E184: Shade Whitesel - "The Importance of Toy Skills for Sports Dogs"

Why are toy skills important? What does having them look like — and what can it help you accomplish? Shade and I talk about those things and more in today's interview! 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we have Shade Whitesel back on the podcast. Shade has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid. She has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience, and French Ring, and her focus is on clear communication with your dog.

You can always learn more about Shade via her website, www.shadesdogtraining.com, or she's active over on Instagram — @shadewhitesel.

Welcome back to the podcast, Shade!

Shade Whitesel: Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do want to just remind listeners who you are and share a little about the dogs you share your life with?

Shade Whitesel: Sure. I'm an FDSA instructor. I train dogs. I compete in Schutzhund and AKC obedience, and especially I'm hoping to compete with my younger dog, and I dabble a little bit in French Ring.

The dogs I have now: I've got two 8-year-olds, or they're going to be 8 really soon, and it feels weird saying that, because I can't believe they're 8. They are Ones and Bailey, and they're brother and sister.

Ones has a Schutzhund 2, and he's retired from Schutzhund because he injured his cruciate about a year and a half ago. With 2020, with everything being cancelled, he's retired from big active sports. Am I going to go forward in AKC with him? Maybe.

But I've got a young, up-and-coming, 2-year-old dog named Talic, who I'm really excited for, to see what he can do. I'm laying all the foundations for him and he's looking really good.

And everybody's German Shepherds.

Melissa Breau: I want to jump straight in to get us going. I want to talk about toy stuff to start us out. Why are toy skills important?

Shade Whitesel: Because if you're going to use toys for your reinforcement, you need to train your reinforcement. Everybody's thinking about the sexy stuff. They're thinking about the behaviors. They're thinking about training sit and heel and all that type of stuff, but if you don't put a lot of time into training your reinforcement, then you have a harder time training your behavior skills.

Just for the purposes of this podcast, let's think about reinforcement cues, like marker cues and things that lead to primary reinforcement, like chasing and tugging and eating, as different from behavior skills, which would be sit, go do the tunnel, jump that jump. It doesn't mean that behavior skills can't be reinforced in themselves. If they're cheap and easy, they can be, but just separate them in your mind right now.

So toy skills are important because if we want to use a toy to reinforce high-arousal stuff, we need to get it back. And we also need to make sure that the dog enjoys it, and that the handler understands what the dogs enjoy, because it's really personal to the dog. They might not like a particular way that you tugged with your dog before them. Talic, my young dog, is really, really driving that point home right now. He doesn't like to tug like Ones tugs. He doesn't like to play like Onesie plays. He plays, he loves it, but he's different. So that's why we need to spend some time training those reinforcers.

Melissa Breau: Do all sports dogs need deliberate training on toy skills?

Shade Whitesel: For me — I'm just going to use me — I think they do. I'm sure everybody thinks differently about it, so I want to be sensitive to that. But for me, I think that, again, we need to know what they like, and we really need to be able to get the toys back.

Toys are so unique as a reinforcer, because with most other reinforcers, we as humans have control of the reinforcement. If we give you food, the dog eats the food. They no longer have the food. If we're going to use scratching as a reinforcer, we can take our hand away and decide when to end that. With toys it's really unique. When you're playing with your dog, most of the time that play involves the dog having their mouth on the toy, whether it's chase or tug, and they are partly in control of giving up that reinforcer.

That's why I think we do need to have deliberate training because of the unique concept in toys of trying to get that toy back. That's the part that needs training. Oftentimes the play itself doesn't need training, but getting the toy back for another rep often needs a lot of training, especially depending on what kind of dog you have and what type of personality.

Melissa Breau: Like you said, if you can't get it back, you can't do the next rep.

Shade Whitesel: Right, so you have a lot less reps with toys. I always say this example, but you can have glorious heeling, you have perfect heeling. You give the dog the ball and it runs away, and you spend the next fifteen minutes trying to get the ball out of its mouth, and you've only got one rep and it's hard for the dog to remember that it got the ball for the heeling instead of the glorious keep-away that happened afterwards.

Melissa Breau: To emphasize your other point, obviously you can't use something as a reinforcer unless it's reinforcing.

