E257: Shade Whitesel - "Training Toy Behaviors + Shaping Heelwork"

Shade comes on the podcast to talk about training toy behavior to create cooperative play, and the process of shaping heelwork. 


Melissa Breau: We all know the saying: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Well, we'd like to invite you to do exactly that by joining us for the third annual Lemonade Conference on February 11, 12, and 13. Enjoy all of the awesomeness of a dog training conference from the comforts of your living room with leading experts from the worlds of dog sports and behavior. Head over to TheLemonadeConference.com to check out the schedule and buy your tickets today.

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 I have Shade Whitesel here with me to talk about toy play and formal heeling. Hi Shade, welcome to the podcast!

Shade Whitesel: Thanks for having me. It's always a pleasure to do these with you, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk about this stuff. I've got a little one running around, so it's relevant for me right now. Do you want to, just for those who don't know you, share a little about you, about your pups, and what you're working on with them?

Shade Whitesel: I guess about me, I've been training dogs it seems like forever. As you get older it seems like a long time. I've been training dogs my whole life, let's just put it that way.

As far as dogs right now, I have three dogs. I have a house dog, Bailey, but the two relevant dogs in training are mostly Ones, who is a 9-year-old German Shepherd, and he's currently working on his Advanced Tracking titles both in AKC and in the sport of Schutzhund. Yesterday, for our training, we did a two-and-a-half-hour track aged. I laid it, and we waited two-and-a-half hours, and it was .9 miles long. That was pretty cool to see your dog be able to do something like that. I don't often have access to big fields to track, so I took full advantage. That was so cool to see him do that. The test we're training for is about that long and is aged three hours, so I'm pretty confident about it now.

My younger Shepherd is 3 years old and his name is Talik. We're training very hard for his Schutzhund 1. And Schutzhund — I'm using the old name; it's now called IGP — Schutzhund consists of three phases for dogs. It's basically a tracking phase, an obedience phase, and a protection phase, modeled off police work but stylized for sport work.

I also do AKC obedience with my dogs and I dabble in French Ring a little bit.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk about toys and heelwork today. Start with the toy stuff. I know it's pretty common for a lot of sports dogs to have some natural interest in toys, but obviously natural interest in toys is not the same thing as being able to play in a way that's cooperative with their handler. What are some of the common issues we see when we're looking at toy play?

Shade Whitesel: Dogs with strong feelings about toys or biting, they often grab toys and leave, they won't give it back, they run away or they try to tear the toys up. We call that dissecting, where you've got the beautiful, expensive, rabbit fur toy on a handle and the dog takes it to the ground and rips it up.

Some of the issues with the stronger-minded dogs, they might start body-slamming you, or chewing on you a little bit, or shoving the toy into you. Those are issues we see. We've got dogs that run away or destroy toys, and then we have dogs that understand that it's about the person, but they're real pushy about trying to get us to play, and that can be equally as problematic and we want to train away from that as well.

Those are the most common issues.

Melissa Breau: What kind of criteria can we install, for example with fetch, to make the game more cooperative and maybe even turn the game into something we can use as a reward when training?

Shade Whitesel: I like that you said "use as a reward," because lots of dogs have toy interest, but without some structure in it, or without a lot of interest, we can't really use it as a reinforcement for our sport behaviors or life behaviors.

So that's the ultimate goal of this class is not so much to learn how to play with your dog, but learn how to teach your dog how to play with the toys in a way that eventually you can use for reinforcement for teaching behavior skills. That's really what the toy class is about.

Let's call "fetch" … let's call it "chase," because what it really is is the opportunity for the dog to chase. It's not as much a formal thing of "fetch that thing," which usually isn't as reinforcing. The bringing it back part is the hard thing for the dog, but the opportunity to chase it is the exciting thing for the dog.

As far as what we want structure-wise, the biggest thing we want is for the dog to bring it back and drop it, because we need to get it back for another rep. That's the biggest thing. And essentially I want the dog to learn how to push me with that drop, push me with the return. By that, what I mean is that I don't want to have to command it, I don't want to have to coerce it with the sight of another toy or with food. I want the dog to eventually understand, "I spit that toy at you, and you throw it again." I want the dog to have that concept.

I think about my childhood, or dogs I've met with training, and dogs that are like, "Humans are vending machines. I just spit the toy at their feet and they throw it again." We want that type of attitude eventually, and when we get that attitude, that's when we can really use that for training our sport skills. That's the big thing.

Also I want to reiterate, because we do use two toys in class, our ultimate goal is to get the dog to drop it at our feet without the sight of the toy that we have. That's a big thing because people are always like, "I did that," but they're always luring or prompting the drop with the sight of the other toy. Eventually we want the dog doings it by themselves without us prompting it. That's an integral piece of that for the dogs.

