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Evaluating a shelter dog for sports potential?

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What do you look for or how do you attempt to evaluate the dog? I know some of you are doing agility with rescues or shelter dogs. There's several dogs sitting in local kill shelters that seem to fit a lot of my wants- medium size herding type or mix. I know it would be easier with a rescue- the local BC rescue and sheltie rescue are both involved in agility so would have some experience placing sports dogs.


I am not needing 'the best', just hoping to find a dog that will have fun playing and be physically sound. I do trial and would like to trial with future dogs... I would put myself in the 'casual competitor' category however. I would like to not rule out the shelter dogs.

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A good structure is a must. Added benefit is that you get to choose the size you want if you get an adolescent or an adult.


I have a failed agility rescue. So I feel the pain. She is a sweet dog, but very insecure, fearful and unfocused.


Based on my experience, I would be looking for a confident dog that is able to focus on you. The focus may only be for short periods of time at first, but you can build on that with training. Toy drive/food motivation would be great to have, but with a confident dog, you can build toy drive.


A happy dog.


Do any of the rescues place a dog on pending adoption? Because a dog often does not show its true personality in the shelter, I would want to have the dog in my house for at least 2 weeks for evaluation.


I wouldn't expect a dog to have everything on my bucket list, but there are some non-negotiables if I am looking for an agility dog. Regardless of how sweet a dog is, they must be confident, happy and not sullen. If anything, I would prefer a pushy, excitable dog than a dog that retreats.

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A foster to adopt type arrangement is something I've been thinking about. It would be nice to get to spend some time with the dog before deciding one way or another. I'd need to do some more research though. I can't end up with a ton of dogs (already have two) so if the foster situation didn't work out I am not going to be able to keep a dog that doesn't pan out. I have fostered before and found good homes for the dogs but it would definitely be something to consider.


I'll need to look more into if I can do a foster to adopt or pending adoption.


I already have one senior dog and one health disaster dog so I am full up on non-agility dogs. My senior still can run but we will be approaching retirement soon.

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I have a failed agility rescue. So I feel the pain. She is a sweet dog, but very insecure, fearful and unfocused.


Based on my experience, I would be looking for a confident dog that is able to focus on you. The focus may only be for short periods of time at first, but you can build on that with training. Toy drive/food motivation would be great to have, but with a confident dog, you can build toy drive.


A happy dog.


This is a good point. It's something I take for granted with my dog, but confidence and general disposition are important. Don't assume you'll be able to overcome these issues with enough training -- some are chronic.

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here is the article i refered to when i was looking at rescues for my agility dog. i ended up with carolina border collie rescue. they also do their own assessing: companion dog, sport dog, or working dog. nova, my avatar, was listed as a sport/working dog. and they were right! she is a terrific agility dog, probably better than i deserve and she is coming along wonderfully at herding. she has some nice sheep sense! hope this helps. good luck and thanks for choosing a dog in need!



How to assess rescues for agility potential

via Gone to the Dogs - Skyrocket Agility and Cockers by Melissa Frye on 10/29/09

I know there are a lot of different opinions on what to look for. Since I see a lot of dogs through our program, I thought I would offer my take. Mostly because I feel that there some misconceptions about what traits make a dog a good candidate for an agility home.

First: when I say agility home, I mean a new owner looking to compete and title in agility with moderately good training skills. Yes, truly talented and devoted trainers can overcome huge obstacles. But why stack the odds against that new owner if you don't have to? Even if the owner has no interest in competing, a dog like this will be a lot more fun to take classes with, and will enjoy the classes a lot more.

Now if you have a dog that falls into the various categories below, don't despair!

That doesn't mean they can't be an agility dog, just that you have to come to the table prepared to put in more work, and be willing to assess how your dog feels about this too. Except for reactive/aggressive dogs, or very fearful dogs, it's worth trying to work through difficulties in classes.

If you have a choice of dog A vs. dog B, however, I would recommend you keep these suggestions in mind. If you are a rescue and want to suggest some of your dogs as potential agility teammates, please look at this list and think about it...

With this list, remember it is a balancing act! A huge asset in one area can off-set a deficit in another.

If you find a dog that you can check off 1-7, you have the needle in the haystack. But if you see multiple traits that the dog in question doesn't have, really think if being an agility teammate is the best thing for that dog (and their new owner).

