E203: Shade Whitesel - "Strike a Pose: Teaching Positions"

Clean, confident positions look deceptively simple — but a lot goes into teaching them in a way that will hold up in the ring! Shade and I chat about that and more in today's podcast episode.


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 really on clear communication with your dog.

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

Welcome back to the podcast, Shade!

Shade Whitesel: Thanks for having me, Melissa. It's nice to be on.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. You're almost an old pro at it at this point.

Shade Whitesel: I know. I've been training online for the Fenzi Academy for as long as Onesie's alive, so like eight years. Wow.

Melissa Breau: Speaking of Onesie, to start us out, do you want to remind listeners who your crew is and what you're working on with them?

Shade Whitesel: I'm down to three now, and three dogs is an awesome number, especially when you've had six. I'm a bit traumatized by having six. But three dogs are awesome. I have Onesie and Bailey who are twins, or they're littermates, and they're both 8 years old. I can't believe I said that, because I bred them, so I just think of them as tiny little babies, and now how are they 8?

Onesie has his Schutzhund II, he has his AKC Preferred CD. I may trial him in AKC once the trials open back up. I don't know, we'll see, but he's mostly being a demo dog for my videos and classes and stuff like that, and we still do a lot. He had a knee cruciate injury a couple years ago, and while he's recovered and sound and awesome, he can't really do high volume stuff like protection work anymore.

And then I have Talic, who is 2-and-a-half, and he is my up-and-coming guy. We're doing lots and lots of training. He's talented and I can't wait to see where he goes. As soon as stuff opens up, I'm going to start trialing him. He's ready, and he's going to do three sports: French ring, Schutzhund, and AKC obedience. So he's got a lot of big shoes to fill, but also I have a lot of high hopes for him.

And all three of them are German Shepherds.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Super-exciting and look forward to seeing what Mr. T gets accomplished.

Shade Whitesel: I'm looking forward too, but they always surprise you, so who knows.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I mentioned you have a new class happening this term at FDSA on positions. When we're talking about positions, to start us out, what is it that we're talking about? What is it the dog is learning?

Shade Whitesel: Basically, most people are thinking of the transitions between sit and stand, down and stand, sit and down. The handler walks a little bit away from the dog and asks them to do the transitions. That's what we think of as positions.

In reality, I think we should think about also as more of a stay, because a lot of people are trying to do positions at distance, where they don't have a dog that knows how to stay in a particular position. So I'm going to concentrate a lot on stillness and stay, and that will be a good foundation.

I think what's relevant for the dog is also what cue, what should they be paying attention to. That also becomes very apparent when the handler moves at distance, because there's things behind the handler, there's things behind the dog, there's all these distractions, and those distractions become a lot more relevant when more at distance, and also of course when we go to the trial.

So that's little basics of what the dog is actually learning: to stay, to be attentive, to transition from one position to another.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Can you describe the picture — or pictures, I guess — that we're trying to create and that you cover in the class? What are we looking for?

Shade Whitesel: I want a dog that is really attentive to the handler, and is really concentrated on the handler, and not looking around at all. I also want no foot movement, or as minimum foot movement as possible. So I want a dog knowing exactly how to move from a stand to a down without a lot of foot movement.

There can be some, and it's dog dependent, but I really think that we, as their teachers, need to be concentrating on how they get from one position to another, rather than are they staying in one place, which traditionally has been the way that I was taught: Let's concentrate on getting them to stay in one place, like on a platform, instead of now the way I look at it is how does the dog actually get from a stand to a down. Did I answer that question?

Melissa Breau: I think so.

Shade Whitesel: So that's what I want the dog learning and the handler concentrating on.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned feet, stillness, those pieces in there. What do we do to get that? What's the secret to getting a position change that doesn't come with all this extra foot movement?

Shade Whitesel: First of all, the dog really needs the strength to be able to do it. I don't think this comes for free. I think the dog needs to develop the core strengths and the ability of the shoulders to either push back or pull forward, depending on what you're teaching them. I think that's a much bigger deal, the physicality of it, than we teachers or that I actually realized, is the dog really, really needs the physical strength. They need the flexibility to do it, they need the knowledge, of course, of how to move, and then the communication from the handler.

