E330: Shade Whitesel - "From Toy Skills to a Formal Retrieve"

Shade Whitesel joins me to talk about how fluent toy play skills allow for more two-way communication during training, and how toy skills can be used to build a faster, better formal retrieve. 


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 I have Shade Whitesel here with me to talk about toy play and retrieves. Hi Shade. Welcome back to the podcast.

Shade Whitesel: Thanks for having me, Melissa. It's always fun to get together and talk.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us off, you wanna just remind everybody a little bit about you and a little bit about your kind of current crew.

Shade Whitesel: Currently I have three dogs, an almost 11 year old German Shepherd Onesie who basically grew up in FDSA videos, so it's, I feel like his entire life is documented. And then I have Talic who's about five, and then Ion, who's a puppy who just turned one year old. So yeah, that's my current crop of German Shepherds.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So I kind of mentioned in the intro, I wanna talk about toy play and retrieve. So I think a lot of people can think about toy play as maybe something that develops kind of naturally, but I know you approach it more intentionally. Can you talk a little bit about the skills that you like to teach around toy play? Some of the, some of what you're thinking there. Yeah. Well and they aren't wrong when people do think, you know, like throwing the ball for the dog is a natural thing with dogs that like that and have those instincts.

But I'm really interested in using toy play as a reinforcement to train other behaviors. So I feel like it needs to have some kind of rules and some structure because we need to get the toy back, I wanna make sure the dog likes it and that it's not just this behavior, it's doing it. So there's a lot of things that I think about when I am teaching toy play that go beyond just like what I did as a kid, which is kind of throw the Frisbee for the dog and hope for the best, you know? Yep. So yeah, the basic skills that I kind of really want in that teach, in that toy game are I want them to come back with the toy without me having to really prompt them to come back. I want them to drop it and let me have it.

So if I'm gonna throw the ball or the toy, I want them to, you know, drop it without me doing a lot of coercive or even without showing them that I have another toy. I want them to, what I, what I say is I want them to off push me with the drop. Like if you've ever seen a dog who's like really into the ball game and they're like throwing the ball on the ground to get their owner to throw it again, I want that attitude out of the dog instead of them, you know, running away or playing keep away or something like that. It's pretty important for us to be able to get it back so we can do another rep if I want them, you know, so it, so I either want them to drop it or I want them to bring back to tug and those are two different handler signals to the dog, whether I want them to come back and dug with me or whether I want them to drop. And so that's kind of what I mean about structure and just putting that in there where you've got the ability to use that toy play to get multiple reps of behaviors that you're teaching with the toy play. So you sort of answered my next question, which is gonna be, you know, how does having those skills allow you to use toys more in training?

Melissa Breau: Do you wanna just elaborate on that a little bit?

Shade Whitesel: Yes. Basically if you've got those, if you've got some rules and structures, you're not gonna get bit, you know, like that's a big thing with dogs that really, really, or they're not gonna steal the toy outta your hands, you know, you can kind of have it in sight and ask your dog to heal without them like grabbing it or biting you to get it or things like that. So, so those are important things when you're training behaviors. Also, if you think about how to reinforce in a way that strengthens whatever behavior skill that you're teaching, the action of the dog is important.

So like if you wanna teach heeling for instance, I don't find throwing the ball or the toy is conducive for teaching good heeling, I find striking the toy is a better thing. So that's another reason I would have like one different marker cues or different ways of using the toy for a dog that like the toy play and that I wanted to teach behaviors. How fluent are you looking for those toy skills to kind of be before you start adding other types of training into the picture?

Melissa Breau: Can you, can you describe that for us a little bit? So are you thinking, like when you say other types of training, are you thinking like behavior skills? Yeah. So you mentioned heeling in there just yeah. And I know we're gonna talk about retrieves in a little bit.

Like how fluent does our dog need to be with bringing the toy back, with knowing their marker cues with kind of those behaviors that you were talking about in order to use them effectively in training something else?

Shade Whitesel: Right. Well they need to have like the basic skills and also for our purposes of talking about it, I like to think of reinforcement skills or behaviors being separate from behavior skills.

