Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pick-up Speed Drills, Blinds

Zion Road

With no helpers today, we trained at the old nursery orchards near Zion Road. Click here for a satellite view of the area where we trained today.

SERIES A. Pick-up speed drills (Lumi and Laddie)

For Series A, we used a wagon-wheel sort of drill to practice easy, fast-paced retrieves. I watched for any flaws, keeping on eye especially on pick-up speed. A total of six times, I walked out a few steps and tossed four ducks in four different directions, distances 10-20 yards, in a semicircle around the dogs and myself. Each time, I then sent one of the dogs to pick up all four ducks of the "quad". I alternated between the dogs so that each dog ended up with a dozen retrievers.

SERIES B. Triple blind (Laddie, then Lumi)

The blinds were at 120-120-150 yards, and all involved going thru high cover and amongst trees and shrubs. One also included a road crossing.

SERIES C. Single blind (Laddie, then Lumi)

We ended the session with a 320-yard blind. The line to the blind involved repeated suction to the left from two white posts and several groups of trees. It also involved two diagonal road crossings.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Land Doubles, Marks and Blinds

Oaks Area 3

For Series A and B, I had two throwers, Nate and Austin. They were instructed to call "no, sit" and block the dog from the bird if either dog dawdled on either bird, but neither of them did so on any of today's marks.

While I handled each dog for Series A and B, I had the other dog in a down/stay behind me. Lumi held her down/stay without difficulty. Laddie tended to stand up, but he didn't leave the general area where I'd placed him.

SERIES A. Land double (Lumi, then Laddie)

For this double, the memory-bird on the right was thrown left to right into a ditch at 80 yards, landing out of sight on the far side of a crest. Then the go-bird on the left was thrown left to right at 50 yards. When the dog was sent to the go-bird, the memory-bird's thrower retired behind some trees.

SERIES B. Land double (Lumi, then Laddie)

For this double, the memory-bird on the left was thrown right to left at 100 yards. Then the go-bird on the right was thrown left to right at 90 yards . When the dog was sent to the go-bird, the memory-bird's thrower retired behind some trees.

Blunt Road Area 3

Before running Series C, I returned Nate home so he could meet with his tutor. I then drove Austin and the dogs to a field that I discovered recently and have trained at before, but have not, as far as I can remember, typed up my notes for that training.

The field is part of Seneca Creek Park, between Seneca Creek and Blunt Road, a ten minute drive from home. It's one of at least four possible training areas along Blunt Road. Click here for a satellite view of the field we used today.

Though not apparent in the satellite view, the terrain was as difficult as any we've used, covered in unmaintained, uneven, long, dry, clumpy grass mixed with a dense network of prickly vines, dotted with shrubs and small trees, and filled with saplings springing up everywhere.

With Austin and the dogs waiting in the van, I placed an LP for our SL and screwed in the tie out behind it, then planted the blinds. Finally, I went back and got Austin and the dogs, and sent Austin out with the starter pistol and two ducks to throw for us, one for each dog.

While I handled each dog, I put the other dog on the tie-out.

SERIES C. Land single with double mark (Laddie, then Lumi)

With Austin holding the ducks and standing on the left side of the course as a diversion, first the dog ran the 40-yard blind to the right. Next, Austin threw a duck left to right at 60 yards and the dog was sent to retrieve the duck. Finally, the dog ran the 110-yard blind to the left, under the arc of Austin's earlier throw.

Performance notes. The only thing eventful about today's three series was that nothing bad happened. Both dogs turned in high quality performances on every series. They had dead-on marking, enthusiastic outruns, no dawdling pick-ups, reasonable returns, excellent deliveries with no dropped birds, good initial lines on the send-outs to the blinds, quick responses to every WS, and consistently accurate casting. Although I attempted to introduce challenges — retired guns, a divergent double, a blind run when a mark was visibly about to be thrown, an under-the-arc blind, and difficult terrain — both dogs made every series look bland and easy.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Diverging Skills, Diverging Marks

[Note: Once again, I've fallen way behind in updating this blog with our daily training. Since my last update, we've trained with fliers several times to work on steadiness marking and honoring, in preparation for possible entries into Senior-level Hunt Tests this spring. I hope to type up my notes from those training sessions soon, so that they will appear in this blog in the correct sequence. When I do, I'll add a note to the blog entry at the top of the listing as notification that the others have also been entered. For now, here's today's short morning session.]

