Sunday, April 27, 2008

Lab Club Training Day

When we arrived at Cheltenham this morning planning to train with the FT group, I learned that the property had been leased to a Lab club for a training day with about 30 dogs, mostly Labs but a few other breeds including our holistic vet's Bernese Mountain Dog. I knew several of the club members and we were able to join the training. On a dreary, drizzly day in the 50s, the group ran two land series and a water series. In addition, I interspersed several private series with my dogs. The result was a long day of training — we left home at 7:30 AM and returned ten hours later. Summary:
  • Series A. Retrieve shaping (both dogs)
  • Series B. Group land series (both dogs)
  • Series C. Retrieve shaping (both dogs)
  • Series D. Group land series (both dogs)
  • Series E. Retrieve shaping with Carole Lundquist, our holistic vet, throwing birds for us (Laddie)
  • Series F. Group water series (Lumi)
The two group land series, which I'm calling Series B and D, were actually set up simultaneously, with people breaking up into two groups. When each group finished its series, we swapped set-ups and ran the other one. Most people left at that point, but a few of us remained from both groups and ran a group water series (herein called Series F).

For all group series, marks were thrown as ducks, while blinds were orange dummies. Lining poles were used for all blinds except the water blind in Series F, where the blind was unmarked.

Series A. Poorman single and double with dummies, happy throws.

Series B. Set-up as run by Lumi:
  1. 100-yard blind in open terrain except for a tree on the left of the line to the blind
  2. 80-yard mark thrown across a road into standing water
  3. 90-yard mark thrown into thick, unmowed grass
  4. 90-yard blind set 10 yards inside a treeline, thru a strip of cover near the SL and another strip of cover inside the treeline just in front of the dummies, past a tree at the midpoint on the left with the blind inside a triangle of closely-spaced trees
  5. 120-yard mark thru a large pool of standing water
#5 was 90° to the right of #1. #2 was 45° to the right of #5. #4 was 30° to the right of #2. #3 was 15° to the right of #4.

#4 was referred to by the guy who set the series up as a Master blind. Besides the factors listed above with the description of #4, the line passed only a few yards to the left of the holding blind for #3. The factor that proved most distracting for several dogs, including Lumi, was a string of trees stumps at the treeline still white from fresh felling of the trees, stumps which apparently looked like articles to be retrieved to the dogs.

With Lumi running the three marks as singles, we were the only team to run this series in the order I chose. Several other sequences were used by various trainers. For Laddie, we just ran the three marks, #2-3-5, as singles.

Once Lumi got close to the treeline, I realized from her loss of responsiveness that #4 was too hard for her. But one of the leaders was adamant that once we started it, we needed to finish it, so I ended up getting quite close to her to complete the retrieve. In addition, Lumi's pick-ups on every blind and mark were too slow and deliberate. Aside from that, she ran an excellent series and we received many compliments on Lumi's progress from trainers we have trained with in the past.

Laddie's performance on #2 and #3 was excellent except that he dropped the bird midway back on #2. His performance on #5 was poor, as he dropped the bird in the standing water and was unresponsive to verbal and whistle recall. I ran out, put Laddie on a lead and picked up the bird, walked Laddie clear of the water, and threw the bird for Laddie to pick up and retrieve as we raced back to the SL together. I realized immediately that I should not have thrown a bird in the middle of the field that way, but no one said anything, perhaps because they were left speechless by my making such a huge mistake.

I ran both dogs without slipcords. Lumi was completely steady, while Laddie crept but did not break. Actually, Lumi did break on #5, when a male voice simulating a judge called a number, but it was not an illegal break. Lumi also honored the next dog, as a triple was thrown and the dog was sent to the go-bird. Lumi was edgy, but she did not break.

When I took Laddie from the van, I placed the carrier of wing-clipped pigeons on the walk between the van and the group training area. When we returned, I picked up the carrier as we walked, and when we arrived at the van, I let Laddie retrieve a clippie from more distance than in the past, 10 yards. He raced excitedly to the bird, picked it up, and brought it directly to me when I called "here", making no attempt to resource guard it. I felt that represented progress in his ability to deal with clippies and used it as the foundation for more exciting experiences with clippies later in the day.

Series C. After Series B, I took the dogs to an isolated area for a short retrieve-shaping session.

In Lumi's case, I focused on a fast pick-up. I used food, happy throws, and tug for reinforcement.

In Laddie's case, I focused on completing the retrieve without dropping the article. I held a clippie in my hand while throwing three ducks, which Laddie retrieved perfectly. After the last, I put the clippie down for Laddie at a distance of 10 yards, and when he got to it, called "here". He brought it straight to me, and I rewarded that by running back in the direction of the throw, then back again, with Laddie chasing me. At last, back at the carrier, I took delivery of the clippie and returned it to its carrier.

