E142: Nancy Gagliardi Little - The Handler's Role in Heelwork

E142: Nancy Gagliardi Little - The Handler's Role in Heelwork


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we have Nancy Gagliardi Little back on the podcast. Nancy has been training dogs since the early 1980s, when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then, she has earned multiple championships and advanced titles in obedience, herding, and agility. She's also had dogs that have been nationally ranked in the top three placements in obedience and agility. Her dogs have also had multiple placements in national competitions in those two sports.

Welcome back to the podcast, Nancy!

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Hey Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Excited to chat. To start us out, can you just remind listeners who you are and share a little bit about the dogs you share your life with?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yes. I'm still Nancy Little. I live in Minnesota, and we're coming into the winter timeframe. It's always a big change, and I'm a fair-weather person, so I'm in the wrong state, I think. But I love it here. I love the people here, and I do love the change of seasons. I'm just a freeze baby.

My dogs: I have all Border Collies, and I've had Border Collies for quite a while now, since the mid-'80s, so they're kind of my breed. I have three Border Collies now. I lost one since we spoke last time on the podcast.

But I still have my Score. He's the oldest. He was 15 in September. He's done it all. He was my first dog that I did not do any obedience with. He just was not fond enough of being around other dogs that I never really pursued it with him. As I said, he turned 15, so he's just basically our buddy around the house, and a little bit nervous with this winter coming here, because he is pretty old. But he's a determined guy and so we'll get through it fine.

Lever is the dog I'm currently competing with, and he just turned 6. We're just doing some herding and agility. He finished his MACH last year … or this year, I guess; I don't even remember … earlier this year, I think, and this was the second time he's qualified for AKC Nationals in agility.

Pose is his daughter. She's going to be 2 years old next Sunday. I can't believe that. It's like, where has the time been? We're working on all the things with her. I want to do everything with her, as much as I can juggle things, and having a blast with her. She's really fun.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I invited you on today because I wanted to talk about heelwork. So let's start by just talking about what it is we're looking for. As somebody who was an obedience judge for a long time, what is "necessary" to get a perfect score on the heelwork portion?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: We have two elements: the dog and the handler. Both are going to be a part of the score.

A perfect score for heelwork is … basically the dog and the handler are both going to be judged in that. From the dog, you're going to need decent attention, good attention, and an ability for the dog to maintain heel position. In AKC, heel position is spelled out precisely, so the dog would have to maintain and hold that perfect position all the way through the heeling portion of the exercises.

For the handler, that would probably be more the person responds to the judge's directions and there's smooth transitions between each of the heeling elements. And then there is a handling. That's what we're talking about here. The communication of the handling to the dog is very important so that's clear. All that goes together into a package.

So perfect score would be, from a judge's perspective, their perfect heelwork would be a picture in their head that's going to be different for each particular judge. It's a big subject because every judge is going to have their ideal picture. And it's difficult, so exhibitors that do get that perfect score, those are nice performances.

Melissa Breau: What are the most common ways that teams lose points during heelwork exercises?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: There's handling mistakes that are going to happen, and they're not going to necessarily lose points, but those handling mistakes can confuse the dog and cause errors from the dog, so the dog could be penalized because of something the handler did that caused some confusion. That happens quite often.

For instance, the way a handler executes a halt. That can be confusing to a dog, depending on how they do it. They might slow down a little bit, which might make the dog think they're doing a slow change of pace into the slow, and then when they stop, the dog might stand there for a minute and maybe not sit or sit, and that slowed-down halt that the handler did wouldn't necessarily cause the penalty, but the dog was certainly confused and that would be penalized.

The handler can lose points as well if they don't follow instructions or if they anticipate a command that the judge is giving. I would say, though, that the most common way to lose points from a handler's standpoint is the handler that is adapting to the dog, and that happens a lot. It usually is unintentional. The handler focuses a lot on the dog and adapts their pace to that dog instead of letting that dog do the job that it was trained to do. I think that's the most common thing I've seen happen.