The handler needs to know the exact criteria of what they're actually teaching and how to communicate that. I'm not giving any recipe here, but it really is the dog being physically able to do it, and then the handler having the teaching ability to communicate the specific criteria that they're looking for.

This is dog and team dependent, so I'm not going to expect everyone to have no foot movement at all. I don't want to totally concentrate on that because some dogs can't do it, and some handlers aren't going to be able to … some dogs aren't going to be able to do it. But also some handlers aren't going be able to concentrate enough on it in order to keep the joy and the motivation as well that the dog needs.

So it's always a thing as well that we need joy, and we need confidence, and we need sureness, we need motivation, and we need the ability to convey that to the dog and the handler team. Hopefully that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Without getting too nitpicky, in other words, to the point where it becomes demotivating.

Shade Whitesel: Right, exactly. We want to be picky, and I want us to have criteria, but I don't want us to suck all the joy out of it. If we get totally demotivating to the dog, that's not fun either. So hopefully in this class we're going to be able to get that nice balance for the dog and handler teams.

Melissa Breau: We talked about the foot stillness piece. What are some of the other pieces of teaching positions that handlers and their dogs tend to struggle with?

Shade Whitesel: Handlers really struggle with fading props. If I think about my own learning in this, we get too reliant … in my opinion, we get too reliant on the prop, and then we have this false sense that the dog, if they can do it on their platform with us twenty steps away, we get this false sense that they can do it off their platform twenty steps away, when really the dog has a much harder time and it might be a totally different thing for the dog. So I think that we, as handlers and teachers, struggle with fading the props in a way that the dog understands.

We always struggle with distance. We struggle with distance, and I think all of our criteria stuff comes out when we move distance. Also, as far as what the dog thinks is a cue, I think distance really magnifies that and makes all the other cues that are competing.

This doesn't have anything to do with positions, but I was tracking my dog yesterday, Talic, and I laid an article, which he knows how to do his article indication really well. There was a piece of dog poop two feet past the article, and I saw that, so I laid the article. There's a dog poop thing about two feet away from the article, not where I walked. I saw that, and then I walked a couple more steps and I put down a piece of food. He literally could not do his article indication. The competing cues of "I want to sniff that dog poop and, oh yes, there's a piece of food two feet beyond that" — he mentally couldn't do his article indication. It was hysterical.

But it made me think of how many things that happen in the positions —because I've given this class, so it's on my mind all the time — of all those competing things, like the dog poop or where the dog peed, doesn't come into account to the dog when you're right in front of them. But when you're twenty steps away, that dog poop or pee spot becomes so much more relevant to them. So I think that we struggle as handlers of how to teach that piece and how to split it down for our dog. That's a long answer of basically that's where we struggle is the competing cues element.

Melissa Breau: I'd imagine especially because I know … I didn't necessarily include this in the questions, but I know that when I was looking over your syllabus, you talk a little bit about difference between the verbal cue and the physical cue because different sports pull in those different elements. I'd imagine that adds a whole 'nother level of complexity to it, as if you're teaching multiple cues.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah. And I think we all get really attracted to the physical cues because they're easier for the dog to see and respond to close up. But I'm going to let students decide for their own. With this class I'm trying to present the info because I mean it as a foundation for different sports. I'm trying to go, "Here's the info, here's how to teach it, but you are absolutely OK to concentrate on physical cues, or concentrate on verbals, and decide for your own self and your own sport what you want to concentrate on.

A lot of our sports allow both, like AKC allows a verbal and a physical. I just don't want us to have this false sense of when the dog is responding to the physical that they actually know the verbal. But I'm just going to present the information in the class and allow students to figure out for themselves what is most relevant to them and their dog. At least I hope.

Melissa Breau: To elaborate on that a little bit more, when we're talking about getting the behaviors really clean and making sure the dog really understands either a verbal or a physical cue, what does that clarity of understanding or working on it, the way you approach it, how does that really benefit the dog and presumably also the team and their score in competition?

