Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 4 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Dec 8, 2017


Nancy Gagliardi Little comes back on the podcast — Nancy has been training dogs since the early 1980's when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then she has put many advanced obedience titles on her dogs, including 4 AKC OTCH titles, 6 UD titles, 3 UDX titles, and multiple championships in herding and agility. Today, she joins me to talk startline stays in agility.


Next Episode: 

To be released 12/15/2017, featuring Mariah Hinds. We'll be chatting about proofing and building reliably, ring-ready behaviors!


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 1980's when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then she has put many advanced obedience titles on her dogs, including 4 AKC OTCH titles, 6 UD titles, 3 UDX titles, and multiple championships in herding and agility.

Welcome back to the podcast, Nancy!

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

Melissa Breau: The last time we talked a little bit about obedience. Today we’re talking a little bit about agility. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners who you are and share a little about the dogs you share your life with?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. Who I am … I guess I’m still discovering that, but I live in Minnesota, about 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities, and I compete mostly in agility, AKC mostly, but also USDAA and UKI. I still train my dogs in obedience, I just don’t compete in obedience anymore. I have aspirations of doing that again, but we’ll see. I teach agility and obedience online classes with FDSA, and I teach agility and obedience lessons and classes at a local center here in Minnesota. I did judge obedience, AKC obedience, for about twenty years, and I judged around the country in all classes and also in some national events. So that’s about me.

And then my dogs. I’ve had border collies since the mid-’80s, and I love everything about the breed, including their quirkiness and their sensitivity. My dogs are Score, a border collie, 13. He’s retired, obviously. He did agility and herding. And Schema is 9 years old. She’s currently my competition dog doing agility. She is competing at AKC Nationals this year in 2018, and I think that’s the fifth time she’s qualified. She’s also competed at Cynosport. And then I have Lever. He’s 4, and he is competing in agility. I train him and Schema too, both in obedience. He’s kind of the up-and-coming guy, I guess. And then my husband has a toller and his name is Rugby. He’s 2, and he trains in agility and obedience.

Melissa Breau: That’s your crew, and we were talking a little bit before I hit “record” that hopefully there’ll be one more joining the family early next year, right?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Correct. I think they’re supposed to be born in early December. It’s one of Lever’s puppies.

Melissa Breau: I look forward to lots of puppy pictures.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah. That will be exciting.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned in the intro that last time you were on we really talked obedience, but today we’re going to talk agility, so specifically we’re diving into start line stays. So, I wanted to start with how they’re different from a stay in any other sport, something like obedience, for example.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: They are quite a bit different in the agility environment. Agility is very high-energy, and the environment itself is fairly unpredictable, and that makes for difficult conditions for dogs that are trying to perform these skills that they learned at home and in class, especially the start lines. That’s kind of the transitional exercise into the course. And then of course most dogs love agility, and it’s pretty reinforcing for them to go. In obedience the stays are very predictable, well, in actually all the exercises are fairly predictable. They’re patterns. Dogs learn those patterns, and that gives them pretty clear information when exercises start and end. Even in obedience, dogs can make mistakes. They might read a pattern and anticipate the finish of an exercise, especially the stay, and it’s probably just when the judge says, “Exercise finished,” so they’re pretty much done anyway. So it’s just much more predictable.

Melissa Breau: Why is it so important that people actually have a good start line stay in agility? What benefits does it offer if they put in the work and they get there?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Well, agility is pretty much all about speed, and most people have dogs that are much faster than they can run. I know I do, and most of the people do, and if they don’t, they want that. Being able to lead out gives you an advantage, especially with a fast dog, and actually on many courses it can be difficult to start without a lead out with a super-fast dog. Going into the sequence, you just can’t get where you need to be to cue something. So yes, it’s quite an advantage having that. It gets you ahead. It might even keep you ahead throughout the course. And without that, you’re going to be behind, which isn’t all that bad if you want to do rear crosses throughout the course. Some people are very good at that. I have some students without start lines just because they came to me after their dog was a little bit older and we just decided we weren’t going to teach the dogs the stay. And there are definitely some sequences that they just can’t … or courses with starts that they just can’t do, or they just have issues with it, so it does put them at a disadvantage.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that you decided just not to bother with it. Why do people struggle with it? Why is it something that’s hard to teach? I think a lot of people think a stay is a stay is a stay, right?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right, right. Well, there’s just so many variations, but it could be that there’s holes in training or holes in generalization. There’s a lot of that that happens. And lots of times handlers try to control the dog’s behavior instead of training, so that would be like a hole in training. It could also be the training sessions are handled differently than the handling at the trials, and there’s a lot of that that’s due to handling. Another thing I see contributing to the start line is — this is interesting — but the handler’s own increased arousal level. And this happens in obedience, you see that too, but in agility it’s pretty much, it’s a big contributing factor where the handlers are too hurried, they’re un-confident and disconnected when they enter the ring, and then, at the beginning of the run, they’re thinking more about the course and they just don’t stay connected and focused on the dog. The dogs sense that, and that can cause — in the dogs we’re talking about, probably the dogs that have increased arousal level — that causes stress and also increased arousal, and that’s never good at the start line. Especially the dogs start reading a disconnected handler, and they start losing the ability to think, and then you have a break. A lot of times there are small issues that crop up along the way and they aren’t noticed by the trainer until it becomes a big problem. And that happens a lot. There’s little things, you know, little things that they just aren’t seeing, or they aren’t aware of, and then they don’t know how they got there.