One other common way to lose points from handlers is the handlers that don't move in a predictable manner, like, they're not moving in a straight line and they move away from the dog a bit or they move towards the dog, and that happens quite frequently. Again, that's caused by too much focus on the dog instead of on the handling.

Melissa Breau: When you say they adapt to the dog, can you explain what you mean?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: For instance, when they're walking in a straight line, they might be looking too much at the dog and maybe the dog slows down a little bit, so the handler slows down a little bit.

It's very difficult to maintain heel position for dogs when handlers aren't just moving at a predictable rhythm, tempo, their footfall is in a good beat. Instead, they're too aware of the dog and they end up slowing down, depending on the dog, and the dog is like, "What's going on?"

It's like dancing, in a way. If you have a dancer that is leading — I'm not a dancer, so I'm sorry if I'm not explaining this well; I'm terrible — but if you have a dancer that is very good at leading, then it's easy to follow. But if you have tentative handling, or whatever that's called in dancing, you're going to have a performance that's not so good.

Also adapting on about turns, so that would be another place, too, not just in straight lines. About turn would be a complete turn, so you're moving one direction and you do a 180, a complete turnaround to the right, and you do that in place. That should all be done in a nice beat, no waiting for the dog. You just turn, and the dog should show that they can maintain position while the handler turns. What happens a lot of times is the handler is waiting to see what the dog is doing and going slower, and that can be penalized, that adapting.

It does make it a little bit easier … easier probably isn't the correct word … but it's much easier for a dog to be in heel position when the handler is changing their pace to that dog. So the team that just moves outward, and the dog does their job and the handler does their job, that team should get a better score.

Melissa Breau: I asked about the rules, but obviously the rules and an "ideal" picture in a trainer's mind aren't always the same thing. You mentioned how each judge has their own ideal picture in their head. When you — specifically you — are thinking about that ideal picture, can you describe that for me? What does that perfect picture look like for you?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: There would be two ideal pictures. One would be as a trainer. As a trainer, me, as a trainer, that perfect picture is going to be quite a bit different than as a judge. As a trainer, I'm very picky about the picture for heelwork. Perfect for me, for my dogs, would be when the dog is floating at my side or at the handler's side. Whether I'm talking about my dog or another dog I'm looking at, they're just floating at that side, and it almost looks like the team is physically connected. Wherever the handler goes, that dog moves perfectly in line.

The other piece of that, for me, is that looking at the dog and handler, there's that joy and enthusiasm. To me, that's an important part of heeling. As a judge, however, it would be different. Unfortunately, the obedience organizations here in the U.S., they're not going to penalize the lack of enthusiasm, so you're going to see performances that have high scores where the dog is not showing that enthusiasm.

That, to me, is important. As a judge, you cannot score that. If the dog maintains position, it would be perfect in terms of performance, in terms of scoring. So the ideal picture for me in training is not going to be the same as it would be for me as a judge or a trainer.

Melissa Breau: You talked about heelwork as a dance earlier, that idea of a partnership between a dog and a handler. But I think a lot of people often think about heeling as the dog's job. Can you talk a little more about the role the handler plays?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. It is truly a dance, and when you have a dog that can heel really nicely, it feels so connected. But, to me, both the dog and the handler should have equal roles. The handlers — it's super-important for them to focus on their own execution of handling, and the dog should follow, based on how they were trained.

If the handler pays too much attention to what the dog is doing, then that execution of the handling is going to suffer, and when that handling suffers, so the performance is going to suffer from the dog, because the dog is not going to necessarily know what is happening.

If handling is going to be tentative and too focused on the dog, the dog is going to pick upon that. Denise talks about leadership a lot. It's super-important for heeling to be a leader. You exude this confidence … that's the wrong word … you're displaying confidence to the dog, and the dog picks up on that, and if they're trained to maintain position, they're going to be there for all the moves, even if your handling isn't perfect. If they understand how to maintain heel position, your handling can be flawed slightly and they're going to do their best.

