Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lumi's First Senior Ribbon

[Note: The following was posted today to the DogTrek and PositiveGunDogs lists.]

Hi, everyone. Lumi here. I'm using Daddy's computer to let you guys know that I earned my first ribbon in Senior Hunt Tests yesterday. It took me nine tries dating back to last fall. I came close on the first two Senior tests Laddie and I took this spring, and on the third one yesterday, the test official finally called my name at the ribbon ceremony. Daddy put the ribbon up in the kitchen for now, but soon he'll add it to my Lumi bulletin board in the office.


For those not familiar with the requirements of the Senior level and how they differ from Junior level, which Laddie and I have already titled in, here's a dog's-eye outline:

* OFF-LEAD. In a Junior test, we're heeled from the last holding blind to the start line on lead, then transferred to a slip lead for the run. Some gentle physical contact is permitted at the line as we're lined up for the two retrieves. In a Senior test, our lead is removed in the last holding blind, replaced when we're leaving the judging area after then entire series is complete (which sometimes includes overlap with the next dog's series), and in between no physical contact typically occurs. An occasional exception can be given at the judge's discretion. For example, yesterday, Daddy asked for and received permission to clear some feathers out of my mouth after one retrieve. The reason offline heeling to the line is difficult is that the judge's area is a target-rich environment for a retriever: people (Laddie and I are Goldens, don't forget); birds on a drying rack; the ground in front of the start line with zillions of interesting smells; the nearby gun stations with their own birds, half the time including one station with live birds; and the judge's lunch and snacks. Walking at heel offline and remaining under Daddy's control throughout the series in such environment is not a job for a typical Junior dog.

* MULTIPLE MARKS. In a Junior test, the dog runs two single marks (meaning the dog sees the birds thrown and retrieves a bird immediately after each throw). In a Senior test, the dog runs double marks (meaning the dog sees both of the birds thrown, and then retrieves both of them, first the "go-bird", then the "memory-bird"). A Senior dog has a second or two between throws to take a mental snapshot of where the first bird fell, so that after the dog picks up the go-bird, she'll remember where the other bird is to be found. In more advanced tests, the number of memory birds increases, but in a Senior, we just have doubles: a land double and a water double. The fact that they throw doubles in Senior tests also leads to a variety of concepts we dogs have to learn. Yesterday's test, for example, had convergent throws on the land series (the birds were thrown toward one another from the two gun stations), and a "flower-pot" on the water series (both birds were thrown from the same holding blind, but in opposite directions). If you've never seen a particular concept, it can be hard to find the memory-bird. Junior dogs don't get any memory-birds at all.

* HANDLER'S GUN. In a Junior test, the handler can focus entirely on handling the dog. In a Senior test, the handler is often required to carry a "handler's gun", an unloaded shotgun or facsimile thereof (we Goldens like to use expressions like "facsimile thereof" in our emails). Some Senior handlers just hold the gun in one hand while trying to focus on their dogs as in a Junior test. Others, like Daddy, actually aim the barrel of the "gun" at the birds as they're thrown, which I like. It tells me when to turn and thereby helps me find the bird in the air faster, instead of scanning the whole field waiting for a shot from the gun station. Without the gun, I tend to look away from the memory-bird without taking a good look (that's called "head-swinging"), because I don't want to miss the next throw. I don't have to worry about that when Daddy's using the handler's gun that way, so I don't have to swing my head. When Daddy realized that a few weeks ago, he began using his hiking stick as a handler's gun even in practice. I knew it wasn't a gun, but it still helped.

* MARKING DIFFICULTY. It seems to me that the marks are longer and more difficult to find in a Senior test, though I'm not sure about that. Laddie and I don't usually have a lot of trouble with marks. I often hear people telling Daddy what good "marking dogs" we are. People say that when they see one of us run straight to the birds, when other dogs are having to hunt for their birds.

* HANDLING. In a Junior test, the dog runs no blinds (meaning the bird is planted somewhere the handler knows about but the dog does not). In a Senior test, we have one land blind and one water blind. When I run a blind, Daddy, like most handlers, sends me from heel with the verbal cue "Back", and then uses whistle, verbal, and hand cues to direct me to the blind. That's called "handling". We practice at distances of hundreds of yards (Laddie and I ran a 690-yard blind in practice a few weeks ago), but they're generally no more than 100 yards in a Senior test. Of course, that doesn't necessarily make them easy. In yesterday's land blind for example, we had to make two diagonal crossings of cover changes (without practice, we dogs tend to square a cover change, or refuse to enter high cover entirely), then two diagonal traversals of an embankment to a pond on our right (again, we tend to square embankments, and some dogs are also affected by gravity and are either pulled offline downward or push themselves offline upward, to say nothing of the temptation a pond presents to a waterdog). Running blinds is such a prominent feature of the more advanced tests that people often think it presents the greatest challenge to training a retriever for advanced field work without aversives. In my opinion, that is not true, because I think other challenges among those I'm telling you about are more difficult to train without aversives. But it wasn't easy learning to remain responsive to Daddy's cues, especially when in some cases I was pretty sure I already knew where the bird was and didn't WANT to sit when Daddy blew the whistle. Also, after I sit, if Daddy says I should go left, and I'm sure the bird is to the right, I don't WANT to go the way he casts me, either. In yesterday's test, the land blind was unusually short, and some dogs overran it, then needed a come-in cast, which is many dogs' weak point. I actually don't like come-in casts myself, because I'm afraid I'm losing the chance to complete the retrieve. It wasn't an issue for Laddie and me yesterday, though. For our second test in a row, we both "lined" the blind (meaning we ran in the direction Daddy sent us straight from the start line to the blind, despite any "suction" from factors like those I mentioned, and required no handling cues from Daddy). Spectators like seeing a "good-lining" dog and judges usually give them a high score for the blind, but it also annoys some judges because they don't get to see whether the dog would have been responsive to the handler if handling had been required. Daddy actually apologized to one of the judges after I lined a blind in a test once. :0)