Okay. So like, so I'm gonna call sit and heel and a formal obedience retrieve. Those are gonna be behavior skills and then toy play and marker cues. There's reinforcement stuff. Okay, so, or toy or treat would be reinforcement. So you need the behavior skill. Then you would use a marker queue and then they would collect the reinforcement, whether that's toy or treats. So basically before you start adding behavior skills to your toy game reinforcement, you need the basics. And what the basics are are bring the toy back, drop the toy or play tug with me depending on what I've cued don't bite me. So ability of the dog to be around a moving toy without biting us. Those are just the basics, like the chase, the strike, the drop, or the bring back all the dog needs is that really to then start adding behavior cues, like really simple at first sit, things like that. The thing that does happen though, and this is kind of why I am really into like creating those basic structure, is that when you do start adding in the behavior skills, like sitting down and heel or recall or whatever, hand, hand touch and spin, when you do start adding those behavior skills into the game, I kind of tell people I have a whole lecture about listening to your dog and this is really important to me because what happens is we as a teacher to our dog, if we have a reinforcement schedule that's too thin, so for instance, let's say we're asking for 50 steps of heeling and we gave them one ball throw after that they're not gonna bring the ball back because they don't have confidence that I'm going to give them what I call a chunk of play instead of just thinking of one treat's worth or one ten second tug or one ball throw. And hopefully that makes sense because I want my dog to be a participant in the training I guess.

And I wanna be able to, to tell how, how into what I'm training that they are. So I kind of want them to have some start behaviors. And what'll happen is that a dog that normally drops the ball for you to throw it again in like, you know, one chomp, if they're on a too thin reinforcement schedule, they'll, they'll take like 10 chomps to drop it.

And so that dropping of the ball or the coming back, they might arc when normally they come straight back or things like that. And you'll be able to notice that as their trainer because that's different from your basic skills. And that's good information for us as the dog's teacher because we're like, oh whoops, you really feeling like you need a little more reinforcement there.

So it's kinda like when you start adding those behavior skills, the dog will start going, Hmm, this is hard, this is easy, this is hard, this is easy. And for me, I really wanna know that from my dog, how they feel about it. And so that's kind of another reason why we have those basic skills, those basic baseline behaviors out of our dog. Hopefully that kind of makes sense.

Melissa Breau: No, I think it did it just kind of round. So to, to kind of summarize, in other words, we can look at the way that our dog handles their reinforcement and gets ready for the next step as information about how clear the behavior skill was, right? Or how confident they feel or how...

Shade Whitesel: Yeah, so the difference between like toy play and using treats is that in the treats it's really hard for us to tell if, if the amount of reinforcement we gave was significant and the right amount of payment for the behavior. Okay. Because the dog eats the treat and it's gone and the dog doesn't have any way to not eat the treat. Okay?

So they consume the reinforcement, okay, with the ball or the toy, they have to give it back. So one, we have to have structure and rules in the game for the dog to give it back to us. But we also, because the dog has basic control of the reinforcement, okay, they have control over the thing that we reinforce with, they can decide not to give it back. And that gives us valuable information that we actually don't get as of readily with using treats. So hopefully that clears it up a little bit. It's that reset, it's the dog going, Hey, I'm not gonna give this back because you might ask for that really hard behavior again. And then I'm like, okay, but if you give it back, I'll give you more tugging and chasing instead of asking for that 50 steps of heeling or that hard agility sequence or all the other hard behaviors that we ask for our dog and don't pay enough. You know, basically it's a way for us to go for the dog to go, you're not paying enough and for us to go, oh, I'm sorry, here's some more reinforcement.

Melissa Breau: I like that. And I like the fact that it opens up kind of that two-way communication channel, right? I love that two-way communication channel. I'm big into that at this point in my training career. I just really wanna know how my, how the other part of the equation is feeling. And I know, you know, that's kind of anthropomorphizing it, but I, I really want them to, I always want some checks and balances in my training. I wanna know if the dog thinks that I'm not paying enough for the hard behavior 'cause I'm an intense trainer and I can get really into like doing the thing and lose track of how much tugging I should be doing for my dog.

The other thing, and the other reason I'm kind of really into this is if you don't pay attention to your baseline toy skills when you're adding behaviors, if you don't pay attention to how it affects that reset, then the do it will start affecting your behavior skills themselves. So I don't want to rehearse not to criteria heeling and the dog will always tell me that in the by not letting me have the ball before their heeling is affected.

So it's, that's another important reason to do it because I don't want them rehearsing not to criteria heeling. Hopefully maybe that resonates with, with people of how to, how to think of it.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that partially gets into, so I was gonna ask you for folks that are listening and going, whoa, this stuff sounds complicated, I'll just train you with food instead. Right? What behaviors do you like to use toys for? Kind of based on all the stuff we've been talking about, how do you decide, okay, now I'm gonna train this with food or this is definitely a toy behavior for me.

Shade Whitesel: I think that the trainer I am today actually I train behaviors, I teach behaviors with food and then later on in the session I will add toy as the reinforcement.

So I was doing with Ion today I was doing offer down and I did a session with about 10 treats. He gave me five offer downs and then I switched up to his ball and tugging and I expected him to offer the same quality of behavior for the toy. Which because he's used to this and he is a year old, he knows how to do okay.

That helps you generalize the behavior skill that you are getting when you do the behavior skill for multiple types of reinforcement that helps the dog understand that this behavior skill is important and relevant regardless of whether you have food in your hand or not. But to get back to kind of what you were asking as far as like behaviors, okay, so there's two sections.

