Nina works through Comfort Hill Kennel in Vergennes, Vermont. She explains that her KPA experience encouraged her to think creatively, which has given her professional work a real boost. Problem-solving for clients requires creativity; “nothing is one-size-fits-all across dogs, families, and individual people.” Nina believes that it is important to meet learners “where they are, and with kindness and compassion.” She loves “Ah-ha!” moments when teams make a connection, using a clicker to mark a behavior that has been a struggle. “Sometimes the behavior is a complex Rally move, sometimes a basic sit in a puppy class, but it’s like a light comes on.” These moments always bring Nina joy.
Explaining that she first became involved with dog sports with her boxer puppy, Jack Daniel, Nina says that she had “great coaches, trainers, and mentors early on who encouraged positive reinforcement.” Jack Daniel had high energy and was very smart. It was soon apparent that physical exercise would not be enough for him, but that he would thrive with mental challenges. While Jack Daniel started out as a reactive dog, “with kindness and lots of training he went on to earn two Agility Championships and run at two AKC national competitions and five Westminster Masters Agility Championships!” Nina believes that building relationship depth and connectedness with a dog when you work and train together for an Obedience or Agility competition is an amazing process. She also enjoys trick training as a playful outlet. “Shaping a variety of odd behaviors is a wonderful way to communicate with your dog and learn about each other.”
Long before the AKC offered trick titles, Nina would post videos of tricks skills on social media. She and Jack Daniel were noticed and signed by NYC animal-talent agency All Creatures Great and Small in 2016. “Keeping your dog engaged, happy, and ready to work for an 8-hour day is a real challenge,” shares Nina. “Using play, food, love, and joy is what works.” Nina describes the detailed expectations for this kind of work, explaining that “every new job is in a new studio, with new sounds, new smells, and brand-new proofed behaviors that, most of the time, must be taught to full fluency.” Off-leash work is required, both inside and outside, and with people and animals that are strangers. According to Nina, “a happy and confident dog is a must,” and the handler must be the dog’s strong advocate. She believes that clicker training has enabled her to train the client-defined, specific behaviors for each job… and to ensure that the dog is happy. While the talent arena is an unusual environment, Nina believes that the same principles work all over. “It’s all just behavior.”
Of note, Jack Daniel is the only dog to star in two Super Bowl ads (in 2016 for Vince Camuto shoes and in 2017 for Intel with Tom Brady)! He appeared in more than 25 TV and internet ads throughout his life. Sadly, Jack Daniel died in early 2022. Missing him deeply, Nina shared what she misses most about him: “He was truly my teacher, an assistant in puppy classes, a gentle therapy dog to shy dogs, and a calm neutral decoy to reactive dogs in recovery.”
Nina has worked in the talent industry and dog sports with other dogs as well. Brando and Carma have passed away, but Blanche and Rin work and play with Nina today. They are assistants and demo dogs in Nina’s classes, acting as neutral decoys in reactive rehabilitation work. Blanche's first talent job, at 11 weeks old, was for Vanity Fair with supermodel Gigi Hadid! “Intense work/play builds a magical bond like no other,” says Nina. “Communicating from a place of mutual respect and kindness has beautiful results.” Nina and her pups spend lots of unstructured time together, too. “We love just running around on our secluded Vermont mountainside property nosing about doing nothing.”
Both professionally and personally Nina utilizes what she learned from her KPA experience to “look at where people are coming from and meet them where they are with empathy.” When someone makes a mistake, Nina tries to take punitive blame out of the experience. Instead, she asks, “how can I help you so that you can do better in the future?” and focuses on effective problem-solving.
While she prefers in-person learning to online learning, Nina has found YouTube videos and assorted podcasts to be wonderful resources. She is a fan of Hannah Branigan’s podcast Drinking from the Toilet. Nina holds AKC ACT, CGC, and Trick Dog Evaluator credentials and is working toward CCUI (Certified Control Unleashed Instructor) certification with Leslie McDevitt. She will be attending ClickerExpo Washington, DC, in 2023.
Nina’s overarching goal is for pet-dog guardians to use clicker/marker training to build better-quality relationships with the everyday dogs they live with. Her philosophy is that the clicker is like a Rosetta stone for communication between species. “I want the dogs in our lives to have richer and more loving lives with their humans.”