E239: Nancy Gagliardi Little - "Unstick Your Heeling"

Today we talk heeling with Nancy Gagliardi Little — where people tend to get stuck, why, and how to get back on track and keep moving forward!  


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 I have Nancy Gagliardi Little here to talk about all things heeling.

Hi Nancy, welcome back to the podcast!

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Hey Melissa, how are you?

Melissa Breau: Good. How are you?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I'm doing great, thanks.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To start us out, do you want to talk a little about you, a little about your dogs?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. I can talk about both of us. I live in Minnesota, and we're going through a beautiful time of year. It's wild up here, beautiful weather, no bugs, and lots of opportunities to train outdoors.

I used to be an obedience judge. That was in my previous life. Really enjoyed it, but as I got more involved in herding and agility, I wanted more time with my dogs and less travel. I got burned out on travel.

I compete in agility, and I train in obedience and love it, and we do herding as well with the Border Collies.

My dogs, I have Lever, he's 8 years old, Border Collie, and we do herding, agility, and obedience. He hasn't really done much heeling until recently, because before I lost Schema, I was working her. I have a tendency to focus on one dog at a time when it comes to obedience and heeling. But when I lost her, I really started missing working the precision part of heeling and obedience, and so I started working Lever, and we're really enjoying it together. We do a lot of herding in the summer. And of course agility is my primary sport. That's all for him.

Pose is his daughter. She's 3 years old, another Border Collie, and don't really have time to do any obedience with her, although she knows the basics. She basically does herding and agility.

And then I have Differ, and she's a Chihuahua/Poodle mixey-mix. She's 9 pounds of pure fun. I truly enjoy working her. She makes me smile when I train and compete with her. She was a foster at 4 months old when the pandemic started, and she never left my house. She's got great foundation skills and she's mostly doing agility now, but I have to admit I've been really thinking about introducing more obedience skills with her, including heeling, because I think it would be very interesting for me to learn more about teaching small dogs to heel. I've already learned a lot from small dogs, and even lining her up and doing pivots is so different than the big dogs.

We also have a couple of cats, and my husband has a Toller, so that's our household.

Melissa Breau: That's the crew.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: It's the crew.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned heeling, and that is what I wanted to talk about today. I know you're teaching a new heeling class in October, and I want to talk a little bit about it today. I know heeling can often be a really fraught skill for handlers. We get in our own heads a little bit about it. I thought we'd start there. Why do you think that is? Why is it a hard thing?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Heeling is very hard, and that's why for many of us it's kind of addicting. It's so complex, lots of moving parts, lots and lots of moving parts. It's precise, lots of precision, and so you've got to enjoy that. And then to maintain that precision, you've got to have a way to reinforce the dog that keeps that precision there. And because the dogs change constantly because we're moving, you might have to tweak that. Things just bounce around a lot with heeling.

The problem is that obedience trainers have a hard time really knowing how to break things down, and that actually becomes problematic for heeling, because like I said, there's a lot of moving parts. Part of the issue with learning how to break things down is … I don't want to say I blame … okay, I'll say it … I blame the way the AKC and many of the other organizations in obedience are set up, especially AKC. I'm more knowledgeable about AKC. I've said this before: It's just the way the entry-level classes are set up. They don't promote smart training, I'll call it. I haven't seen all of the rules for different organizations, but I have yet to see an order of exercises that makes sense to me as an entry-level class. There's no other dog sport that I can think of that has such a difficult start in the entry classes as the obedience does.

Every other sport I know has entry-level classes that allow more mistakes, and they build more complex handling as the dogs advance through the classes. And then we have AKC Novice that has twice the amount of heeling at the entry-level class in Novice, and it's judged exactly the same way as Open B in Utility Heeling. There's nothing different about the way it's supposed to be judged. So I do think that organizations like AKC could provide a better opportunity for trainers to get in the ring and get their feet wet and get excited about training by having the different formats. I think that's one of the biggest things. The Fenzi Team Program is really built upon that premise, where it promotes that building block foundation. And we could do that with the right classes.

I've toyed with the other thing that makes it difficult. I have been thinking about this a lot, and I'm not sure exactly how to put it in words, but for some reason, duration behaviors and heeling are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Where duration is all about being very still in mind — mostly mind; the body follows the mind — and that's one end of the spectrum or the scale, and then on the opposite we have a lot of movement, but not just mindless movement. It's very precise movement. So we have both ends of the spectrum, and I think because they're both at opposite ends, they're both very difficult for new exhibitors, average trainers, and maybe people who have a completely different dog than they've trained before.

So those are my thoughts. It's like a big bubble of thoughts.

Melissa Breau: Lots of them, yeah, but it's a good thing. Knowing it's something that's fraught for folks, I thought we could talk about some of the tools or some of the skills that you think it's helpful to have onboard when you're teaching heeling.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: When I went through the skills and I looked at them, it was interesting to me because all of them, except for maybe some of the handling, are skills that I feel are essential for training anything.

