Shade Whitesel returns to talk about toys and the process of introducing work to play. For those of you who haven’t heard the previous episode with Shade, 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.
To be released 11/10/2017, featuring Patricia McConnell, to talk about what she’s learned over her time in dog training.
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 with us again, this time to talk about toys and the process of introducing work to play. For those of you who haven’t heard the previous episode with Shade, 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.
She also recently launched a blog on her website, which all of you should check out at www.shadesdogtraining.net.
Welcome back, Shade!
Shade Whitesell: Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be back.
Melissa Breau: I’m glad to have you. So I kind of want to jump straight into things here. So when we talk about play, I think most people think, It’s play, and think it should just kind of come naturally to them and to their dog. But all too often that’s not the case. So why is it that play can be hard?
Shade Whitesel: I think when you’re talking about competitive dog sports, we’re thinking about play as a reinforcement, and so the dog’s idea of what’s reinforcing and our idea what we want to teach them might be different. So it’s not always easy. And also I think we have in our mind this ideal thing, this ideal of our childhood dog who always brought the ball back, and things like that.
My childhood dog didn’t. Maybe that’s why I teach this, because I had work to do to get her to bring it back. But, so keeping in mind that I’m talking about play with toys, it’s basically an interaction between the dog and the handler using toys.
It’s hard because it involves shaping on the handler’s part, where they’re working from approximating a little behavior that the dog is giving you to a bigger behavior that you want to eventually use to reward stuff. So it’s kind of like even though it’s play, we still have to train little parts of it and make it more … train rules in it might be a good way of putting it, where you’ve got, you know, you can reward with a ball, but you’ve got to get the ball back. So kind of like those things are all caught up in our word of play, basically.
Melissa Breau: So you mentioned in there kind of the bringing the ball back bit, and I think probably one of the most common issues that you hear about when people are talking about play is the dog takes a toy, runs away in the corner, and enjoys it all on their lonesome. What’s going on there — and how do you go about teaching the dog that you really can be part of that fun?
Shade Whitesel: Well, the dog, when they’re going away and they’re chewing it, they’re really fixated on the object itself, and so they’re thinking that the object itself is fun. And what we need to do is we need to teach the dog that they need us for the interaction. So they need us to activate the toy, whether that’s taught or whether we’re throwing it for them to chase. And that is more fun and we need to create more value for that, rather than the dog taking the toy away and chewing it off in the corner. And one of those things that we need to do is figure out how to play in a way that the dog likes.
It really starts there. And once they figure that out, once you figure out how to play in a way the dog likes, they bring the toy back to you automatically. And then value building for having you in there just works. The problems come when we expect the dog to play how we want them to play, like, for instance, how another dog we have played, or, like, what our sport wants our dog to play like, and then it’s no longer play and the dog may have other ideas of what they consider play. So it’s important to take what the dog offers to you and then reinforce that by giving the dog what they want, which is normally possession of the toy.
I find a lot of people just don’t want to give the dog the toy because they’re so afraid it’s going to take it away and chew it up, because that’s what they do when they’re babies. But in order to get what you want, you kind of have to give the dog what they want, and a lot of times in the beginning of training that’s giving them possession, and honoring that, and being OK with that.
So later on, and this affects right at the beginning, it is you also need to think about the tugging itself. One of my favorite things is to tell handlers to make it 50-50 when you’re tugging with your dog. And that means that 50 percent of the time the dog pulls you around. The other 50 percent you pull the dog around. Most of the issues I see with dogs and handler play is that the handler is pulling the dog around 95 percent or worse, and then the dog doesn’t think you’re fair. They don’t think they can beat you. So then when you finally let them have the toy, they leave.
They’re kind of saying their opinion of your playing and it’s not all that fun for them, so ... And sometimes that’s hard to hear, you know. We’ve got to start with little tiny parts, so …
Melissa Breau: It is a little funny in some respects that kind of the dog wants the toy, but the person wants the toy too.
Shade Whitesel: Right, and you need to learn, too, the word that occurs to me is cooperate. I’m not sure I mean that. To compete in a way that each creature has fun with it, and compete in a way that the dog thinks they can win, and maybe look at it that way, not that you’re just tugging them around because you think that’s what they should do.
Melissa Breau: So you mentioned kind of the dog has to think it’s fun. And we’re talking mostly tug and fetch here. So what kinds of cues should people be looking for in their dog’s body language to make sure their dog’s enjoying the game and actually having fun?
