Monday, April 28, 2008

Alternation Drill

I had to work at my client's office today, so the dogs and I only had time for a morning session. I decided that the highest priority was retrieve shaping for both dogs, using an alternation drill.

We went to a section of the Fair Hill new home construction site that we haven't used much before, one with extensive grading, including several foundation depressions and large mounds. Fair Hill is where we also had our double-T course and, across the road, a smaller area with several large patches of high cover we've used for retrieve shaping with that terrain factor. In future blog entries, I will refer to these areas as:
  • Fair Hill Area 1 (the area where we had our double-T course)
  • Fair Hill Area 2 (the area with the high cover)
  • Fair Hill Area 3 (the area with all the grading)
All the Fair Hill sites are covered in grass that has not been mowed this year, and with all the rain we've been getting the last few weeks, it is now knee high and thick.

Today, we worked in a driving rain. We ran off a large mound, with the lines to the falls thru small pools of standing water and mud.

While the dogs aired and played, I set up a series of throwing targets, placing lining poles at 40, 80, and 120 yards from our SL in a zig-zag pattern in front of the mound.


With Laddie back in the van, I ran Lumi first, using the following "alternation drill" sequence:
  1. Short throw(s) with pigeon
  2. 40-yard poorman mark with pheasant and gunshot
  3. Short throw(s) with pigeon
  4. 80-yard poorman mark with pheasant and gunshot
  5. Short throw(s) with pigeon
  6. 120-yard poorman mark with pheasant and gunshot
I reinforced each correct response, which in Lumi's case was focused on an instant pick up.

I reinforced with food and, at the end, "get your bird" with the pigeon I'd been using for the short throws. "Get your bird" seems to have become quite important to Lumi, judging by her body language as she searches for a bird on the ground and pounces on it as soon as she perceives her series is over, even before I say, "Get your bird."

If Lumi was slow on one of the short throws — I required instant pick-up — I said gently "no no no" and went out to take the pigeon away, then ran with Lumi back to the SL. This only happened once or twice, and the subsequent short pick-up, plus the pheasant pick-ups, were all fast.


With Lumi dried and back in the van, I ran the same drill for Lumi with minor differences. Laddie's retrieves were all letter perfect and filled with exuberance, like the old Laddie (see below), so I didn't need to mark any incorrect responses or re-throw any of the short throws.

The minor differences in Laddie's version of the alternation drill versus Lumi's:
  • I used a different pigeon for the short throws, and a duck instead of the pheasant for the poorman marks, because Lumi's birds were soaked.
  • In addition to food and "get your bird", I reinforced with a wing-clipped pigeon for the last mark:
    • I kept the clippie carrier sitting next to the SL lining pole, and after the last short throw, I took a clippie out of the carrier and walked with the clippie, the duck I was going to throw, and the pistol out to the 120-yard pole while Laddie waited at the SL.
    • I fired and threw the duck, then ran back to Laddie still carrying the white, highly visible clippie in my hand.
    • I sent Laddie for another of his exceptional retrieves, ending with an equally fine delivery.
    • I put down the duck and walked to a back area of our mound to toss the clippie for Laddie.
    • As Laddie ran to the clippie, I was confident enough in his behavior that I didn't stay to watch him pick it up but darted down the mound, and in a flash Laddie was at my heels.
    • We ran back and forth a few times, then charged back up the mound.
    • Finally, I reached out and Laddie put the clippie in my hands. It seems that Laddie enjoys carrying the clippie, but he also seems glad to give it up. I'm not sure why this is. Maybe it's my imagination.
We ended the series with "get your bird" with the pigeon I'd been using for the short throws and a triumphant walk back to the van together.

I dried Laddie with our chamois, and when he jumped into his crate, as is our ritual at the end of our morning training sessions, I gave both dogs their breakfast, raw buffalo mix in metal bowls, and we drove home.

The "Old" Laddie. For the last few days, Laddie has not been his old self. Most of the differences were subtle — running up the stairs rather than sprinting, a distracted expression when I'd expect intense concentration, tentative taking of food rather than his usual shark attack. The most discrete change was that Laddie has recently begun to drop birds during his retrieval returns on marks thru long or difficult terrain. The drops have seemed intentional, and may be a behavioral phenomenon unrelated to the other changes.

In any case, I interpreted these changes as to some extent an inevitable, if surprisingly precipitous, mellowing from puppihood, the exchange of wild instinct for a more deliberate comprehension of our activities.

But Laddie has not been eating for more than a week, apparently because Sophie, a BC who lives with one of our kids in the house, has been in heat. Considering that Laddie is now back on his feed, maybe Sophie is going out of heat and it was affecting Laddie more than I realized.

Today, as mentioned above, I saw none of the "mellowness", nor dropped birds, either. It is difficult to put my happiness into words, but if I could transfer what I saw today to event conditions, I think I'd have the finest retriever on the planet.

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