Nick White shares his training methods, fit for celebrity pups
By Joseph Grammer
Nick White started Off-Leash K9 in Woodbridge, VA, in March 2010. Now he has over 80 locations and 250 trainers all across the country. He is also part of the Prince William Humane Society. NOVADog Magazine checked in with Nick to see how he achieved his high-level expertise.
Why is it important to train without a leash?
You see these dog owners with three or four kids. Their dogs pop their collars off, slide them over their heads, and then take off. We hear about scenarios like this so many times. Maybe you see a 140-lb Rottweiler or Pitbull with a 110-lb woman walking him, and she can’t hold on. The dog can take off if he really wants to.
Training without a leash is 100% about the dog’s survival. It’s more about that than about obedience and chewing and stuff. It helps prevent dogs from getting killed or lost or taking off into the woods.
For example, Max Scherxer is gone on the road a lot, and he has four dogs. If one takes off, she could end up all over downtown DC.
I always hear, “How do we get dogs out of shelters?” The answer is training. That’s what keeps people from giving up and taking their dog to a shelter. The level of training helps survival in this way—and it helps make happy homes.
Why do you specialize in e-collar training?
It’s the most reliable. Our first day, the dog will be running around like a madman. After three days with an e-collar, I can have him Off-Leash heeling on Santa Monica Pier.
When it comes to treat training, a dog is going to want that squirrel he sees in the tree more than your treat. Treats are great for teaching dogs, but not as good for reliabiltiy and consistency, or emergency situations.
Every day we hear messages like, “My dog can sit, but I can’t bring him around a lot of people. He’d be gone in a second.” The e-collar is the way to go for correcting things like this.
What was it like for you growing up with dogs?
We had a stereotypical dog, a Sherpherd mix. His name was Deputy. He was my responsibility: my parents actually stuck to that, since my dad was in law enforcement. That was unfortunate for me at the time, but now it’s really helpful.
I took on the role of caretaker for the dog—there was no way out of it. So I figured, I’ll make the best out of this. I would get home from school and then work on stuff with him, teach him tricks.
Funny thing is, knowing what I know now, I did a horrible job training him back then as a 12-year-old kid. But still, I could get him to come, sit down, shake. I could have him fetch different things by name: a blanket, a football. I’d train with him so much, I’d go through a huge pack of treats in a few days. All the time I’d be saying, “Deputy needs more treats!”
Now I have a Belgian Malinois, a stereotypical police dog named Duke.
What are common issues people have with their dogs when you’re training them?
Obedience in general: maybe the dog won’t come. Heeling is one of the biggest things, dogs pulling on their leashes. Sometimes it’s aggression issues, so I make them less reactive. Other dogs get overexcited and don’t listen. I end up doing a lot of distraction work.
Door manners are huge, too, if the dog tries to run out every time you leave or come home. By the end of three days, I can have the dog stay in an open doorway while I drive three miles away. When I come back, he’s still waiting there in the door until I release him.
What’s your process like?
I start off just playing with the dog. That way he sees that I’m fun. Consider the dog’s point of view: this stranger just shows up in his house, so he’s not sure about me. Playing helps make that inroad. When you have that relationship, when they like you, they want to listen. Imagine you’ve been chilling at your house for three or four years, and then a drill instructor comes in and yells at you. Would you want that? No. So I play with them.
Of course, I always give 100%. Most times it’s 10 hours a day. I also research and read and study at night, so I’m always learning. When I’m training in a private session, I usually have 80 hours with the dog, which is six days. I’ll stay with the dog the whole time, too. If I’m traveling to one of those private sessions, I can bring the dog to an Airbnb, or if the person is local I can bring the dog to my house. I’ve traveled to train Ryan Reynolds’ and Jake Gyllenhaal’s dogs.
I have an obsessive work ethic, so I’ll be Off-Leash heeling through downtown Hollywood Boulevard on Day 3. Then if I notice the dog is too far away from me while we’re doing it, I go work on that. We go over commands literally hundreds of times.
Right now I’m in LA training Nancy Cartwright’s English Golden Retriever Finn. [Nancy was the voice of Bart Simpson on The Simpsons.] So Day 1 with Finn, the pedometer said we did over 7.4 miles. On Day 5, we covered 6.4 miles. By Day 7, the dog is 98% solid. He’s very rarely messing up or getting up before I release. I feel confident at this point that the owner can Off-Leash heel him in her neighborhood.
