Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lumi's Demeanor on Video

Producing videos of my dogs working is a difficult job. Either I need to find, and in most cases pay, someone to come along and take the video, or I need to set up the camcorder on a tripod and take the video myself. When I get home, I have to upload the video into editing software, edit it, export it as a file, upload the file to YouTube, and embed the video into the blog entry where I want it to appear.

Besides the amount of work involved, a special difficulty also arises with the videos of Lumi, one which becomes more pronounced when I use a tripod to take the video myself. I've found that the videos taken that way present a highly distorted picture of Lumi's overall demeanor when training.

For the record, the following describes Lumi's actual field-training demeanor:
  • When we arrive at the training site, I open the side door of the van and both dogs jump out. They generally spot some interesting nearby location and run to it, then sniff around, explore, and possibly eliminate. Except that Laddie is more active and far-ranging, both dogs have about the same demeanor at this time.
  • When I bring out their training collars — the ones with the 9" tabs attached — they come to me so that I can put on the collars and give them treats. Lumi, who is more attuned to known opportunities for treats than Laddie, is likely to come without being called when she sees the collars. Her demeanor is calm and engaged as I put on the collar, and excited when I offer the treat.
  • If I let them run around while I'm setting up, sometimes they follow me and sometimes they continue exploring. Again, both dogs have the same demeanor. In this situation, Lumi is likely to range further from me than Laddie. I believe this is because she is more comfortable not running around too much, and so generally explores within a smaller area than the area I'm covering as I set up our course.
  • If I decide to run Laddie first, I call Lumi to either the van or the tie-down stake and she comes trotting over. If it's the van, she hops in on cue; if it's the stake, she comes close enough for me to fasten the chain to her collar and sits on cue. Either way, she waits expectantly for a treat and takes it happily.
  • When I bring Lumi out and begin walking with her to the SL I've set up (usually an LP), she becomes aroused, holding herself back from running ahead only with difficulty. When she loses the battle, which often happens several times as we walk, I call Here and she bounces back to heel position, then once again fights her urge to run ahead. Sometimes she looks up excitedly at me as we walk, sometimes she just keeps her eye on the course ahead of us, especially if throwers are out there, and most especially if any of them have live birds.
  • At the start line, Lumi glances at my hands to see which side I want her to sit on, then sits down and begins scanning the course for throwers or other salient features. Her demeanor is erect, alert, and well under control. She has never been rewarded for looking at me as part of our line mechanics, and is unlikely to do so. Her focus is entirely on the course in front of us.
  • When marks are being thrown, Lumi continues with the same erect, alert, focused demeanor. At the moment of the throw, she'll often lift her head even higher, apparently to get a clear view of the fall. If multiple throwing stations are in the field, Lumi's natural tendency is to watch one throw and then immediately look for the next one, sometimes without waiting for the earlier throw to land. That's called head-swinging. We've worked on that as a problem, for example with a game I call the Focus Drill, and Lumi is now unlikely to look away before the throw lands, which as far as I'm concerned solves the problem. We'll continue to play the Focus Game for some time, however, so that the habit becomes strong enough for the more difficult situation of one gun station having fliers waiting to be thrown.
  • Before Lumi learned to be steady, her natural inclination was to launch herself toward the throw immediately. Now she continues to wait, her eyes locked on the last fall, showing an increased edginess as she waits to be sent. When I place my hand over her forehead and say "Lumi", she leaps forward and races to the mark. As I may have mentioned in other posts, Lumi is an excellent marker and often takes a laser-straight route to the fall, on both go-birds and memory-birds. (Note that I use the terms and go-bird and memory-bird even when the thrown article is a training dummy.)
  • If Lumi is running a blind rather than a thrown mark, her demeanor is not much different. Once we are at the SL, she sits and scans the course. If her back is not aligned toward the blind, I use visual cues to reposition her until she is, during which time she only reluctantly takes her eyes off the field for a split-second at a time. I use my forearm as a sight to get her looking in the correct direction, then move my hand back toward her forehead with a cocking motion and verbally cue Back. In this situation, too, Lumi launches herself excitedly. Lumi virtually never no-gos on either a mark or a blind.
  • In the case of a land blind, Lumi typically trots more slowly as she goes out than she would on a mark, but not a great deal more slowly unless she believes for some reason that she is close to the blind. Her demeanor on WSs varies from a somewhat distracted turn-around and sit, finally turning her face to look at me, to a slipped whistle in which she ignores the whistle entirely. Her demeanor on a cast is another launch, generally not as dynamic as her launch from the SL but seemingly happy to be on the way again.
  • In the case of a water blind, Lumi tends to slow considerably or even stop when she reaches water's edge. Her tail continues to wave, but she moves forward tentatively, seeming to look in every direction for alligators or other dangers and testing each step of the water entry to make sure she won't slip or be bitten. Once she reaches what I call the swim-line demarcation between wading depth and swimming, she pushes off unless the entry is steep, in which case it sometimes takes her more time to build up the confidence to make the plunge.
  • Lumi is a strong, confident swimmer, and her demeanor in the water is proud and purposeful. She is generally responsive to WSs when she is swimming, though sometimes she adjusts her swim direction to where she assumes I'm going to cast her instead of turning all the way around to look at me. Since she nearly always guesses correctly, I haven't completely worked out in my own mind whether I should require her to turn all the way around in that situation or not. In recent videos of water retrieves, it is during her outruns swimming that Lumi first comes into view, so that none of the signs of engaged excitement described above have been captured by the camera. The first view of Lumi is her powerful strokes as she approaches the far shore.
