Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Marks, Salience Drill, Whistle Sit, Swim-By

Lumi, Laddie, and I had lots of activities together today. First we trained with Barbara and her Lab, Deuce, at Fair Hill (Series A and B). Then we went for a hike along what Renee and I call the creek at Brink, I don't know its real name. On the hike, we worked on the dogs' whistle sit (WS) while I scouted for a suitable swim-by location, and when I found one, we had our first swim-by session (Series C). Later, we went out with Nate (to throw) and Bryan (to videotape) for our afternoon training at Oaks (Series D).

The days' series were as follows:
  • Series A. Marks at 150-70-190 yards (Laddie)
  • Series B. Salience drill (Lumi)
  • Series C. Swim-by (both dogs)
  • Series D. Marks at 150-60-120 yards (both dogs)
Series A. Series A was the first of three sessions intended as Laddie's final exam for return and delivery shaping, before returning to the sequence of drills for shaping Laddie's handling skills under guidance from Alice. My self-imposed guidelines for the final exam are that Laddie is to have high quality returns and deliveries for three sessions in a row, with the first mark of the session at 150 yards. For this series, the set-up was as follows:
  1. 150-yard mark (duck), position marked by stickman
  2. 70-yard mark (duck), position marked by chair
  3. 190-yard mark (duck), position marked by stickman
As suggested by Alice, I held a wing-clipped pigeon while sending Laddie on each mark, then gave him a short retrieve with the clippie when he completed each mark.

Today, I also continued the practice of waiting at the SL in silence, other than a recall whistle just as Laddie is pouncing on the article being retrieved.

Laddie's performance on all three marks was outstanding, with sprints straight to the fall, immediate and often tumbling pick-ups, energetic run-backs without any sign of Laddie's old resource guarding behaviors, and firm holds on his deliveries. Laddie dropped the first duck 30 yards from the SL on #1, but picked it right back up and completed an excellent delivery. That was his only dropped bird of the day. Overall, I felt that Laddie's performance was well within the bounds of high quality.

Series B.
Lumi has a tendency on blinds to meander out in the general direction sent, apparently waiting for her first cast before she becomes comfortable with a more focused gait. To help her learn to take a line enthusiastically when sent on a blind from heel, I invented what I call the "salience drill". The idea is to teach Lumi the concept of focusing on some target in the direction sent, and to run toward that target until either she encounters the blind, or she receives a WS and cast.

For today's first salience drill, I positioned a lining pole as the SL so that three salient features in the landscape were visible at 45° angles from one another. I then placed a duck and a length of orange flagging approximately halfway between the SL and the landmark. I approached the placements laterally so that there was no scent trail between the SL and the blind. The distances to the blind were 20 yards, 40 yards, and 60 yards.

I then brought Lumi out of the van and ran her toward each landmark in turn.

On all three blinds, Lumi took a good line from heel, but on #1, she veered off three times in a row, apparently considering a sign in the distance to the right to be a more likely target than the one I was lining her toward. Each time she veered off, I called her back with "no here".

After the third time, I left her at the SL in a sit, walked three yards in the direction of the blind, called her to heel, and re-sent her. This time she kept her line. Now apparently focused on the landmark, Lumi ran past the blind without noticing it. I then blew WS, and when she sat, I blew a recall whistle as a straight come-in. Lumi immediately spotted the duck and completed the retrieve on the run.

On the second blind, she again started on the correct line but veered off after a short distance. Again I called her back with "no here". She did not do it again, and on the second send, she noticed the blind as she ran past it. I whistled recall and she completed the retrieve.

On the third blind, Lumi ran straight toward the landmark until she saw the blind and pounced on it. I whistled recall and she completed the retrieve.

The sequence was exactly what I was hoping for, though I would not have minded if she had not veered off the times that she did. But it seemed clear that by the third blind, she had enough confidence to run toward the landmark I had lined her up on.


I held a wingclip for Lumi during each of the blinds and put it out for her to make a 5-yard retrieve of it after completing her deliveries. While she seemed to be excited by retrieving the clippie, I noticed that when she returned from her third blind and I threw the duck next to the lining pole while walking a few feet away preparing to let her run her third short retrieve of the clippie, Lumi ran to the lining pole rather than running up next to me. From this I deduced that Lumi actually finds holding ducks more valuable than retrieving clippies. That's fine with me, since it means less of a chance for injury to the poor pigeons, though I think it's usually Laddie who does the most damage to them. I haven't decided for sure whether to use the wingclips with Lumi any more or not.

