Learning from Sharon Nelson

I’ve taken two seminars with Sharon Nelson, founder of NADAC. While I paid close attention, I will point out that this is my representation of what happened at the seminar and that other participants may have seen it differently.

  • Sharon advocates food for training rather than toys. She likes the intimacy of hand-feeding the dog; she feels she can read the dog’s mood and state-of-mind. She wants the dog to take food enthusiastically while still showing enough self-control to avoid biting the hand that’s feeding it. She used a ten-part protocol to teach this hand-feeding. I have always expected my poodles to avoid biting me and have worked a lot with bite inhibition, so I didn’t find it required much training at all to get a dog that was happy to be given food even when excited. (Sharon works with about 200 rescue dogs a year; I expect her experience is quite different!)
  • The three-target game: helping your dog learn to problem-solve. By using one, two, and then three targets, I can help my dog learn to keep working even when she is initially wrong. First, train the dog to go out to one target (not a toy) and touch it. (Praise the dog for moving AWAY from you, not coming back to you.) When the dog does that well, put out a second target (not a toy–something neutral) as well. When the dog goes to the first target, say “oops” or “ick” or whatever works for you, then WAIT. If the dog comes back to you, don’t respond. When the dog finally checks out the second target, praise and RUN TO THE TARGET and celebrate. Practice that a little. Then add a third target and repeat the game. The dog will learn persistence while working at a distance from you. The dog will also learn she doesn’t always need to come to you for a reward.
  • The moving wait: by stopping your dog mid-course, you can both reinforce your start-line wait training and teach the dog to pay attention to directions. I’m not sure why it’s called a “moving wait”–I think a better term might be “mid-course stop-and-wait-for-further-instructions”.
  • In the first seminar, we used a three hoop course to develop this wait. The dog came through the first hoop, then was stopped and told to wait. The handler “danced” with the dog, moving back and forth (top half only, initially (see below), and finally moving sharply toward one of the two hoops (left or right). The dog exploded! My dogs thought this game was great fun–one of them was play-bowing to me as part of it–and really moved out when I finally released them. The take-home part of this was to learn to stop the dog at greater and greater distances. The wait allows you to redirect your dog if necessary AND teaches them to pay attention to your body language. It’s also really fun team-building.
  • In the second seminar, the moving wait was further enhanced by using a PVC “box” on the ground (four PVC pieces in a rectangle, with little 3″ legs, similar to the a-frame box Rachel Sanders has described for her running contact training). You can teach the dog to run into the box and stop or run through the box. Sharon teaches both, using two different commands. The box can thus be used for contact work, distance work, or directional training.
  • As part of “dancing with the dog”, we learned to use the top half our bodies for direction, the lower half for movement, with verbal release and instructions to the dog. What does that mean? Well, your arms, shoulders, and head tell the dog WHERE to go; your bottom half (legs) tells the dog to move or stay still; and your GO/SWITCH/TIGHT/LEFT/RIGHT verbal commands release the dog and reinforce what your top half is saying. In the moving wait game, the dog shouldn’t move until your legs move (and you release her), but the dog’s head should follow what your top half is indicating.
  • On the subject of reinforcement and correction, we were reminded that a dog lives in the current moment. If you correct a dog, the INSTANT it stops doing whatever it was, you praise. (See also the section below on “annoying a dog into correct behavior”.)
  • If the dog is working at a distance and doing well, RUN TO THE DOG TO REWARD THE DOG: don’t call it to you, because then what did you reward? Coming in!
  • Don’t look at the dog while running the course! Look at the path you want the dog to follow and keep your eyes just ahead of the dog. The dog will try to catch up and go faster and faster because they are confident where they are going. We saw dogs go from short-strided collected canters to full-on gallops as their handlers caught on to this. (A corollary to this is: don’t draw the path on the ceiling!)