Melissa Breau: Do you mean on the day of the trial or do you mean …

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I just mean in general kind of building up to that, but it will happen at the trials usually because that’s where the ultimate differences are between the training and the trials.

Melissa Breau: Little stuff like creeping, or what do you mean?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Well, it would be mostly handling. Some of it would be handling. The dogs start getting a little more and more aroused because they maybe can’t predict when the handler’s going to release them. That causes … and it depends on the dog. It could be that this dog, this particular dog, responds to arousal and stress by creeping forward, or they stand up, or even just a glazed look in their eyes. It just keeps changing until there’s actually just an outright break. And that’s when the handler notices that there’s an issue, but it’s actually happened long before that.

Melissa Breau: I know we talked about this a little bit just now, but I think a lot of people attribute start line problems to poor impulse control. The person just didn’t work it enough, or didn’t do it right, or something.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little bit about the role that impulse control actually does play in a good start line stay?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I hear that a lot. People think their dogs are pushy or have impulse control issues. But I’ve seen more over-arousal issues or frustration issues than impulse control issues. And frustration and over-arousal, they can be caused by lack of clarity, unpredictable cues, and then, like I said before, handlers that aren’t connected with their dogs. The dogs really want that. And impulse control skills, they’re just a part of the foundation of training a start line, and it should be fun for the dog. Some of the issues with start lines might be due to poor impulse control training, but there’s a lot more at play here than that. And actually I’ve seen plenty of dogs that really have great impulse control, but they can’t hold a stay at the start line, and a lot of that is due to just their arousal state. They can’t think. People just call that “impulse control issue,” and really it’s something quite different.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. You commented that you’ve seen a lot of dogs with great impulse control who really struggle with this particular skill. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t think about.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: I’d imagine … I don’t do agility, but I’d imagine that part of what often goes wrong with a start line is simply that the dog breaks their stay in a trial situation and people just start the run. And they do that over and over again, and the dog figures out, “Well, we’re just going to go.”

Nancy Gagliardi Little: They’re so smart!

Melissa Breau: Is there a better way to handle that?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: That’s a really good question and it’s a complicated one, too. I think it’s one of those things that’s hard to answer, but it’s part of what goes wrong. Usually there’s an issue, like I said before, that’s starting to manifest long before the dog even breaks the start line, and the handler isn’t recognizing it until the dog finally leaves before that release cue, and it’s actually usually in a really important run for them, so they’re like, “Oh my god.” And a lot of times this has been happening for a while. The dog’s been breaking it, but the handler doesn’t really notice it because they might be just turning back and releasing, and this time they turn back and they don’t release and the dog goes. Something like that. And like you say, the more a dog breaks the start line in a trial, the more it becomes a pattern or a habit, and actually it’s very, very reinforcing to the dog because they love — most of them love — agility and they want to go.

So in terms of a way to handle it once they go, I’m not a big fan of removing the dog for breaking the start line. If you watch some handlers, a lot of times they remove the dog, and the dog’s already taken a few obstacles by the time he realizes that he’s being taken off course, so he’s probably not even going to associate breaking the start line with that removal. And that not understanding why he’s being removed is going to cause more stress and frustration for the dog, and that makes the start line area even more frustrating, and then that causes more mistakes, so how do you handle it? Again, it’s very complicated, and it also depends on the dog and the handler. Lots of times when we decide this with students, I come up with a plan, depending on the dog, the sensitivity of the dog, the experience of the dog, making sure the handler’s being clear, all those things come into play for that. It’s mainly just making sure that the handling is clear. I’ll give you some examples.