Share Whitesel: There's a lot of people that belong to sports that say their dog must do this, and then they want to train that, so the dog must tug, and their dog doesn't like tugging.

There's two things I see with people. They're playing tug, not in a way that the dog enjoys. I can modify that. I can get people to start to understand that their dog might want to tug in a different way than what they are, so we can build the enjoyment of the tugging.

Or the dog doesn't have the genetics to like toy play. There's certainly a lot of dogs out there like that, and then it's best that your time is spent trying to build other reinforcers and dropping the fact that you want your dog to play tug, because yes, in order to train behaviors, it needs to be reinforced into the dog, and there are plenty of great, driven dogs out there who just don't enjoy tugging with their owners, and that's OK.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little bit about what might lead you to choose to work on a behavior with toys versus food? How do you make that call?

Shade Whitesel: The trainer I am today trains most stuff with food, and then I use a toy to reinforce it, once the dog understands it better. It's so much easier to get a lot more reps in with the food, it's so much easier to get precise behavior with the food, and then get duration and a lot more motivation with the toy later. So that's the trainer I am today.

I have struggled with Talic's heeling because when he knew that toy was a reinforcer, when he was a young dog, he would go into this really stalky, sticky behavior because he was thinking chase thoughts or he was thinking tug thoughts, and it put him in this state of mind that was awful for heeling. You can't get pretty heeling when your dog is stiff-legged and stalking, at least not the heeling picture that I want.

In the past, I've always trained heeling with a toy, so I had to go back and train heeling with food with him and go from there. Now I can use a toy, and I can use a toy not to get higher arousal in his case, but I can get a lot more duration with a toy.

So that's where I might make that decision to train, because oftentimes the toy puts them at a higher excitement and they usually — at least the type of dogs I have — like the toy better than the food, so I can get more duration. That's important to me, especially in obedience stuff, where I can get a lot of work for less reps. Less reps of play I guess is what I mean. But most stuff, stuff that involves running, I'm thinking of, like, a send out, I want fast behavior, like go around a cone, so I might use a toy to train that behavior.

The other thing, too, and I'm maybe going on a tangent here, is that it's an important concept. I'm saying the trainer I am today wants to train stuff with food and then put it to toy. But it's a very important concept for your toy dog to have, at least in my opinion right now, that they need to know how to shape with a toy as a reinforcer. They need to be able to offer behaviors, specifically movement behaviors, for the toy. That's a decision that I will make to make sure that my dog has that concept.

If they don't have that concept, in my opinion, you're going to have issues later on when you're adding toy to it. I think — I might be putting words into the dog's mouth here, or saying what they're thinking, which is a no-no — they need to be able to offer operant behaviors for the toy, not because of the toy. Does that make sense to put it that way?

Melissa Breau: For the toy and not because of the toy.

Shade Whitesel: Right. The dog tends to follow the toy around a lot. We want focus forward, we'll throw the toy, and then we'll get a jump. The dog is going, "I get the toy, the toy is ahead of my lane, I want to go and get it. The jump is in the way. I'm going to jump and do it." Which is good. It's awesome.

What I also want is the dog's ability to offer that jump with the toy in my hand. That involves doing something movement and that involves doing something away from the toy and thoughtful enough that they're not still thinking toy thoughts. They can actually jump cleanly and carefully and not knock the bar, and then get the toy. Does that make sense? It's more like you can do that offered behavior for the toy. That's a big concept that I want dogs to understand, regardless of decisions I make in which behaviors I'm going to train.

Melissa Breau: You can almost view the toy out on the ground and the jump almost as a lure versus the behavior they're offering.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah. More prompted, which is absolutely fine, because we want that focus forward. But separately I want them to have the concept to be able to do that exact same behavior. So I'm going to do both in that.

I'm thinking, like, go around a cone. I really want a dog to be able to offer to go around the cone for a toy. For a toy in my hands, for a toy on the ground, I want them to have that concept.

Melissa Breau: My next question was about what we consider when we're talking about toy skills. It's like a phrase, but what does it really mean? When we're talking about that, what you just talked about is an example, like being able to offer a behavior for the toy and not just go to get the toy. Can you talk through some of the other things that fall under toy skills? What are we talking about? What does that look like?