Shade Whitesel: Well, they kind of really have to be all in. So I’m not going to really describe what their actual body language looks like, that’s probably different with each dog, but one of the things that I don’t like to see is a dog that I think is frantic or hectic. And so I want to see a dog that’s calmer than frantically tugging backwards.
So I think many handlers are conditioned by their sport, or what they’ve been exposed to, to think that a dog that is frantically tugging backwards, growling and thrashing, is happy, and I’m not sure that that’s always the case. It might be frantic and hectic and not so happy.
The simple thing to ask the dog is, you know, when you let them have it, do they like it? Do they run laps? Do they come back and play with you, in which case they like that type of play, or do they race away? So that’s kind of what you’re looking, the actions that they’re doing, rather than, like, their actual body language, because I just think that’s open to a lot of interpretation based on people seeing other dogs play, things like that. It’s really what does the dog do when you give it and how into it are they. So, yeah, that’s what I’d be looking at.
Melissa Breau: Looking at tug specifically, what are some of the common mistakes maybe that people make -- either in your toys class or in general -- and how would you address them?
Shade Whitesel: Well, the biggest thing is we have to remember we’re bigger than the dog, and so we kind of overwhelm the dog with the tugging, especially if the dog is young or if it’s smaller than us. I mean, you know, really what I see people accidentally doing is they’re dragging the dog all around and they’re never allowing the dog to drag them around. And the dog has to affect you, they have to feel like they can pull you down and get the toy, or make you move, or make your hands go loose, or something like that.
And then the other common thing is people never give the dog the toy, and that’s just a big deal, because they’re scared that the dog might not bring it back, and so they don’t give it to them. It’s a teaching thing. It’s teaching trust around your hands near toys. Hands near the dog. My dog thinks hands are good. He thinks they’re for shoving toys into. And that’s what I want dogs to learn, rather than being overwhelmed.
So that’s kind of why I’m really big on letting the dog have it and then choose to come back. That gives me information on how I’m playing and if the dog likes that.
Melissa Breau: With fetch or with ball play, are there common mistakes you see people make?
Shade Whitesel: Yeah, they start, like, they get really concerned with the dropping, which, you know, we have to get the dog to drop it, so, but they start commanding it and cuing it and verbally making the dog do it, and using a little bit of coercion to get the dog to come back and drop it. And those, I’d say, what I want my dogs to figure out is that their dropping activates me, so when a dog drops a toy at my feet, that activates me to bring out another ball in sight and throw it. That’s what I want them to look at the out as, rather than this thing that has to be commanded.
So dogs will tell you a lot about what they think of the game when they’re coming back to you. So, like, people get really concerned with dogs circling, with arcing, and all that kind of stuff, and it’s good to notice that, but when you’re training that, it’s OK as the dog works it out that, yes, I can come back and drop it. So that’s a little bit of a common mistake.
Melissa Breau: Everybody kind of probably has heard the idea that you should start with the fun and then gradually add work in. So can you talk a little about that? How do you decide when and where you add work to the game?
Shade Whitesel: Well, I have, like, a rote fetch game that I teach with rules, where the dog has to drop it, the handler has to have a marker word, and eye contact has to be added. And the dog needs to know that it dropped the ball to make the other ball in sight.
So it’s kind of a two-ball game, but you have to make sure that the dog understands that their dropping produces the other one in sight and that you’re not bribing or prompting them with the one in your hand to drop. So once you have that basic thing for the chase game, then I would feel confident adding some behavior skills through either obedience or agility. With tugging, the dog needs to be bringing it right back.
But also with tugging, the dog needs to have the self-control of not just jumping all over you. That self-control with the tugging is a big thing, so I want to physically cue the dog to jump on me when it’s allowed, and that way when they’ve got, when they want to come back right away, but they’re also looking for that signal that they’re allowed to come back and shove it at you, that’s kind of they’ve got some self-control in the game and some thinking in there.
It’s not just a frantic thing. When I see that, then I say that you can start to add simple behavior skills, and say you’ve got the rules, and you can start adding behavior skills. And your focus, especially at first, is to add the skills to the game. You don’t want to just run an agility sequence and reward the dog with the ball. You want to basically put the behavior skills into the game itself.
So it might look like you throw the ball to the dog a couple of times and then you cue a jump. And then you throw the ball for the dog a couple of times, and if you’re doing obedience you might cue a sit. And then throw it a couple of times and then a hand touch. So what you’re doing is you’re adding those behavior skills in gradually, and you’re keeping in mind that it’s about the play and the reinforcement of the play. And then in fact it’s easier for the dog. You can start to make that reinforcement of play thinner and thinner. And then, when you start doing that, so that leads to a whole other thing, basically, where eventually you’re going to want to thin the reinforcement schedule so that you can get some stuff done.