Melissa Breau: That would be great.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: And I’ll just use my own dogs because their start lines are very good, but Schema, both of them, have broken their start lines. Schema, so she’s been running about seven-and-a-half years. When she was maybe 4 or 5 years old, it was in a two-ring soccer arena with lots of activity behind and around, and as I’m leading out, I was watching her and she left before I gave her the release cue. But I was watching her, I saw her expression, and she looked the same as she always does. There was no twitching or any odd behavior. I just let her run. I just went on because that’s just the way I feel. It’s like, I’ll look at this later, we’ll deal with this later, and one mistake is not going to affect anything. I looked at the video and I obsessed on it, and then I went to the practice jump between runs, and I tested her with some games, and she was solid, like I figured she would be, and she never broke the rest of the weekend or any time after that run. So I suspect she just heard someone else at the practice jump behind her give the same release cue and truly thought I had released her. So if I would have removed her for that, or done anything but just run her, that would have been very confusing to her, so she never really knew.

An example I have with Lever is he’s got some arousal issues, increased arousal issues, I’ve been working on a lot over the years. He has some great skills but has issues where he’s really gotten, he’s really improved, but his start lines were a little … I guess there’s lots of arousal there, and they’ve gotten better. What I do at the start line is I ask him how aroused he is. I know that sounds funny, but I basically just pause briefly before I leave him, and if he can look at me before I lead out — I step lateral and then wait for him to look at me. It just takes a brief moment. If he looks at me, his arousal level is under control. There was a time when he couldn’t even look at me, and that told me that his arousal level is high. That didn’t mean I was going to do anything different. I just needed to know that. I just would stay super-connected with him as I led out and just be a little bit more focused on him. So about six months ago I waited a little bit too long to see if he could look at me, and that was me trying to control him, a little bit of control. It was too long, and once I decided to leave, he broke. I realized what I was doing at that time and I just went on. I just kept going. And he actually knew right away he made a mistake, and that was not my intention to make him think he made a mistake, because I knew in his case it was arousal. But he did have a really nice run after that. So if I would have pulled him off for that, or handled it in any different way, it would have affected him, and I want him to be very confident in himself at the start line. His start lines have improved dramatically just by me being super-connected to him and just knowing that they’re a work in progress.

So those are a couple of examples. There’s so many different ones, and it really just depends on the team, and the experience of the dog, and what kind of things they’re training for start lines, but they are all very different how you would handle it. The main thing is just ensuring that it’s handled the same in practice as it would be in trials.

Melissa Breau: I was going to say that it sounds like you don’t necessarily have to worry about it a ton until it happens that first time, and then after that first time you want a plan in place in case it happens again.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right, you really do, because the first time it happens, you want to go back and make sure that it’s not handling. People don’t realize how much in agility people work hard on handling, but there’s a lot of handling that goes into start lines and the whole routine with start lines. There’s a lot of handling, and if you don’t, if your handling’s not clear to the dog, there’s going to be issues.

Melissa Breau: Now that we’ve talked a little about problem solving, I want to take a little of a step back and talk about how you actually teach a start line stay. Is there anything special you do during the foundation stages?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I probably teach it the same way most people do, but I do a lot of Zen games, I think some people call it “It’s your choice.” I do lots of that, and on the flat, and my young dogs wanted to stay by, they make a choice not to go, and then that decision brings reinforcement. I do lots and lots of games away from equipment, starting without handler motion and then adding more and more motion. It’s the motion that can really, or even the anticipation of handler motion, that can actually cause issues with the dogs, so adding that is important in agility.

And then lots of behaviors to train in the start line routine: entering the ring, moving to the start line area or the area you’re going to set them up, the position of the dog, what position are they going to be in, a sit, a down, a stand, whatever, between your legs, setups, or how they’re going to line up, and I guess that has more to do with going between your legs, or if they’re going to go to the left side, or the right side, or some handlers stand in front of the dog and position them kind of like a front, and the stay, there’s an actual stay, which isn’t really a big deal, the release is the big deal, there’s a lead out, and then there’s handling and training involved in all those areas. So all of them are worked on separately, and then we gradually put them together as each area is mastered. So it’s like a lot of flat work and fun stuff so dogs don’t even know that we’re working towards a start line.

Melissa Breau: I think that a lot of people probably just think about the stay itself, and they leave out all those other pieces you just mentioned about entering the ring and setting up.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right. And what happens is then they try to control the behavior instead of asking the dog to do the behavior, and then that creates more stress and more issues there, and the dogs don’t want to stay at the start line because they’re never right, they’re always being controlled. So that contributes to it too.

Melissa Breau: So once you’ve gotten the stay that you want, and the entrance that you want, and you’re trialing, what do you do to maintain that stay? How often do you train it, how do you approach it, what do you do to make sure that it doesn’t erode or doesn’t disappear over time?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I don’t think about it that much, but I guess when I think about it, I do it all the time without even thinking. I’m always looking at videos of my runs, or of training, and I’m always checking to see if the dog … how’s the start line. It’s just maintaining it. It happens by keeping the handling clear and the cues clean. When I talk about the cues clean, I’m talking about making sure that it’s not being any of the cues being paired with any extra motion or movement, because that’s a big deal in agility. Well, it’s a big deal in any sport.