Shade Whitesel: I'm sure other people talk about it differently, but for me, what I mean when I talk about toy skills is I'm mostly talking about the dog's ability to distinguish between "Do I chase that toy or do I tug that toy?" Those are two different motions from the dog, and I want them to understand that they don't go for the toy in your hand until you tell them to, and to really know the difference between "Do I turn around and chase the toy?" versus "Do I jump forward and strike it from your hands?"

I don't want the sight of the toy to mean, "Jump forward and tug." I want the owner to be able to move that toy, have that toy in their hands, have the toy in their pocket, be able to take the toy out of their pocket and present it before the dog is biting their hands or biting at the toy. I want them to be chasing it if the owner said, "Chase." I want them to understand those two different motions and have that self-control and that listening, so that the owner is not afraid to use the toy because the dog might bite their hands, and also that we can try to do stuff with the toy in our hands moving and the dog is not trying to get it. So it's really that: that self-control and that ability of the dog and handler to understand those verbal cues and physical cues.

Also there is the reset. What I'm calling the reset is that we need to somehow get the toy back. Whether the dog delivers it to your hand, whether they drop it at your feet, that is really, really, really important for me, and I want that to be offered. I can't emphasize this enough: I want the dog to participate in the whole toy game. Just like we want when we're using food, we want the dog to eat the food and then return their attention right back to us. If you think about that, we're not usually going to try to train a dog that is eating the food and sniffing, or eating the food and wandering off. That's not a dog that's ready for us.

The same thing with the toy. We have to train the dog to give the toy back, so that that's the dog we want to train, the dog that's like, "I want to work, I want to do stuff." So they need to be able to give it back without too much coercion on our part, like, "Drop it, drop it, drop it," or "Come back here," that kind of stuff. Those two things are pretty important to me.

Melissa Breau: I can see, especially with powerful German Shepherds, that you are teaching to intentionally bite and bite firmly and hold things, but you don't want them to accidentally your hand.

Shade Whitesel: It hurts. I've had client after client come to me where they either can't get a toy out of their pocket, and if you put a toy in your pocket while you're training stuff, not that you do this all the time, but it needs to be a process that the toy needs to not be in sight and you still need to get the behavior. Or think about maybe agility skills. We want to be able to direct the dog to do something and move with a toy in our hand and not have the dog grab it. So things like that are pretty important. And it hurts.

Melissa Breau: I was thinking, too, to bring it back to what you were saying before about wanting the dog to offer behavior, I can see how working that stimulus control or self-control around the toy could lead to a dog that freezes or holds still, as that's the behavior that they want to offer to get the toy versus going to do the thing.

Shade Whitesel: Right, exactly. You'll have different dogs have different genetic instincts in there. It's whatever their genetics are telling them to. I'm thinking of Talic in particular. He wanted to control himself around the toy, so he was thinking, "What do I need to do? I'm going to freeze, I'm going to control myself." Freeing him up to do motion stuff was very, very hard for him in the presence of a toy.

There's definitely a certain type of dog that that's very true for. You can work through it, I know you can, but it's way harder with a dog like that than a dog that is able to offer free behavior, free movement, around with the toy. Just different types of personalities and it's pretty cool.

Melissa Breau: One of the games I know you use to get that "bring it back" thing is "2 Ball." Can you talk us through what that is? I know some people are like, "Oh, 2 Ball," and other people are like, "Wait, what is that?" I was hoping we could talk a little bit.

Shade Whitesel: Let's call it "2 Toy" instead of "2 Ball," because everyone thinks it has to be with balls, and really, balls are so erratic when they land that I actually prefer, most of the time, tugs or tug-type toys.

Back when I said a couple of questions ago that toy play is unique because you have to get the toy back, if you start toy play skills teaching with two toys, then you always have control of one toy. So even though it's always a little bit prompt-y where you only have one, it's actually more like when you have other reinforcers and that you have more control over it, so the dog can drop one and you already have one. That's the big part of it.

The other part of it is that most of the time it's chase. If you have two toys, you might throw one, the dog chases it, brings it back, drops it, and then you can throw the other one. I love that because you don't have to reach down and get the toy from the dog. The dog drops it, and then you can throw the other one.

