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.
Series A was a xmas-tree triple (that is, the longest mark in the center) with the long mark retired. Distances were 190-170-80 yards. Laddie has made excellent progress on retired guns and seemed to have no difficulty remembering the existence of the first mark after nailing the other two, and took a line that arced only slightly toward the original position of the retired gun, and then back on line, when he ran the final mark.
Series B was another xmas-tree triple with the long mark in the middle retired, in a different field. Distances were 280-230-130 yards. Laddie nailed the first mark, needed handling on the second mark since he veered offline toward the center and apparently intended to pick up the middle mark on his second send-out, and nailed the long mark with a remarkable, laser-straight outrun despite the thrower hiding and despite having to traverse a diagonal upslope that crested 60 yards from the fall.
Series C was a triple blind, in a third field. Distances were 130-140-80 yards, with the shortest blind run last. For a straight line to the first blind on the left, the dog had to run a narrow keyhole between two trees thru a small area containing trunks and branches from one or more fallen trees, which the dog could not traverse without leaping over some of the debris, and also had to ignore the middle blind, whose bumpers were visible 20 yards to the right of the blind the dog was being sent to. Laddie was the only dog today to take the path thru the keyhole.
A continuation of the advanced "decoy blinds" drill I've been running Laddie on periodically the last few days.
Today's series was four blinds run from the same SL, all in the range of 170-220 yards, and all featuring keyholes with lines between narrowly spaced trees. The first and last were to blinds at the foot of LPs. The middle two were what I call "decoy blinds": The blinds themselves are unmarked, but the dog is required to ignore LPs nearly the same distance as the blinds and within a short distance of the blinds (in this case, within 20 yards), sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right.
The reason for also running the dog on one or more blinds marked with an LP in the same series is to prevent the dog from becoming overbalanced and coming to believe that the blind is never marked with an LP. The goal is for him to rely on instructions from the handler, rather than trying to guess whether the blind is, or is not, at a particular landmark.
[Today and at times in the future, I'll submit a very brief post, in hopes of maintaining a record of Laddie's training even in situations where my time is too limited for a complete description or commentary.]
TUE at Mt A with Gaby:
Quadruple blind. LPs as decoys on 1st three, then last one to an LP at 170 yards. Laddie did well on all the blinds, was only one of four dogs to line the last blind. Lumi didn't run these.
ILT with middle gun retired. Lumi couldn't remember the middle gun so I brought the thrower out for her to see him. Laddie (and all of Gaby's dogs) were able to run the middle gun correctly without apparent difficulty.
420-yard land blind. Though I like running Laddie on big blinds, this wasn't a great set-up on my part, because with the wind, the whistles were apparently nearly inaudible to the dogs. Nonetheless, Laddie took an excellent line much of the distance, including across a cornfield. He overshot and went out of sight for several seconds, but when he came back and became visible, he took a nice WSC to the blind.
Today was another training day at Gaby's dairy farm fairly typical of our winter sessions. Gaby provided gunners for us in the form of her sons and their friends, enabling us to have throwers for land triples in two series. We also ran the dogs on one blind.
The temps were just over freezing with a 10 mph NW wind, but the day was bright and sunny and not too uncomfortable for those of us (the adults) who dressed warmly.
Gaby ran Buster, her yellow Lab, and her two Chessies, Wes and Gus. I ran Laddie on all three series, and Lumi on a pared down version of the session.
Per plans we had made the last time together, today we ran fairly short xmas-tree (pyramid) triples with the middle gun retired.
SERIES A. Land triple with retired gun
For Series A, the first mark (WB) was in the center, thrown left to right at 170 yards. The second mark (WB) was on the left, thrown left to right at 130 yards. A tape was positioned as a target so that the fall for the second mark was within 10 yards of the line to the first, longer mark, creating a hip-pocket double configuration for those two marks. The third mark (black bumper) was on the right, thrown left to right at 90 yards. As the dog was returning from that last mark (the go-bird), the thrower for the first mark retired, so that the dog could no longer see a white coat at that station while running the second mark and finally the long mark.
The first and second marks were not only tight and thrown in the same direction, but they were both thrown in the shadow of woods with the thrower next to the treeline, which angled toward the SL. The idea was for the two throws to be as similar as possible, making the longer one with the retired gun that much more difficult for the dog to remember.
The long mark was also thrown into the middle of a corn field, creating a terrain barrier that might push the dog off course.
Lumi ran as the second dog, running only the two shorter marks as a double, since I didn't think that a run thru a cornfield would be a good mark for Lumi to run. Lumi's leaping-in-the-air enthusiasm as she came to the line, and her turbo-charged outruns, were a joy to behold. However, as she has been doing recently, she stalled on the way back during all of her returns today, requiring me to come out to meet her and walk her back to the SL for the next retrieve, or to the van after the last retrieve of each series.