Melissa Breau: I guess you're talking about this idea of … I think you said "confident" wasn't quite the right word … so this idea that you need to act the same way you acted in training, rather than being more hesitant just because you're in the ring. Is that what you're getting at?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yes. It's specifically focusing on execution of your handling and not as concerned about what the dog is doing. So more independence from the handler — handler executes dog, dog follows.

Like you said, it totally is a dance, and I do think it's 50/50. I think if we do our jobs and we've trained the dogs well, then the performance should go fairly well. Obviously, there's going to be mistakes. Dogs get distracted. Handlers get distracted. Things like that can happen. But if both are focused, things should go well.

But if the handler's too focused on the dog, then we have an issue, because you cannot execute the handling when you're too focused on other things, whether it's distractions … well, the dog is a distraction to the handler if they're focused too much on that, so it is just another distraction for them.

Melissa Breau: For those like me, who are fairly novice handlers, what does it mean to handle turns, starts, and stops in heeling? I saw that in your description. I was hoping you could describe it a bit.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. In heeling, there's many different elements. There's turns — you talked about turns — starts, and stops. We have to learn how to handle that appropriately with the dogs so that they pick up on clear communication or a cue. We want the cue to be super-clear so that when the dog sees that, they execute that behavior.

It is important because different heeling elements, the way they're handled by a person, might be confusing, just like any cues. When we teach dogs cues, sometimes we find out later, "Oh, man, the way I'm cuing this particular behavior is similar to the other." And the dogs tell us that.

So that's important that we really look at what is the dog saying. Is something confusing to them? And then we have to make sure that those cues are clear.

For instance, I don't know if I mentioned it before, but the change of pace from slow to normal. I think I mentioned this with the halts previously. When handlers go from a slow to a normal pace, that can be very similar to how a handler stops. The handler starts slowing down first before they actually stop.

The beginning of that slow-down before they stop might look very similar to the slow, and so you might get a mistake from the dog because they're seeing that cue of slowing down and they're not sure what that means quite yet until the handler stops. And so they have to wait to see is the handler continuing to move forward, "Oh, OK, we're still going," or "Oh, the handler stopped." That's a bit of confusion, so we need to make sure that all of those cues are very clear.

In terms of handling turns, stops, and starts in heeling. I think it's super-important to do those in a consistent rhythm. In other words, when I talk about rhythm, that's just the beat that your feet hit the ground. If you go in a consistent rhythm, and you execute those turns, the starts, and the stops, all of those in that same beat, the dogs usually read those perfectly fine. It's when you go out of that rhythm that the dogs are alerted that something's happening, and usually going out of that rhythm means that there's a change of pace, like going into a slow or going into a fast. But staying in a rhythm like that — dogs love that. It's consistent.

It's interesting to me that you picked up on the turns, starts, and stops, because those three things, it's super-important in heeling, and if you watch some of the best handlers out there, they might not even know that that's what they're doing. But you watch them and they are in a beautiful rhythm. I think watching that as a spectator, you feel that rhythm and it's pretty. But that's what the dogs love. They pick up on that. So that tempo creates a consistency to the dog, and predictability, and that's huge for them.

You know, dancing is always in rhythm. It's the same way. It's predictable and precise between movements between partners, and without that rhythm, the dance would be super-disconnected. That's what happens in heeling is without that precise rhythm you can get a big disconnect from the dog, and you might not even know that that's what's happening.

That's one of the big pieces of handling, and I think that's probably one of the things that we focus on at the start to really make sure that everything's built on top of that. It's a big foundation piece of training handling is getting that rhythm from the handler.

So long answer for a short question.