There's two parts to the question of, you know, what behaviors would I teach with toys? There is for me, if a dog likes toys and they like the arousal and the excitement that toys bring to it, I want them understanding that behaviors can be done in that excitement, motivated, aroused state of mind that they are doing okay. So I want them to learn that because for most dogs, something like heeling for food will be different than heeling for toy. So I wanna make sure that my dog can heal for toy, but I also, and I'm working very hard with this with not a hundred percent success, I also want them to heal with the same criteria. So their toy heeling needs to be the same criteria as their food heeling. So that's a fancy way of saying that regardless of the reinforcement, regardless of their arousal level, I want them to give me the same quality of behavior. The other thing that you're kind of asking or the other part to it is concept-wise, I want a dog to know how to shape how to offer behaviors with a toy because again, that the toy often brings up a higher arousal and I want them to be able to offer behaviors within that arousal and also want them to understand how to go away from the toy to do a behavior and how to offer that behavior, not necessarily me commanding them to do it, but basically them going, oh you've got the toy, I'm gonna cycle through behaviors. I know to get that, I want them to have that thinking, that ability to reign their own excitement in, because like oftentimes what I hear people say is, oh my, my dog can't think around the toys. Well that's the whole reason that I wanna have some structure and some rules to the toy reinforcement so we can kind of bring that thinking mind for our dogs and then carry that over to our behaviors. So yeah, so, so that's kind of a long, really long answer to your question.

Melissa Breau: No, but I think it's good and I think it gives us important information right around on like kind of the thought process and why having the skills become so important. So I wanna shift gears a little bit. I know you pulled your retrieves class kind of out of retirement this term for a live rerun and I know that you kind of ask people have some of the things you've been talking about the choice skills kind of as a prerequisite.

Can you talk a little more about what skills they need for the class specifically for pre-reqs and kind of what toy skills you focus on specifically when teaching a retrieve? Like a formal retrieve?

Shade Whitesel: Yeah, so I actually gotta look at that description because I think that toy skills are not a requirement for that class because we can do everything with food and we can make food super motivating.

But what is a prerequisite is if you do wanna use toys to later bring into the retrieve, the dog really needs to have some of the toy skills from my toy class. And the big one is the dropping at your feet. They need to know how to offer that drop because that becomes sort of a start button for you to go, okay, you dropped it, you offer your sit here is now the retrieve item. And if they don't have that skill it it becomes really difficult to tell. Retrieve is super hard skill. It is a, a formal retrieve is really super hard. So you really need to keep an eye on how much, you are reinforcing your dog. And so again, kind of like what I talked about in the beginning, if your dog normally drops the toy for you really fast and then all of you know, you're asking for the fifth hold basically and the dog is like, ah, I'm never gonna drop this toy again. That needs to give you some really relevant information. So, I really want that skill on board if you wanna use toys in the retrieve class.

The other thing that's really helpful is something, a skill we haven't talked about before, but the skill of switch. I use that a lot to teach retrieves and I think that it's different than just a bite cue. So for instance, think about it this way. You have a toy, I want you to be able to cue your dog to take the toy from your hand and play tug with it.

Okay? You've got that basic thing switch is the dog already has a toy and you have another toy and you're teaching them to switch to the other toy. So it's really interesting where dogs draw their distinctions because I've had a lot of people take this class and a lot of people came into it without the cue of switch.

Which switch is, is what is, if you think about it, it's the dog already has something in their mouth and they're letting go and then biting something else. Okay. And that's how it differs from a normal bite cue where they don't already have something in their mouth. But I've had a lot of people take this retrieve class and I do think from what all the examples of other people coming in and using their normal bite cues that a dog that is taught switch actually has a faster retrieve and it progresses more quickly.

When they have that grip to grip basic, they have something gripped because that becomes your dumbbell and then they let go and they grip the toy dogs that have that skill progress quicker. So I really like people who are going to use toys in class to have that skill as well. And that's more of an advanced skill after you have the other basic skills of dropping at your feet, striking that kind of thing, those are your two toys prereqs you need. But you can do the whole class you as well if you have a dog that really likes food. I think the basic thing is because this is such a hard skill to teach for both us as humans and our dogs to learn because there's nothing natural about, you know, sitting quietly in front of you with something in their mouths without holding it.

I mean without chewing it, that's a hard behavior to learn. So the dogs that do best here will be dogs that are like extremely motivated for whatever reinforcer you have, whether that's toy or treats. And if you have a dog that's really so-so about food that's gonna be a, a dog that's gonna struggle a little more in class. So they have to be motivated.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. So I feel like there are at least as many approaches to teaching the retrieve behavior as there are people who teach it. Can you talk a little bit about your approach, kind of talk us through it at a high level?