Laddie ran as the fourth dog and nailed all three marks. In contrast to his work a few weeks ago, where he had some difficulty with xmas-tree triples featuring a retired center gun, Laddie's performance in this session and the previous one, and perhaps other recent sessions, has greatly improved. It appears that he is now able to memorize the position of even long falls without having to rely on the gunner staying visible.
SERIES B. Land blind
Series B was a 170-yard land blind (OB). Though not particularly long or arduous, it was extremely tight, requiring the dog to cover 120 yards of low cover, then navigate diagonally thru an equestrian ring and a small skateboard park before avoiding an opening in the hedgerow to the left of the line, which seemed to act as suction for most of the dogs, and instead picking up the bumper in deep shadow in front of the hedgerow itself.
When I set Series B up, I was afraid the unusual obstacle course might be too difficult at those distances, and I decided not to even try Lumi on it. Laddie, however, did a great job, responding to whistles on reasonably tight sits keeping him within a narrow corridor, and taking high quality casts that he carried well.
SERIES C. Land triple with retired gun
As I often do in setting up courses for our sessions, I tried to emphasize a particular lesson for the dogs by setting up our second set of marks as a mirror image of the first one, though on a different part of the field. For Series C, the first mark (black bumper) was in the center, thrown right to left at 140 yards. The second mark (WB) was on the right, thrown right to left at 120 yards. The third mark (WB) was on the left, thrown right to left at 90 yards. As the dog was returning from the third mark (the go-bird), the thrower for the long mark in the center retired behind a large tree. Series C had no significant terrain changes, and was run entirely on low, frozen cover.
Though some of the dogs arced a bit offline running the second mark, the primary challenge of Series C was the retired long gun in the center. Besides the difficulty of the thrower retiring, the original throw was a bit difficult to see because it was a black bumper thrown against the background of tree branches, and the bumper was also a bit difficult to spot as it lay on the ground after the throw. As in Series A, the configuration of Series C featured a hip-pocket double for the first and second marks, which the dog did not begin until after picking up the shorter and wider go-bird. And as in Series A, the landscape features for both of the first two marks were strikingly similar, in this case because the thrower threw from a position a little to the left and in front of a prominent tree in both cases.
Lumi again ran second, and I decided to run her on the full series. However, after Lumi easily picked up the two shorter, outside marks, it appeared to me that she had no idea where the long mark in the center was. I got on the radio and asked the thrower to return to his throwing position, and unbidden he also faked a throw. Lumi then easily nailed the last mark. In Series C as in Series A, her outruns were as enthusiastic as they were accurate, while her returns were painfully slow.
Laddie again ran fourth, and again nailed all three marks, making even the center mark with the retired gun look easy.
I'll begin with some notes about our current approach to training, and then describe today's session.
After using BBs extensively for private training with Laddie, I learned from Alice that for some skills, such as running long marks, I might actually be doing more harm to Laddie's marking than good. Since then, I've limited use of BBs and stickmen to the go-bird on multiples, when no thrower was available. I may also use BBs as hidden guns on short series if we practice Hunt Test set-ups, but I don't plan on using BBs, even with stickmen, to simulate stations other than a short go-bird for Field Trial set-ups.
As a result, our practice sessions now fall into two categories: private training, where we work only on blinds; or training with at least one other trainer, where we work on a variety of set-ups. In most cases recently, the other trainer is my good friend Gaby, who also trains her yellow Lab and her two Chessies in various combinations in different sessions. Today, for example, we trained at Gaby's dairy farm, and Gaby worked with the Lab and one of the Chessies.
Although I don't plan to compete Lumi again in the future, I often bring her with Laddie and me to training sessions and run her on some of the marks. My primary goal for this is to keep up her conditioning. Because blinds, difficult terrain, really long marks, and challenging elements such as retired guns don't seem enjoyable to Lumi, I don't run her on those. She enjoys multiples, so I modify the set-up to run her on those when possible. Other times, I limit her turn to running singles, and don't have her run those that I don't think would be enjoyable to her, for example a single that required running across a corn field.
Does Lumi enjoy our training sessions? Well, Lumi usually doesn't share Laddie's enthusiasm about getting in the van to leave home when I say "Want to TRAIN?", and she's sometimes excruciatingly slow coming back from a retrieve. But she's always excited coming to the SL and seems highly motivated on her outruns. I think she enjoys them when we're out there though she may not always look forward to them in advance, and I also think that keeping up her conditioning will improve her quality of life long-term as well as in the present.
As a matter of policy, I avoid using this blog as a training journal for other people's dogs, but of course Gaby has her own training objectives for her dogs, and modifies the set-ups as appropriate. For example, the Chessie she was running today has developed a head-swinging problem, so Gaby ran the series as singles with the dog running the long marks first. Gaby's Lab, Buster, is a little more advanced than Laddie thanks to months of almost daily training with a pro last summer, and they usually run the same series in our practices. But sometimes Gaby modifies the series for Buster. Today, for example, she had Buster run the long mark in Series B as a single before having him run the entire series as a triple.