Number one is, I think a ready-to-work procedure is critical to know for over facing these dogs. Even the most experienced trainers — we watch our dogs and we can see subtle signs in them that they're distracted. However, until you start doing some of these procedures, it really gives you insight into what's going on with them before we start work. I think when you're dealing with any kind of training, but especially heeling, which is very expensive for the dog, I think it's critical to be at least understanding of what is going on at this time, whether in their environment or whatever. Maybe they're not feeling up to it. So that's critical.

Event markers — I think that at minimum a clicker or a mouth click or some way to tell the dog that they are correct and that's the behavior we're reinforcing. To me, whenever we're dealing with an extremely precise skill such as heeling, that is a critical skill, and so I'm very big on ensuring that people have good timing before we start reinforcing behavior, because sometimes you start bringing in things that you don't really want into heeling, and now you have a problem. Along with that, just clear communication.

The other thing that's important in heeling, because it's precise, is that we have a reinforcement procedure that is going to work well to keep our dog in the right heel position, and it's going to vary from dog to dog. I group dogs in a couple of different buckets, we'll call them, and I know there's more than that, but workaholic dogs tend to forge a little bit, the position is always ahead, they like movement, they can be very reinforced by movement. Those dogs I would reinforce much differently than the other dogs that I'll call a little more careful, a little more cautious. They're going to think about things a little bit more, and it's very hard for them to just blast into something. Some dogs are going to gravitate between one and the other, even. So you have to be prepared, whatever you have going with a particular dog, that you're reinforcing it in the right place.

The other thing that I really feel strongly about is keeping bite-size training, training sessions that are clean. What most people call a clean loop is really thinking about what you're going to do and how you're going to train certain skills, so that you can keep the dog from wandering or questioning what's next, keep them engaged, and that's going to feel so much better for both you and your dog. And the session is going to go much quicker, which is great for both. So clean loops and eliminating unwanted behaviors is another one.

The one thing I really use a lot with my dogs and my students' dogs are left pivots. I use them a lot in heeling. Especially for the dogs that tend to forge more and like to move, there will be a long time where I'll do heeling without any right or about turns or even much straight lines. Mostly left pivots — 360 left pivots, 180 left pivots, and the dogs love it. You wouldn't think so, but they do, and it helps heel positions. And even for the dogs that are a little more careful, they kind of like that stillness because you're not moving forward at that point. So left pivots are big with me.

Default eye contact — I really want the dogs, even though I don't necessarily want my dogs to be watching my eyes, the default eye contact tells me the dog is ready. This is mostly out of heel position. It's teaching the dog to engage, so I need to know that. And then sustained attention, so that I know my dog can pay attention a little bit longer.

Those are the things that I actually, when I looked at my list, was like, "That's stuff I would use, maybe not for left pivots, yes for left pivots. I use that even in agility for setups." All of those things I just mentioned previously I would use for any training skill.

The other thing that doesn't apply to every other training area would be just handler practicing heeling skills without your dog, which I think is really critical. Mostly that involves teaching handlers to stay in a rhythm or tempo, which helps the dogs incredibly. Dogs really like rhythm and tempo and the movement in that. Predictable tempo helps them stay engaged.

Those are the basic things for me.

Melissa Breau: The big things.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: The big things, yes. All the rest of the stuff we can fill in.

Melissa Breau: I know there can be quite a bit of variety out there in terms of what people are looking for as that "final picture," so I wanted to talk about that a little bit. What factors should handlers consider when they're trying to determine what they want that final picture to look like for their specific dog, and what are some of the options? What is it that they're actually deciding between? We all know that it's super-important to have that final picture in mind when you're training.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Definitely it's going to vary. For one thing, each organization is going to have requirements and descriptions of what heeling means, whether it's protection sports or competition obedience. There's all kinds of different organizations in the U.S., and there's different organizations overseas. They all are going to look a little bit different.

There's freestyle, which is basically creative. You can pretty much put a dog in any position, but you just have to know where you want them. If you're consistent with where you want them, then that's the most important thing.

The other thing I thought about too is … this wouldn't apply to my class so much, but it does apply to your question, and that is, there are places for heeling where you don't really want your dogs to focus on you.

That would be going to the line for a sporting dog that you're going to send out on a retrieve or flush or whatever they do. Pretty much you're going to be moving in a straight line and heeling. There is an organization called NAVHDA that judges heeling, so I know that it is judged. I believe it's penalized, I'm not really sure, but the dogs need to be looking ahead, so that would be a totally different picture.

Herding would be the same thing. Going to the posts you would want the dogs to move with you in whatever position you care about. And they should also be focused ahead and not on you. I definitely not prefer my dogs looking at me going to the post.