Shade Whitesel: Yeah and you know there's I mean it's really good to have all these different approaches 'cause then it's really neat as a, as a person learning how to do it because then you can be like, okay, I'll take a little piece of this and a piece of that. But basically I really like the hold, I like to teach the hold first. I like to have the offered sit, which becomes your front. Eventually I want that offered by the dog, not commanded by us or not queued by us but offered.

And that allows us to go, okay, now's your opportunity to grab this thing. And so I concentrate at least three to four weeks in class on that. Getting a really nice solid, calm still mouth hold with a dog offering a SSID or offering that front position. So, and that's then I just back chain it. I do find that once you have that hold and once you've made really good feelings about that hold in front, the rest of it is much more simpler to get all the pieces of the retrieve are much more simpler to get once you have that hold. Not easy necessarily, like picking it up off the ground is always a hard step for the dog. But, but basically once you have that, that really nice hold and the dog has good feelings about it, the rest of the stuff is a little more easier to get and that's kind of where I base my class on.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you kind of wanna share about the retrieve class and what you cover or who would kind of work well in the class?

Shade Whitesel: Yeah, I'm looking at my notes here and kind of, one thing I do wanna say is that, you know, any type of dog provided they have good like motivations and good excitement can take this class.

I have, I'm just thinking of one of the videos I have of teaching the hold and I've got this miniature Xolo, which is this tiny little hairless dog as one of the examples and it's a client I had, you know, long ago and we still have that video but super cute basically. So, and that dog loved his food so he, he learned how to to do a really nice retrieve.

But basically any dog that like has a lot of motivation for what you can give them, that's the kind of dog that's gonna do well in this for my toy. Oh, oh, big, big huge thing. I am entering Ion in this class in the retrieve class. So you'll, if you take it, you'll be able to see Ion's working spot and you'll be able to see how I, what pace I go with him, the pace is dictated by the dog and what problems we encounter. 'Cause we will, we always do okay and how I work through, so you'll be able to see me working my puppy through the class and, and that'll be hopefully super interesting for people. I can't wait, I've been not teaching him the retrieve because I've been waiting for this class basically.

So I'm super excited to get started with him on it. Awesome. It's certainly a big, like you said, complex skill to teach. So yeah, and that's another thing, a good retrieve takes almost a year. This is a six week class and you can expect to get, for most dogs, you can expect to get a good hold and maybe a start on the other pieces.

When I used to give this class, I used to give it for 12 weeks because it took that long for most dogs and that's three months of, or four months. If you think about the terms of daily training. So I say it usually takes about a year to get what I really want out of the retrieve the dog, really understanding everything so, so yeah, it will be good context. Yeah, and I'm super happy to be giving this again and excited about, yeah, I haven't given the class for, I don't know, three years maybe. So I'm excited about giving it again and the differences that I see because I'm a different trainer three years into it with some different thoughts. We'll see.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Yeah. Since we also talked about toy skills a bit, and I know that your toy skill class is the other class on the schedule for you this term.

Shade Whitesel: Yes.

Melissa Breau: Do you wanna take a minute and talk a little bit about that class and who might be interested in that class?

Shade Whitesel: It's a great class again, boy, is this just what I teach. I teach classes with a lot of content. So the thing I'll say about the toy classes, don't expect to get really good toy skills outta six weeks because that normally takes a year or two. I have students who take it over and over, but dogs that will do best in this class are dogs that have a lot of interest in toys and chasing already and chasing meaning.

They don't necessarily wanna critter chase little creatures, but they want to interact with and chase toys. So that's what this class is really suited towards. It is not suited for dogs that don't have a lot of interest in tugging and chasing. Sarah Brueske has an excellent class Pay to Play that talks about using food for dogs like that and that would probably be a better choice.

But basically this class is usually for dogs that are a little bit, have strong feelings about toys and need some structure in there. So yeah, I like those highly motivated dogs.

Melissa Breau: Evidently There's a reason you have German Shepherds, huh?

Shade Whitesel: Right, exactly right. I need to get my whippet one day I'll have a Whippet. Now I'm gonna train that dog how to have a good retrieve.

Melissa Breau: Oh, good luck to you. Then any final thoughts or key points that you wanna kinda leave listeners with?

Shade Whitesel: No, I think we covered about all. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Sweet. Good. Alright, Shade. Well thank you for coming on the podcast.

Shade Whitesel: Thanks so much and yeah, I look forward to starting the October term. It'll be fun.

Melissa Breau: It will be Fun. I look forward to seeing you at Camp.

Shade Whitesel: Camp. Yes, I know camp is, feels like it's a couple weeks. Three or three right around the corner, something like that.

Melissa Breau: Alright, well thank you and thanks 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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