Melissa Breau: What about the other game, tug? What criteria do we want to install there?

Shade Whitesel: Again, we want them to bring it back, because a lot of times we're tugging with the dog, we let them have it, and they leave. A common complaint that I get from students early on is, "I don't ever want to let the dog have the toy, because then they'll leave." What they're not knowing is that not letting the dog have the toy makes them more likely to leave when you finally do give them the toy.

They need to do short little tugging sessions where the dog is like, "I can beat you and get it," and then they'll be more comfortable about bringing it back again. But if you always keep it, then the dog is like, "I really can't beat you." So we want them to bring it back.

A big thing that I think is challenging in class is the dogs I mentioned before, one of the issues is pushing you with the toy and body-slamming you, going, "Grab it, grab it." For those types of dogs, we want them to wait for the physical cue of "Put it in my hands and now we can play," and we want to train away from the body slamming and the pushing us and the jumping.

Even though eventually we may want to present our hands at chest height and have the dog jump up and put the toy into our hands, we don't want them throwing our bodies at us with the toy until we say, "Now is your opportunity to stick it in my hands." That can be challenging for the more pushy breeds that like to invade your body space.

The reason that I want all these rules is I want more thoughtfulness in it. I don't want the dog not thinking and just grabbing, or not thinking and just pushing it at us, because I find that if we put some kind of operant behavior and put some structure in there, then we can bring that thoughtfulness, and that makes the arousal of the dog go down, because toys often make the arousal really high for the dogs. A common complaint is, "My dog can't think with the toys." That's an issue, because I want them to be able to heel, and heeling, if they're not thinking, they're screaming and bumping and all that kind of stuff.

I find that by putting some structure in it and making the dog wait for the physical cue to tug, or getting them to drop it without the sight of the other toy, all those things put a little more thoughtfulness in it, and they don't take away from the focus and the drive of the dog once you work through this. They are very helpful to bring the dog's arousal down and have the dog practice being really excited and fun and focused and chasing and tugging and all that excitement, but still able to think, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely.

Shade Whitesel: One more thing I want to say about it is that I am super-focused — I don't think everybody is like this; we all do things slightly different — but I am super-focused on making sure that that interaction between the handler and the dog with the toy is the key.

I don't want it to be about the specific toy. I want it to be about the interaction, the dog understanding that we need to make that toy active, we need to make that toy go, and that is the fun part of it. In my experience, when we teach dogs that it's about a specific toy, then they get more into possessing that specific toy. That's not useful for us, because if they want to possess the toy, then we can't get it back for another rep.

So I like to teach it's all about the interaction, either the chasing of all the toys — we use the same marker cue: chase means chase everything, not just a Frisbee or a ball — and tugging with everything. It's more about those actions from the dog rather than specific toys. Hopefully that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I think it's an interesting note to make sure you include it, because ultimately it's more useful for us to have the behavior if it's more generalized, and if the value is in interacting with us rather than the item. That's going to carry over more for competition, and it's going to carry over more for the things we want to do with our dogs other than just the toy play.

Shade Whitesel: Yes, and it's going to make the dog realize that they need you, and it brings in that cooperation, rather than us trying to get the toy away from the dog and the dog wanting to possess it because it's about that specific toy.

Plus it's all about expectations for the dog. I get dogs into class a lot of times that think tugs are for tugging and balls are for chasing, and heaven forbid you ask them to tug with a ball on a rope. They're just, "No, I don't tug with that." Or if you throw a tug, they don't understand that you can chase a tug. So I really want dogs to understand that it's about the opportunity to do this thing with the handler rather than the specific toy, because we as people get really caught up in our toys, finding the perfect toy and things like that. While definitely we need that when we're first teaching them, we need to find that ideal toy that's hard enough not to chew up and soft enough that the dog will tug with it, it's like a Goldilocks toy that we're always seeking when we're teaching our young puppies. Eventually we really need to generalize that behavior and get a dog that tugs with anything and chases anything. Of course everybody is individual and dogs will have different preferences, but as we're working our way through class, we try to generalize that as much as possible, and that can be challenging with some dogs.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Thinking about all of those rules, are there prerequisite skills that we need or that can be helpful in teaching toy play, things that they need before they get started there?

Shade Whitesel: I'm not sure I'm answering the question you're actually asking. One of the things I'm noticing in my toy class right now, and I changed the description of the class to reflect this, is that we really need space. If we're going to do chase, we need space for the dog to run and chase rather than get the ball from the wall. Or if we're trying to do chase in a room inside, the toy will roll under stuff.

