dog. [Kelsey]
*and yes, you could adopt a puppy from a shelter just as you could buy a started, older dog from a breeder. But generally speaking, breeders tend to have primarily puppies available and shelters usually have more teenagers/adults than puppies.
#5) Waiting period: there isn’t one! I will admit it, I am not a patient person all the time. Especially when it comes to bringing home a new dog – the thought of waiting months or years makes me want to cry. Good breeders typically have extremely long waiting lists because they may only have a single litter every year (or every few years!), and often they may not even have the perfect sport prospect for you in that one litter, so you will need to wait longer. That sounds like TORTURE to me! Don’t get me wrong, I think a purposely bred dream dog is worth waiting for… if that’s what you want and you have your heart set on a certain breed from a certain breeder, I say go for it! However, if you are open to rescue dogs, there are thousands in your nearby shelters and rescues just waiting for you to come evaluate them for sports. Many shelters have same day adoptions and even with the majority of rescues the longest waiting period is typically a few days.
From the time I first saw River in her shelter kennel to the minute Kelsey and I put her in my car was about… two hours. I went from “wow, this puppy is fantastic!” to “… this is my new puppy! I shall name her River!” in that short time frame. Now, granted, I am not telling you to run out and make a snap decision about a new dog (like I did! ha!) but timing is important. If you are ready to bring in a new sport dog, why wait? With the help of websites like Petfinder.com, it is so easy to quickly browse through potential dogs and make a list of who you would like to go see for a meet and greet. [Sarah]
#6) Funky good looks:
Look, I’ve been around, okay? Around. I’ve seen some dogs, man, I’ve seen some dogs. Hanging out at UKC events is awesome because you see not only the standard fare – Border Collies, Goldens, Poodles, Labs – but a lot of rare breeds, too. I feel like every time I go to a UKC event, I meet a breed I’ve never heard of before. A few years ago it was the Portuguese Podengo; recently, it’s the Berger Picard. This year, I saw a dog I’d heard of before but never seen: the Thai Ridgeback (cool dogs!). Still, whenever I find myself whipping around and thinking “What is that?!”, it’s usually some sort of funky-cool mixie with all the best traits of his motley pedigree. There’s something about rag-tag mixes that just draws the eye and I get a special joy from watching them compete. Sitting by the obedience or agility rings, sometimes the dogs start to blend together – there’s Aussie after Aussie after Aussie, a gaggle of black-and-white Border Collies, the expected throngs of German Shepherds, Malinois and Tervuren. They’re regal and gorgeous, yeah, but so is the next one, and the next one… Give me the stubby-legged long-dog with bat-ears and five different colors of fur any day! [Rebecca]
#7) Rescues’ conformation can be GREAT for sports!: I adore Australian Cattle Dogs. Before I got River, I was absolutely set on the idea that a female ACD was what I wanted for my next sport dog. I looked at a lot of local and not so local breeders just to browse around and while I love the heavier boned and squared off dudes, their body types are not always well suited to higher impact sports like agility and flyball. River’s breeding – random high drive working Cattle Dogs living on a ranch, most likely – made a dog who is leaner and lighter than your average AKC registered ACD. She moves effortlessly and has pretty great structure. This isn’t an anomaly, either! So many rescues in shelters and foster homes are magically built well for sports. If you know what to look for and spend some time putting your hands on different dogs, you can find a rescue who will be brilliantly suited for your chosen game. Adopting an adult means it is even easier to see right away what you will get conformation wise, but don’t discount a nice puppy either! [Sarah]
#8) Improving Your Own Skills: I don’t want to say that purpose-bred sport puppies are easy: anyone who’s ever had one can tell you that a LOT of work goes into harnessing their nuclear reactor-like energy and Ferrari-like precision. What I am saying, though, is if you buy a puppy from a long line of dogs bred specifically for, say, flyball, you will probably end up with a puppy who has maniacal toy drive, an inborn desire to retrieve and a slightly obsessive personality. This is fine–this is, in fact, one of the major reasons WHY people buy puppies specifically for flyball. However, having a puppy who just naturally does the kinds of things you’re hoping for means that it’s really easy to just skip a lot of the foundational work that, to begin with, teaches you a lot about the mechanics of your sport and also, teaches you a ton about your specific dog and her motivations.
For example: Nellie, my flyball dog, is….not from a long line of dogs bred for their toy drive and speed and exquisite handling. Nellie is a BYB pit bull who spent the first ten months of her life outside on a chain. She didn’t have much toy drive when I got her (which I knew, which was fine), and so once I started thinking about sports with her, I built a retrieve from the ground up, and worked to build her interest in toys. In the process, I learned a ton about how to channel her energy, how to motivate her in different circumstances and how to get exactly the kind of behaviors around toys that I wanted. She’s now a dog who will chase a ball until her feet fall off, and she loves tugging as much as any dog I know; she also has a bunch of other things that she’ll work for, all of which I discovered in the process of getting her interested in toys. This is very helpful in real-life situations: I have definitely run into people in class who show up with their new dog and a tug, and are shocked when he’s too overstimulated by the class setting to tug with them. “He’s been tugging since he was born, and also, he is a border collie and that is what border collies are supposed to do! His parents will ALWAYS tug!” Nellie is also easily overstimulated by class, but we did enough foundational motivation work that I can usually find good ways to keep her up and focused on me regardless of what’s happening. Also, the fact that she hasn’t been obsessively chasing balls since I brought her home because HER BRAIN SAYS SHE HAS TO OMGGGG(!!) is, in my mind, a good thing: she can keep her brain in her head when toys are around, and her built-from-scratch retrieve means that the ball she brings back always ends up in my hand (hence, we’ve never had a problem with her spitting the ball halfway down the lane). The extra training we did means that a) I know more about the mechanics of flyball than I did before, and b) we never have to hope that her instinct ‘just kicks in’: our training has allowed us a good level of precision.