Series D. This was the second group series we ran. The set-up was:
  1. 40-yard mark, with the fall at the end of a large patch of cover that the dog, if on a straight line, entered at the other end
  2. 60-yard mark, with line thru cover and over a small ridge
  3. 80-yard mark, with line thru several patches of cover and over a small ridge
  4. 80-yard blind
  5. 80-yard blind, with line thru patch of cover with fall from #1, then across road and up onto a hillside beside the property's barn
The lines to the various marks and blinds were separated by 30° angles. Left to right, the order was #4-2-3-1-5.


Laddie ran marks #1-3 as singles. He ran good marks but dropped the bird during the return on #1 and #3.


Lumi ran #1-3 as singles, then each blind. She had great pick-ups on #1-2, a little slower on #3. She "lined" #4 in the sense of no casts, but she was the last dog to run, so with all the scent from previous dogs, she put her nose down and hunted. She handled readily to the dummies at #5 but did not pick one up at first, instead looking for something else in the area. Her response to WSs also showed deterioration from recent work together.

One of the leaders of the group commented during Lumi's laser mark on #3 that it was the best mark of the day.

Series E. I had thought that Laddie's basic retrieve pattern was now set and that we could focus, for the remainder of his career, on retrieving concepts like multiples and shore training. It does seem true that several problems — his resource guarding behaviors, running toward the thrower, poor holds during delivery — are solved, at least for now. But Laddie has now developed a new problem: dropping birds during the return. From a rarity in his previous behavior pattern, this behavior has now become common, occurring almost every time he is retrieving a bird from distance or thru difficult terrain.

By observation, Laddie's dropping behavior does not look like the bird is slipping from his mouth, nor do the drops appear to be a side effect of some other phenomenon such as excited head-throwing. Rather, it seems that Laddie is intentionally opening his mouth and dropping the bird.

My theory about why this is happening is that when, in the past, I have reinforced a retrieve that was otherwise of high quality, but in which Laddie happens to have dropped a bird, he accidentally learned that the drop was part of the behavior being rewarded. That theory is consistent with the fact that the problem is worsening, though other theories might also apply. Alice suggested, for example, that Laddie may have an internal need to freelance, and since he's been trained over the last few weeks not to freelance in other ways, dropping the bird could be a new outlet for that need.

In any case, because an incremental approach was successful in addressing the previous issues, I decided to once again work our way thru a graded series of retrieves, in this case focused on eliminating the dropping behavior. So in the interval between the last two group series, I used what I'm calling Series E to start that graded series. With Lumi sitting this series out in the van, I enlisted Carole's help as a thrower, gave her a pistol along with two ducks and a pheasant, and placed a lining pole as a starting line on a slight rise in an isolated field at the property with thick, mid-length, unmowed grass.

We ran two sequences: 20-20-20 yards, with Carole moving along an arc around our SL as she threw, and 40-80 yards, with Carole moving diagonally back. The last throw was from a mound. In all cases the throw was invisible on the ground until Laddie was right on top of it.

For each sequence, I held a clippie in my hand while sending Laddie to all the marks, and at the end of each sequence, I put the clippied down and let Laddie retrieve it, then chase me a bit before I took delivery. After the second sequence, I added a new element to the reward. I asked Carole, whom both my dogs know well and adore, to come toward us while Laddie had the clippie, and then I ran around her, saying "Show Carole your birdie," before we ran back to the carrier. Laddie seemed to delight in holding the bird up for Carole to see, yet did not go out of control, staying with me and bringing the bird right to me when we arrived at the carrier.

Laddie's performance on Series E was gratifying. He pinned every mark, picked up every bird instantly, flew back to me with them on a perfectly straight line without hesitation (and of course without any drops), and delivered every bird with a firm hold.

Laddie didn't have any drops in Series E, but if he had, I would have gone to him and picked up the bird, denying him the opportunity to complete the retrieve. It is my hope that that action on my part, in combination with the availability of the clippie as a reward, in the context of a gradually lengthening sequence of retrieves in difficult terrain, will enable Laddie to develop the appropriate reinforcement history for retrieving without dropping the bird. It is my hope that Laddie's breeding as a retriever, and the resulting self-reinforcing quality of a correct retrieve, will also work in our favor.

Series F. Most of the trainers went home after Series D, but a few stayed to set up and run a group water series. This was the set-up:
  1. 50-yard mark down a channel from the SL
  2. 20-yard mark across a stick pond to an island covered with reeds
  3. 40-yard lind obscured by dead tree trunks in the water, small points of land, reeds, decoys, and trees
I saw no modification to this series that was suitable for Laddie, so he waited in the van while I ran Lumi and then took over one of the stations to throw for the other trainers.

On #1, Lumi ran the bank both ways but had a good pick-up. She had no problem with #2. On #3, she was responsive to WSs in the water, but became unresponsive on land, eventually far over-running the blind. The other trainers seem to believe that once the dog starts a blind, it's essential that she finish it, so I kept working with Lumi to complete #3. But my honest feeling was that it was not good dog training, because she could not be learning a good lesson when I would blow a WS and she'd ignore it. My strong preference after one or two slipped whistles would have been to walk out to her, slip on her lead, and walk her back to the van. She might or might not learn something from that outcome to her slipped whistles, but at least she would not have continued rehearsing incorrect responses.

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