For our young dogs that are just learning the joy of chasing, we need enough space so that they can run and discover that moving their body and running is fun. A big integral part of teaching chase is teaching the dog to catch the toy off the bounce, or swipe it out of midair. That's exciting. If we can't throw the toy like that, then the dog doesn't learn that this is fun, if they're trying to get the toy off the floor all the time, if that makes sense.

With the space we also need the flooring for the dog to be safe. I think this is coming up right now because it's my winter toy class and it's snow outside, and snow can do bad things to toys. It's either icy or slippery, or the snow covers the toy and that's no fun for the dog. Or the snow itself makes dogs excited and want to run zoomies, and you can't practice chase with a dog who's like, "Whee, it's snowing outside!"

So I totally understand that we don't have a lot of room, but ideally we need a lot of room. We need safe footing for our dog to run and turn in. I say this even though people are like, "I can just do tugging," because we can do tugging in a smaller area — oftentimes we need at least a bit of the chase game to teach the dog to bring stuff back. Because if we do tugging, which is really high arousal, a lot of the times the dogs are like, "I win it," and take it down to the ground and dissect. So we need both places for the dog for that. I'm really just noticing that.

We do need some physical ability on the handler's part because this is a physical thing for the dog, and it can be really physical for the handler, so we need that too. For the dogs, they need to have a conformation or age that supports being really physical. This is not something I ever thought about nine years ago when I formed the class, but it is something I think about now. Our dogs need to have a physical structure to make this safe for them. Oftentimes, growing puppies have new legs every day, or they don't have the coordination to chase something, so while it's ideal to start this stuff early on with our puppies, sometimes with our larger breeds, they don't feel comfortable with their bodies and we can make chase not reinforcing for them real quick when they splat on their legs and can't catch stuff. So I feel like we need to have a good body on our dogs, and that might mean for the larger breeds they need to be a little bit older.

And then good surfaces, good everything on the handler, and some interest in biting and chasing. I'm not the handler or the teacher that is really good at teaching dogs to play that aren't already drive-y for the toy. So we do need to have interest from our dogs, and then we take that interest and we can form the reinforcing part of it and the structure and stuff. The dog needs to have some interest already in chasing things and putting their mouth on toys and stuff like that. The easiest thing for us to do is then mold and channel that already-there interest. Those are our prerequisites and skills

Melissa Breau: Obviously we're talking about this stuff because the toy class is happening now. People can still sign up. Anything else you want to share about what you cover, or who is or isn't appropriate for the class, or any other details you think would be helpful for people to know?

Shade Whitesel: This class can really help you if you have conflict over items, like you have a dog that steals the thing and leaves, or you have trouble switching your dog from toy to toy, or you have your agility dog that you run the course, you give them the ball, and they take off.

This class can really, really help with teaching and building toy play as a reinforcement and then adding the sports skills back in using that as a reinforcement. I can totally help with that and I love that, just molding that when we have dogs that have big feelings about toys and getting some structure in there. Definitely I can help with that, and it's fun for me to help handlers do that.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. The other thing you're teaching right now is your class on shaping heel. I wanted to talk a little bit about that too. What are the benefits to shaping heel?

Shade Whitesel: First and foremost, I'm a very good lurer, but I'm not a good fade-the-lure person. That made me go to shaping because I didn't have to fade the lure. The dog was doing the behavior and I could click.

It's a little more complicated than that, of course, because the dog doesn't magically get into heel position. You click, and if they did, it was accidental and they'll never do it again. So we have to break it down.

But I do think that shaping and making it the dog's idea creates a pushy and confident dog. I know everybody has different ideas, but for me, the shaping part of it creates a pushy heeler, a dog that pushes you to heel and leads the dance rather than us saying, "Follow me."

I really like that, my sport likes that, I have dogs that like that, and that's the attitude for my dog that I get. My dogs love heeling, and I think that shaping and making it their idea is a big part of that.

Also, my sport of Schutzhund is starting to point, what they call "tight body language. So I do think that shaping, because we're getting more of the natural behavior of how the dog moves — because the dog can't offer something that they naturally don't do — that I think it gets more loose and easy body motions from the dog, and that can be pointed by your sport or not. Sometimes you've got to look at the plusses and minuses of that. That's also what I've noticed that shaping creates. Pushy, confident, and loose, natural body language is what I think the shaping gets and why I do it that way.

Melissa Breau: I know you approach that by breaking it down into all these itty-bitty pieces. What are some of those component pieces you break heelwork down into?

Shade Whitesel: I have written on my little notes here that "sit" is last. I'm thinking of the homework I released last week, and "sit" is first. How to sit in a collected, straight up and down way is first, but we don't add "sit" to finding heel position until the very last.