  • Sharon taught a rather different method of using a clicker to give signals to the dog. She gives a dog a steady click (like a metronome) while the dog is working to signal “you’re on the right track!” (a regular click while coming across the dogwalk, for example), then gives a burst of fast clicks once the dog has been successful (“you’re in the yellow!”). I saw this work very well with several dogs who were inclined to creep down the a-frame. There was a steady metronome of clicks all across the a-frame, and then a burst as the dog arrived in the yellow. This caused the dog to pause, and the handler rushed in to reward. It was very fast and very clear to the dog. (See a-frame analysis, below, for more on the a-frame.)
  • Annoying dogs into good behavior: Sharon is exceedingly good at producing good behavior from dogs.A few examples: If a dog pulls the leash tight, she produces an annoying, fast vibration down the leash; the instant the leash slackens, she stops. This quickly annoyed the dogs into leaving the leash slack. If a dog breaks its start-line stay, she advocates retraining as follows: put the dog in front of a tunnel. If the dog breaks and enters the tunnel, bang on the tunnel with your open hands, fast and noisily. If the dog doesn’t break and only takes the tunnel when told, reward enthusiastically. These methods aren’t punishment, in the sense that they don’t hurt the dog, but it was clear that they annoy the dog mightily. I think of it like annoying my son into cleaning his room. Finally, he sighs and does it.
  • She also used the annoyance method to teach a dog that the crate was a safe and relaxed place by vibrating the leash until the dog entered the crate, then immediately slackening the leash and giving the dog a treat in the crate.When a dog jumped up on her, she picked the dog up with both hands and said it was wonderful, loudly and firmly; after a few times, you could see the dog deciding it wasn’t worth it. Sharon immediately praised and rewarded the dog for staying on all fours.
  • A-frame performance analysis: Sharon discussed possible a-frame performances: running, four-on, two-on-two-off, and four-off-stop. She prefers running and four-on for structural and long-term health reasons. She points out that many dogs have a straight-shouldered stance in the 2-o-2-o position, with their back curved and strained; later, she used Dancer as an example of that stance and suggested I switch to a four-off-stop.
  • How to decide which one is best for your dog? Create a barrier to your dog, like a shift from carpet to wood floor or from inside its crate to outside, so that the dog has to stop on one side and wait for position to come past that point (or use the moving-wait box). Does the dog stop with its nose at the edge (so that it’s using the edge as a visual cue) or its toes at the edge (testing the edge with its feet)? A dog that uses visual cues will stop higher up in the yellow and will just be irritated if asked to come further down. Some dogs have a natural running a-frame; if so, don’t mess with it and don’t bother training a stop. Or train both a stop and a running a-frame so that dog is always ready to stop. (This is where the stop/don’t stop training with the PVC box comes in handy.)
  • Switch command: to teach the switch command, set up a gate and two hoops. The handler has the gate on the left, with the dog between the handler and the gate, nose at the end of the gate. Handler releases the dog, takes a step forward, brings up the outside arm, and turns into the dog. The dog turns around the gate, away from the handler, and immediately goes through a hoop. Handler stays on the same side of the gate, moves forward, and rewards the dog as soon as it has caught up at the end of the gate. Practice this, turning in both directions; add a cue when the dog starts to anticipate.
  • Go (as in go ahead of me down the line of jumps): step 1: practice sending the dog to a target plate. Release the dog with a “go”, pause, then indicate the plate and say “get it!” The goal is have several target plates and the dog goes only to the one you indicate as you say “get it!” Our instructor (we were in groups) met the dog at the plate and rewarded there. Ultimately the goal would be to have multiple plates and the dog ignores the “wrong” plate. Once the dog was confident with the go-pause-get-it! sequence, we moved to step 2: we added in obstacles. I was told quite firmly to stop repeating the “go”, as Dancer was head-checking with every “go”. (This weekend I said “go” just once and watched Dancer take off like lightning. Her speed was the highest it’s ever been, at 5.9 yards/second. )
  • Out (go out to that obstacle): we started this with two parallel tunnels. We ran with the dog down the path slightly closer to one tunnel, then raised one arm to push the dog away  to the tunnel, gradually increasing distance.