In November 2007, Lindsay Ridgeway developed a series of performance tests as a method of training Lumi and Laddie, his two Golden Retrievers, for field sports. This is the journal of their progress through that series and beyond. Contact: LDRidgeway at gmail dot com.
Recently, Gaby and I were working with her yellow Labrador, Buster, and my Golden, Laddie, on a set-up we thought might come up in a Qualifying Stake: a hip-pocket doubles as two retrieves within a triple. To increase the level of difficulty, we retired the long gun.
The dogs seemed to have some difficulty with the set-up. I had noticed that Laddie had trouble with that set-up in our private training also.
It occurred to Gaby and me that the problem might not be the hip-pocket, it might be the retired gun. So we ran another couple of such triples without retiring the gunner, and sure enough, both dogs did great.
So to end our session that day, we ran a long but simple retired-gun single, with the handler tossing a bumper a short way to the side for the dog to retrieve after the long throw, giving the long thrower a chance to retrieve. It was interesting for me seeing Laddie's double-take when I set him up to run the long mark, his eyes darting from side to side apparently looking for the white coat, then refocusing on the original line and locking in. I felt that at that moment, he realized that the thrower wasn't there any more and understood he'd have to run the correct line without depending on the sight of the thrower. I suspect Buster has gone thru a similar realization at some point. Both of them nailed the retired gun in that drill.
So today, Gaby and I decided to broaden that understanding to another combination: running thru a treeline where the gun is retired. We planned the session and then went out to run it. Both dogs did nicely. The set-ups were difficult enough to require some hunting on a few of the marks, but not so difficult as to cause failures. Hopefully, the retired gun concept was instilled thru a process of gradually raised criteria. For each series, Buster ran first with me throwing a duck as the long mark and retiring, then Laddie ran second with Gaby throwing the duck as long mark and retiring. Here was our training sequence:
SERIES A. Land single with short hand-throw
The line to the long mark was across a sunny alfafa field into shadow, down a deep crevice, thru a line of old trees, and again into sunlight on short cover in front of a corn field.
The long memory-bird with the retired gun was similar to the one in SERIES A, though from a different SL, thru a different part of the alfafa field, thru a different opening in the tree line, and of course to a different fall. The go-bird was thrown by a BB with a stickman, and was angled in toward the SL, and away from the line to the long mark, with the fall into calf-high alfafa on a line that required the dog to run past a hedgerow, then veer behind it and out of sight from the handler. I've never seen a mark that requires the dog to run a dog-leg in a test or trial, but Charlie set up such a mark once in a training session so I thought it might make an interesting challenge for the short bird.
Series C was an Xmas tree format. Again the long mark, thrown first, was similar to the long marks in Series A and B, but this time run from yet another part of the field, and in a different direction from either of the other two. The second throw was thrown on a line away from center by a BB with a stickman. The third throw, the go-bird, was thrown by a second BB but with no stickman, and though only 70 yards was thrown across a bowl and into a depression in the alfafa field.
The SL for Series C was on a mound behind a strip of tangled underbrush that the dog had to run thru for all three marks. Both dogs required hunts on the go-bird and had little trouble with the second mark. Neither dog nailed the long retired mark, but neither required a long hunt, either.
Laddie and I continue to train nearly every day. I'll add detailed journal entries when I have time, but here's a brief summary of what we're working on at this time:
Training with Patty Jordan's Group
When we train with Patty Jordan's group, we run some version of whatever the set-up is. For the first few sessions, I attempted to run Laddie on series that I thought were at his level, but I've gradually realized that in that context, his performance is significantly below my expectations, resulting in an unacceptably high percentage of unsuccessful series. I have been trying to modify the set-ups appropriately, and will continue to do so, aiming to find the level where Laddie can run at near 100% success rate.
In addition to training with Patty, Laddie and I train with Gaby and one or both of her dogs whenever possible, or alone when we have no one to train with.
We run a large variety of marks and blinds, too much variety for me to catalog at this time. However, some particular areas we're currently working on are as follows:
Retired guns. Currently we're working on retiring the long gun on Xmas-tree triples, where the middle mark is the longest and thrown first. Over time, we'll also practice that configuration and throwing sequence but with other guns retired instead of or in addition to the long gun, and also with around-the-horn throws with various guns retired. In addition, we'll work with other configurations, such as indents triples, with various guns retired.
Inline triples. This is a triple where the three gunners are all in the same line and all throwing the same direction, which is also along that line. The dog tends to forget the middle gun even when it's not retired. We're working on Laddie gaining an improved mental picture of the inline triple, with the ultimate goal of Laddie being able to run a big inline triple, with the SL far to one side resulting in a tight angle for the three lines, and with one or both of the middle and long guns retired.
