Monday, October 11, 2010

Practicing Retired Guns without a Bird Boy

I've been corresponding with Alice Woodyard on the subject of trying to practice retired guns when Laddie and I are training alone. The issue is not yet resolved for me. I think these are the main issues:
  • I am under the impression that Laddie is probably about average in terms of his ability to run a retired-gun mark for a young dog ready, or almost ready, to compete in Qualifying Stakes.
  • However, Laddie has one significant difference from other dogs at a similar level of marking and handling skill: His returns are sometimes much worse than other dogs at that level.
  • It's not entirely clear to me exactly why Laddie's returns sometimes fall apart. It may be a combination of reasons, all of which are intermittent.
  • One theory I have, which is not necessarily shared by anyone else, is that Laddie's poor returns are, at least sometimes, an avoidance behavior because he is uncomfortable with the difficulty level he perceives awaiting him in the remaining marks when he returns from an earlier one.
  • As a part of that theory, I believe that retired guns make Laddie uncomfortable.
  • It's been many months since I have seen poor returns when Laddie and I train alone together, nor when we train with hired bird boys or with Gaby and her dogs, our occasional training partners. To me, this isn't necessarily inconsistent with my theory. The combination of a training group plus a difficult series, especially one involving water marks, may be the trigger for Laddie's intermittent poor returns.
  • So as a way of addressing Laddie's comfort level, in the hope of both reducing the likelihood of a poor return and increasing the likelihood of a high quality mark, I've wanted to figure out a way to practice retired guns when we're practicing together.
  • I've tried a number of possibilities. For example, for several sessions, I used a BB without a stickman for the long mark of a reverse hip-pocket double, with a stickman at the BB of the short gun. In those set-ups, while Laddie couldn't see the long gun-station at any time, and could only see the arc of the throw, the line to the long mark passed just behind the short gun, giving Laddie a visual reference point for remembering that line.
  • I had thought of expanding that approach to a variety of hip-pocket and reverse-hip-pocket configurations, varying: directions of the throws; which gun would have the stickman; and the order of throws. However, correspondence with Alice has made me rethink that plan. In addition, in a phone conversation with my friend Tony Hunt, who has trained with BBs extensively, I learned that he always places a white coat near the BB.
  • The problem is that using a BB without a white coat is not a retired gun, it's a hidden gun, and hidden guns are illegal in Field Trials. Therefore practicing them is not practicing something the dog will ever see in a trial. In addition, it may be that practicing them does not enable the dog to get any better at running them. In fact, practicing hidden guns, or even retired guns, may actually result in deterioration of a good marking dog's marking skill.
  • Obviously, these considerations are making me cautious. My thought is that if I can come up with a training plan where Laddie performs well, or at least improves over a series of several similar sessions and performs well at the end, then I would think that will improve Laddie's comfort level with retired guns and hopefully decrease the likelihood of a poor return in group training or competition.
Applying all of that to today's Series B (click here to view), I tentatively feel that this was a good approach, on the grounds that Laddie's mark was so good. He took a perfect line from the SL and held it without veering until he reached the fall, seeming to gauge the distance as well as he had the line.

Despite the fact that Series B was really a hidden gun, not a retired gun, it seemed to have most elements in common with a retired gun:
  • The dog had plenty of time to see the field with the gun station visible. In fact, he had more time than he normally would with a retired gun.
  • The dog saw the arc of the throw.
  • The dog was sent immediately after the throw.
  • The gunner was not visible while the dog was running the mark.
The primary difference between today's hidden gun arrangement and a retired gun was that the gunner was not visible at the moment of the throw as he would be with a retired gun. The set-up of course also had secondary differences, such as the dog watching me walk out to the gun station while waiting at the SL. I cannot judge to what extent all these differences invalidate the value of this sort of set-up for meeting my objective of making Laddie more comfortable and/or skillful with retired guns.

For the immediate future, I plan to run several more long singles like today's. If Laddie continues to run them with the same level of accuracy, I'll begin to insert other retrieves in front of the send-out to the long gun. For example, after launching the BB, I'll try throwing a bumper to the side and having him pick that up, then sending him to the long mark. If that continues to go well, I'll add a short mark, thus incorporating the hidden gun into a double. And if that goes well, I'll add a couple of additional marks, thus incorporating the hidden gun into a triple.

For all of those, I'll follow the practice of pre-positioning a white coat (on a chair or stickman) at the long mark, running some other series, then walking out and "retiring" the white coat, walking straight back to the SL, and running Laddie on the series immediately.

This may or may not help Laddie become more comfortable and/or skillful with retired guns, but as long as he's running high quality marks, I guess it won't be doing any harm.

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