Also, if the idea of “yay, extra training!” doesn’t do it for you, you absolutely can find rescue dogs who are instinctively maniacal around toys For example, let me introduce you to my bad baby cattlejack. [Kelsey]
#9) Adopting the Unadoptable Dog: Active, energetic dogs don’t fare too well in shelters. Staff have limited time to exercise all the dogs waiting for homes, and those runs and cages aren’t too spacious. After a few days of waiting, even moderately-active dogs might be climbing the walls in boredom. As a potential adopter walks down the aisles, how many of them seriously consider the leaping ball of frantic energy when there might be a quieter, less energetic, um, more polite dog in the next run over? Unfortunately, what makes some rescues ideal performance prospects makes them practically unadoptable to most people just looking for a good family pet who’ll hold down the couch during the workday and relax at their feet at night. My Fly was at the shelter for months before I found her. She was adopted once and returned days later for being “too much dog.” I look at her now and laugh – too much dog? I guess my threshold for “too much dog” is set higher than others, because she’s exactly the right amount of dog for me. I wish that more performance competitors would consider adopting an active dog so that the number of suitable homes for these dogs would increase! Rescue dogs might need a little bit of remedial manners work, maybe a bit of a refresher on things like leash walking and appropriate greeting behavior, but this time is a drop in the bucket compared to the many years of partnership they can offer. [Rebecca]
#10) That sense of accomplishment that comes from overcoming their issues. Dahlia was a quiet, sweet dog, but she had obviously been controlled to within an inch of her life and had a complete lack of confidence. She wouldn’t get on furniture. She didn’t bark. She was worried about going into different rooms of the house. She shut down if you accidentally ran into her. She may have ultimately been the perfect family dog because she was the perfect example of that horrible thing called “being calm submissive” but she wasn’t a happy dog who was willing to try new things. Agility class opened her up, gave her a chance to shine, and gave me a chance to show her that the worst thing that would happen to her when she screwed up was that we’d have to go back and try it again. So when I see her out there in agility class or at trials doing it, I feel so proud. I feel like we’ve come so far from the dog she was when we got her back in 2008. And so even though other people might not be able to see it, since they don’t know her, I feel such a great sense of accomplishment, that I could turn this somewhat sad dog with no confidence into a dog willing to give it her all. [Michelle]
Finally, we thought we’d take an incredibly unscientific survey on our Facebook group: we asked people to tell us about their rescued dogs who’ve titled in some sport venue and we got a great set of responses.
Nancy has two rescued pit bulls adopted as adults from county shelters. They both have flyball titles (one has an FMCH, one is just starting out and has her FM).
Martha and her (deaf!) dog Moo (adopted from Last Day Dog Rescue) got their Nosework 1 title on their very first time out (thanks to Lynn, whose dog also competed in that trial, for the tip!)
Jen‘s dog Pongu is more formally known as ARCHX TDCH Pongu the Insane, RL1X2, RL2X and is from Morris Animal Refuge in Philadelphia, PA. He does tricks as well as rally and this is the impressive list of all his titles: Novice Trick Dog, Intermediate Trick Dog, Expert Trick Dog, Trick Dog Champion; RL1 (AOE), RL2 (AOE), RL1X, RL1X2, RL2X, ARCH, ARCHX (and they’re working on their RL3 right now!) [oh, and to see him and his (also rescued) brother Crookytail (RL1 NTD) in action, go here and here: I laughed until I about cried when I saw these).
Crystal‘s dog Pallo (aka Pallo the Viking, CGC, FM, TF-2, CA) came from Linn County Dog Control in Albany, Oregon. With all of his titles listed, he is Pallo the Viking, CGC, FD, FDX, FDCh, FDCh-S, FDCh-G, FM, TF, TF-1, TF-2, CA.
Not only is Duncan (SPGD Pretty Boy Floyd) Flona’s public access service dog, he also has his RL1, CD and CGC, along with an Expert Trick Dog title. Duncan came from Wayside Waifs.
Jennifer‘s dogs, Cricket and Bailey, both have CGCs and are tearing up the DOCNA agility field right now: Cricket is officially Union Hall Dance Night (Cricket), CGC, C-BAA and Bailey, who’s just finished Level 1 in DOCNA, is officially Union Hall Be Bop Bailey, CGC, TBAD.
And that’s just the results from the handful of people who happened to see one Facebook post on one specific day. There’s nothing to stop you from having the same kind of success with your own rescued dog!