AM: Oaks Area 2

SERIES A. Land double with double land blind (Lumi only)

I used RLs and ducks for the land double, ODs for the blinds. The first mark of the double was on the left at 140 yards, thrown right to left. The second mark was on the right at 40 yards, thrown left to right , making the marks divergent. As usual, I sent Lumi to the short and most recent mark (that is, the go-bird) first, then to the long memory-bird. After Lumi picked up both birds, I sent her to a blind at 90 yards on the right, under the arc of the go-bird. Finally I sent her to a blind at 170 yards on a line 45° to the left of the left mark.

Although I attempted to introduce some difficulty factors, none of today's retrieves seemed to present any significant challenge for Lumi. The factors were as follows:
  • The line to the go-bird was thru a muddy patch with especially uneven footing, and the duck was under the branches of a deciduous tree.
  • The line to the memory-bird was inside a backdrop of a hedgerow that ended further to the left, with an open area and hill crest beyond that on the left that we've used in the past for marks and blinds, possibly creating some suction to run too deep and too far left.
  • The two marks were divergent.
  • The line to the 90-yard blind was among several trees and under the arc of the go-bird throw.
  • The 90-yard blind was placed in a depression in the ground surface, making it invisible until the dog was close.
  • The line to the 170-yard blind was thru a keyhole formed by two trees in a line of deciduous trees that has usually been our border for training on this field. For the 170-yard blind, Lumi had to go thru that line of trees to reach a line of conifers further back, where the blind was planted.
Lumi had good pick-ups of the birds today, not her best ever but nonetheless high quality, and required no extra cueing beyond my usual CIW blown just as she was reaching for each article.

SERIES B. Blind with poison bird, land double delayed with a second blind (Laddie only)

I used the identical placements of articles for Series B as for Series A. But for Lumi in Series A, I used no poison birds (PBs) or delayed marks because I feel that using such factors earlier this month led to some decline in skills that she will need for her upcoming Senior tests. I wouldn't expect those sorts of challenges in a Senior test, so Lumi doesn't need the ability to deal with them at this time.

For Laddie in Series B, I took advantage of his more advanced skills to run the set-up in what I thought would be a more challenging sequence:

After setting up the RLs and laying out the ducks twenty feet away, I took Laddie out of the van and began by running him on the 90-yard blind to the right. In addition to factors mentioned under Series A for Lumi, this meant that Laddie also needed to run between the RL on his left and the duck on his right at 40 yards, in a channel 20 yards wide, to get to the OD in the depression at 90 yards. Next I launched the 140-yard RL on the left and then the 40-yard RL on the right. After both streamers had been launched, but before the birds were picked up, I sent Laddie to the 170-yard blind on the left (making this a "delayed" double). Next, instead of sending him to the most recent mark, I sent him to the 140-yard mark. Finally I sent him to the 40-yard mark.

Series B was intended to provide additional difficulty factors to those already mentioned for Series A:
  • Running the 90-yard blind on a line that passed 10 yards from a pre-positioned duck.
  • Running the 170-yard blind after the double had been launched but before the birds had been picked up.
  • Running the long, first mark before the short, more recent second mark.
As with Lumi, Laddie seemed to have no difficulty with any of today's retrieves. Good (not great) pick-ups, no drops on any of the returns, excellent deliveries. The reason for the less than great pick-ups was probably because we were using a kind of duck that Laddie has not seen much before and has not liked when we did use it. Had we been using Mallards, I suspect Laddie would have shown the high-drive pick-ups he usually exhibits.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Steadiness Training, Land Blinds

AM: Clevenger's Corner

Though I haven't had time to type up all my notes from previous sessions, this was the third or fourth time we've trained with a highly experienced field trainer named Dave and a mutual friend named Carol. Carol is our holistic vet and runs her extraordinarily versatile Bernese Mountain Dog, Dyna.

We trained at a farm several miles from Warrenton, VA. Today Dave arranged for us to have pheasants for fliers and acted as gunner on all our marks. Thanks to my dogs now being able to run for other handlers besides myself, based on our practice over the last couple of weeks with four other handlers, we only needed three live birds for today's session.