This is important because that's often the sticking point for a lot of dogs is us trying to get the one that they have in their mouths, whereas if we have two toys, then it can just not be about that one. And so in teaching, the handler doesn't have to weight-shift, they don't have to look at the one in their mouths, they don't have to give all that body language that is like, "I want that, I want that," and the dog is like, "I know you want that, therefore I'm not giving it back." With two toys, that transition can get taught a lot easier.

I want to say, oftentimes coming back with something in their mouth or dropping it on the ground, that's for many, many dogs — not for all, but for many dogs — that's expensive behavior, and so it needs to be reinforced quickly and a lot. So in teaching, it makes sense to reward that drop immediately without the behavior of reaching for it and getting it and then doing it. Just acknowledging that for most dogs that's expensive behavior, dropping something.

German Shepherds in particular, they taught me because they like to hold on to stuff, and we've really taught them, especially the working lines, to hold and to find satisfaction in that holding. But I think a lot of dogs it's much harder than people realize for the majority of dogs.

Melissa Breau: Levi is not a German Shepherd by any means, and he absolutely has that problem. He likes to have the thing and not bring the thing back.

Shade Whitesel: I think, too, that because we add work after the drop, it becomes a thing. Even if the dog is born with, "I bring it back and I give it to you and I'm really cooperative," because of the necessity of having to put obedience or work or something in after that drop, it definitely becomes a thing for the majority of dogs. And it's just the fact of training with toys, so again that unique thing of they have to give it up in order to start the next rep.

Melissa Breau: So you need them to re-opt in, even. That's what we're talking about.

Shade Whitesel: You do, yeah. That's exactly what we're talking about is that toy play. I think that all training, you can look at it as a loop. If you give a dog a piece of food, they eat it, and then they opt in by orientating back to us. For me, I want to train a specific opt-in, like eye contact, because I want an operant behavior. I don't want them just turning toward the treat hand. But with the toys, it's exactly the same thing: drop the toy and look at me as a way of opting in: "I want to do this thing again."

Melissa Breau: You started talking a little bit there about adding in work. When are toy skills "good enough" that you can start to add work to the game? What does that picture look like?

Shade Whitesel: That's a really good question because a lot of people try to put behaviors into the game when they still have to prompt the dog to come back with the toy or to drop it.

If you think about a two-toy game, whether you're tugging or you're chasing, I would like the dog to be able to, whenever you let them have it, to be able to come back to you and reorientate immediately back to you, without your having to run away or coax or clap. I'm a big clapper, "Hey, come back," and so I have to consciously not do it. But you want that to be offered, the return. If you think about it, if you throw the ball 20 feet and the dog goes and gets it, I want them coming back as straight as that individual dog can do without you having to call them.

With tug, same thing. You let them have the tug, they tug really well, you let them have it, I want them instantly shooting forward to you, and I want it again without any coaxing. I want that, and I want the drop of the toy to be offered as well. I don't want you to have to show the dog the other toy that you have in order to get the dog to drop the toy they have. 23:08

We all have that dog in our memory of the Lab, or I knew this Australian Shepherd that was like a vending machine. She would chase the ball, come back, and just spit it out at your feet: "Do it again, do it again!" And while we oftentimes ruin that a little bit, that essentially is what I want, where the dog is like, "Do it! Do it again!" and they're throwing the toy at you with that kind of concept, and you're not having to beg, or prompt, or lure, or show them the other toy, or command them, things like that. So that's two things.

I also want the dog … we're talking about I don't want you having to prompt or lure the drop or the return. Also, and this is big, because there's definitely types of personalities and dogs that have no issue with that. They want to play all the time. In those types of dogs —actually all types of dogs, but those dogs especially — those are the ones that really need to know the difference and the physical signals of "Come back to place the tug in my hand for more tugging," or "Come back to drop it at my feet, and then I'll cue you what is next."

What I don't want dogs doing, or I don't want to start work until they've got this figured out, is coming back and body-slamming the owner: "Play with me now." I really want them understanding when they should be targeting the hands with their toys and when they should be dropping the toy. Does that make sense? There's definitely a personality of dog that's like, "Play with me now," and is smacking into the owner, or even the Aussie I described, of the throwing it at their feet. If we want to add tug into that dog's game, I want them to understand when to place the toy in our hands. That goes back to what I talked about previously about the difference between the tugging and the chasing. I want the dog to understand the difference of that as they're coming back with the toy. When they know all that, that's when I'll start to add some behavior skills.