* STEADINESS. In a Junior test, the dog wears a collar and is held at the start line -- until the judge calls a number to release the dog to retrieve -- by a "slip cord", a cord that runs thru the collar so that the handler can release the dog by letting go of one end. In a Senior test, the dog wears no collar and must be "steady", which means that the dog has to remain at heel at least until the judge calls the number, and preferably until the handler releases the dog by calling the dog's name. Like many but not all other handlers, Daddy also places his flattened, vertical hand over my head when sending me, to give me a "sight" toward the fall I'm running to. I've learned not to go on the motion of the hand, but rather when the hand is still and Daddy calls "Lumi" in a special growl he uses just for this one cue. Learning to be steady when ducks are being thrown, or possibly a live duck is being thrown and then shot in the air, is HARD! You have to wait, wait, wait until Daddy releases you. Oh, it's excruciating!

* WALK-UPS. In a Junior test, the handler brings the dog to the line, the dog sits at heel, and when the handler signals the judge that he's ready, the first bird is thrown. In a Senior test, sometimes they do it that way, but often they have other ways of doing it, too. A common example is called a "walk-up". They had a walk-up in our last test where the rule was that the dog has to walk at heel as the handler advances toward one of the gun stations, and then at some point a duck-call is blown, a shotgun is fired, and the bird is thrown by means of a mechanical device called a "winger". In most tests that I've seen, the handler cues Sit when the duck call sounds, but in that recent test, you weren't told to Sit until the bird was in the air. So you can't sit, but you can't go, either. You have to keep just walking along while all that's going on.

* LINE MECHANICS. In a Junior test, the handler positions you to face the appropriate gun station before each bird is the thrown. In a Senior test, you get disqualified if the handler shows you where all the gun stations are before the throws. Daddy stands aside and gives me time to look around and find the stations, then lines me up for the first throw and says, "Sit. Mark." As I stare out at the gun station, Daddy aims his handler's gun, then raises a hand to let the judge know I'm ready for the throws. I keep staring in that direction until Daddy turns to the other station, but I know that's coming because I had a chance to look around first. In Junior tests, we didn't have to worry about all those line mechanics.

* HONORING. After a Junior dog completes his two retrieves in each series, he's done. A Senior dog generally has three retrieves in each series -- the double mark, and the blind. But half the time, you're not done yet. Now you have to "honor", which means sit nearby and watch the next dog run the same series. Usually you don't have to stay the whole time, just the hard part: watching the birds thrown, possibly watching a flier shot, and then watching the running dog go racing off to pick up the go-bird. If you can get that far without breaking, one of the judges says, "honor dog released." Then your handler can call you away from the line and slip your lead back on. Experienced dogs get pretty comfortable honoring, because they can tell from the set-up that they have no chance of being sent on those particular throws and therefore have no reason to coil up for a send-out. Laddie and I still tend to alert when the birds go down, and I can hear Daddy's voice become a bit more emphatic as he quietly repeats, "Just watch . . . just watch." Laddie has only broken once honoring this year, and I haven't broken at all, so we are getting this difficult skill down.

In summary, Laddie and I had a lot of new skills to learn beyond those needed for a JH title before we were ready for Senior. It's pretty unusual for a 2Q dog to get that far. Just arranging the logistics for proofing steadiness with fliers, at the line and honoring, is probably enough to prevent many trainers from getting their dogs there.

But in the end, I'd say the most difficult skill for a 2Q dog is also one of the most basic, and even applies to Junior dogs: the return. After you pick up the bird, you're supposed to run back to your handler with it. It sounds simple and it does seem to be natural to some retrievers, but let me tell you, once you get out there and find the bird, there are so many other things to do instead. It's pretty straight-forward for a 4Q trainer to instill in the dog's conditioning the disadvantages of trying any of those things, especially in this era of ecollars. But a 2Q trainer has to condition the dog to return based entirely on the giving or not-giving of rewards. Daddy has spent countless hours over the last two years on that skill with Laddie and me, and we're pretty good at it in private practice. But in the elevated distraction level of an event, the competing reinforcers for not returning become more prominent, and our returns deteriorate. Also, it's begun to dawn on us that Daddy won't leave the start line and come out to get us if we don't come straight back in a test. Most of the time, we still squeak by, and occasionally Laddie makes a spectacular return. Other times, a poor return, especially on a land-water-land retrieve, does us in and we end up scoring too low to qualify. That's what happened to Laddie in yesterday's test. It almost happened to me, too.

Daddy has decided not to run either of us in any more Hunt Tests till the fall. Then, maybe, Laddie and I can earn some more Senior ribbons for our bulletin boards.

With feathery wags,
Lumiere-du-Soleil JH WCX CGC TDI (Lumi)

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