SERIES A, B, and C

All three series had much in common, with some differences:
  • Each series consisted of a land single.
  • All three series were run from the same SL, though in three different directions.
  • The marks were all at 60 yards. Series A and C were thrown right to left, while Series B was thrown left to right.
  • For every mark, Dave threw the mark and fired two shots using his shotgun and live ammo.
  • The sequence of handlers was the same all three times: (a) I ran one of my dogs. (b) I honored with that dog while Carol ran my other dog. (c) I honored with my second dog while Carol ran Dyna. For Series A, I ran Laddie and then Carol ran Lumi and Dyna. For Series B and C, I ran Lumi while Carol ran Laddie and Dyna.
  • Series A was with WDs, Series B was with fresh dead birds that I brought, and Series C was with pheasant fliers.
  • For every retrieve and every honor, Carol and I held the dog's tab, keeping it slack so that the dog couldn't feel us holding it, and made mental note of whether the dog attempted a break.
Notes on performance. For Series A with WDs, Laddie was steady running and honoring. Lumi tried to break while running for Carol, but was steady honoring.

For Series B with dead birds, both dogs were steady running and honoring.

For Series C with fliers, Lumi was steady running and honoring. Laddie moved slightly while running for Carol, was steady honoring. Because of his movement when running, which was more of an alerting motion than creeping, Laddie's tab became taut. Carol did not think that Laddie would have broken, and it didn't look that way to me from the honoring position, either, but we can't be sure because he might have been responding to feeling the tab.

SERIES D. Land blind (Lumi, then Laddie)

Series D was a single blind, a duck at 170 yards against a backdrop of woods. The line to the blind was on a relatively steep diagonal downhill slope to the right. On the right of the line to the blind at 80 yards was a large grouping of trees and underbrush. The series, suggested by Dave, was designed so that both the hill and the trees would tend to draw the dogs to the right, acting cumulatively to make the blind more difficult, rather than canceling one another out. Another concern was that if the dog wrapped around the trees, the dog and handler would no longer be able to see one another.

Lumi ran the blind well, remaining responsive on all WSCs.

Laddie took an excellent line and looked as though he would need no handling, but at 150 yards he suddenly veered left. I blew WS but he must have realized that that close to the woods, he had to be near the bird and slipped the whistle, preferring to hunt. I should have immediately called NO-SIT and gone out to pick him up, but not wanting to make Carol and Dave wait that long, I let Laddie complete the retrieve. I mentioned my concern to Dave later and he urged me to pick the dog up in that situation, which I'll try to remember if it happens again, even though it causes inconvenience to the other trainers.

PM: Zion Road

SERIES E. Triple land blind (Laddie, then Lumi)

Series E was three blinds at distances closer to what I've seen for Senior-level Hunt Tests, rather than the longer blinds we've been practicing at recently. I also made no use of a diversion, since the dogs won't need to deal with that in their Senior tests, which hopefully will begin soon. Lumi's recent training with poison birds seemed to cause a problem in a couple of the marks she ran with a training group yesterday. I think it would be better for Lumi to get at least her first Senior leg, then worry about training for more difficult criteria.

For Series E, the first blind was to the right at 70 yards, a CCD placed between two widely spaced trees. The second blind was in the center at 110 yards, an OD placed at the far end of an elongated pile of brush and rock debris. The third blind was to the left at 140 yards, an OD placed in a large area of high cover with the line to the blind through a gap in a second elongated pile of brush and rock debris. The terrain was long, clumpy, grass with uneven footing. The field, an old nursery orchard, was dotted with trees of various species at irregular spacing.

The terrain was difficult enough that neither dog lined any of the blinds. Both dogs remained responsive on all WSCs, requiring no WOs.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Land Blinds, Alternating Handlers

Oaks Area 2

CONDITIONS: Unseasonably warm, with overcast skies and high humidity.

We were fortunate today to have son Dave come out to train with Lumi, Laddie, and me. We started with some blinds I'd planted earlier, then ran pick-up speed drills with Dave doing most of the handling.