You don’t want to have to, for the rest of the dog’s life, have it three ball throws for one sit, you know? But that’s what I call a tell, where, assuming you’ve got all your games really well taught and the dog is bringing back the ball, your dog’s tell are what starts to deteriorate when your rate of reinforcement is too low, or the environment is too hard, or the behavior you’re teaching is too hard for the dog. And so in a fetch game a lot of times what the dog will do is, let’s say you only gave one ball throw for the sit and they thought that was kind of cheap. Then they’ll arc on their way coming back to you when previously they would have run straight back to you. Or they’ll not drop the ball quickly. They’ll chomp it a couple of times. So those are the things that the dog will start deteriorating, the game skills will deteriorate, and that’s what I call the dog’s tell.
So in tugging, the dog might start growling on the tug, or it may jump on you before being cued, or it will re-bite the toy. All those things that you hopefully trained past in your game skills when you were training for reinforcement will then start to resurface when you add things, behavior skills, too quickly. So, like, thinking of behavior skills as work and the game skills as the fun and the play, your game skills will start to deteriorate if your work is too much, in the dog’s opinion. And then you want to figure out as the handler what how your dog is telling you that, because they each have different ways they tell you that.
Like, a border collie will usually always give you the ball, but they’ll usually arc. Arcing is usually what a stereotypical border collie will do. Whereas a German Shepherd will fully come back to you, but he’ll stop dropping the ball. So different types of dogs have different tells.
Melissa Breau: Gee, I wonder if I’ve ever seen that behavior before. Maybe a little.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah. Anybody who’s had a German Shepherd has seen the “Drop? What’s that?”
Melissa Breau: The chomp, chomp, chomp.
Shade Whitesel: Chomp, chomp, exactly.
Melissa Breau: I know kind of before we scheduled this to have you come back on, we chatted a little bit about the idea that you’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about training loops and kind of how they feed into how a dog feels about a training session…. And I wanted to dive into that a little bit, but before we go too deep, just to make sure everybody kind of knows the terminology, can you explain just a little bit what a training loop is and why it’s really important for the dog to feel good about the training session?
Shade Whitesel: Well, I’m not sure this technical way of describing it, but for me right now what a loop is, is think about behaviors as a three-part process.
You’ve got first the dog doing behavior, let’s say it’s sit, and then the second part is he’s collecting his reinforcement, let’s say a treat, and then that little part between the treat and when you cue sit again is what I’m calling a reset. I’m sure there’s another technical name for it. So you’ve got behavior, collecting reinforcement, and a reset. And what I’ve really been interested in, so that all that forms a loop, because once a dog resets back to you, you can then, you know, cue another behavior.
What I’m really concentrating on nowadays is that little part of the reset, because we train it, you can, you know, start paying attention to the dog noticing you and then cue a reward or something, but that’s where it all starts to deteriorate. You’ve got your big loop. And what you’re doing is you’re seeing if the dog decides to do the behavior again or connect with you.
So things happen right there where they’ll start to deteriorate, and what I mean by that is the dog will start sniffing, they’ll start glancing at the environment, and all those are little signs that the dog, how the dog is feeling. So with treats, you give the dog a treat and he’ll always eat the treat, but they’ll sniff around before they look back at you for the next cued behavior. For toys, that’s exactly what the whole toy class is about, basically, teaching the dog how to give up the toy. So they won’t give up the toy if that little reset isn’t trained, or if they think the reinforcement is too thin. So what I’ve been noticing is that part of a behavior loop deteriorates before everything else.
So you’ll have a dog that’s sitting, but they’re glancing away. And so I’m really interested in that, because as positive trainers we really need to notice that, because it’s telling us that the dog is not all into the training session, and I want to know that as their teacher right there. So it’s just that reset, where the dog shows they’re stressed or their conflict, is just something that I’ve really been noticing lately and trying to train better and also to address when it happens.
Melissa Breau: So you talked a little bit there about some of the things that you’ve been doing. Is there more you want to say about that? I mean, I know you mentioned you get a little ahead of yourself, but is there more you want to say about what you've been playing with or you know, what you've been doing?