Whistle Sit Practice.
As we hiked along the creek at Brink, every few minutes I'd blow a WS, expecting both dogs to sit. We did this both on the way out and on the way back. On the way back, Laddie had a dummy in is mouth most of the times I whistled. The distances today were in the range 20-30 yards, and the maximum distraction level involved being on the move and not paying attention to me, but was not as extreme as sniffing a wildlife carcass or being about to leap into the water.

Both dogs sat every time but once. The exception occurred when on one occasion, I blew a WS, then blew a recall whistle instead of saying "here" to call them to me for treats. The next time I blew a WS, they both interpreted it as a recall and came running. I said, "no, sit" and they did. I think this tells me that sometimes my recall whistle (tweet-tweet) sounds too much like my sit whistle (tweet), something for me to work on.

In any case, I'm pleased with how our WS practice is going, and plan to continue to build distance and distraction-proofing during our hikes.

Series C.
I found a location in the creek that met the following characteristics:
  • No current.
  • Deep enough to require the dogs to swim.
  • A place for me to stand and send the dogs from.
  • A place about 30' away for me to throw a dummy without the dummy immediately floating away.
  • A place to the right where I'll be able to throw or place a dummy and work on "over".
I'm not sure this location will work perfectly for the rest of the swim-by training, which will involve the dog swimming past me from one side to the other, then exiting the water there before coming around to me. The geometry might work at this location, or we might need to find somewhere else when we're ready to work on that phase.

Today's session consisted entirely of swims straight across to retrieve a dummy I'd throw there. I'd throw the dummy, then send one of the dogs while the other dog waited, and then I'd give a treat to the dog who waited. When the sent dog picked up the dummy, I'd whistle recall and the dog would swim back and deliver the dummy at heel.

This was a simple drill for Lumi and I can't say she learned anything from it at this stage. But already I saw significant benefit to it for Laddie:
  • Laddie's honoring skills are not well developed, and this was an opportunity for him to practice honoring. The alternative would have been to take the dogs out separately, which would have been too time consuming.
  • On some of my throws, the dummy ended up on some debris above the water level, and Laddie had to climb up there to get the dummy. Once he had the dummy, he started looking around for some alternative to diving back in to get back to me. No alternative route was readily available, and when I called "here", he just made the plunge. Since Laddie has beached on the other side of channels at times in the past, it seems the swim-by training will erase that behavior along with other benefits.
  • Laddie has had a nice return and delivery in the living room for most of his life, and has recently learned the same behavior on land retrieves. But his habit in open water retrieves has always been to drop the dummy at or near the shoreline, shake off, and then bring me the dummy. As it turns out, the drill we were doing today apparently looked more to Laddie like a living room or land retrieve than an open water retrieve, and he never dropped the dummy once. Every time I sent him, he climbed out of the water, swung to heel, sat, held the dummy till I took it, and then shook off. Good boy!
Series D. Since Lumi will be taking a Junior level test in a couple of weeks, and because she seems to have slowed in some of her pick-ups lately, I decided to have her run the same marks as Laddie this afternoon, and not worry about blinds for this session.

Although I usually have the dogs run the shortest mark of a series first, per Alice's guidance, today's drill was part of Laddie's final exam for return and delivery shaping, which meant starting with a 150-yard retrieve. At the same time, I didn't want to make that the shortest of three retrieves, because temps were in the 70s and we working in thick ground-cover, and I was concerned that several long returns wouldn't be good for Lumi, and also might not be that good for Laddie on top of our other work today.

As a result, I decided on the following configuration:
  1. 150-yard mark (duck) marked by chair
  2. 60-yard mark (duck) marked by stickman, 30° to the right of #1
  3. 120-yard mark (duck) marked by stickman, 30° to the right of #2
As has become our new practice, I used only an auto-whistle just as the dog was pouncing on the bird, making no other sound during the retrieves.

I ran Laddie first, then Lumi. I held a clippie during Laddie's first mark and had him retrieve the clippie (signaled by "Your birdie's waiting") from a short distance after his delivery. But he was so rough on the bird that I decided not to use live birds for the other marks, and instead threw a duck for him when he returned from #2 and #3. Since it appears to me that Lumi likes retrieving ducks at least as much as clippies, maybe more, I also decided to throw ducks for her after each of her marks. I'm not sure what use I'll be making of the wingclips in the future.

Both dogs did fine, with fast pick-ups, straight returns, firm holds, and no dropped birds.

For Laddie, this means he has now completed the first two stages of his final exam for return and delivery shaping.

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