SERIES A. Triple land blind with poison bird (Lumi, then Laddie)

The first blind was to the right at 80 yards. The second blind was in the center at 100 yards. The third blind was to the left at 150 yards. Before the dog ran the third blind, Dave threw a "poison bird" left to right at 50 yards from the far left, toward what would be the line to the third blind, so that the line to the blind passed within 20 yards of the bird on the left. After the dog ran the third blind, the dog was sent to pick up Dave's poison bird.

Though short, the first blind (an OD) was challenging because it was in front of a narrow strip of woods and underbrush, and among several widely spaced trees, just to the right of an opening in the woods. The challenge of the second blind was that the line to the second blind was only a few degrees to the right of the line to the first blind, but this time the dog had to go through the opening in the woods, which functioned as a keyhole. The blind was a CCD placed in a depression so that it was invisible until the dog was quite close to it. The primary challenge of the third blind was, of course, the poison bird that Dave had just thrown, but an additional challenge was that the line to the third blind passed within a couple of yards of the left edge of the narrow strip of woods, drawing the dog to wrap around behind the woods rather than continue on a straight line up a hill to the blind (an OD).

Lumi, apparently confused by the first blind's placement, required about ten WSCs for that blind. She then ran the second blind thru the keyhole with little difficulty, apparently leaning on previous experience with blinds on narrow angles and the challenge of following a blind just in front of an obstacle with a second blind past that same obstacle.

On the third blind, Lumi remained responsive to every WS, which pleased me greatly, but she apparently found the poison bird thrown toward the line of the blind by a real human too confusing to deal with. After a few attempts to retrieve the bird, and of course being whistled to sit and cast away from it each time, she finally froze and would not take another cast. I called her toward me, blew WS, walked about 30 yards closer to her, and was finally able to handle her past the bird, after which she had no difficulty completing the blind.

When I put Lumi in the car and brought out Laddie to run the same series, he put on a clinic, performing fabulously on every blind. That included the third blind past the hand-thrown poison bird, a set-up neither dog has ever experienced before.

SERIES B. Pick-up speed drills with alternating handlers

Series B consisted of each dog getting five pairs of singles thrown by a single thrower. Because I didn't want Lumi to get back into head-swinging in anticipation of multiple marks, after addressing and seemingly solving that problem recently, I had both dogs run singles exclusively during Series B. With one dog on a tie out, Dave or I would throw two ducks for the other dog while the other of us handled. One duck was thrown to one side, the dog would retrieve that one, and another duck was then thrown to the other side.

I handled both dogs for the first series of two throws per dog. Dave then handled the dogs for the next four series, again two throws per dog per series. Dave is not a field trainer and has rarely if ever handled either of my dogs when coming out to help in the past, but he learned quickly and performed well. For some reason, he decided to call Here instead of blowing a come-in whistle for the dogs, but it seemed to work well and I didn't try to change his decision.

All five series were run from the same SL but on different lines. The first series, with Dave throwing and me handling, was a pair of singles at 70-70 yards. The remaining series, with Dave handling and me throwing, were a pair of singles at 10-10 yards, a pair of singles at 20-20 yards, a pair of singles at 50-30 yards, and a pair of singles at 70-50 yards.

Laddie's performance was outstanding except for a single dropped bird during delivery of the first mark he ran for Dave. I called no-no-no-sit, ran to the SL and threw the duck back out into the field, ran back to my position as a thrower, and had Dave run Laddie to that bird again. Laddie didn't drop another bird.

Lumi had only one great pick-up, her last one, but almost all of her other pick-ups were reasonably fast. The exception was one bird that she picked up, then put back down before starting to pick it up again. I immediately called no-no-no-sit, walked out to her to block her from the bird, and had Dave come out to walk her back to the SL.

On Lumi's one outstanding running pick-up (a routine pick-up for Laddie), I let out a cheer, Lumi ran toward me, and I broke into a run toward Dave waiting at the SL, so that Lumi and I completed the return on a sprint together, Lumi joyously carrying her bird and then delivering it to Dave with her usual excellence of delivery. Hopefully, that lovely moment shared sprinting together added some weight to Lumi's reinforcement history for high-quality pick-ups.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Pick-up Speed Drills with Multiple Handlers

AM: Oaks Area 3

For this morning's pick-up speed drills with Austin helping, I had Austin do all the handling except for me demonstrating a few times. When I was handling, Austin was throwing, and vice versa.

