Thursday, March 27, 2008

Delivery, Marks and Blinds, the Walk-off

Based on correspondence yesterday and this morning, today's work with Laddie was focused on his delivery. The work all took place at the Oaks field, the most distracting venue of the local training locations we've found. It consisted of a Series A of delivery drills for Laddie, Lumi honoring the entire time, followed by returning home to pick up Nate and then heading back to the same field. When we returned, Lumi ran a Series B of marks and blinds with Laddie in the van, and then Laddie had Series C, more delivery drills, this time with Nate throwing and Lumi waiting in the van.

While I was setting up Series C, Laddie found something disgusting to roll in, so after Series C, I dropped Nate off back at home and then the dogs and I went to a nearby creek so they could play in the water a little and Laddie could get cleaned up.

The day's series were as follows:
  • Series A. Delivery drills for Laddie
  • Series B. Two marks and two blinds for Lumi
  • Series C. More delivery drills for Laddie
Series A. For series A, I set up one easy wagon wheel after another. Each wagon wheel consisted of two birds and two dummies, over a 180° arc, at a distance of 15 yards. Each wagon wheel had a different SL and different falls so that Laddie would not be retrieving to old falls. Sometimes the wagon wheel was run left to right, sometimes right to left. The sequence of birds and dummies, and the side I sent Laddie out from, also changed randomly.

In each case, my focus was entirely on the quality of Laddie's delivery. Without covering every detail, I was trying to gradually shape an immediate swing to heel and sit, followed by a hold until I had a firm grip of the article and cued "out", at which time Laddie was to pull his head back and release the article.

With this focused work, I watched for a problem I had seen in Lumi in the past with tennis balls, and which I continue to see with DW Renee's Golden, Gabriel, namely, a poor response to "out". That problem was difficult to fix with Lumi and I had hoped to avoid it with Laddie by always providing quality reinforcement for releasing any article on retrieves, going back to Laddie's earliest days with me.

Today, I came to realize that I had solved the problem with Laddie all too well. I might have expected Laddie to have a problem with "out" because he is greedy to an obnoxious degree with other dogs' toys and shows resource guarding behaviors when retrieving, especially with birds. But when I began to understand what I was seeing, I realized that Laddie actually had the opposite problem: Instead of a firm hold, Laddie begins to anticipate "out" as much as 20 or 30 yards before he even arrives at the SL, pushes the article to the front of his mouth and begins to carry it in a light grip (sometimes dropping it), continues to carry it lightly as he swings to heel and sits (again sometimes dropping it), and then releases it the instant my hand comes near, requiring me to move quickly to avoid the article dropping to the ground before I have a good grip.

Once I realized what was happening, I experimented extensively with ways to defeat the problem. For example, after he sat I would walk in a circle around him, or pet him, or crouch down in front of him and get face to face with him, or applaud and cheer like a gallery at a competition, all the while with Laddie holding the article in his mouth.

For the dummies, I also tried taking the rope in my hand and pulling a little, inviting a game of tug. That was a strategy I've used with Lumi but I decided today that it doesn't seem to produce the right effect in Laddie, since he gets too excited and starts jumping around too much, losing the sense of a calm delivery.

One of the more effective strategies I used was today tap on the dummy, and later the bird, making a gentle effort to knock the article out of Laddie's mouth as he sat holding it. Of course I was successful in doing so at first, so I'd say "no, give it, sit" and we'd try again. Over the course of the day, he stopped dropping it as readily so this strategy paid some dividends, but the best strategy I came up with today didn't come until later, after we had completed Series C.

During Series A, I also experimented with physically inserting the dummy or bird into the back of Laddie's mouth if he dropped it or pushed it to the front. I've seen other trainers do that, and I've done it a few times with Lumi, but I regret doing it with Laddie and don't plan to do it again. It was clearly confusing to him having me do that, and it didn't seem to clarify his understanding in the least. No matter how many times I pushed the article in, he'd just push it back out again. It became adversarial rather than an exercise in building reinforcement history for a correct response. It was not the kind of training I want to engage in.

