Finding Homes for High-Energy Dogs
For active families interested in performance sports, you just might have a winner
by Kathryn Schneider
Every dog surrendered has a story. Some are victims of a move or financial hardship. Some were beloved family pets; others never had a family at all. Some are surrendered for housebreaking issues, or aggression, or fears the dog would not get along with family members.
And still others have energy. A lot of energy.
A high energy level is not a behavioral issue in itself. But the manifestations of excess energy—channeled into destructive chewing, barking and nipping—can be. Many owners, fatigued from work and family commitments, can find a high-energy dog too much to handle. And it does not help when owners of a high-energy dog know little of the origin or requirements of high-energy breeds. Too often, as a result, the Border collie who nips children, or the sighthound who chases cats, are misinterpreted by their owners to be unruly dogs rather than dogs with unmet needs.
But shelters seeking to place a high-energy dog face different challenges. Those experienced in training dogs—particularly high-energy dogs—know it can be difficult to convey to a prospective family what owning such a dog will entail. Even homes committed to providing the high-energy dog with the outlets and time he needs can be daunted when they find their new pet can run with them for five miles … and opt for a cooldown by chasing squirrels for another four.
Fortunately, there is an entire community of people enthused about and equipped to adopt high-energy dogs. Imagine an owner, experienced training high-energy dogs, actively seeking a new one, who regards dog training not as a chore, but a hobby. Sound ideal? For many high-energy dogs, it can be.
For the Sport of It
Many dogs—including high-energy dogs—love to compete in dog sports. A multitude of dog sports exist, including dog agility, dock diving, disc dog, flyball, obedience, rally, freestyle, nosework, tracking, dog obedience, lure coursing and treibball, to name just a few. What all of these sports have in common is they are open to all dogs, purebred and mixed, intact or neutered, and feature competitions nationwide. A number of additional options—like herding and earthdog trials—exist for dogs or mixes of dogs traditionally bred to herd livestock, hunt or find vermin. In all of these events, rescued dogs have won top honors.
Most human participants in dog sports compete recreationally. As with any hobbyist, the extent of participation will vary by enthusiast. Some take weekly lessons purely for fun, while others wish to pursue top honors at national and international competitions, spending a significant amount of time and money traveling to private lessons, seminars and competitions. When placing a dog in a potential “performance home,” remember that the extent of the activity is more important than the extent of the competition. For example, an agility enthusiast may not compete every weekend, but if the dog and competitor take frequent lessons and practice at home most days of the week, the dog is still benefiting from meaningful mental and physical engagement. So long as the dog is physically and mentally engaged and placed in the right environment, the dog will benefit either way.
Numerous benefits exist for shelters that develop a good relationship with the local performance-dog community. Often, shelters connected to the performance community can gain experienced volunteers who can assist in training and evaluating shelter dogs, teach classes and utilize connections to help hold adoption events at area shows. Frequently, a competitor will adopt a high-energy dog based on a referral from another competitor who thought the dog would be a good fit. The power of networking in the performance-dog community should not be underestimated. Any large, dog-savvy community from which a shelter can gain resources, advocates and adoptees is a resource to be employed to the fullest extent possible.
Evaluating Dogs for Performance Homes
Establishing a shelter as a go-to resource for performance competitors need not be a complicated venture. Regardless of the activities an enthusiast is interested in, all dog-sports competitors are seeking certain traits when they look for an ideal performance dog.
First, a dog aggressive to people or dogs is not a good candidate for dog sports, so temperament should be carefully and thoroughly evaluated. Certainly there are trainers who have lessened dogs’ aggression issues by training for dog sports, but dog shows can be noisy and chaotic places with many people and excited, barking dogs. A dog aggressive to other animals or humans can be overwhelmed and jeopardize the safety of themselves and others. Not all dogs are suited for dog sports, and a dog physically or temperamentally unable to enjoy such activities should not be asked to do them.
Next, a performance dog must be physically able to compete in the sport. This is not to say dogs with a disability should not be considered. On the contrary, three-legged dogs, dysplastic dogs and dogs with myriad other conditions may gain physical and emotional benefits from participating in dog sports. However, any owner, and particularly a performance owner, should know the full nature and extent of a handicapped dog’s limitations. When shelter staff members believe a dog is a good candidate for a performance home, the shelter veterinarian examining the dog should check carefully to ensure the dog’s joints, eyes and heart are sound. A vet should have input on whether a performance home is an ideal placement.