We ran alternation drills: retrieve one or more dummies, then immediately retrieve a bird. We used old birds because that's what the dogs need practice with. For Lumi, the issue of concern was slow pick-ups. For Laddie, it was dropping the bird at the line instead of sitting and holding until the handler takes the bird. For both problems when they occurred, I'd call out no-no-no-sit while running to the dog. For Lumi, she had to go back to the SL without the bird and try the retrieve again. For Laddie, I'd put the bird back where it was and he'd have to retrieve it again.

We worked at distances 10-70 yards.

Neither dog had any problems with dummies, and both dogs made excellent progress with their particular issues during the session. How much long term benefit they got remains to be seen.

PM: Oaks Area 2

This afternoon, the dogs and I had both Nate and Austin to help us train. Using a tie-out for the dog not running, we ran seven doubles, alternating dogs: Lumi, then Laddie, on each series. We rotated handlers and worked thru increasing distances. The two of us who were handling threw ducks. Here's the sequence we followed:
  • Series A. Lindsay handling, throws at 20-10 yards
  • Series B. Nate handling, throws at 20-10 yards
  • Series C. Austin handling, throws a 20-10 yards
  • Series D. Lindsay handling, throws at 30-20 yards
  • Series E. Nate handling, throws at 30-20 yards
  • Series F. Austin handling, throws at 30-20 yards
  • Series G. Lindsay handling, throws at 70-50 yards
Laddie had one dropped bird, the go-bird on Series B. From the field, I called no-no-no-sit, went to the line to pick up the bird, put it back where it had been thrown, and returned to my place. Then Nate had Laddie re-run that mark. Laddie did not drop another bird, or have any issues, the rest of the afternoon. I was pleased with his progress.

I responded similarly when Lumi was slow on one of her early pick-ups, and she improved some, but she never did get as crisp on her pick-ups as she has been at times in the past.

I continue to notice a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships effect. So far, the dogs don't perform as well for the kids as they do for me, but as their skills with the kids handling improves, their skill with me seems to improve even more than if I were doing all the handling.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Land Blinds, Land Series with New Bird Boy

AM: Zion Road

CONDITIONS: Hard ground-snow and frigid temps prevented us from training most of this week, but today temps shot up, melting most of the snow.

SERIES A. Triple blind (Laddie, then Lumi)

For Series A, the first blind was an OD to the left at 90 yards, with the blind in a large patch of high cover. The second blind was an OD in the center at 150 yards, also in the high cover. The third blind was a CCD to the right at 190 yards. Working in an old nursery orchard, our entire course was dotted with many irregularly spaced trees and shrubs of various species and sizes.

PM: Riggs Road

Today the dogs and I were accompanied by Nate and a new bird boy, a schoolmate of Nate's named Austin.

SERIES B. Single mark and double blind (Laddie, then Lumi)

For Series B, the mark was to the right, a WD thrown left to right at 70 yards. The first blind was to the left at 220 yards. The second blind was in the center at 280 yards. Both blinds were ODs marked by LPs barely visible from the SL.

Since I had two helpers, I took this opportunity to give Lumi and Laddie honoring practice. Our sequence was as follows:
  1. With Nate handling the dog, Austin throws the mark, using duck call and gunshot.
  2. I run the dog on both blinds.
  3. I handle the dog honoring while Nate runs the next dog.
In order to give Lumi a chance to honor, Nate ran Laddie on the mark a second time after Laddie and then Lumi had both run the full series.

SERIES C. Single mark

Series C was a 90-yard mark with a good-quality duck, using the same handling sequence as for Series A.

SERIES D. Double mark

Series D was a "momma poppa double", throwing both the long and the short marks of a double. The distances were 30 and 20 yards, and two older ducks were thrown.

To demonstrate the throws, I threw for Laddie, with Nate handling, as Austin watched. Then Austin threw for Lumi, with Nate handling, while I honored Laddie. Finally, Austin threw for Laddie, again with Nate handling, while I honored Lumi.

Dogs, including my dogs, prefer to retrieve fresher birds, so we need to practice with older birds sometimes so that the dogs will have experience them if it comes up in an event or group practice.