Melissa Breau: It sounded like you started to also tease this idea of their expectations of coming back and I'm going to throw it again verses coming back and we're going to do something else. Is that also in there, or is that what we're talking about when we say 'adding work to the game?'

Shade Whitesel: Are you thinking about when we're adding work, like, the dog has expectation and they're going to get more play instead of work? Is that what you're thinking about?

Melissa Breau: You mentioned something, and I thought you were going to go in one direction, but you went in a slightly different direction, so I'm curious. You mentioned something about when the dog comes back, demanding more play, but I was thinking you were going to go to you don't want the dog to think you're going to throw the toy again, and then you ask for work because the dog is disappointed, and that's going to impact work. So when we are teaching a dog about adding work to the game, is that really what we're teaching them? Ultimately is that what we're looking for is how to clarify for them that now we're going to do a thing versus we're just having fun?

Shade Whitesel: Excellent question. That can be really, really complicated, and I might have a different answer next year. However, the basics are I want the reset, which is the coming back and giving you the toy, or coming back to tug, or oftentimes it involves dropping on the ground. I want that reset to be clean, as clean and as clear as that particular dog can do it, because some dogs can drop it right away, some dogs need to chomp it a couple of times. I want that to be as clear as the individual dog can do it before I ask for behavior skills. So there's that part: your toy skills, your resets need to be clean before you ask for behaviors. There's that part of it.

And then there's also the part that if it takes you two years to train the toy skills, and then all of a sudden you ask for sit, it's going to be so much harder for your dog than if they were playing for six weeks, to have the basics, and you ask for sit.

So it is sort of a race to try to get as many toy skills as you can on your dog in a relatively short amount of time, because if they are dropping, or always expecting a throw or a tug, then it is so hard for them to get used to the fact that they need to think about it, not just chase, do other stuff. And it is a hard expectation for them. That's not to say that the dogs can't always learn, because they always can. It's amazing how flexible dogs are, if we really look at it. But the longer the dog has been playing, expecting play, the harder it is to put work into it for sure.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I think that gets at what I was asking for sure. I think we've been dancing around it, but I know that one of the things that you call out specifically in your lectures in your toy class is this idea of listening to your dog's feedback. Do you want to expand on that explain how it weaves into some of the stuff we've been talking about?

Shade Whitesel: After you've taught the toy skills, you're looking at that reset, and it's really what the dog's opt-in behavior is. Again, if you think about the metaphor of the food, if you're training with food and you go to a different location, and you give the dog food and they eat it, and they look around at their environment and they might sniff a little, and then they look back at you, I hope that you wouldn't be training that dog, that head of that dog, because they're not ready. You don't have total buy-in.

I think you can see this really easily with food, where if the dog takes the food and then sniffs, they're not opting into the training session. Does that make sense to put it that way? Because we can all see that. I'm big on that offered behavior, so I really want the dog going, "I ate the food, and I don't feel the need to look at my environment. What do you want me to do?" to their handler.

If we think about that with toys, I want a similar opt-in with the toys, and that involves giving us the toy back or dropping it at our feet and then looking at us, "What are we going to do?" If that reset is different from what the dog normally does, then that tells you something about the training session.

And by different, I mean, let's say you have a dog that normally picks up the ball and comes straight back. If you take them to the park to play and they arc, that's a big deal for that particular dog. That dog is saying something about this environment is "I need to glance around and then come back. I'm not doing my normal behavior."

Or let's say you're training in your normal training place, which for me is my front yard. I do some sequencing, I do fifty steps of heeling, and I give the dog my toy, and he arcs coming back. That tells me something about his expectations. I'm putting words in the dog's mouth, but if it's different, that possibly tells me that the training I just did was hard and the dog needs more reinforcement. That, too, that reset part of coming back and dropping, was not clean, so the dog needs more reinforcement, not more work.

Now people have a really, really hard time with this because they feel like if the dog arcs, or doesn't come back right away, or takes some extra chomps to drop the ball, and you then throw the ball for them again, or throw the toy, or do more tugging, that you're then reinforcing the dog not bringing back the toy. And fair enough — you are reinforcing them. The same way that if the dog sniffs after eating the food, and finally looks at them, and you give them another piece of food, you're still reinforcing whatever happened in that loop of training.

