Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Offline Drill

[Posted to PositiveGunDogs list]

A couple of weeks ago, one of the advanced Labs we train with was a couple of yards offline as he came even with a blind. The handler whistled sit, but as the dog was turning, he spotted the bird, so instead of sitting, he ran to it, picked it up, and headed back to the handler. The handler didn't seem to be concerned about it.

I've seen other dogs do that exact same thing, including my own. This time, I decided to ask about it.

I got on the walkie-talkie and asked no one in particular, "When that dog didn't sit on the whistle, would that count against you in an event?"

A voice on the radio came back, "If I was judging it would. That's a refused cast."

That's what I was thinking, too.

I think it's especially bad with my 2Q dogs, because unlike the other trainers in the group, I don't don't use an ecollar to counter the self-reinforcing effect of learning that the whistle means, "Oh, I don't have to sit, I can just look around and see if the bird is nearby."

Not only that, but the whistle sit (WS) in general is also compromised, because as far as the dog knows, any time you whistle, the bird might be nearby.

One idea would be to refrain from whistling if you figured the bird was close enough that the dog was likely to find it without the whistle, but you can't do that. The dog might keep on going, disappear over a crest, and you've had it.

When the dog is offline, you've got to whistle, and the dog has got to sit, no matter how close the bird is.

I'm not sure why the 4Q trainers I train with often don't seem to be worried about it, but I decided I needed to address this situation with my dogs. So I designed a drill specifically to train the WS when the bird is nearby. I call it the Offline Drill:

1. Choose a segment distance. So far, I've used 15-, 20-, 25-, and 30-yard segments with my dogs.
2. Place a lining pole at the startline (SL), and another lining pole four (4) segments away. The line between the two poles is your backline (BL), since that's the line the dog will run on each time you cue "back". Our BLs so far have been 60, 80, 100, and 120 yards.
3. With the dog not watching you, walk from the SL down the BL. At the end of the first segment, turn 90 degrees right, walk 5 yards, and place a surveyors flag (SF) (or use flagging tape) and an orange dummy (OD).
4. Go back to the BL, walk another segment, and this time turn left, walk 10 yards, and place another SF and OD.
5. Go back to the BL, walk one more segment, and this time turn right again, walk 15 yards, and place a third SF and OD.
6. Bring the dog to the SL and put her in a sit/stay.
7. With the dog watching, walk down the BL with a bird, dragging the bird along the grass to scent the BL. Walk all four segments until you get to the lining pole at the end of the BL, check to make sure the dog is still watching you, and toss the bird in the air so that it lands at the base of the pole.
8. Walk back to the dog, line her up down the BL, and send her on "back". Everything you've done should keep her running straight on the BL. When she gets to the end of the first segment, blow WS, cue "over" to the right. Dog retrieves first OD.
9. Send the dog down the BL again. When she gets to the end of the second segment, blow WS, cue "over" to the left. Dog retrieves second OD.
10. Send the dog down the BL a third time. When she gets to the end of the third segment, blow WS, cue "over" to the right. Dog retrieves third OD.
11. Finally send the dog down the BL one last time and let her retrieve the bird without stopping her.
12. Next session, reverse the directions of the three ODs.

As you can see, this drill specifically practices the situation where the dog is headed in the right general direction but passes the blind a little offline. Ideally, you'd have the second and third ODs as close to the BL as the first one, but I've found that my dogs just run to the ODs if I don't keep them further from the BL the further out they are from the SL. Also ideally, the dog would have more non-handling retrieves mixed in, and I wouldn't be surprised if an inexperienced dog became de-motivated by a drill that had such a high ratio of handling to non-handling retrieves. However, the downside of more non-handling retrieves would be more time, and more wear and tear on the dog. With temps in the 90s around here these days, I look for ways to keep our sessions as short as possible.

In any case, my dogs seem to like this drill, and it's been a real education for me. The first time I set it up, I tried 30-yard segments (120 yards total) and Laddie (the 15-month old) aced it. Then I tried Lumi (the 4-year-old) and she fell apart. So I tried reducing the segment lengths, and had to get down to 15 yards before she was confident on the third WS (at 45 yards). Now, as we've continued to play this game, she's starting to gain more confidence in those "over" cues, and we're back up to 30-yard segments, and reliable WSs at 90 yards even with a bird nearby. I plan to take it up to at least 60-yard segments (240 yards total). For all I know, Laddie could do it right now, but I'll have to take my time with Lumi.

To me, the Offline Drill is a general WS and casting drill, but heavily tilts toward that situation that so many dogs don't do well, which is to sit even when the bird turns out to be just off to the side. Another feature of the drill is that it teaches the dog that your directions may NOT be consistent with what her nose is telling her, in this case the scent trail along the BL. I also like it because as you increase segment length from session to session, instead of the WSs getting steadily further and further away, every session begins with a couple of WSs that are closer than the furthest one from the previous session. I'd think it would be a good drill for some of those advanced dogs, though I guess the 4Q trainer, if he decides to train for the offline situation, is more likely to address the issue simply with the ecollar, as in, "Sit means sit."

Sometimes you design a drill intending to train one lesson, and you inadvertently also train a different lesson that runs counter to your goals. For all I know, this is one of those cases. If any of you see a flaw in the drill, where I'm inadvertently training my dogs something I don't want to be training them, I'd appreciate the feedback.

Lindsay, with Lumi & Laddie (Goldens)
Laytonsville, Maryland

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