Melissa Breau: Totally cool. You mentioned in the beginning that it's particularly confusing if you're going from normal to slow or a stop is the same. I'm trying to picture how you would stop in rhythm in my head. Can you … it's hard to describe something like that in a verbal way when it's a visual thing, but …

Nancy Gagliardi Little: It's very easy to stop in rhythm. Basically, what you're going to do is you're going to shorten your strides a bit so that your feet can hit the ground in the same beat. As you come to a stop, your feet are going to continue to hit in that same beat by shortening your stride. The same thing when you take off, when you start, if you start with a couple of short steps falling into that rhythm. And that takes practice. We work on that in class is making sure that you can start and you can stop in that beat, and that solves a lot of problems. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Yeah, it actually helps a lot because it helps me picture in my head, so instead of slowing the rhythm or slowing the speed, you're actually shortening your stride as a non-verbal cue for the dog.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right, and the dogs respond to that amazingly well when you insert them.

Melissa Breau: I imagine it takes some practice on the handler's side.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: It does. It totally does. But once that rhythm is there from the handlers, the dogs just love it.

Melissa Breau: We talked about a novice handler. If we're to flip that, and we're talking about maybe a less-novice handler, what are some of the "bad habits" that they fall into that can throw things off?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: The more experienced handlers?

Melissa Breau: Yeah, just somebody who's not a novice. Maybe they've been doing this for a little while. What are some of the bad habits that they fall into that the class can help fix?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I would say that, again, it's too much focus on the dog. It's a distraction, rather than just focusing on the handling itself. I think people in general try too hard. They're trying too hard to make sure that the heeling is perfect. When you do that, you're focusing somewhere else and the dogs sense that — that you are not focused on your handling anymore, like you are in training. So I think probably the biggest thing is where handler focus is. It's just making sure that they're not distracted.

The other thing that happens, I think, for more-experienced handlers, is sometimes the change of paces are not done as well. They don't go into the slow quite as smoothly and maybe they come out too quickly, that kind of thing.

Again, there's lots of things that happen. But overall, whether it's novice handlers or experienced handlers, I think it's the focus — the focus on the handling itself.

Melissa Breau: If a handler is sitting here listening to all this, and they're thinking in their head that "something is definitely off" when it comes to their heelwork, but they aren't sure what, how can they tell if the problem is a training issue, where it's something they need to work on with the dog, or if it's a handling issue, where they just need to get their stuff together a little bit better?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: That is a super-great question. It's not really easy to answer, but I'll give it my best shot. I think if the dog's been taught attention and they can maintain heel position, like I said previously, in lots of places, and then also the same thing when you've got somebody else calling a heeling pattern and that can be a distraction to a person. So if the dog does that well, but they're having issues otherwise, then it probably is a handling issue.

But if the handler's not sure, then I came up with a little checklist. If you're focused on your handling … so number one, are you focused on your handling and not the dog? That's one question. Do you maintain a nice tempo while you're in a normal pace? That's another question. Are you moving in a predictable pattern? Like a straight line, are you moving in straight instead of veering towards the dog or away from the dog? Are you turning in place when you turn around and not stepping into the dog or stepping away? Just looking at those little pieces. If you say no to any of those, then it's probably a handling issue.

But it could still be a training issue too, so that's the tricky part. It could be that maybe your dog needs more training on an about turn. So it's really important to figure out the handling ahead of time, make sure that that looks good.

In agility we do this a lot: we handle without the dogs. We do that a lot. You have walk-throughs to make sure that your handling's in place and you visualize it. I think it's super-important in obedience to do the same thing and make sure that you feel confident on each of the different handling or heeling maneuvers. Are you comfortable with it? Are you doing it in a nice rhythm? Are you turning in place?

I always tell people in my class that when they turn in place on an about turn, make sure that they're in place, just like a cone. A dog can wrap a cone. If you send the dog on a fly, you don't want that cone moving to the right as the dog is going around it. You want to be in that one place that the dog is wrapping.