Notes on today's honoring. For Series B, C, and D, I had both dogs honor off lead, using our "Just watch" cue and the body language I reserve for honoring, with me off the dog's right flank, facing away from the field and visibly prepared to run toward the van behind us. Once Nate had sent the running dog to the first mark, I called Here, and the honoring dog and I ran back to the van for a high-energy game of happy throws and tug with a puppy dummy.

Today's session included our first honoring practice in some time. Neither dog had any difficulty honoring during Series B and C. During the relatively exciting Series D, Laddie alerted on the throws during Series D, but did not appear on the verge of breaking. Lumi also alerted while honoring during Series D, and did appear on the verge of breaking. Although she didn't break, I'd rather she sat calmly till I called Here. When I set up an honoring context, I don't want her thinking that she might be sent. Hopefully with more well-structured practice, she'll begin to relax more when honoring.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Offline Drill with Keyhole

Sundown Park Road

CONDITIONS: Temps in low 30s, light snow, wet snow on ground.

SERIES A. Offline drill with keyhole (Lumi, then Laddie)

This is a variation on the offline drill, which I devised some months ago to work with both dogs on clarifying their understand that the WS still means to sit even when the dog thinks she knows where she's been sent.

Today, with conditions not well suited to some of the other training we might have worked on, I decided to run the dogs on a variation that has the same objective specifically with regard to blinds on a line thru a keyhole. I've noticed recently that Laddie tends to believe its no longer necessary to sit on a WS once he's gotten thru the keyhole.

For Series A, the course was a 120-yard backline to an OD/LP, with a keyhole formed by two trees at 30 yards. On the first send-out, I blew WS at 60 yards and cast Over to an OD/SF to the left. On the second send-out, I blew WS at 90 yards and cast Over to an OD/SF on the right. On the third send-out, I didn't stop the dog and the dog completed the 120-yard retrieve.

SERIES B. Offline drill with keyhole (Lumi, then Laddie)

For Series B, the course was a 190-yard backline to an OD/LP, with a keyhole formed by two trees at 70 yards. On the first send-out, I blew WS at 110 yards and cast Over to an OD/SF to the left. On the second send-out, I blew WS at 150 yards and cast Over to an OD/SF on the right. On the third send-out, I didn't stop the dog and the dog completed the 190-yard retrieve.

The Hold Game

Based on email conversations over the last year with Alice Woodyard and Jody Baker, it appears that I may have made fundamental errors in Lumi's and Laddie's early training that have resulted in on-going problems that continue to haunt our training.

One example would be years of throwing toys for Lumi without having her wait until I send her, which may be making steadiness more difficult to train.

Another example, the subject of this post, is that I didn't train "hold" to Laddie early enough in his retrieving career, which may be at least partly responsible for his continuing tendency to drop birds during returns and deliveries. Beginning in March 2008, when Laddie was nearly a year old, I did go back and train his retrieve from the ground up, as described in the posts in this journal during that time period. Overall, Laddie's retrieve improved significantly as a result of that training. But the problem of occasional dropped birds persists. Although it rarely occurs with dummies or fresh Mallards, it comes up with disturbing frequency when Laddie is sent to retrieve something novel, such as a duck that has been injected with foam to preserve its firmness, or a different species of duck, or a different kind of bird such as pheasant or goose, or a bird with open wounds.

I'm not entirely clear of the reason for the drops. It may be that Laddie finds some articles unpleasant to hold in his mouth. Another factor, explained to me by Alice, is that dropping birds is a typical expression of possessiveness in advanced retrievers. Laddie is nothing if not possessive. That may help to explain why this problem continues to crop up with Laddie rather than Lumi, who shows much less possessiveness in her everyday life.

I've been trying to address Laddie's dropped-bird problem continuously all along. Besides re-training Laddie's retrieve from the ground up about a year ago, beginning with the hold, another strategy I began during the summer was to train "fetch" as a separate cue that produces a chase game as Laddie gets close to me, a training device I also described in this journal. That effort was successful, and Laddie's affection for the Fetch cue has proven persistent, giving us a reliable way to address the situation when he drops a bird during field retrieves, even at considerable distance. But it should not be necessary to cue Fetch repeatedly once Laddie has picked the bird up for the first time on a retrieve, because he should not be dropping the bird. As of today, it is sometimes necessary to cue Fetch more than once to get Laddie to complete the retrieve.