The dogs are always so done at the end of a day with me. I send the owner a picture at like 5 pm, and the dog is passed out, literally snoring. Before the owner would tell me, “He’s got so much energy!” With me, though, the training is twofold: the dogs are getting mental and physical stimulation. He’ll walk 7+ miles a day while also learning, processing, taking new stuff in.
If you give your dog a job to do, he won’t use his pent-up energy to eat the couch. I tell owners to try and do 45 minutes a day of mental and physical stimulation. Obedience training combines these two, and so does detection and tracking work.
Detection is more mental, though. You’re searching vehicles, running around buildings looking for suitcases. When the dog smells drugs, or a bomb, he drops into a sit. Or he walks way if there’s nothing. People don’t realize that when a dog is sniffing for cocaine or marijuana, he’s also smelling plastic, rubber, oil, fabric, that Red Bull can, cigarettes, ashes—all that.
You might walk into a room and smell stew, and you think, “That smells good.” A dog walks in and thinks, “This chicken smells good, and so does the paprika, onion, oregano, sea salt.” He smells every element of it.
With detection work, we train dogs on 9-14 odors at once. They’re all in one little box, and the dog has to learn them all and then drop into a sit at the right one.
Tracking is the most fun when you’re in the middle of woods searching for a “bad guy.” It’s cool to see the dog processing and learning out there. The dog is discounting thousands of odors and focusing on one specific one. I tell the dog search and he runs off, and it looks easy. But to focus on one scent from three hours ago is so hard—people don’t appreciate it.
Sometimes training is tough. For Finn I flew from VA to CA, and I was jetlagged the first couple of days. I slept badly, had a headache. But the dog doesn’t care. I don’t give the dog any less just because I’m tired. The biggest thing to remember is that you chose to train that dog; that dog did not choose to train you.
How is it dealing with humans and changing their behavior?
It’s easier to fix a dog than a person. The great thing is that I’m direct. I’ll say, “No, that’s wrong.” Even with Nancy Cartwright and Ryan Reynolds, I’m direct at the beginning. I tell them, “You’re paying money for this, so I don’t want to waste your time.”
And with my two-week program, I ofter free refreshers for life, so if your dog’s leash heeling goes down, you can meet with a trainer for an hour and go over it. And how that hour generally breaks down is that I spend 10 minutes fixing the dog, and 50 minutes fixing the human and showing him what he did wrong. It’s never the dog’s fault.
The best thank you I can get is for an owner to keep up the training with his or her dog.
What was it like working with some of the Nationals players?
My trainer Joe and I each handled two of Max Scherzer’s dogs. In the begnning they were super skittish, super nervous. You watch the before and after, and you see me go to pet them and they run away. But after five days I’m heeling them, no problem. They’re all really good dogs. They took to the training really quickly, even the fire hydrant place, which is when they go to the hydrant and put their paws on it and stay there until release. But Max has made them even better than when we finished training them. I respect that a lot because I know he’s so busy.
Jayson Werth has this German Shorthair Pointer named Gunner, who’s really good as well. By the end we had him Off-Leash heeling in Dulles Airport. And Gio González’s dog Stitch is a French Bulldog. I was working with him in the middle of July, so he couldn’t be outside for very long without gasping and getting tired out. We had to adapt and do things indoors. Each dog is different, so I’ll work with him to do what’s best.
Who do you hope to work with in the future?
Any President’s dog, any First Family dog. That’s when you’re like, “You’ve made it.”
What’s the coolest skill you’ve taught a dog?
I did a private training with one of the Gracies in California [one of the world’s top Brazilian jiu-jitsu families]. We worked with the dog on all these different punches and blocks. We had him jump on my back. He was the first dog in the world to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Honestly, a dog is smart enough to do anything that you’re smart enough to teach him. If you can break it down so the dog understands it, he can do it. I mean, I’ve taught shelter dogs to drive a car and press down on the gas pedal.
Nick White is the founder of Off-Leash K9 Training. http://www.offleashk9training.com/
Joseph Grammer is Managing Editor for NOVADog Magazine. He lives in Alexandria, VA, but grew up in New Jersey with a bunch of adopted dogs, including a mutt (Blizzard) who he found on the street.