The third and final criteria are a host of traits comprising the ideal performance dog. High food and play drive, a strong desire to work with people, an ability to focus on the task at hand and a lack of environmental (such as noise or tactile) sensitivities are ideal. All breeds and mixes are able to enjoy some sports (such as agility), but due to build, some dogs are capable of being more competitive than others. The average Jack Russell, for example, has a more agile build than the average Pekingese. Likewise, a dog petrified of water is probably not a good candidate for dock diving. When shelter staff understand the needs of various dog sports, they can develop good instincts for canine candidates.
The Seattle Humane Society utilizes the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match assessment to look at behavior traits of dogs in the shelter, including personality aspects such as whether a dog is food- and toy-motivated and whether the dog enjoys training and working with people. Emily Keegans, the behavior program director for Seattle Humane, notes that “conducting basic behavioral assessments—particularly on dogs we do not have a background for—can provide invaluable information on the personality and traits a dog possesses. This info allows us to guide adopters, including those looking for a performance dog, to the right fit.”
Connecting with the Performance-Dog Community
There are few better ways to attract an audience than to give that audience what it’s looking for. Dog sports competitors need places to train and practice, and if a shelter can establish itself as a nexus of the community by providing that space, it will gain recognition, draw in the existing performance community and grow new participants when shelter staff suggest that adopters take their dog to sports classes.
The Richmond SPCA has discovered firsthand the benefits of holding training classes. “Each week, the Richmond SPCA holds over 40 training classes, ranging from obedience to agility to flyball, with many others in between,” says Sarah Babcock, the organization’s chief of education and training. “The shelter has seen dogs adopted by those taking classes and has become a hub of the performance-dog community.”
Many of those who come to the Richmond SPCA for classes may not have adopted a dog from the shelter, but the training classes have increased awareness in the community of the shelter, and vice versa. To encourage adopters to participate, the Richmond SPCA offers discounted classes for dogs adopted from the shelter. To begin offering training, Babcock suggests that shelters consider their available space and resources. “Obedience, puppy and tricks classes do not take a lot of space or equipment and can be a great start for the shelter considering a training program.”
Those organizations considering offering agility or flyball classes might find that they have the space, but need the equipment. In that case, they can offer beginning agility or flyball classes with little equipment, or the shelter may find volunteers with basic construction skills willing to build equipment. Area clubs or individuals may also be willing to donate operational, gently used equipment.
As for finding trainers, go to area dog events and talk to competitors about who teaches locally. Many are glad to help and can make introductions to experienced exhibitors who often volunteer and teach for free at nearby clubs in exchange for classes or equipment time. Intangible benefits, such as access to equipment, are frequently more valuable to instructors than financial compensation.
Dog Shows and Events
Each weekend, dog sports competitions occur nationwide. Some events are small, with only a few competitors, but some are large events with hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. This is particularly true if several dog sports are being held at once or in conjunction with another large event, such as a county fair.
Upon finding area trainers, ask when and where the large, local events are. Contact event organizers to see if your shelter can set up a booth and showcase available dogs. Take show demographics into account when you decide which dogs to bring. If the event is large and draws plenty of spectators, bring dogs suitable for adoption by the general public. If the event is small and consists of perhaps 100 competitors but few or no spectators, bring dogs geared for performance homes.
Provide literature on volunteering, and don’t be shy about discussing with interested competitors what volunteer services the shelter needs. Many competitors are excited to share their expertise and may be glad to volunteer to train shelter dogs or teach classes. Consider bringing donation requests and a box for items. Many competitors receive dog toys as prizes or have gently used collars or bedding and are happy to donate to shelters.
Social Media and Online Communities
Nearly all areas nationwide have Yahoo Groups specific to the region for dog-sports enthusiasts. Shelters should consider joining these groups and related Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Pinterest pages for local dog sports clubs and communities. It is a helpful way to stay abreast of upcoming dog events, and many clubs are happy to provide free space for rescue organizations to showcase available dogs at these events.
Maintaining a social media presence and occasionally highlighting an excellent performance candidate builds trust and rapport with the performance community, demonstrating the shelter supports performance-dog sports. By being social media-savvy, you also build a presence among competitors, serving as a quiet-yet-effective reminder that they should consider the shelter
when they begin looking for their next canine competitor.
Furthermore, shelters often discover performance-dog competitors inform friends of available dogs online. This is arguably the best and most evolved stage of marketing—building evangelists who can and will promote your shelter for you for free.
Connecting with the performance community need not be time-consuming or costly, but can reap enormous rewards for shelters willing to take part. And the next time you see dogs soar in dock
diving or take home an agility medal, look carefully.
It may just be a dog you helped to place.
Kathryn Schneider is president of Ethospheres, a policy and public relations firm that serves nonprofit organizations, including shelters. She is experienced in animal policy and has shown her dogs in agility for nearly 14 years. She can be reached at Kathryn@ethospheres.com.
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