But the greater thing is that emotionally that dog is not clear-headed and ready to really work with you. Am I making sense there? If the opt-in is not right there, clean and clear, then you need to do more work at getting the dog understanding that this location is safe, this whatever is safe, and you do that by providing more reinforcement, which then gets the dog to buy in quicker and quicker. Hopefully I'm making sense there, because it's like it's not about what behavior the dog is doing right there. It's about their emotional state, and to deal with that, you add more reinforcement. And that's a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around sometimes

Melissa Breau: Oh, it's totally a hard thing. It's the same idea of testing versus training, right?

Shade Whitesel: Yes.

Melissa Breau: And it's the same mental gymnastics, for lack of a better word. The fact that we tested this, the dog gave us information, now is not necessarily the time to fix that. Let's do something else, and then we need to fix that. In this case, your dog gave you information that the thing you asked them to do is not an easy thing for them to do in whatever way, so we need to get their brain to a good place before we try to do it again.

Shade Whitesel: Right. And we need to build more trust that we're going to reinforce a lot for hard behaviors, because a lot of times we overpay for easy behaviors and we underpay for hard behaviors. And so, as trainers, I think we need to start looking at that better, because that is across the board we do that. I know I myself do it. So we need to look at that, and your dog will tell you when is that happening. They will tell you when the location is hard, when the distractions are hard, and they'll tell you that they need more reinforcement when your training is hard.

So it's important to me right now as a trainer to know what my dog is thinking, because they're helping me be a better trainer. Like, I don't know that fifty steps of heeling was hard for you, so thanks for letting me know. Here's more payment for that, and then we'll do more.

Melissa Breau: Do you then make it easier with the next rep?

Shade Whitesel: Theoretically yes. Usually what I do is I do more reinforcement. I wait until the drop in my case is clean again, fast, and then I might do easier. If I'm working on a particular thing, I might not do easier. I might still do the fifty steps of heeling, if that's what we're working on. Actually, honestly, I never do fifty steps of heeling twice in a row, I would always make that easier. But if I'm working on something like left turns, I'm still going to do the same left turn, especially if the dog did the left turn correctly. I'm still going to do the same thing, but I'm going to instantly pay it more. So it depends training-wise.

Melissa Breau: You take these ideas and build on them, build on this idea of listening to your dog and taking your dog's feedback in your Spaces In-Between class, right? Is that where that goes?

Shade Whitesel: Yeah, because we're trying to get from the home base, we're trying to get from where we are to building a dog that can trial in away places, away locations. Oftentimes we've got great behaviors, and we need to take that into the trial atmosphere or a seminar atmosphere.

Melissa Breau: I think of that as all those behaviors that you need to train to successfully compete, but they're not behaviors that make it into your training plan. They're the things that tend to get overlooked. Can you share some of the skills that you work on in that class and how they play into being successful in competition?

Shade Whitesel: The three main things are the dog needs to be able to relax in the location that they are. I think we take that for granted, or we don't realize that going to a different place with a lot of activities, especially dog activities … think about it: there's all the sports sounds, there's all the dogs running around, there's all these different smells of all these other dogs around, other people, there's crowds, all of that stuff. And if you're going to seminar or a trial, it's really hard for the dog to be working all day and then still do a really good performance.

So it's important for me, and I think for everybody, to train the dog to be able to go to different places, and go and train, to go and be able to relax, whether it's in a crate, whether it's an x-pen, whether it's on a mat, whether it's in the car, just to not be "on" the entire day, and to not be agitated and moving but to be able to relax. That's a big deal is to be able to go to different environments and be OK with that.

There's also being able to go from Point A to Point B in the midst of that distraction. I think that people take their transports for granted, or we don't practice them. I think of myself. I go out and I train in the front yard, and it's not like I loose-leash walk to my front yard. We go out the front door and we train, or the dog's already out there, and I come out and I get my toys and we train, and it's very informal.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that if I go to a park, the dog can walk nicely from the truck to where I'm going to train. We have to put some time and some work into training that transport part of it. It doesn't have to be loose leash walking, but it has to be some semblance of ability to get the dog from Point A to Point B around all the distractions. It's frowned upon if your dog wants to greet every dog at an AKC trial. It's not going to fly. They've got to be able to walk past everything.