Today, we were fortunate to have Gaby's two sons, and two of their friends, available as throwers, allowing us to man gun stations for two triples. Since Laddie and Gaby's dogs run plenty of blinds when each of us trains alone, and since blinds are typically not combined with marks in Qualifying Stakes, we decided that to save time today, we'd just have Laddie and Buster (Gaby's Lab) just run the triples.
Lumi and Gus (one of Gaby's Chessies) ran some of the same marks, but modified according to their levels. For example, Lumi ran all the marks of Series A as singles, and the two shorter marks of Series B as a double.
The weather has been subfreezing for several of our recent sessions with Gaby, including today's. But it was mostly sunny with a north wind at 6 mph, so conditions weren't too bad.
SERIES A. Land triple with retired gun
For Series A, the first mark (WB) was in the center, thrown left to right at 180 yards, with the gunner retiring to the woods behind the gun station while the dog was running the go-bird. The second mark (black bumper) was on the left, thrown left to right at 70 yards. The third mark (WB) was on the right, thrown left to right at 260 yards. The dogs were sent to the marks in the reverse order of the throws.
The intended challenges of this series were as follows:
Such a long go-bird is unusual, especially combined with such a short memory-bird thrown immediately beforehand. Aside from that, the go-bird was on the long side but with the thrower remaining visible, none of the dogs had any difficulty with it.
FT dogs sometimes have difficulty with short marks, and in Series A, the second mark was not only short but was a black bumper thrown onto the downslope behind a small crest in the terrain, making it invisible from the SL and on most of the outrun. I thought that Buster or Laddie, running the series as a triple, might overrun the short mark, but both seemed to have a clear memory of it, taking laser lines and pouncing directly on it once they cleared the crest.
The final memory bird, the retired gun in the center, had a number of challenges: First, from the SL, the thrower appeared to be standing to the left of two horse-jump standards, with the throw arcing over the standards. But actually, the standards were only half the distance of the thrower and fall from the SL, so the dog would have to push past the standards. Second, if the dog flared the right standard, that would put the dog line offline to the right. Third, the first mark combined with the short second one made up hip-pocket double. That is to say, they were tight and thrown in the same direction, with the short throw seeming from the SL to land just behind the long thrower, though actually the long thrower was actually another 110 yards further back. With the long gun retired, and after running two other marks first, that can make it difficult for the dog to remember that the long mark even exists, and some dogs will flare too wide to avoid running too close to the line of a previous mark.
Laddie did an excellent job on all three marks. He nailed the first two retrieves on a laser. For the retired gun, he took an initial line too far to the left, toward the still-visible short gun, but at 50 yards out he corrected his line, raced just to the right of the right jump standard, and from there straight to the fall.
SERIES B. Land triple with retired gun
For Series B, the first mark (WB) was in the center, thrown right to left at 350 yards, with the gunner retiring to a mound behind the gun station while the dog was running the go-bird. The second mark (black bumper) was on the left, thrown right to left at 170 yards. The third mark (WB) was on the right, thrown left to right at 90 yards.
The intended challenges of Series B were as follows:
The go-bird presented no challenges for dogs at the level of our dogs.
The memory-bird on the left was a black bumper, so the dog had to remember the fall without being able to see the bumper. A snow field was behind the thrower, and the sun, fairly low in the sky, was also behind the thrower, both of which made visibility of the thrower, even in his white jacket, somewhat difficult.
The long memory-bird in the center was difficult for several reasons: First, the thrower and the throw were both difficult to see against the background, and at that distance, the gunshot was faint. Second, the thrower stood in front of one of several visible mounds in that direction, increasing the difficulty of remembering the throw after the gunner retired. Third, the long mark was fairly tight to the second mark, and both were thrown in the same direction, with the potential making the longer retired mark even more difficult to remember. Fourth, the line to the long mark was across a corn field. Fifth, the area of the fall had several possible diversions, including the snow field on the left (a basin for a future pond), woods behind the fall on the left, the mounds behind the fall, and a barn to the right of the fall. And sixth, just the considerable distance. My estimate of 350 yards is conservative; it may have been more than 400 yards.
For Series B, Laddie was unable to spot the long gunner until I called for motion and a hey-hey. He seemed to get a good look at the throw, however, despite the difficulty of seeing both the thrower and the bumper. Once the other marks were down, he again nailed the first two retrieves. When I sent him on the long mark, he again veered toward the tight gun on the left at first, but again corrected his line and raced past the gunner. However, he popped twice, once just before entering the corn field, and again just after coming out of it, both times well over 200 yards from the SL, where he sometimes loses confidence that he's supposed to be that far out and is most likely to pop. As always, I just continued looking at him when he popped without moving a muscle, and he quickly spun back around and resumed his exuberant outrun. Once he reached the correct distance, he hunted for several seconds, but never left the area of the fall. I thought it was an excellent mark and excellent series, considering the challenges.
I don't always have time to describe our training sessions, but today's was fairly typical of our recent sessions with Gaby and her dogs these days.