Those are the kinds of things that you want to look at as you videotape yourself handling without the dog. I would really recommend people do that is do a few about turns, or do a few halts, or do heeling in a straight line, handling in a straight line. Do it, videotape it, see what you think, and see if you are veering towards the dog or away from the dog on a straight line. See if you are turning in place. See if you're keeping a good rhythm. Those are all super-important things to pay attention to.

Then insert the dog and move the dog and see if that looks any different. If all of a sudden your handling starts to change and you look like you're not moving out as fast, then it probably is the handling. If you are moving out fast, moving similar to what you've done without the dog, and the dog isn't maintaining, then it's probably a training issue.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. We've kind of been, for lack of a better word, dancing around the class. I want to talk specifically about it for a minute. Can you describe what it is you'll cover and how the class is structured?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. We're going to cover all elements of heeling, and I've talked a little bit about them throughout the podcast here. We start with rhythm, because I said previously it's very much the foundation to the way I teach handling. Then we work into walking a normal pace, walking a straight line, we work on turns, we work on change of pace, and then the halts, and lastly we pull everything together and work on a figure-eight, which is quite difficult. It's a small space for a lot of heeling. That's the syllabus of the class.

The way it's structured is students are going to do all the homework without the dog. I love to start students with exaggerated handler movement. We'll go through each of those heeling or handling elements. I like to work them so that the handler feels they really have to exaggerate their body movement to become more aware of what their body should be doing.

I feel that's really important because we do that when we train our dogs, like, if you're working on left pivots, you really exaggerate that rear movement so that the dog really knows how to move that rear. Otherwise, you get a little bit and they don't really know.

It's the same thing with people. We want to make sure that for handling to really exaggerate that movement so you become aware of it. Some of the more advanced or experienced handlers have a lot of trouble with that because they're very used to being stiff and still, and I want to get that body moving so that they understand the difference between the upper body and the lower body movement. So I do that exaggeration first to set the ground, and then, as each student becomes comfortable with that, we start to make it a little more subtle so that it starts looking more like handling. If there's any issues, we go back to that exaggerated movement again, and pretty soon the handlers have got that subtle movement.

I don't stop at that. I like to challenge handlers by making it a little more difficult. So with each of the different handling pieces I then challenge the handler on them by making it more difficult and see if they can rise to that occasion, because if they can do that, then when we insert the dog, it's less of a distraction. Sometimes we do insert the dog. If everything's going well and they have a particular issue, we might get around to putting the dogs in as well.

I'll give you an example. I talked about rhythm quite a bit here. It's a big thing for me. We work on a metronome to make sure that people can stay on a good tempo when they walk or they move out. Somebody might be comfortable at 132 beats per minute, but I'm going to keep challenging them and make them, "OK, let's see if you can keep up with 136," and what about 140, or maybe even higher than that. That doesn't mean that that's what they're going to work their dogs at, but if you can maintain a rhythm at a very high rate, then what happens to people is they all of a sudden say, "Well, 132 feels really slow to me. I feel much more comfortable at 136." What it does is it pushes people out of their comfort zone and it allows them to find what's necessary to become a good handler.

I challenge myself all the time too. I'll raise that metronome up to a really high number and see if I can keep the beat. That doesn't mean you're moving faster. It just means you're shortening your stride because you have to hit the ground faster with your feet.

That's one of the things I do with each of the different handling pieces.

Melissa Breau: That sounds kind of fun.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah, it's super-fun.

Melissa Breau: For those listening, this class, Healing Your Heeling Handling, is registering now. It's open for registration until December 15. Is there anything else students should know if they're debating signing up?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: The one thing I want to say is I really want to emphasize that I don't want to change anything that's working. If people are happy with the handling of certain pieces of their heeling, there's no need to change. I'm not trying to shake everything up. But if people have pieces that they feel uncomfortable with, then it might be worthwhile to take a look at the class.