Hip-pocket doubles. This is a double with the two marks in a tight angle, both thrown the same direction, such that the short mark falls on a line which if extended would run a little behind the long gunner, making the long mark more difficult than for a more widely spaced set-up. I would prefer to run this as part of a triple, with perhaps a flyer as the go-bird off to one side. But when we work on this alone, I usually use a BB for the long gun, a BB and stickman for the short gun, and a long blind which I have Laddie run after the two BBs have fired, but before Laddie has picked up the bumpers. This is called an interrupted double. Because BBs are almost invisible when placed in cover, the long gun is effectively "retired", adding to the difficulty of the dog remembering that mark.
Sharp angle entries. Laddie has made significant progress on this skill, for both water and high cover, thanks to our weeks of work on the Skimming Drill. I continue to include work on angle entries in many of our set-ups.
Steadiness, especially honoring. Whenever Gaby and I can train with live birds, we set up series for Laddie (and also Gaby's Chessie, Gus) to work on steadiness, both at the line as the working dog, and honoring. We use a variety of set-ups. For example, we might have one of Gaby's sons throwing a clip-wing duck at 50 yards as the go-bird after launching a BB at 70-yards as the memory-bird. When I have Laddie honor, I try to choose the most difficult position for honoring, that is, closest to the flyer and positioned so that the working dog runs past Laddie on the way to the flyer.
Currently, I have no expectation that Laddie will run in a Field Trial this year. I believe he's as skillful or more so than some of the dogs I've seen entered in Qualifying Stakes, but those dogs are not successful on the more difficult retrieves, and I assume Laddie would not be, either.
I believe that running Laddie in Quals under those circumstances could result in him developing some undesirable habits that he associated specifically with the context of a trial. That's called "test wise", and it's a difficult problem to repair if it occurs.
In addition, I don't think running Laddie in series that are currently too difficult for him, without being able to incorporate training procedures such as moving our SL, calling for help from a gunner, or running the series as singles, is good for his confidence or development of his skills. I don't intend that he be 100% successful in all our work together, since that would mean I wasn't putting him in new areas of learning, but I do want to maintain a higher rate of reinforcement (ROR) than I think we'd have running Quals.
Hopefully, Laddie will be ready to run his first Qual next spring. Once that begins, our goals will be as follows:
For Laddie to run without getting DQed for poor returns, poor line manners, or other foundation skills.
For Laddie to have a successful land series, getting called back to the land blind.
For Laddie to pass the land blind and get called back to the water blind.
For Laddie to pass the water blind and get called back to the water series.
For Laddie to have a successful water series.
For Laddie to get a Judges Award of Merit (JAM).
For Laddie to get a placement.
For Laddie to get a First Place.
When Laddie meets all those goals, he'll have earned the designation Qualified All-Age (QAA), which for Goldens and Chessies is shown as three asterisks behind the dog's name.
Thereafter, I'll begin running Laddie in the all-age Field Trial events, the Amateur and Open Stakes. Of course, it's way premature to plan that far ahead of where we are now.
While running in Field Trials is my primary goal for Laddie, I will also probably run him in one or more Master Hunt Tests this fall. How many we do will depend on how he does on the first ones we try. If it turns out that he is successful, and eventually qualifies in five Master tests, he'll earn the title of Master Hunter (MH).
Although Lumi is only six years old, relatively young for a field dog, I doubt she will be earning any more field titles. According to her pedigree on k9data.com, she is the first dog in at least five generations of her line to earn a title of any kind. I feel that her string of titles, especially her GRCA WCX and her AKC SH, as well as First Place in a number of competitions, represent a remarkable record of accomplishment.
In addition, because advanced US field retrievers are invariably trained with ecollars these days, and have always been trained with aversive stimuli, she may be the first positive-trained dog ever to earn either a Golden's WCX or US retriever's SH.
At our most recent visit to Carol Lundquist, our holistic vet, I mentioned to Carol that these days, Lumi looks as though she's picking her way thru landmines when she returns from retrieves, carefully eyeing every step and taking many detours around patches of terrain she apparently deems too risky. Carol handled Lumi's feet for a few moments, then commented: "Well, Lindsay, you could get X-rays if you want, but I think I can tell you what they'd show. Lumi's toe joints are now becoming knobby. I'm pretty sure her arthritis, which X-rays have previously shown in her hips and wrist, is now in her feet as well. We could give her something for the pain, but we'd risk damaging her internal organs. With all the supplements, injections, special diet, and therapy that she's already been getting for years, I think she's already receiving the best care we can give her."
So now I'll describe the sort of thing Lumi is up to these days.
When we are at home in Maryland, Laddie and I continue to train pretty much every day. As I head for the front door, Laddie is there ahead of me. Lumi may also be on her feet and ready to join us. More often, she's lying down somewhere, either in sight or in another room. In that case, I say something like, "Lumi, training," and in some cases she takes that as a cue to get up and join us. Other times, she looks up at me but makes no effort to get up, as if to say, "You guys go ahead and train, I'll be waiting for you here." Currently, she comes with Laddie and me about half the time. If I know we'll be training with flyers, I use a non-optional recall cue to bring her along, since I know she'd make that choice if she knew.