So here is my list of traits to look for in order of importance:

1. Comfortable in new environments. There is a reason this is number one.

To define "comfortable": Dog is willing to take treats or play with toys in new stimulating environments, shortly after arriving there (preferable immediately). I'd also like to see as little change as possible in the dog's response to commands (there will always be some). While this is a function of training, when combined with stressed body language, it's an indication of the dog's stress level - dogs that are watching for danger don't focus on their handlers. I don't want to see the dog throwing lots of stress signals - aimless sniffing, lip-licking, head turning away from the handler, panting, cheek puffing, etc.

Dogs that are highly stressed in new environments may get to the point where they are comfortable doing agility in one location (a class setting), but it does take lots of work to get them to the point where they will be happy and comfortable in lots of different locations. With dogs that are very stessed by being in new places, I don't know that it's good to place them where they are likely to be ask to do a sport where they are regularly expected to preform in strange places.

2. Comfortable around strange people and/or dogs. This excludes both dogs that are fearful around people/dogs and aggressive around people/dogs. And remember fearful can be a do that severly shuts down or inhibits it's behavior. Once again, look for lip-licking, head turning away, panting, trying to get away from the strange dog or person etc. Do be aware that being with other dogs in a shelter environment, or short-term foster is not always predictive - dogs are often very inhibited in those settings initially. If it is a sub-catagory of people or dogs that the dog is afraid of (men, kids, really big dogs, etc.) that usually is a good sign and easier to work with.

3. Easily reinforced by treats and/or toys. If the dog wants nothing from you - good luck training it. If it desperately wants what you have, you have a ton of leverage. Dogs who are ball-fanatics, tug-crazy and/or always think they are starving to death are great! The more they value what I have, the more I can get them to do.

4. Physically sound. Worst problems - any spinal issue, any sight issue in both eyes, elbow dysplasia, luxating patellas. Deaf or loss of sight in one eye is less of a problem than you might imagine.

5. Physically confident. Not afraid of noises, moving things, small spaces, odd footing. Extreme noise sensitivity or very sensitive to motion/unstable footing can be difficult. The more moderate and specific the noise phobia, the more success you are likely to have with overcoming it.

6. Ability to judge how to take-off for a jump. This is kind of a special category that only an experienced agility person can easily assess, but it has derailed careers even in very experienced hands. (I really think it can be assessed by running the dog through a low jump chute and watching for those "early takeoff" behaviors).

7. Athletic ability - unless the owner-to-be is very competitive, or the dog a very extreme body type (giant breeds or pekingese, clumber spaniel, basset hound), it's just not a limiting factor for most teams out there. Truly not that important outside of those special cases.

How to assess:
Method 1: Have an experienced agility person do it. (Local rescues - I would be happy to!)

Method 2: Take an Agility 1 class. (I know - not practical, but probably the very best way!)

Method 3: Take them some place new, preferable busy and distracting (Petsmart on a weekend). Immediately offer treats, if they play with toys try that. Ask for a well-known command ("sit") - reward if they do it. Watch their body language for those stress signs. After a little bit repeat offering food and see if they want to play with toys if they didn't before. Once they are taking treats see if you can get them to ignore dogs/people by offering them lots of treats or playing with their toy.
At home, put treats under an upside down plastic laundry basket. Toss treats on to a tarp - see if the dog will get them. If they haven't done stairs, how long does it take them to get them? A doggy door? Just watch what they do. That should give you some data points.

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A shelter is a prime setting to see how a dog might be in a high stress situation around other dogs.


The day I evaluated Tessa (for the rescue, not for myself!) and I watched her walk through the corridor with dogs barking at her from the kennels and she was completely nonchalant about it, I was impressed. One of my favorite things about her as a performance dog is the fact that she is perfectly comfortable in a room full of barking dogs, whether she is performing or just walking through the crate room.


Granted, there are likely dogs in shelters who are stressed in that environment who might be just fine in a competition environment, but when I saw that she didn't mind the dogs barking at her there, I knew I was seeing something pretty special.


If I were looking for a sport prospect in a shelter, that is definitely something I would be looking at. Other than that, structure, desire to engage with me (at least on some level in that situation). I would try to evaluate response to sudden noises. I'd be looking for the ability to recover.


It's a gamble, but so is any dog. Tessa was the most unlikely sport candidate I could have come up with (terrified of people, completely shut down, unknown background and age, and she wasn't in the greatest physical shape at the time). She is truly my dream Agility dog.