The other thing that I want to mention that I haven't mentioned before is this class is really based … I promote it as … a lot of people struggle with footwork, and that's the whole reason why I developed this class. I had developed this as a class locally, and then I think the history of this is I gave a session at one of the FDSA camps — I think it was the very first one, Ferretpalooza — I gave a session on this and people loved it and they said, "You've got to do a class on this because it really makes sense."

The reason why I developed this … I'm sure other people have done this, but I saw my students struggling with footwork. The judges call a heeling pattern, and what happened to students is they would hear the judge say "About turn," and they would be on the wrong foot, and they'd get all stiff and paralyzed and they couldn't function because the translation from the head, the hearing "About turn," didn't translate well into what the feet were doing. So I wanted a way to get people away from thinking about what their feet are doing to think about how to move better spatially.

In other words, dogs pick up on movement of the handler. They naturally pick up on where the motion is going, which is a very natural thing. They also pick up a lot on upper body movement.

Let's say you're in the house and you're in the hallway and you're walking one direction. You naturally turn … if you think about, "I need to go back to the kitchen to get some water," or whatever … or wine. You're not just going to turn in place. You're probably going to look that direction first with your upper body, and then your feet are going to follow.

Before your feet even move, if your dog sees that your head turn and your shoulders move, they already have switched directions. So it's super-natural for them to do that.

We use that in agility all the time. I wrap that into obedience and get the handler to focus more on that upper body moving first before the lower body moves. What that does is it gives the dog some subtle cues that that's the direction they're going before the feet move, and you can have a beautiful performance because the dogs know seriously where they're going before the feet turn.

That's what I really emphasize in this class is to get away from worrying about what those feet are doing, because you can do just about any turn, and people do so many turns, as long as they're in place and as long as there's forward movement – motion — as long as it's in rhythm, dogs will read it. It's pretty amazing.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a tip or maybe a sneak peek that people can try from the class?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure, and with that question I was actually going to talk about the rhythm part.

What I would suggest is get a metronome out. You can get them as an app on your phone, and that's really nice, and just start moving and trying to follow a rhythm. Start slow and see if you can keep in rhythm. Move in a big circle or move in a straight line and see if you can follow that rhythm, and see if you can start in rhythm, and see if you can stop in that rhythm. The important thing is to feel that rhythm. This is what puts handlers in a zone is really feeling a rhythm.

I don't know, speaking from a handler's standpoint, I had to think about what do I do, because it's really hard to know really what you do when you get into a zone, like, when I would be heeling my dogs, what do I do? If I really thought about it, once I started, I would just get in a certain rhythm with the dog and I would stay in that rhythm. I would stop in the rhythm, start in the rhythm.

One of the tricks in the tips I tell people, it's in the class, is if you can just sit there and move, just step in place like you're marching — this is obviously without the dog — you're marching in place to that beat, see if you can step out in that beat. Start at 128 because that's super-slow, and see if you can work yourself up to 132, maybe even higher. See if you can start and hit that beat right away, and see if you can stop in that beat. That's a super-super-good exercise. And if you can, you'll have beautiful starts and beautiful stops.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I've got one last question that I'm asking all my guests lately: What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: This is always such a hard thing because it's like daily I'm finding something that's really important. But I think, at least today, I'm going to say sharing in the joy with others.

I want people to not be afraid to compliment others when they're struggling, when they have success. When somebody feels excited and you think, "That's not really that exciting," still share in that joy because it's super-important to that person. Sharing in that joy makes a big difference in people, and we want to be surrounding ourselves with happy people.

And I think the reverse is just as important, so if somebody compliments you, make sure to thank them. Many times somebody will compliment us and we'll think, "What were they thinking?" But if you happen to disagree with a compliment, just hold that thought to yourself, because belittling your situation or disagreeing with that person when they made a special effort to tell you they think you did a good job is really unkind to both yourself and that person. That's an important thing. I think we end up being too hard on ourselves sometimes.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Nancy! This has been great.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah, this is fun. It's always fun.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Denise Fenzi to talk about Engagement 2.0 — what's changed and how she's updating things.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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