Shade Whitesel: Well we need to intentionally notice it. I feel like I never noticed it until the last couple years, and so we need to intentionally also train it so train the reset. And how we do that is we, instead of prompting a dog to look at us — we can call it focus, we can call it engagement — but instead of, like, prompting them to look back at us after they’ve eaten a treat, we can actually wait and have the dog notice us, OK, and then reinforce that. And so that’s we’re reinforcing the dog’s check-in, and the dog understands that it leads to work or another behavior.
So being positive trainers, kind of like I said before, we need total buy-in. And if they’re looking away, or they’re sniffing, or they’re not dropping balls, or arcing on the return, we don’t have total buy-in. And so it’s really, I think it’s awesome because we can, like, address that there in the training session instead of waiting for our behaviors to deteriorate. Hopefully that makes sense. It’s, like, the action the dog does between eating a treat or chasing the ball and then doing the next behavior starts to show the stress of the training session on the dog before the actual behaviors deteriorate.
Melissa Breau: You know, most of the time you don’t notice until the behavior starts to change.
Shade Whitesel: Totally, totally. We don’t notice until the sits get slower, or the dog doesn’t sit, or — heaven forbid — we notice when the dog’s not taking food. But I want to notice that stuff before, and I want to address it right then. Because my dog, like, say he starts chomping his ball and he doesn’t want to give it up. Then that tells me he doesn’t trust me to give him enough reinforcement for what behavior he just did.
That tells me that it's hard. Like, if I ask for 50 steps of heeling and I throw the ball, and he brings it right back and drops it at my feet, he’s telling me that 50 steps of heeling was not hard. If he doesn’t drop his ball right away, he’s telling me that was hard, and he needs a lot of ball throws, and he doesn’t trust me to do that.
When you start noticing that — I call it listening to the dog — then it’s so helpful, for me anyway, in my training to know that. And then I can, like, cue another chase. I can throw the ball a couple more times. I can tug a little bit before I ask for 50 more steps of heeling. I can go, “Oh, you can do 50 steps of heeling at home, it’s not that big a deal. But here out in the field with lots of other dogs around, this is a really hard behavior.” So I just like knowing that kind of stuff, and so I’ve been really interested in that the last, especially the last six months. Anyway, lots more questions about that kind of stuff as we all train.
Melissa Breau: Yeah, no, I think it’s really an interesting concept to kind of think of, and I think you hear everybody kind of say, you know, they have that “just one more rep” problem, right, and that seems like such a good way to kind of check in with yourself and check in with your dog before you ever get to the “one more rep” problem.
Shade Whitesel: Yes, exactly. And you know, I think, I think as trainers we all notice this and we call it different things, you know, focus, or engagement, or I call it the reset.
So I think we’re all kind of talking about the same thing, but we all describe it a little differently. And it just, it’s neat and fascinating for me because I always want to know my dog’s opinion. I want to know, so yeah.
Melissa Breau: So for those kind of interested in learning more about this stuff, how much of this do you explore in the advanced toys class, since it’s coming up in December? What do you focus on there?
Shade Whitesel: So the advanced toy class is, it’s Part 1 working on impulse control and making sure everyone, the handler and the dog, has the mechanics down. So we work on presentations, we really work on the different marker words, so “In spite of the tug in front of your face, when I say ‘yes,’ you need to take food,” that kind of thing. And then the second part of it is kind of figuring out where your dog’s tell is, adding the work to it.
Some people can get through that in the regular toy class because I do include it there, but the advanced toy class I usually get a lot of students who really want to concentrate on, like, adding behavior chains and things and figuring out how arousal plays a part, because a toy’s arousal is always there.
Melissa Breau: Of course, yeah.
Shade Whitesel: So and it catches you by surprise sometimes. So yes, we do really work on that reset, basically, and trying to figure out how individual dogs are feeling about their session. Dogs who would do best in class are ones obviously … the prereq is the basic toy class, but they don’t have to have all the skills from the basic toy class, but they do have to have the basics of the fetch game and the tug game. But they just need to work on the specifics. So yeah.
Melissa Breau: Awesome.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah, it’s really a fun class.
Melissa Breau: Hey, Shade, I think any class with you would be fun.
Shade Whitesel: You’re too kind!
Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Shade. It’s always a joy to talk to you about this stuff!
Shade Whitesel: Good, yeah, I love to, so thanks so much for having me a second time. I feel honored.
Melissa Breau: Well, for all of our wonderful listeners, we’ll be back next week with Patricia McConnell. Patricia will be on the podcast to talk about what she’s learned over her time in dog training.
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.