Sunday, March 1, 2009

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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