And it’s also ensuring that my dogs are going to be able to predict when the release is coming. That’s what people don’t pay attention to, and then the dogs are sitting back there watching the handlers lead out and just arousal level’s going up, like, “When are they going to release me?” They don’t know, they can’t predict, and so I try to create a predictor that is easy for the dog to read. So I’m watching videos of my runs, and I evaluate my dog’s start lines just as much as the rest of the run. I’m always looking to see did the dog release on my cue, or was there any twitching, or whatever.

It’s just really important to know what to look for, and that’s I think what people are missing. They don’t know what to look for. They’re just looking to see if the dog stayed and not looking at a lot of other things, which is a lot of handling. So my start lines are really important to me because my dogs are very fast. But I find them very easy to maintain if my dogs understand the routine. And whenever I lead out, I’m just always checking to see that my dog has made the choice to stay, and if I’m always doing that, then my dog has always made that choice to stay because the release cue is very reinforcing to my dogs. They get to go, and so they learn to choose to stay because that’s what leads them to go. They love that.

Melissa Breau: For people out there who are listening to this and going, “All right, that’s awesome,” but they are in that position where they taught their dog a stay initially and it disappeared after they started running more regularly. How would you handle that? Would you just look at it as a poisoned cue and start over with a new cue? Would you retrain it with their existing cue? How would you approach it?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: That’s a really good question too. I think the first thing that I’d recommend to people in that situation is to make sure that they’re videotaping their training, the dog in training. And also making sure that they’re in that videotape as well, and also in the trial, and then really look at those two sessions and see if the handling is identical. It really needs to be. It’s important for the dogs. Dogs need to see the same thing. It needs to be clear to the dog. Cues need to be clear and clean. And then also the connection to the dog is super-important to the dog in agility, very, very important, and that’s at the start line, not just during the run.

So the questions to ask are, does the dog understand all of the little parts of his job at the start line, or is the handler trying to control the dog, like leading out and telling them to stay constantly. That’s going to be the beginning of a break because it’s going to stress the dog up, and there’s many reasons why that’s going to cause a break. So any type of controlling rather than training is going to make that experience stressful for the dog, so it’s better to take the time to teach those behaviors for the start line routine. So if that’s the case, we look at that. You really take a look at that picture of the start line. Are all those behaviors trained, and is the dog confident in all those little areas? That’s going to make that whole experience very, very easy for the dog.

And then, in terms of whether a new cue or a new setup routine needs to be trained, that just really depends on the dog and the situation. If it’s been going on for a long time, it might be wise to change the position. If the dog was doing a sit and he’s breaking, maybe you just start him in a down. I don’t really think the cue is usually the issue, because probably most likely the dogs are not even reading that cue. They’re probably reading some type of incidental cue or signal or motion from the handler that’s being paired with that. So it’s not even probably an issue, but yet it can make the handler feel better changing the cue, and it might still be the case that we’d want to change it. But it’s just one of those, again, creative processes you have to go through with each individual team. It just depends.

Melissa Breau: I know that, to mention FDSA, again here at the end, but I know you have a class on this subject running – and it’s supposed to start literally the day this airs, but registration is still open! — can you share a little bit about what the class does or doesn’t cover, and the kind of dog-handler team that might benefit most from taking it?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. Like I said before, I’m pretty excited about this class. At one time I had another class that was pretty popular that covered agility, start lines, stopped contacts on the table, and that was just filled with a lot of information, probably too much. So I felt it was important to make the subject of start lines into its own class. So this class is perfect for young dogs starting to train or even getting ready to trial. I think that’s a perfect area for these type of dogs. But it’s also a good class for dogs that are already trialing. I just ask, if they’re going to take the class, to make sure that they stop trialing during this retraining period because that’s really important for the dogs, because we do really want to make the trial and the training the same, otherwise they just become different. What it’s not going to cover is how to address over-arousal issues, or environmental issues at the start line, and that subject’s covered in other FDSA classes. So in this class we’re going to work extensively on creating handling and training skills that will help predict the release. That’s the main thing I want people to be aware of is how much your dogs depend on predictability for start lines. It’s amazing, once you clear that up, it just creates a whole different world for the dogs. So with these consistent predictors the dogs are going to get more confident and adapt much easier in different environments, and that’s hugely important in agility.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well, thank you so much Nancy -- it sounds like a great class.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah, I’m really excited.

Melissa Breau: I can see why. And thank you again for coming back on the podcast! I’m glad that you did and I’m glad we got a chance to talk about some of this stuff.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: It was great. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Mariah Hinds to talk about proofing and building reliable, ring-ready behaviors.

Don’t miss it! 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; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.