But most of the obedience organizations in the U.S., the dog is going to be positioned at the left side, and like I said, there's lots of different ways of explaining it. AKC has a range of where you want the dog to be, but what I simplify it for most people is I just tell them that a good place for the dog to be would be at the left side. If you think about a line from your hip going straight down to the ground, the dog's ear should be in that area. Maybe a little bit ahead or in that area, depending on the dog. That's a general good way of looking at it, but there is ranges there.

And then we have to decide whether you want … preferably for most obedience competitors, we want our dogs to be focused upward a little bit because there are turns involved in heeling. Turning to the right is fairly simple for most dogs because they're on their front end, but if you're turning to the left, you're going to be moving into their space. So it's important that they have some type of upward focus, so that's a decision to make as to where you want your dog to watch.

The way I love to teach it is that I really like the dogs to figure out where it feels best to watch, because some of the little dogs cannot see your eyes, and if they look up to your eyes, they're going to be out of position, they're going to be wide, they're going to come ahead. I know my Border Collies, if I taught them to watch my eyes, I would have a lot of forging issues just because that's what they would gravitate to, no matter what I did. That's just in them. And I've tried that. So 20:01 out there, I know there's a lot of successful competitors out there that teach their dogs to watch their eyes, but they have to be a large enough dog, and you've got to be a really good handler so that you can actually walk a straight line. Most of the average handlers can't do that.

The other piece to this I find with average dog trainers and handlers is that if you have nerves at all when you're watching your dog, the dogs see right into your soul, and they might respond to seeing a little bit of panic in your eyes when they make a minor mistake.

The last thing about looking into the eyes, and that's a judgment, that's a decision by handlers they have to make. The other thing is if you are feeling like you have to watch your dog's eyes, you have to have a plan for what happens if your dog moves out of position. If they move ahead, are you going to look into their eyes and what does that mean to the dog? If they fall behind, are you going to turn back and look at them? If you do that, that's putting a lot of pressure back on those careful dogs, and they're going to probably respond by being more careful and maybe slowing down and stopping. Those are things we have to think about with eye contact. Those are really the only things I could think about. It's the position, where you want your dog's focus in order to get that precision. Those are the decisions you have to make.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the rules. Let's talk about the rules for a second. I know the answer is going to vary, depending on the organization, but can you talk a little more in terms of the organizations you're each familiar with on what the actual rules are for what a dog has to do while heeling to pass the exercise?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. I have competed in UKC, CKC, which is Canada, AKC, and ASCA. We have CDSP around here, and I have students that trial in CDSP, but I have to admit I don't really know the rules.

Coming from an AKC background, and I think the other organizations I mentioned are very similar to AKC, there's usually minor insubstantial deductions that are taken in heeling, and there is plenty of both of those. I'll just go over the more common ones. And by the way, the handler can be penalized as well as the dog. Some sports handling isn't penalized as much, like in agility, unless the handler does something, you're not penalized at all. It's basically watching the dog.

So minor deductions would be like half a point to two points. That's the range for AKC. Two-and-a-half would actually be. It would be things like bumping or crowding or lagging, forging, poor sits in heel position. Those are just the most common.

Substantial points would be like forging is a little more dramatic, lagging is a little more intense. It might be an extra command from the handler. Actually most handler errors in heeling are going to be substantial errors. Also a no sit would be a substantial error. Those are just the most common.

There's 40 points in heeling in AKC. I'm not a hundred percent sure what it is in the other organizations, but it's somewhere probably between 30 and 40 points. In AKC, in order to pass heeling, you have to get more than 50 percent of the points in that exercise.

Melissa Breau: So 21?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Twenty-one, yeah, and that would be just to pass heeling.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. I didn't actually realize that you could lose that way. I thought it went higher than that. Fifty percent is fairly reasonable.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah, and that's when there's lots of mistakes. That's where the mistakes usually happen is in the heeling. In novice you have two 40-point heeling exercises.

Melissa Breau: Wow. I know your class is really focusing on folks who get "stuck." What are some of the common places that handlers get "stuck" when teaching heeling? If you can talk us through an example, and how you'd handle it?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: My class is going to deal with dogs that are already heeling or having some heeling training in them. The most common areas — there's a lot of areas, but there are definitely some common areas that people get stuck in, and one of the biggest ones is reducing reinforcement. That's huge, and that goes hand-in-hand with duration, they're kind of the same thing.

Maintaining a consistent position — there's plenty of people that deal with lagging or forging with their dogs. Then there's the issue with handlers not being able to keep … their dogs train great at home, but once they go somewhere else, they don't act the same. I call that "maintaining a consistent performance everywhere." Another big one is handler confidence.

I have many other areas as well, but these are the really big ones. They're actually all related to each other in different ways too, so sometimes it's just a matter of looking at one that's bugging you the most and just diving in, and sometimes that solves the other issues.