And then how to go across thresholds, how to stay there, those kind of things that aren't our sexy behavior skills that we're training, but we should start reframing them as sexy life skills. We've been trying that. It's equally as fun to train that kind of stuff.

I'm going on a trip next month with my youngest dog, and honestly, I'm really excited about the training that I'm going to get. But I'm also really excited about being in a hotel and traveling on the road and being in a crate for a long time. I'm excited about teaching him that stuff that if he does become the competition dog that I think he's going to become, that's just very, very important for him to be comfortable with.

I don't want his first time at a trial to be that. I want him to be comfortable with staying in strange places and chilling out and possibly not getting his needs met, and still having to perform in areas that smell like a lot of stuff he hasn't smelled before. So I put that into my training a lot, and I wish other people would as well, or think it's important.

Melissa Breau: You just called out loose leash walking and quiet crating in distracting environments. We're talk about tough stuff to teach for a lot of people. How do you approach it? Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Shade Whitesel: I think we need to realize how hard it is for the dog. I used to be a pet dog trainer, and people were like, "I just want him to come when called and walk nicely on the leash." Those are the hardest behaviors. Teaching a dog a down/stay is so simple compared to teaching them to walk nicely on the leash. We need to realize that it's really hard. It's hard to teach, it's hard for the dog to do, and now we expect this loose leash walking in areas where the dog hasn't been. It's the hardest environment and the hardest skill for the dog to do, and then the recall added on top of that: come away from all the good stuff you want to go see.

We really need to not take it for granted and realize this is not something that our 3-month-old puppy can do. It's something that takes a year to train, and maybe even longer. So it's acknowledgement that it takes a lot of reinforcement, it's hard behavior, we need to be consistent, and that we need to not take it for granted.

And then thinking also about, as we're training, the management part of it. It's perfectly acceptable to manage it when the dog doesn't need to do it or can't do it. I think we do lose track of that is the fact that I know my young puppy isn't going to loose leash walk in a park he's never been in, so I'm going to stick his little body in a harness and away we go.

We're not going to worry about loose leash walking, which means that I'm not going to be practicing pulling on his collar at the same time in that distracting environment. I'm going to manage that, not put him in a situation where I get frustrated and he gets frustrated. We're just going to manage the fact that he can't loose leash walk and have him pull on different equipment.

Does that make sense? Am I making sense? I feel like we lose sight of the fact that we can manage the circumstances for the dog while we're training and teaching them how to do it, too.

Melissa Breau: I think especially with loose leash walking that's something that people don't often think about — managing.

Shade Whitesel: I'm not going to expect my young dog to be able to do it. I also think young puppies normally follow us around and we get used to that. We're like, "He's perfect, he sticks around," and we get loose leash walking easily with a young puppy because they're just following us. Then they hit 16 weeks and they're like, "See ya," and we wonder what happened.

Melissa Breau: A lot of this stuff comes down to clear communication and how important it is to remember that what we're talking about here is a two-way street, and we're talking about fluency of behaviors, being able to do things in new environments and hard environments, and everything from returning with a toy to walking nicely on a leash. Those all tie into those two ideas. Am I reading that right? Can you talk to that a bit? Am I on target there?

Shade Whitesel: Yes, because it all comes down to clear communication. We need to teach the skills. We need to teach that. And in the process of teaching it, the dog needs to know what is expected, and we need to be clear. This might be going a little outside of your question, but I feel like sometimes we're not giving the dogs enough guidance in what is expected of them in circumstances.

If I'm consistent and I expect you, as an older dog that's learned the skill, I expect you not to pull on the leash and not yank me around, then I need to be consistent about that. If I'm not consistent — sometimes you can pull on the leash and sometimes you can't — then the dog is left very confused and left wondering. It makes conflict between the dog and the owner.

Being consistent is also another word for having really clear cues of when you're — let's just take our loose leash walking — when you're allowed to pull and when you're not. This is the time where I'm not going to train you, or not move to training, so maybe instead of letting you pull your collar at risk of being inconsistent, I'm going to stick you in your harness. That can be a very clear cue to the dog that they can then pull. We need to be clear in our expectations for our dogs. That is very helpful to our dogs.

