Marketing Foster Dogs For Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Participate In Dog Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Show, Don’t Tell

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

Show it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Be Aware Of Tradeoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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