In terms of taking an example, it is hard to take one example, because there's so many examples within them. If you look at handler confidence, it's really big, and I find that the more I work with people, the bigger that is. Part of me thinks that we could solve the handler confidence better. We talk about mindset training a lot, and that's important, but it's also important for handlers to believe that they can train these behaviors. I think there's so much doubt in them as to how to progress and how to train to that level and what to do that I think that confidence just gets shot. So part of it, with the handler confidence and focusing on that, is diving in and taking some pieces that are a little bit easier for the dog and the handler as a concept, and moving that around and trying to deal with that in many different ways to challenge the handler and how they respond to things. That's a big piece of the puzzle is that I think as handlers we get comfortable with what's going on, and it's easy to feel uncomfortable and move back to that comfortable state again quickly.

The obedience competitors have a tougher time handling things that don't involve patterns. The sport is pretty much built around patterns. I'm not a hundred percent sure of all sports, but I do know about agility and herding, and I'm sure many sports are the same way, as there may not be a pattern, but there's way too many factors for there to be a pattern you can depend on.

For instance, in agility, once you release your dog at the start line, there really is no pattern. It changes day to day. Even if you watch every dog and handler on a course, which can be 300, you're going to see nothing that is the same. It just can't possibly be, because each dog is different, each handler is different, and the handling decisions are different as well.

Where in obedience, everything is the same. It's the same pattern, and the dogs, the handlers, all look the same, really, in terms of what they're doing. They may respond slightly different, and I think that mentally gets in our way as obedience exhibitors, and we're thinking about training in terms of patterns I think that is an excellent way to start, but we have to get to the point where we're allowing messy training to happen, and learning how to handle that and let it go, because obedience people can't let it go. They want to dive in and make it better right away.

I think part of this training is teaching handlers to let it go, move on, because if you look at the way obedience works in the ring, when there's mistakes or responses from the dogs that are incorrect that's going to cause an NQ, the majority of the time there is a look on the handler's face … I'm trying to find the right words. The handlers aren't used to NQing. They're not used to failing. There's a much higher percentage Q rate there. So what is considered perfection there? Is it the perfect qualifying score? Or is it the dog's enthusiasm and how we feel an engage together in the ring? There's a concept there that I think as the sport is so patterned, we need to look at that more, and I'm trying to do that in this class, too, is teach handlers how to set up sessions to work that piece where it's going to be a little bit messy and you just let it go. I think that's super-important. I do that with my agility students as well, and it works a little bit different, but I think it's super-important in obedience. I don't know if that makes sense or not.

Melissa Breau: Yes, absolutely. That said, I know you're not the only heeling class on the schedule this term, so I want to talk about who's a good fit for your class, versus who might want to consider Nicole's class I think is the other option. Do you want to share a little bit on who should fit into each?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: My class, you would definitely want to have some heeling training on your dogs. You want to make sure that you're not starting from the ground up. Nicole's class, I believe, is starting dogs that don't really know how to heel from the ground up. So I think the two classes really complement each other. Basically, if you're not a good fit for my class, then you might be a good fit for Nicole's. I think most of my course is going to be a little bit more on concepts, and it's very heavy on information. It does have skills, and I do help people with skills, because there is going to be things that are showstoppers for people. But Nicole's class is going to be a lot more skill-based. Mine is a lot more concept-based. It's going to be hopefully helping people think about teaching and training and heeling a little bit differently.

Melissa Breau: To round things out with one last question, if we were to take the conversation we had today on heelwork and drill it down into one key piece of information or one takeaway you really want listeners to understand or walk away with, what would that be?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: This is such a hard question, but most of the training that's involved for competing in dog sports involves training, handling, and concepts at a much higher level that what's typical in that sport. I really want obedience people to make a shift in the way we think about training and competing in that aspect, in that sense. I want them to think about going through a process where things don't always necessarily go well, but you can still handle it in a nice, smooth fashion, and somebody might be watching you outside the ring and won't even realize that anything happened, just by the way you acted. We need to learn how to keep going and let things go, and make sure that we understand how to handle messy training sessions and things that will happen in trials to be messy.

And so to me, that piece is missing. That's the most important piece that I want to convey to obedience competitors. It's just really different for our dogs. Because we don't know how to do that, it creates a lot of anxiety in the handlers, and I think that is a showstopper in obedience. And then the bite-size training. I really want people to think about doing that "less is more" and really focusing on specific skills instead of this massive lumping of formality that we do that becomes boring for us. It's important for us to be inspired, because our dogs certainly aren't going to be inspired if we aren't. I think that probably sums it up.

Melissa Breau: Two takeaways.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Two takeaways. It's always hard to drill down.

Melissa Breau: Always, for sure. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Nancy.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: You bet. Fun.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!

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!


 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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