However, I did find another strategy during Series A that seemed to help Laddie's comprehension for delivering birds. Instead of having him pick the bird up from the ground and deliver it, which gave him plenty of time to push it to the front of his mouth or even led to him picking it up gingerly in the first place, I'd throw the bird high for him to leap up and grab it. When Laddie catches a bird that way, he tends to catch it deep in his mouth, and as soon as he'd land, I step beside him, cue "sit, hold", and try to get my hand on the bird before he had a chance to push it forward. Then I'd quickly say, "good, out" as he released the bird and pulled his mouth away. I don't think this strategy would be enough by itself, or at least it would take a long time before he completely gave up pushing the article forward, but because he loves leaping up and catching that way, I think it builds a positive association for holding the bird deep in his mouth, anyway.

Series B. Lumi has now had quite a few sessions of three marks and four blinds. To reduce long-term wear and tear, I decided that today two marks and two blinds would be enough:
  1. 60-yard mark (bird, thrown toward the line to #2)
  2. 80-yard blind (orange dummy, orange lining pole)
  3. 180-yard mark (bird, thrown away from the line to #4)
  4. 200-yard blind (orange dummy, orange lining pole)
Lumi pinned #1 and #3 and lined #2. For #4, she needed several casts, but she never slipped a whistle not refused a cast. Her motivation seemed high throughout the series.

When Series B was over, I said to Lumi as I often do at the end of a series, "get your bird", and she chose one of the birds fom the ground and carried it the 200 yards to the van, walking jauntily beside me the whole way. That became my inspiration for a new training strategy for Laddie after Series C.

Series C. For this Series, I had Nate throw a series of 20-yard marks while walking in a semi-circle around the SL. For each mark, he'd fire the pistol and throw, sometimes angling in, sometimes angling out, and sometimes flat. This was done for a total of 12 marks, thrown in groups of three, each group consisting of a bird and two dummies in random order, and also with Nate walking and throwing sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. I'd send Laddie from the appropriate side depending on which direction Nate was throwing.

After those 12 short marks, I also had Nate throw two 100-yard singles 45° apart as a reward for Laddie's progress.

Series C was shorter than Series A, with less experimenting. By now, Laddie was able to maintain his hold even if I tapped on the article, and the strategy of throwing the bird for Laddie to catch it deep in his mouth and trying to reinforce that way of holding it seemed to be shaping a deeper carrying position for the retrieves as well. Laddie was making progress, but he still tended to hold both dummies and birds too gently while sitting, and to release them too soon as I reached for them. It seemed clear that re-training Laddie's delivery was going to take considerable time.

Then something happened that gave me cause for optimism that it might go faster after all.

Breakthough: the Walk-Off. As we were returning to the van after the last mark, I decided to try Laddie out on "get your bird". I was reluctant to do so because I was concerned that he might start chewing it rather than just carrying it, but I quickly saw that my concern was misplaced. Glancing over at him, I saw that Laddie looked much like Lumi when she's carrying a bird back to the van. He trotted lightly beside me with head high, a purposed retriever with his prey held deeply and firmly in his mouth.

Suddenly I had an inspiration. I cued "sit", stepped close to Laddie's side, and as I did so, he quickly pushed the bird forward in his mouth, anticipating "out" and a likely opportunity for a retrieve. But I didn't take the bird! Instead, I stepped briskly forward, waved him out of his sit, and said with a laugh, "come on, bring your bird." Lo and behold, he shifted the bird to the back of his mouth again and resumed trotting along beside me.

I did this several more times, and soon Laddie realized that it was pointless to push the bird forward because I wasn't going to take it. Thereafter, he kept it in the back of his mouth as he sat waiting for me to step away again.

Once that became a pattern, I began to add gestures of reaching for the bird, very slightly at first, eventually actually touching it. But after each gesture, I'd start forward again without ever taking it. Laddie became better and better at holding the bird deep the entire time.

I believe that for the immediate future, the best strategy would be for Laddie to never know, even if I put my hand on a retrieval article, whether I'm actually going to cue "out" and take the article, or instead pull my hand away and start walking forward cueing Laddie to join me. Since he seems to enjoy carrying his bird like a big dog, cueing him to come out of the sit and walk with me will hopefully act as positive reinforcement for him to keep the bird in the desired position until I actually cue "out".

Unfortunately, Laddie has rehearsed his incorrect delivery behavior many times over the last few months, so I don't expect to solve this problem overnight. But today's results were promising, and if Laddie never knows whether or not I'm going to cue "out", we may have a strategy that will show results fairly quickly despite his previous history. I can then hope that a new delivery pattern, reinforced many times in the days to come by pleasant outcomes whether I take the bird or not, will eventually become Laddie's new habit of delivery.

I think this technique deserves a name. I think I'll call it a walk-off.

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