Shade Whitesel: I think anytime we can really make sure the dog is confident in what they're exactly supposed to do, and if we've done our job at making sure that all the trial distractions and distance, if we've done our job at teaching it, and then we're very clear, and the dog really, really understands that job, and we've added all those distractions in, all that kind of stuff, I think it makes the trialing so much less confusing for the dog, so much less scary.

I think we sometimes are like, "I'm not sure he'll do it," and then we enter a trial. I want to be careful about putting the dog in that situation where they're unsure, because the trial environment is incredibly hard to replicate, and I want to make sure that my dog feels really confident in his or their job, in that situation, before I put them into it.

I think trialing can be really not fun for a dog. And my job, as their teacher, is to make sure they're understanding exactly as much of what they're supposed to do, so that I can trial again and not have them be like, "Oh my gosh, I'm in this scary situation." And so making sure that all of our skills are trained to the best of our ability, and all the distractions are brought in, is really, really important in my job as a teacher.

Onesie has challenges with other dogs, and I don't want him to be thinking about other dogs as he's thinking about his needing to pay attention to me for cues and things like that. I think for our dogs that are a little bit nervous about the environment, or a little bit challenged by all the activity, it's super, super important for us to be absolutely clear about all this.

Melissa Breau: To have it super, super fluent, in other words.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah, super fluent. Us knowing that we've taught exactly what the cues are, like, "Don't pay attention to what's behind me. Pay attention to my hands and my voice," and all this stuff is not relevant as the cue.

Melissa Breau: Why a class on this specifically?

Shade Whitesel: Because I think it's a really hard skill, and I don't think that we had anything that was really about this, at least specifically targeted to this. I think that I covered a little bit of stuff in my drives and controls classes, which are now retired, so I thought there was a need for this.

And I'm all about teaching and educating. I will be the first to say I'm not perfect. My dogs' positions are absolutely not perfect. I'm not going to claim they are. But I can help. They're not perfect, but they're good enough, and I can help a lot of people clear up their positions or teach better positions than what they have or what they have the knowledge. And I always love sharing how to do it. That's reinforcing for me, and to see other people gain some clarity in how to teach it.

And also, T, since I'm doing French ring with him, there's an exercise where they have to do … I'm actually forgetting whether it's three or six, I think it's six changes of positions, and you have to be ten meters away. Since I'm doing that with Talic, it did make me think about whenever I'm teaching my own dog to do something, I'm breaking down exactly what I'm doing. And then I just wanted to pass that on in a class.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. We've covered this a little bit already, but to call it out, what sports do these skills and does this class apply to?

Shade Whitesel: I'm trying to make it a foundation for all sports. Any sport that you need positions for position changes, I'm trying to make that this will be a good foundation for that.

So AKC, we've got positions actually added into the Open, which is quite a change. That's a hard exercise to add, and I know there is a lot of angst about that. So we've got Open, we've got Utility positions, any of the FCI Obedience sports oftentimes have a lot of positions, whether they're at a distance or whether they're in motion. The ring sports, mondioring and French ring, definitely have their positions. I would say that this is less about Schutzhund positions, because Schutzhund oftentimes they're only at movement. I do cover that, but that's a different emphasis than what I'm concentrating on in this class.

I'm trying to make it that it's a foundation for all the sports, and then you take your specific sport rules and apply, so that hopefully any of the sports you can come in, get a good basis, and then go sports specific as to what your actual rules entail.

Melissa Breau: Folks who are listening and they're like, "Oh, this is definitely a thing that I need to work on" — who should consider signing up for the class or actually take the plunge? What skills do they need before signing up? What level of experience do they need? What does that picture look like heading into the class?

Shade Whitesel: I don't think you should take a Gold spot if you have a really young puppy, because oftentimes puppies' bodies can't do the actual movements we want them to do. There's exceptions out there, but most puppies are still trying to get their little legs under them, and they've got a lot of foot movement or it's really hard.