Good for you for considering this, no matter what you ultimately decide.

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Good reading! Thank you for linking that.


I have just realized recently that many of my favorite agility dogs are either shelter, craiglist rehomes, or rescue dogs. My 3 favorite papillons are from rescue, 3 favorite shelties rescues, my favorite ACD is a rescue, 2 of my favorite BCs- 1 rescue, 1 craigslist. So the dogs that would fit me are out there in rescues and shelters and being rehomed.


At this point I am just keeping my eyes open and we will see what happens.


I am not convinced it is more of a gamble than any other place to get a dog. I've been in the KC type environment with my past dogs. I've had a lot of dogs with health issues and my only sports bred dog (sheltie) had some severe fear and temperament issues. I am under no illusion that any dog is a done deal but I'm just not convinced a breeder dog is a better bet at this point. Perhaps if I really knew a breeder that had a breed I liked and dogs I liked... but I don't.


I worked in a shelter for a couple years so that was one concern- shelters stress dogs out badly, especially herding breeds it seems. So what you see is not always what the dog is like. I really lucked out with my current dog- she is bombproof and at 10 years old is still very healthy and active. She is not overly 'drivey' but likes to work and have fun. Which is enough for me.

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Keep in mind many if not most dogs in rescues were once in a shelter. By adopting from a rescue, you free up space for the rescue to possibly pull another at risk dog from a shelter. So its win win. Not that you shouldn't check out the dogs currently in shelters, but if you have specific things you're looking for in a dog, a rescue might be a better option as they can usually give you a better idea of what a dog's true personality is. Shelters are stressful environments and it can be really hard to get a good feel for what a dog is really like.

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I can tell you what I was looking for with Molly, but you're more experienced at agility than I am. She's also 2 months old, so possibly not helpful.


I was looking for curiosity rather than fear at being somewhere new (or quick transition from the two), willingness to meet someone new without coaxing, a puppy who would follow me when I walked away, who recovered quickly from being startled by loud noises, that really really liked food and really really liked toys (would chase *and* tug). Also a puppy who wanted to work with me (I sat in the barn and taught her sit) and wanted to play WITH me and the toy I brought along.

That basically describes a LOT of confident, social puppies.


However, in my experience, it doesn't describe a lot of puppies in general. I didn't want timidity, fear, shyness and did want toy, food drive, and socialbility. We'll see how that pans out as she grows.


I think with an adult dog a lot of those basics would still be there. Willingess to engage with a new person, interest in toys for chase and/or tug, a short training session and how they responded to it and while I'd give a dog in a shelter setting a little more time to warm up to me, I'd still want a willingness to take food and work with me/learn something.

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  • 1 month later...

Welp the search is officially on now that I got a house! I'm excited and nervous. I'm looking for a border collie or BC mix but am open to an ACD type as well if it is the right dog.


There was a dog I wanted but he got adopted already. Small blue merle male smoothie (maybe mix). 6 months old. I was pretty disappointed he was already adopted when I got there. :( I don't want to rush into things though and want to take my time. But the search is on! Keeping my eye on rescues and petfinder. :)

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  • 1 month later...

15203624527_1a1f99f7b0.jpgCopy of HPIM0797 by rufftie, on Flickr


your dog is adorable! this was my dog Jazz, who has a very similar look. we always considered her a cattle dog terrier cross. she had some herding instincts, but the real killer instincts of a terrier! called her my varmint dog as she always took care of moles, chipmunks. possum and groundhogs. she was incredibly agile but tended to get bored fast with repetitive training.

good luck.

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Thank you!


He is really just a gem. Such a nice temperament and up for anything. Also turns off great. He is confident in every place I take him. Eager to work with me too and is picking up things so incredibly fast. He's athletic and already plays tug and fetches like a pro. Very people and dog friendly. Very energetic but he's young and has no training.


We do think he's terrier and ACD. No way to really know because he was originally a stray brought in by an animal control officer. People generally seem to ask if he's a rat terrier mix or a heeler mix. I keep saying he's whatever you want him to be!


He is also very sweet and cuddly, which is new to me. Just a really nice dog. There are so many heeler types and mixes in shelters here or being rehomed.


I think he may be a keeper even if he's not a border collie. :D Shelter called him Hank and that also seems to have stuck.

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