  • Recently Lumi has learned from the Wetfoot Drill that if the article can be retrieved without her getting out of the water, she is to simply pick the article up, turn around, and re-launch across the swim-line. Though always edgy in shallow water where she apparently believes danger may lurk, Lumi tends to perform this maneuver in a deliberate and reasonably fluid fashion, then seems back in her element once she has resumed swimming, now cheerfully carrying her prize.
  • If the article is further inland, Lumi climbs out of the water. Though not as pronounced as her water entries, Lumi's water exits also tend to be somewhat cautious, again watching for unseen dangers that she apparently fears might leap out at her from the shallow water or high cover near the shoreline.
  • Once on shore, Lumi seems torn between whether to find the article or shake first. At one stage in our Wetfoot Drill training, I interrupted her retrieve with a WO if she shook, but I later decided that was a mistake and have stopped doing it. It is now rare that Lumi does not shake off almost immediately after getting on solid ground, though sometimes she locates the article, at least visually, first.
  • It is at this stage that Lumi's demeanor drops to its lowest ebb. Lumi seems to struggle between her natural urge to spend as much alone time with the bird as possible, versus her equally natural and also endlessly trained response of picking up the bird and heading back for the delivery. I think Lumi is at a disadvantage here compared to dogs skillfully trained with an ecollar, because those dogs no longer consider this a moment where two viable choices are available. It is precisely because of the difficulty that a 2Q trainer has of convincing a dog a considerable distance away, and on the other side of water, that a slow pick-up will cost her the opportunity to complete the retrieve that Lumi remains mired in what is apparently a difficult decision for her. "Should I pick up the bird and head right back, or should I spend as much time alone with it as I can?"
  • Her difficulty with the pick-up is further complicated by the fact that she, like all well-bred retrievers and especially Goldens, has a soft mouth, making her genetically disinclined to bite down hard on the retrieval article. Goldens are said to have the softest mouths of all retrievers, and Lumi's bite seems soft even by that standard. As a result, she likes to take her time flipping the bird over repeatedly until she finds just the right way to pick it up, and even then may require several pick-ups before she feels confident enough that she won't drop the bird for her to begin the trip back. The fact that this gives her more time to lick and savor the bird, which is what part of her would rather be doing anyway, of course tends to prolong the process. On camera, Lumi's struggles to overcome those natural inclinations and complete the pick-up process, so much more difficult for Lumi than for many retrievers, gives the appearance of a dog most unhappy in her work. The savvy viewer may think, "Since she's under no compulsion, why would she have gone out there if it makes her unhappy to be there?", but none of the excited, athletic body language she exhibited off-camera is available to help understand the answer. The first thing the viewer sees is Lumi anxious to shake off and then begin her internal battle of whether to pick up the bird or savor it as long as possible.
  • It is difficult for me as the handler to know how long I should wait for Lumi to perform her pick-up before considering it an incorrect response and terminating the retrieve with a verbal "Sit" and a WO. I feel it's unreasonable for me to expect her to simply grab the bird and spin around, though of course that's what I'd like to see. I feel I do need to give her a moment or two to inspect the bird's position on the ground and find the right grip. Perhaps I do her a disservice by giving her this time, as it may confuse her about how prompt a pick-up is actually required. Frankly, I don't know the answer to this question. I certainly wish it weren't an issue, as it does not appear to be with many other retrievers, especially those at Lumi's advanced level in other retriever skills.
  • On those occasions when I finally do decide she has exceeded my criteria at that moment for a correct response, I signal her that that is the case by calling Sit and walking out. Having a video record of these incidents, to show how effective they generally are in at least temporarily improving Lumi's pick-ups, is one of my primary motivations in expending the considerable resources required to create a video of the session. Yet it is these very incidents when Lumi is at her most unhappy in the entire panoply of the field training experience. During the time she is on camera, she has lost both the opportunity to lick and play with the bird, and the opportunity to retrieve it, and instead she must sit for interminable moments, the bird only a few inches away, as I walk out to pick her up.
  • Nor would it be consistent with our goals for me to attempt to make the WO a particularly pleasant experience for her. Of course I could call out encouragement, cheer and applaud her impressive sit/stay, and celebrate with play and treats when I arrive at where she's waiting. That would result in a happier dog on camera. But it's not in the interest in her development as a competition retriever to feel good about a poor pick-up, which is the reason for this step in the training. I don't want her to feel bad about it, but I want her to feel a sense of loss that she can avoid in the future with a prompt performance.
  • On top of all that, the camera also misses the last segment of Lumi's retrieve. Lumi has an excellent delivery, and then it's time for rewards, which could be any combination of another retrieve, a treat, a happy throw, a game of tug with a training dummy, or a chase back to the van. For Lumi as for any well-bred retriever, the greatest reward is the intrinsic reward of the retrieve itself, but the extrinsic rewards that I can offer after delivery also seem to have significant value to Lumi, as reflected in her excited engagement in our post-retrieve activities.
In summary, Lumi is a happy dog when we're out field training, happy with nearly every aspect of the game. But our videos unfortunately record the least happy moments of the experience, including her anxiety around shallow water and shoreline cover, her internal struggles with whether or not to pick-up the bird, and worst of all her unhappiness when she faces the consequences of an incorrect response — the lost opportunity to complete the retrieve.

I think it's worth noting that if the retrieve itself weren't so valuable to Lumi, the WO wouldn't work. It is only because it's so important to Lumi that she be allowed to complete the retrieve that her performance immediately improves on the next send-out, and that in turn intensifies the unhappy demeanor she shows when a WO is needed.

If only our videos more accurately reflected the whole of Lumi's true feelings about our field training activities, the sweet and happy dog who has been my beloved companion in these daily adventures.

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