I'm just thinking my own German Shepherds, big dogs, they've got to be a year old before you can ask them to do precise stuff, you know, "Oh, I've got a front paw." So I think while it's important to imprint good movements and good form in young dogs, I think that people with young puppies will be best served by having a Bronze spot. But other people who've got a dog who has all their muscles and all their body, they're at the height they should be, I'm OK with any of that.

I also think that I would like to see … I have no idea … this is the first time I've given this class, so I have no idea what people are going to be attracted to. But I'm trying to make it so that people who have different experience already, so more advanced people who want to clean up their positions, and then people who don't have positions at all, all of those, I'm trying to make the class inclusive to that.

I'm also trying not to be absolute. This is a challenge for me as a teacher, trying really hard not to be absolute about how we get there. So if you come in with a luring background and you want to lure the positions, I'm going to try very hard to work with that, even though my preference is to get them shaped or offered. I'm trying to say, "Here's how I do it, but here's how we get there. And if you've already got there, this is what we should be concentrating on for that particular dog." I'm trying to be super-inclusive with training methods and things like that, and one of my first lectures is about that.

But I am expecting people to come in with a little bit of training knowledge, training chops. I don't necessarily want total beginning trainers, even though I think they would totally benefit. But I am expecting a little bit of training communication language with your dog already. Hopefully that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: In other words, the dog doesn't necessarily need any specific skills, but just having a little bit of … having had the dog for more than a week or two, and having built a little bit of a relationship there so you have a communication system or whatever works for you.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah. With a 12-week-old puppy, we're still working on, "Take the food, take the food without biting me, take the food here, take the food there," which is awesome. But I really think that this class will be best served for people who already have some reinforcement strategies under their belt, they already have some skills, they already have some training language with their dogs.

I love puppies. They're awesome. They're so blank slate. But Talic being 2-and-a-half is so awesome because we know all our stuff and now we can just train. Now we can actually work on the stuff, the sport-related things, and it's really fun. So my perfect student would have not much experience with the positions themselves, but they would have some training language.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to share about or talk about for the class? Things folks should know?

Shade Whitesel: There are recalls in this as well. We glossed over that.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, I skipped that question. We can go back and talk about that. Why did you decide to include recalls in this class?

Shade Whitesel: I'm going to totally blame that one on Denise, because when I floated this class to her, I was like, "I just want to do positions." She's like, "That's not enough material." I was like, "OK, I'll include fronts and recalls in there." And believe me, there's enough material in there. I didn't have to include it because I can break things down.

But anyway, recalls are in there, fronts are in there, so it does add another dimension. And recall-wise, I separate the recalls from the fronts. Fronts are going to be really precise. We of course want the dog to be in perfect position. But recalls should be fun and exclusive and not as precise, so hopefully we can put that in so that trainers aren't concentrating on foot movement for six weeks, which has got to be really hard for everybody. I'm hard at work on the recall and the front portion of the class right now, so it's definitely on my brain.

Melissa Breau: Sorry for skipping that one. That was an important one to talk about.

Shade Whitesel: Hopefully it breaks it up. But that's also what I want to share about the class.

Melissa Breau: Anything else, since I skipped that one? We went back, but anything other than the recalls that we didn't get into that you want to talk about?

Shade Whitesel: You mean class-wise, or just …

Melissa Breau: Yeah.

Shade Whitesel: Class-wise I think we hit it. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the class develops. I always leave time in my schedule … or not. I have to carve out time. But new classes are always really neat because you're not quite sure. As an instructor forming a class, it's great because you break stuff down in a way to teach it.

But it always is interesting to me because I always end up going in the middle of class, "Oh, I skipped that part." That is, I didn't include that, and that's a necessary foundation skill.

So I'm looking forward to figuring out what I didn't include already, so that I can be like, "That is an integral piece of it," because, as a teacher, I'm always learning just as much as the students in how to break it down. And it makes my teaching my own dogs that much stronger and better for my own dogs. So actually I should be thanking everybody for allowing me to teach a class on this, because my own dogs' positions are going to be much better because it forces me to really think about it. So yeah, that's all.