When Lumi does join us in the van, she usually rides in front, either in the shotgun seat or in my lap, while Laddie prefers the back area, often on the floor behind me. When I'm out in the field with the dogs in the van, I generally leave Lumi in the passenger area, while I put Laddie in the single crate I keep in the back of the van. Lumi occasionally jumps out of the window to come to me if I leave it down too far, and she'll get into food if I accidentally leave any around, but aside from that, she's fine in the passenger compartment. By contrast, Laddie did a lot of damage to my previous van and I don't want it to happen to the new one.
When it's time for Lumi to take a turn in the field, I mostly run her on single or double marks up to about 100 yards. She is no longer steady at the line and often breaks, but I make no effort to discourage that. Her pick-ups, once a weak point, are now excellent, better than they've ever been. Her outruns are filled with enthusiasm, and she's still likely to nail every mark. She looks like a rocking horse when she runs, which I've always found pleasantly distinctive, but I recently learned it's something that dogs with hip pain do to compensate. Her returns tend to be painfully slow, though sometimes she does run back. I believe it depends on the terrain. She has about the sweetest face I've ever seen on a dog as she brings me the bird or bumper. I don't ask her to honor and rarely run her on blinds, though she often lines them when I do. She seems to place great value on being permitted to carry a bird when we return to the van. I give her a treat or two when she hops in, as I have her whole life.
In New York, where we spend four days out of every two weeks, our routine is different. I walk both dogs together three times a day, and I also take each dog on a separate walk twice a day, leaving the other dog in our room. That gives me some time alone with each dog.
Other than field work, I plan to go on training Lumi in various activities, to keep her mind active and to enjoy our relationship. Currently I'm working on her "hold", which was adequate for her field career but which I'd like to have more reliable for re-training an old trick she used to do, rolling herself up in a blanket by grabbing the corner as she rolls over.
We also go on frequent hikes. Sometimes we hike with Laddie, sometimes we all hike with Renee and Gabriel, and sometimes I take Lumi by herself.
Lumi and I have recently added something new to our life together. Sometimes I lie down on the living room floor, and for some reason this has become highly exciting to Lumi, and she begins wrestling with me, even play-biting. If I don't close Laddie in a separate room, he quickly joins us, and soon Lumi and Laddie are tussling like puppies. This is a side of Lumi I haven't seen in years. It's a pleasant counterpoint to her quiet side, lying on the couch with her head in my lap as I watch TV with Renee, or sleeping with her back against me in bed.
I think that gives a reasonable picture of Lumi's life these days, hopefully bringing some closure for readers of this blog to Lumi's field career. I doubt her field work in the future will be particularly instructive, and I expect that I'll make little reference to her in future posts on this blog.
Today was our first session of my new Stop on a Dime Drill, which I think will evolve into a daily warm-up drill that looks a bit like a Double-T.
Today's version was simple: 100 yards to a pile of five WBs, 50 yards to WS, stopped every time (mistake), alternated between CIW versus Back, all returns were extrinsically reinforced (puppy bumper throws and tug). I used "Nope" and callback for a loose response to the WS.
Next time I'll have at least half the runs with no stop. I may also add some other casts besides "Back".
Goals of a planned daily Stop on a Dime Drill:
Build high reinforcement value for a tight WS
Take edge off Laddie's energy for subsequent training or competition, hopefully improving performance
Build and/or maintain endurance
Perhaps add reinforcement value for return
SERIES A. Interrupted hip pocket double with blind
First mark was on the right, thrown at 170 yards by BB (marked by stickman) left to right into medium cover in open meadow downhill from gun station. Second mark was on the left, thrown at 40 yards by BB from behind shrubs left to right into thick medium cover, again open meadow. Fall of second mark was approximately inline to BB and stickman of first mark, making this a hip-pocket double.
To maximize the challenge of Laddie remembering the hip-pocket marks, I would have liked to set up a triple, preferably with the go-bird a flyer, but given available resources, I used a blind instead: After dog watched both throws, dog was sent to 250-yard blind (OB in high cover, no marker) diagonally across ditch, through several cover changes, diagonally traversing an uphill climb, and past a large fallen tree with risk that dog would wrap behind it. After dog picked up blind, dog was sent to pick up short go-bird, then long memory- bird. Having the marks thrown, and then having the dog run a blind before picking up the marks, made this an interrupted double.
Laddie lined the blind, then pinned both marks needing no hunts. I have no idea how he knew where everything was.
Though we continue to train pretty much every day, I don't always have time to record all our sessions. Today's Series A was similar to two series I had Laddie run a few days ago, though we didn't have a stickman in those set-ups. On both of those, Laddie had difficulty with the long marks. I guess the stickman, which I added today hoping to make the short mark more difficult, also made the long mark easier.
After another 2-3 of these set-ups over the next few days, we may try it without the stickman again. I'd like Laddie to be as comfortable as possible with the hip-pocket picture.