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Shade Whitesel Interview

Shade Whitesel and Ones after their IPO protection routine. Photo by Dawn Spivey.

I am honored to interview Shade Whitesel for Schutzhund Life! I first met Shade at the 2011 Northwestern Regional Schutzhund Championship. I was doing my SchH1 with Axel, and she was sweeping the SchH3 podium with her dog Reiki vom Aegis. Shade and Reiki took home nearly every award that day!

Shade is an exceptional and unique trainer; she is known throughout the Schutzhund world as being one of the only trainers who trains without physical corrections AND competes successfully at the high levels with impressive scores. Her approach to training is creative, practical, and always focused on what's best for the dog and the relationship. Shade has an amazing perspective and wonderful words of wisdom to share.

Introductions: Tell us a bit about your IPO experience.

Shade: I’ve been doing IPO since 1993, when I checked out the local clubs with my GSD bitch. She was a great dog, but IPO wasn’t her thing, so I bought a working line GSD, who became my first IPO3 dog. It was such a journey with him! Jesse was 7 years old when he finally got his IPO3, after numerous failures for not outing on the courage test. Those years of failure certainly taught me much about drives and behaviors and training techniques. My next dog was Talender von Gruinheide and I completed his Schutzhund 3 with a 291 (94/100/97) when he was 3 years old. Unfortunately he died at 3.5 of a torsion and it kind of devastated me for a couple years.

More recently, I competed nationally with Reiki vom Aegis (seen at right), and placed 5th, 7th, and 2nd at various national competitions. Reik taught me tons about positive training in Schutzhund and also about the maintenance phase. It’s one thing to train the behaviors and obtain a good score at a competitive trial. It’s another to stay up there and place consistently for 3-4 years. My current dog is Ones, Reik’s son, who just turned 4 years old, recently obtained his IPO2 with a score of 99/95/96, and if all goes well, will become my fourth dog to reach IPO3, all raised and trained from pups. Over the last 20 years of training Schutzhund, my training has gone from using tools of correction, including the prong collar and e-collar, to no physical correction at all on my youngest dog. It’s been an interesting journey, that’s for sure!

What advice do you have for people who are brand new to Schutzhund?

Shade: Find a trainer/club that you like and agree with. Surround yourself with people who treat their dogs the way you want to treat yours, and have the behaviors in obedience that you admire and want to achieve. Barring that, join a club that has nice people, establish a relationship with them, and train your dog how you want. Educate yourself, ask questions, go to seminars!

What roles do experimentation and creative thinking have in your training?

Shade: I’ve always been someone who questions and thinks outside the box. When I first started Schutzhund in my 20s, I did whatever the training director told me to. I balked when Jesse failed his SchH2 twice, and the training director told me to put an e-collar on. At that time, most of us didn’t use e-collars, and it was perfectly normal to obtain a SchH3 without one. E-collars were for the special hard dogs and at that time, they only had 5 settings! So, I spent a year working with another helper, teaching Jess how to control himself, how to cycle down, how to fight and win confidently. While I did eventually put the e-collar on, and use it sparingly for the out, I learned a lot about what did and didn’t work with that particular dog, and how to experiment with other ways of teaching to explain concepts to the dog.

How do you view failure, such as when something you try with a dog fails to produce the desired outcome, or if you fail a phase or exercise in a trial?

Shade: It’s always information to me. While I might be super disappointed if I fail something, it’s more like a training challenge for the next time. Why did I fail? What did I not adequately explain to my dog? Was he properly prepared? Dogs do what we teach them to, so what did I accidentally teach him to do or not to do?

Ones showing off the winning combination of his genetics and training in Schutzhund protection. Photo by Dawn Spivey.

Ones showing off the winning combination of his genetics and training. Photo by Dawn Spivey.

In a podcast for High In Trial, you mentioned that the foundation you put on a dog has to be totally different than what’s done traditionally. Would you mind explaining that a bit more for those who desire to train similarly, without physical corrections?

Shade: You can’t just do the same foundation that everyone else is doing and just leave off the corrections. That’s not going to work because the corrections are there for a reason, whether to introduce pressure from the start or to “clean up” later on.