Melissa Breau: All right. Last question for you: What is something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to training?

Shade Whitesel: I had to really think about this question. It comes back to physicality. I mentioned it earlier. But I've recently … well, for the past year I've been strength training with a personal trainer. I weightlifted a little bit when I was younger, but now, as an older person, I'm realizing I need to do it to move.

What has really been challenging for me, learning a new skill and learning new movements and new things, is how hard it is — how hard it is form-wise to concentrate on that, how hard it is the next day, when you're sore, to do the things that you could do before.

And I think of it with our dogs. I think of it how I don't have enough empathy to my dogs to realize how physical it is for them to do heeling or positions or whatever. They can't tell us that "My stomach is sore because we did a lot of heeling yesterday, and that's why I can't keep my feet not moving when I draw myself in from a down to a sit," which requires a lot of shoulder strength and core strength as the dog pulls itself up. Does that make sense?

And so actually taking and learning new physical skills myself is giving me way more empathy into the physical precise skills that I'm teaching my own dog, and how they may be fatigued or sore or unable to do that, and then they need a couple of days rest to be able to do it the next day. So it's really influencing my training.

Plus Talic is absolutely awesome. He's an awesome puppy. But he definitely has a harder time heeling in the way that I want him to heel. And just in training in general again it shows me how physical that is, and how dogs' flexibility, conformation, knowledge, all that kind of stuff is way more important than I think we mention in our sport behaviors.

Pet behaviors, we don't think about how a dog gets into a sit. But if we're really going to get nitty-gritty, we're thinking about how a dog gets into a sit, and that matters. And knowing how physically challenging that is for our dog is something we need to be thinking about.

So that's my big revelation for the year: try and get more empathy for my own dogs and "Oh, you might be sore. I'm sore. I don't really want to play tug with you. My shoulders are hurting. You're hurting them."

Actually I started lifting weights because Talic was hurting me. He's so powerful in the tugging he was hurting me. And I was like, "I'm not ready not to play tug with my dog yet."

Melissa Breau: Interesting you're talking about that, and I'm thinking it puts a different spin on the idea of latent learning, of maybe the dog has learned the thing the first time and then you give them a while, and part of it is that maybe they understood it and they couldn't do it.

Shade Whitesel: Yes. They couldn't do it physically. I don't know about everybody else, but I don't think about that part. I'll be sore from working out, I'll go out, I'll play tug with T and he'll do his little kill thrash, my shoulder will twinge, and I'm like, "I'm not doing any more of that today." And that's a thing I do with him every day, we play tug every day. And so just think about the actions we want from our dog. We want them going from a sit or a stand to a down, and the dog is like, "We did five of these yesterday, and I'm kind of sore in the stomach from that." So it could be that they totally understand what we're trying to do, and physically it's really hard for them."

Melissa Breau: Such a great reminder and such a good thing to add to our consciousness as we're thinking about all the bits and pieces and pulling things together.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah. I think it's really hard for them to tell us, and it's really hard for us to think about. I know, and I'm just going to speak for myself, I always think about things in terms of "Why am I not teaching you to do that fast? What is missing in our communication?"

I also have two dogs that are very different physically. Talic is very fast and able to do things very fast. And Ones is not able to do things very fast. He's a big guy with back problems, and so sitting fast has never been a thing that he is able to accomplish.

Now that I'm training Talic to sit fast, I realize it has nothing to do with my training and everything to do about those two dogs' physicality, because I'm training them the exact same way, and I've got much faster behaviors out of Talic because he can physically do it much easier.

So that's definitely on my mind teaching-wise, because I have that with my own two dogs in front of me. That's why we should have millions of dogs to train, because each one of them teaches us a new thing that we haven't given enough importance to.

Melissa Breau: Sure, go ahead, give us all excuses to go get new puppies.

Shade Whitesel: I know, right? It's going be a while for me. Having three dogs is wonderful.

Melissa Breau: All right. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast, Shade. I really appreciate it.

Shade Whitesel: Thanks so much for having me and allowing me to talk about my new class. That's great.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss 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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