Taking Shade’s Toy Class with Chai – part 1


This is the first of several special-topics posts I am going to link to in future Chaiary posts rather than inserting all video links directly into Chai’s diary!


Shade Whitesel runs a fantastic toy play class over at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. I’ve taken it twice at Gold now simply because it’s SO good and highly motivating for me, too.

If you need help with toy play or know how to teach toy play but are looking for fun, community and accountability, hop into that class! Here’s a link where you should be able to find whenever it runs next (as well as Shade’s other classes – 10/10 would recommend anything she teaches!)


So this post is about Chai’s tug toy journey with Shade. We took the class in June 2023 so I’d keep up my own motivation and have accountability.

Since Chai already knows fetch games, I decided to focus on tugging – something I haven’t done with her at all. I’ll share all of my class videos, but if you want to know more details about how they came to be, what lecture they are based on or why Shade recommended what, you’ll have to check out the class yourself!

How to make sense of this post:

When there is text to go with my videos, it’s part of my class posts from June and partly thoughts I’m adding now. I sometimes copy/pasted my class posts into my video description which I can now (now being September 11, several months after the class) go back to and copy/paste into this blog post! When I ask questions or use the word “you”1 in the text that goes with a particular video, I’m addressing Shade. When I use the name “Shade,” I either added this thought today or changed the “you” from the original post to “Shade” because the name sounded better to me in a particular sentence or context.

June 1, 2023: tug baseline

Note: I have never played tug with Chai before (it didn’t seem a priority behavior for a foster dog who might go to a companion home). In this video, I’m just seeing what she thinks about various tug toy options, most of which are new to her.

I’ll have to bring down my own arousal for her next time! I can tell that Chai is not used to my Malinois toy play state of mind! It is fun how different she is from Phoebe, Grit and Game who all latched on to anything they were presented with and didn’t let go from the start!

June 3, 2023: a flirt pole and a fleece tug for Chai!

I am writing this post 3 months after the fact, so I hope to get things right – I believe this was my second class video. I made a flirt pole to engage Chai with a fleece tug. Unfortunately, Game’s mat was harmed in the making of this fleece tug: I braided two identical onces and cut up Game’s fleece mat for it.

In any case, we’re getting some lovely chasing and tentative tugging on this toy! It’s soft (perfect for teething puppies), it runs away, and the distance between me and the fleece tug that is created by the flirt pole (a broom stick and a strong – I usually make my own flirt poles) reduces pressure from my side. I’m happy with this first flirt pole session!

June 5, 2023: playing with the fleece tug on my bed and with the flirt pole on the roof

Clips from 2 short sessions. My Observations:

+ Chai will occasionally target my hands rather than the toy (that only happened when playing on the bed).
+ It is very easy to (accidentally) pull the toy out of her mouth. Is that okay because it will teach her to clamp down more should I be more careful so it doesn’t happen?

I have my own answers to questions like this last one, but enjoy very much following an experienced trainer’s advice. I do not remember Shade’s response but I’m pretty sure what I ended up doing is starting gently so Chai is unlikely to constantly loose the toy, but making it run away immediately and harder to catch anytime she did let go or I accidentally pulled it out of her mouth: critters don’t sit around waiting to be eaten by predators but will use any opportunity to escape!

June 6, 2023: Chai’s second time playing with the flirt pole and tugging on the roof!

I aimed for gentle, steady pulling (not jerky). What should I do when I have let her win and she’s shaking it dead, like at 00:12-00:18 in the video below? I kept the flirt pole string loose and just admired her strength this time.

At 00:20 she was holding it and lying down on it, so I got the second identical fleece tug out to get her off the one on the flirt pole without conflict. Then I reactivated the flirt pole.

At 00:34/35 I was about to let her win after steady pressure for 2 seconds, and right then I accidentally pulled it out of her mouth again. Ooops! Sorry, Chai!

01:28 in the very end: “Treats” is my scatter cue and how I end the session and get the toys back.

June 7, 2023: playing with the fleece tugs on the bed (my non-slip indoors surface) for the second time

A compilation of this morning’s best bed tug moments. It’s fun to work with someone so different from the Mals and GSDs I’ve mostly played with over the last few years! (I’ve also played with a ferociously tugging Border Collie, Mick, whose personality is quite different from Chai’s, and a ferociously tugging pug!) There must have been plenty of others, but these are the ones I actively and personally worked with a lot and had the most fun with!