So the last couple of days, I decided to start working on a new game, the "Hold Game", with Laddie at home. As with the Fetch game from the summer, the goal isn't to train a new behavior, but to build a high level of reinforcement history for a particular cue and the associated behavior. The summer game was for Fetch, our new game is for Hold.

As background, we don't have a fenced yard, so when I let Laddie out during the day, I need to keep my eye on him and then call him back when the time comes. Laddie would nearly always prefer to stay outside, probably for hours, so I've tried to make it rewarding him to come back in despite that preference. For months, his primary reward has been a rousing game of tug with a plush snake I keep on a bookshelf in the office near the foyer, and which I only take down for games of tug when Laddie comes in from outside. Over time, his response to Here in that situation, despite his natural preference to stay outside, has become better and better.

Yesterday, I decided to put two other toys on the shelf with the snake: a plush duck, and a Dokken, which is a soft plastic retriever-training article designed by its inventer, a man named Dokken, to resemble a real game bird in weight and appearance. We have a dozen or so Dokkens of different "species" that I rarely use any more, but I dug one out for this new game.

The Hold Game is simple. I call Laddie to heel in one room, throw the plush duck or Dokken into an adjoining room, and send Laddie as in a field event. He races to the article, quickly picks it up, and dashes back to me with it for an event-style delivery. As Laddie is returning, I call Hold two or three times, while cueing him with my hand to come to heel for delivery. Then, as I reach for the bird, I say Hold again once or twice, and finally grab the toy and enter into an exciting game of tug. After a few moments, I have Laddie again come to heel and sit, and this time I cue Out and he releases the bird, so that I can throw it for him again. The silver lining of Laddie problems with Hold is that he has an outstanding Out. We have two or three retrieves with each of the bird toys, then we switch to tug with the plush snake. That game also has a few retrieves in it, though the primary focus with the snake is on tug.

For some dogs, I would guess that the Hold Game would be a disastrous mistake. Some dogs are reluctant to give up a bird at the line — in fact, Lumi shows a slight tendency in that direction — and this game could conceivably make that problem worse. But that's not a problem that Laddie has ever exhibited, and his problem with dropping birds to me seems to put him far on the other side of the spectrum.

Hopefully, then, without causing Laddie to develop a sticking or freezing problem, the Hold Game will develop in Laddie a high reinforcement history for the cue Hold, and more importantly, for the behavior itself. By reinforcement history, I mean that that cue and that behavior have an increased tendency to predict in Laddie's mind a pleasurable outcome. For our game, that pleasurable outcome is the opportunity to engage in a game of tug, but the specific reinforcer is not important. What's important is the sense of intense pleasure.

To clarify, my intent isn't to get Laddie to think during a field retrieve, "If I deliver this bird to Daddy, maybe we'll start playing tug with it," because that's never going to happen. We play tug with retrieved dummies sometimes, but never with birds.

Yet classical and operant conditioning, both of which seem to be involved in this game, aren't about training the dog's thought processes, they're about training behaviors, behaviors that eventually become fluent almost to the point of reflex. With several instances of the Hold Game per day in the house, my hope is that Laddie's growing love for the Hold behavior will gradually, over a period of days, weeks, and months, come to be reflected in Laddie's field behavior as well.

One last point: A long-standing component of our game of tug with the plush snake, that remains in place with the plush bird and Dokken, is that Laddie is not to show any delay or sign of distraction during the retrieves or games of tug. At the slightest lowering of focus or intensity, I instantly stop the session and return the toys to their shelf, rather than waiting until I myself decide to end the game because I'm out of time or I'm getting tired.

The effect of this rule is apparent in Laddie's behavior. He seems to understand that he is able to control whether the game will be longer or shorter, and that he can, if he wishes, immediately end the game. All he needs to do to end the game is dawdle on his pick-ups, look around at some distraction, or in any other way show a break in his focus or a drop in his intensity. Since Laddie almost never wants the game to end early, those behaviors have been virtually eliminated from our sessions.

Postscript April 2009

I believe the Hold Game has had a significant impact on Laddie's field performance. As Laddie approaches during training or in an event, I say "Hold" in the same tone as when we're playing the Hold Game in the house. Dropping birds during delivery has almost entirely disappeared.
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