A good example would be when starting protection with a young dog. The helper gives the prey item (rag, bite pillow, whatever) to the dog, and the dog "wins" it off the helper. At that point, most handlers either trot the dog in a circle or cradle the dog with the prey item. Either way, at some point, the dog needs to let go of the item so that the helper can start again. With an ideal dog, and ideal helper work, the dog holds calmly, shows no conflict or avoidance with the handler, and drops calmly in one motion, then barking to initiate the helper’s movement. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had an ideal dog ever, and I rarely see any at the various clubs I’ve been to.

Most techniques involve some sort of pressure from the handler to get the dog to release the prey item. If done right, the dog puts the pressure back into the barking at the helper, and all is good. Sometimes I’ve seen the helper try to lure the dog off the item with another prey item, but that can get messy quick, with the dog taking the item in his mouth down to the ground and trying to tear it up. And again, the handler has to exert some type of pressure, usually in the form of physical or verbal corrections, to get the dog to release and turn the attention back to the helper.

Ones and Shade switch between a bite wedge and ball during protection training. Photo by Nicole Yvonne.

Since I am not going to physically or verbally pressure my dog, I’ve got to do something different there, something that doesn’t make conflict later with either me as the handler, or turn attention off the helper. First off, I start my dogs later in age in protection, because I want them to have several skills first. I want them to know that their bark moves the helper. I spent 8-10 sessions with Ones teaching him to bark the helper from blind to blind and not giving him a grip at all. He got so he was “hunting” the helper, which was quite interesting to see. I also want the dog to have the ability to switch attention and grip from a higher value toy to a lesser value toy (see photo at left of Ones and Shade switching between bite wedge and ball. Photo by Nicole Yvonne.), and the knowledge of how to let go of something in their mouth and bark to get another thing.

When I start a young dog in protection, when the helper gives the dog the prey item, I can then run the dog away from the helper, and then cue them to drop and bark at the helper, something they already know how to do from other scenarios. If things go wrong, and the dog doesn’t want to drop or wants to do something unproductive with the sleeve like take it down to the ground, I’ve got my backup behavior and I can ask them to switch to another item that I have, (allowing the helper to pick it the sleeve again). It’s also absolutely crucial to have good helper work here, a helper that pressures the dog enough yet always lets the dog feel victorious, and then stays outside the dog’s fight zone when they have slipped the bite pillow or sleeve. That makes my job so much easier, when my dog is satisfied in the fighting and gripping, and good training helpers are so important at this stage.

What advice would you give to handlers when they are working with the more traditional helpers and trainers in their clubs?

Shade: Know your boundaries, what you are comfortable doing, and be respectful of everyone’s knowledge. Have a plan, and don’t expect your helper to know what it is, problem solve for you, or do your training for you if it is not something that he/she would do with their own dogs. Know what each of you (helper and handler) are going to do if things go unexpected, know what to do if the dog does it right. Pick your battles, and work on one thing at a time. Short sessions and lots of reinforcement! And perhaps we should ask the more traditional helpers and trainers what advice they need when working with those of us that would like to train without verbal and physical corrections? It takes both sides compromising, and talking, that is for sure.

What advice would you have for handlers who are afraid to try something new or different with their dog?

Shade: Listen to everyone around you, (their advice is valid) but also have your own mind about things. You know your dog best and your relationship best, and what works for one team might not work for you. No one dog is perfect, and they all have room for improvement. I don’t think doing a couple different things is going to ruin a dog. There are pros and cons to every training technique and if you don’t like the results, do something different the next time. Listen to your dog and learn from what you see. If you are still doing the same things 6 months out, whether that is correcting or reinforcing, and the dog’s behavior is not changing, than rethink your training plan!

Ones' happy, joyful, and correct obedience indicates the strength of Shade's training plan. Photo by: Kate McLellan.

Ones' happy, joyful, and correct work indicates the strength of Shade's training plan. Photo by: Kate McLellan.

Thank you, Shade, for the thoughtful and insightful interview! If you would like to hear more from Shade, head over to to listen to the Shade Whitesel podcast interview. You can also find Shade over at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, where you can sign up to take some of her IPO-specific classes.


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