Even in personal play, Chai is being really gentle. I’m used to blood, bruises, torn clothes, dog-head-hooks to the chin and battle scars from social play! (I love roughhousing – it’s only partly the dogs. And yes, I exaggerate!) It is only toys and humans Chai is gentle with though. When she plays with Game or crunches down on a plastic bottle, she crushes those sharky teeth right in!

June 8, 2023: playing with fleece tugs on the roof without a flirt pole!

Chai is pulling back VERY gently (I am saying that from a crazy Phoebe-Poodle/Mal baseline) – I just make it look as if she was pulling strongly. In the second rep, she caught the tug too fast for me to get a chance to present a good striking target. Otherwise, we’re having a great time!

June 11, 2023: tug attempts on the roof as well as on the bed – a comparison

Roof play:

Our tug attempt on the roof did not go as well this morning. Chai lay down and never brought the toy back, so I ended quickly. (It’s warmer than usual and she has had play time with Game before – tomorrow morning, I’ll try roof play before any of this and play earlier in the day.)

Or did I overdo it this time and tugged too long rather than making it too easy? (Shade has suggested I make things a little more difficult for Chai.)

Indoors play:

We took a second stab at tugging in the apartment. My floor is not an ideal tugging surface because it is slippery, but I know Chai gravitates to the bed – so I wanted to see what would happen if I tugged her off the bed and then ran away back TO the bed. She brought the toy back all the way every time. It’s about the bed I suspect, not me, because the bed is the best place to chew on something … Hrmmm …

June 12, 2023: another roof tug session

This session was right after getting up with a puppy full of energy and okay temperatures (it’s been really hot during the day but mornings are okay).

In this session, Chai brought the toy part of the way back once, about two thirds into the session.

What do you think about bringing out toy #2 when I can’t convince her to bring back toy #1 (like 00:20/21)? I can’t ask her, but I get the impression that she prefers tugging with me over chewing a toy on the floor – but she has not figured out that bringing back the tug is a part of that game …

What happens most of the time is that I try to encourage her after running away, and she then comes running but forgets the toy (see 00:41-00:43). I then ask her where her toy is, and she goes back to the toy and looks at me expectantly or lies down again to chew (00:47-00:49).

The last part of the clip (00:50-00:59) is the one time in this session she brought the toy partially with her when I encouraged her to come. I can’t tell if I did something differently in this rep than in the other ones or if it was a coincidence.

We’ve also had a session on the bed, and Chai continues predictably gravitating back to it when I’m on it. I’m flashing my hands in target-them-with-the-toy position. She does not target yet but runs towards me/my hands (because I’m on the bed).

Should I keep practicing in both locations or modify something?

June 13, 2023: a blanket target on the roof!

Shade had the great idea to use a blanket as a “target” to run towards on the roof – a stand-in for the bed. It worked like a charm every single time I ran to the blanket. (It’s clearly the blanket, not me. When I tried running somewhere else, she’d still go to the blanket.)

I have a second identical blanket – should I stick to one or try with two?

June 14, 2023: our second session with a blanket target on the roof.

Shade’s input:

“In order to transfer off the mat, we need to have physical signals (hands to target and frontal body position) that happen before she sees the mat.”

My response:

Good point, that makes a lot of sense! In today’s session, I only got the head thrashing movement once. In general, she is letting me lead her more with the toy now that I’m pulling more strongly – rather than pulling back, she’ll often walk with me with her mouth on the toy. I’ve been grabbing the toy to continue tugging as soon as she reaches the mat. I wonder if that’s not the best strategy. Should I only put my hands on the toy when she lets go of it – even if I’ve flashed my target hands at her before? The reason I wonder is that in the last rep of today’s session, she lay down off the mat (right next to it) with the toy rather than coming all the way back to me and the mat. I ended there with a scatter to get Shade’s opinion before I continue.


This was part 1 of our work in Shade’s class (our first 10 videos)! I’ll share the second part soon and link to it here when I do.


(1) In this particular post, “you” never refers to “you, the reader.”

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