And then we need to give help in the form of telling them what to do in circumstances where they don't know what to do. You're not really talking about it, but I'm thinking about … let's say I have a dog who is nervous about other dogs. I think that one part of the training is actually teaching the dog what to do in that circumstance, and that comes down to clear communication too. So if you see a dog and you look at me, and I tell you to come back and sit at my side, instead of just expecting you to be OK, that comes down to clear communication and what's expected out of the dog in that circumstance. So I'd like us to think about things like that as well and not leaving our dog hanging, maybe.

Cycling back to what you are asking is, like, the buy-in and things like that, is separately I want to make sure that my training is reinforcing enough, that the dog likes it enough, that it's not too hard, that they're engaged. I'm always looking at that part of the dog going, "I want to do more." And if they aren't, that tells me that I need to change something about my training session, or where I am, or work on a different part of it, or whatever. So I always want that offered dog.

And this has to do with me using … if I don't have punishment, or I don't have or else, then I do need an offered buy-in from my partner, because I can't coerce it. I need the dog going, "I like this," and I need to keep tabs on that, as well as their clear-headedness. I need to keep a lot of tabs on that so that I can get compliance or taught skills on hard, expensive behavior skills. Hopefully that ties it in basically.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I've got one last question I tend to ask everybody every time I do a repeat interview here. The last question is what's a lesson that you've learned, or something that you've been reminded of recently, when it comes to dog training?

Shade Whitesel: I had something else written down, but I want to change that because I brought it up. When you have your second dog, or your third dog, or your fourth dog, I want you to figure out that dog. I think we get stuck in what our prior dog liked, or their habits, or how they reacted — and this goes for everything. This just goes for everything. One dog may be nervous around another dog, another dog may not. One dog likes to swim, another dog doesn't.

What Talic is really teaching me right now is that I've gotten into this habit of playing because my last three dogs have liked to play in a certain way that he does not like. He doesn't like to played with in tugging the way they do, so I've had to stop myself because I've been playing with dogs this way for ten years. I've had to stop myself and go, "What do you like? How do you want to be touched? How do you want to be touched in the middle of a training session, or maybe you don't want to be."

So really start to figure out the dog in front of you instead of the dog you had before, the dog you still have, or your older dog, or the dog you think you should have. I just think it's really important to take that dog as an individual and figure out what that dog likes and desires, and that will make training so much easier because you'll know what that individual dog likes. That's what I'm really learning right now with my younger dog.

And it's neat. I can always understand that they're going to be different in training. Talic taught me to work through a dog that gets sticky and stocky with a toy. I don't want to say that it's easy for me, but it's easy for me to understand that in behavior skills they will act differently. I think what Talic is teaching me is that even in toy skills — which I am the toy skill woman — even I have a lot to learn with how he specifically wanted to be play with. That's the reinforcers, and the reinforcement drives behavior, so it's really, really important that we understand what the dog actually likes.

Melissa Breau: Whoever I talked to last, we were talking about at the end how often the thing that we're relearning is the thing that we teach. It's like, this is the thing that I teach other people. It's the thing that I'm obsessed with, the thing I'm most interested in, and yet it's still the thing that I need to go back and relearn myself and rework through with my own critters.

Shade Whitesel: Totally. I didn't video hardly any of Talic's toy skills because he learned them so quickly, and I already have the stuff made, and so I didn't want to video everything, so I didn't video. Now I'm like, "I should have videoed that stuff, because I could have told you. If I had treated myself like a client, I could have been like, "Maybe he doesn't like it when you touch him when you're tugging," things like that. Now I'm like, "He really doesn't like it." If I had treated myself like a student, I would have picked up on it much quicker.

He's so driven and he's such a nice dog. He's so nice in his behaviors. That also. He gave me a lot for free that I didn't realize that Onesie would not have given me. He wasn't very clear in his "I don't like that." So it's really neat because dogs are all individuals, and sometimes we need reminding of that. It seems like so "of course," but yes, we need reminding. Or I did.

Melissa Breau: We all do.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Shade!

Shade Whitesel: Thank you so much for allowing me to talk about my own dogs and my own training, so thank you.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Petra Ford to talk about conditioning for competition.

Don't miss it! It if you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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