This class that I'm teaching right now is about stationary heel, so it's really about the dog finding heel with no handler help — again the shaping. How to get to heel and how to rotate all the way to heel without the handler using all the handler help that we want to do — we're looking over, or we're moving our shoulders, or we're moving so that the dog gets into heel. We want to get away from all that. And then we add "sit" last.

Order-wise we want value for heel, we want tight end movement, we want the dog understanding how to move their rear end into correct heel position. I want the handler's body language to be different. I don't want them having their sport hand position right away, because I want to build a robust dog that understands how to get to heel position regardless of hand on the waist or hand outside the head. I want to desensitize hand position and I teach that in class.

And then we have to fade that platform. We want to fade the platforms that we've used to get that rear end movement. We want to fade those pretty fast because we don't want the cue of "I get in heel position" to be dependent on the pivot platform or things like that, so we want to fade that.

After we get all that, we want that sit. We want all the rotating into correct heel, the dog able to get there, and then we add that beautiful tuck-sit that you've worked on the first week of class back to heel position. That's it in a nutshell.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Those are the pieces and how you start to put them together. Anything else that you want to share about the heeling class, or who is or isn't a good fit for the class, or pre-reqs, or anything else you want to talk about?

Shade Whitesel: Like any skill-motivated thing, the best dogs are the ones who are motivated. Especially food-motivated dogs do really good in skills classes because we can oftentimes get more reps and we can break it down more than the toy-oriented dogs.

Even though I concentrate really hard on getting my own dogs to like toys, I do a lot of this imprinting stuff with food because it's so much easier to get a lot of reps and to get more thinking, more calmer behaviors when we're doing it. I want them to be motivated because it's harder to teach dogs that aren't as motivated. So the best fit is motivated dogs.

For this heeling class, it's an advanced class. It's not a foundation class. Even though we're talking about foundation with heel class, I do expect people coming in to have some training language with your dog and to have a history of training with them, and a little bit of knowledge of shaping. You don't have to be a perfect shaper. Your dog doesn't have to be one of the Internet stars that are really good at stuff. But I do want people to have at least some experience in training and shaping their dogs. We have a lot of courses at Fenzi that support that.

Melissa Breau: You mean heelwork isn't the first behavior you should try and teach your new dog?

Shade Whitesel: It's a hard behavior.

Melissa Breau: You're not setting yourself up for success if that's the very first thing you try to train?

Shade Whitesel: We should start with "Go to a mat," or "sit," or building reinforcement. That is the thing. Like I said in the toy class, I want a dog that is comfortable in its body, and the same thing for heeling, honestly. Heeling is a hard, expensive behavior for dogs, especially the way we want it in sport now. We want kind of an unnatural stance and gait for the dog, so it's not the easiest thing for the dog.

And it's not the easiest thing for handlers to teach, because it's incredibly complicated. Heeling is made up of a lot of moving parts. I try very hard to break it down in the class, but it really is a complicated behavior. It's fun. It's a fun behavior. I don't want to make people scared of it. But people who do best in class already have some behaviors onboard that the dog already knows, and a training language. It's much more helpful if that is onboard before you do the class.

Melissa Breau: To round out our chat for today, one last question. If we were to drill down all this stuff we've been talking about into one key piece of information, or one key piece that you really want listeners to understand and take away from our conversation, what would that be?

Shade Whitesel: I've got one for each class. For toys, it's build your reinforcement. Spend some time building that toy reinforcement. I see so many people who have drive-y dogs that like to grab toys and take that for granted that they can then use that to teach heeling. I think it really is smart to take some time to build some structure within your toy game so that they can get that toy back and do another rep. I would just say building reinforcement is all about what that toy class is about.

Heeling — this specific heeling class is all about breaking it down little by little, piecing out the dog's knowledge and the steps it takes to get a dog that can come into heel from any angle and without that platform and without any handler help. We're really breaking it down.

The thing I want handlers to understand in the heeling class is it's about marking behavior you want and having a clear idea of what behavior you want rather than marking behavior that might sort of get there, having a clear eye and being able to understand what exactly we want from the dog.

A good example of that would be, as I was doing forums today, we're starting rear end awareness and it was awesome. Everybody was doing so well. But we want more movement. We want the dog to move all the way to heel position. Even though we're prompting it luring it a little bit right now, we need to mark moving back legs. We need to make sure, because we want more movement rotating into heel, that we're clicking or marking it the moment when the dog is moving those hind legs, not stationary hind legs, because we want more moving instead of less cocking out at a thirty-degree angle that dogs always do.

It's understanding those things and knowing how to communicate that to your dog are something that I wanted to mention because I'm fresh from working this morning, doing all my answering.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Shade.

Shade Whitesel: Thank you so much. It's always a pleasure and a joy.

Melissa Breau: It's fun to chat about all this stuff. And thank you to all of 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!


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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