Friday, April 24, 2009

The Walk-Over


Both of my dogs have had problems the last few weeks with slow pick-ups. The problems seem to be from different causes.

For Lumi, it seems to be bird-possessiveness, wanting to spend as much alone-time with the bird as possible. To stretch the time out, she examines the bird, picks it up and puts it down again in a different position, shakes off if wet, and so forth.

For Laddie, it seemed to be the opposite problem. Laddie seemed uncomfortable with particular articles, such as hen pheasants, birds that had open wounds, and birds that had been injected with hard foam to preserve shape. An additional complication with Laddie is that once he picked the bird up, he might get distracted by the environment instead of coming straight back for the delivery. This post doesn't address that issue, but I mention it as complicating the picture.

I've worked with both dogs on a long line in the past, and found that it was effective but not at all permanent.

I also made what I now consider a mistake in supposing that the problem would fix itself as the dogs developed increasing confidence and experience with increasingly challenges retrieves, including single marks, multiples, and blinds. In retrospect, I feel that I should have focused on slow pick-ups as soon as they occurred and not worry about making progress in other areas while slow pick-ups persisted.

Recently, I developed a new approach to this problem. It seems to have quickly addressed pick-up speed problems with both dogs, though how general the solution is, and how well the solution will persist, remains to be seen.

The Walk-Over, Stage 1

The solution I came up with was to instruct the kids that I train with in a new procedure, and to follow the same procedure myself when one of them is handling and I'm throwing. I call the procedure a "Walk-Over".

The Walk-Over has two stages.

In Stage 1 of the Walk-Over, the thrower is instructed to raise his hand as the dog is about to pick up the bird. The handler is then to blow a come-in whistle (CIW), that is, a string of quick, strong tweets. As the thrower hears the CIW, he is to begin to walk quickly toward the bird. If the dog picks up the bird, the thrower is to walk back to his station. But if the thrower gets to the bird before the dog picks it up, he is to pick the bird up himself, or at least block the dog from picking up the bird, and the handler is to call the dog back to the SL. Once the dog is on the way back, the thrower is to toss the bird back where it was and return to his station. Then the handler is to send the dog again, and the same procedure is to be followed. Never once in all the times we've used the Walk-Over did either dog ever hesitate to pick the bird up on the second send-out.

I believe that an important element of the Walk-Over is that the dog experience it with as many throwers as possible, so that the dog comes to believe that any thrower out there is competition for the bird.

Another important element is consistency. I've instructed the kids I train with to use the Walk-Over even if I forget to remind them as we're setting up a particular series.

The Walk-Over, Stage 2

Because both dogs have made excellent progress on their pick-up speed with this method, yesterday I added a new stage to the Walk-Over that I think is important, once the basic behavior is under development.

In Stage 2 of the Walk-Over, the thrower is not to begin walking when the handler blows the CIW, but rather is to wait a second or so to see whether the dog is delaying the pick-up. Only if delay occurs should the thrower begin to walk over.

The reason for Stage 1 is that if you start with Stage 2, the dog is actually trained to put off the pick-up, since it's the thrower walking over that triggers the pick-up. Training such a delay is of course undesirable.

But once the behavior is installed, we want it to become a default, uncued behavior, and not depend on the stimulus of the thrower's motion to trigger it. For that, we want to use a behavioral mechanism called anticipatory response. The dog, anticipating from previous experience with the Stage 1 Walk-Over that the thrower is about to walk over, picks up the bird without waiting for the thrower to move. If occasionally he experiments with another delay, he learns that the thrower will indeed start toward him. But in general, he finds that the most enjoyable retrieves are those when he picks the bird up immediately and the thrower never moves.

It remains to be seen whether either or both dogs are ready for Stage 2. For now, they both appear to be, with little testing. But if either one of them begins to repeatedly test whether the walk-over will occur by delaying the pick-up, we'll take that dog back to Stage 1 for a few sessions.


Watching traditional trainers, I've never seen any of them use anything similar to the Walk-Over, nor have I ever seen any of them show any concern for slow pick-ups with their dogs. I believe the reason for this is that they use both the Force Fetch and ecollars in their training, and with those tools available, they can rapidly correct a pick-up speed problem if it begins to occur. It may be that the events happen so subtly that the trainer may not even be aware that much has happened, and may have no idea that without those tools, the problem would have been worse than they ever realized it could get. I think, for example, that that is true with recall problems in the retrieve.

In retrospect, I feel that I should not have waited so long in my dogs' careers to invent the Walk-Over procedure and to have my throwers begin to use it. Instead, we should have used the Walk-Over from the beginning, as one of the ground rules for all our training. It might have prevented the problem from ever getting well-established in the first place.

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