Friday, April 1, 2011

Laddie's First Field Trial

Cullen, Virginia

Today Laddie ran in the Tidewater Owner/Handler Qualifying Stake, the first Field Trial event Laddie or I has ever participated in.  During the day, I tweeted descriptions of each series and summarized the performance of the field in general and Laddie in particular on my Twitter feed @LindsayRidgeway.  This post is an edited version of those tweets, with additional detail added.

Weather today: Temps  were high 30s to low 50s, with the wind making it feel even colder.  That's rather cold for running a dog in water, and the field's performance in Series C and D reflected it.  The sky was overcast in the morning, and it felt like we might have snow, though we didn't. By afternoon, it was mostly cloudy with a little sun.

The trial was run at an excellent property called the Virginia Retriever Benefit Grounds.  It was difficult for me because the ground there is uneven and I'm dealing with a sprained ankle, but I enjoyed the opportunity to run Laddie there.

For this event, mallards were used for all marks and blinds.  Laddie hasn't trained with a duck since last fall, so I anticipated we might have some problems, but except for him spitting his flyer out 10 yards in front of the start line in the first series, and having to be cued to pick it back up to deliver, the birds didn't seem to present much problem.

For those who have followed Laddie's development, you'll know that returns have been a major challenge.  We seem perhaps to be over that phase.

I might mention that Laddie was not the only dog in today's Q to do that.  In his case, the way he was working his mouth seemed to indicate that he was having trouble with loose feathers, but he responded well when I called him to me.  During the rest of the event, I cued "Hold" as he returned on most of the other retrieves — no one else was doing that with their dogs, but I felt it prudent for Laddie — and he didn't drop any other birds.

SERIES A. Land triple

All throws were left-to-right. The first mark was on the right at 150y, and was a retired gun.  The second mark was in the center at 140y.  The third mark, the go-bird, was a flyer at 70y.

The shooters for the flyer were excellent.  Not only didn't they lose a single bird, they also dropped almost all of them in a small patch of high cover as the judges had requested.  Despite the fall in cover, this was a pretty easy mark for most of the dogs including Laddie, but at least one dog had a controlled break — 70y is on the short side for a Field Trial mark — and the owner withdrew rather than let the dog be reinforced for breaking by getting to retrieve the flyer.  That was good discipline by the handler, I thought.  It's not easy to walk away if the judges haven't disqualified you. 

Once the dogs had picked up the go-bird, the series presented the handler with a quandary — whether to run the marks in the exact reverse order thrown, or in the sequence outer-outer-center, often used when the two memory birds are about the same distance.  The field of handlers split about evenly on this.  I've thought about what to do in such situations if I ever ran Laddie in a Field Trial, and decided that my rule is: If the dog really wants a particular mark as the second retrieve, let the dog choose.  If not, run the easier mark first.  If they seem equally difficult, run them in the reverse order thrown.  Since this was our first Field Trial, it was my first chance to try those rules out.  Laddie didn't care which mark to run second, and they looked equally difficult to me, in different ways.  So the last rule applied in this case.

The second mark thrown, and thus for Laddie also the second mark retrieved, was thrown downhill and on an angle back into high cover.  The line to the fall was along the side of a slope, and at least half the dogs veered left to the top of that slope and ran along the crest, toward the gun rather than the fall.  In most cases, they then turned right to run down the hill and pick up the bird, though a few got further left behind the gun and at least one ended up returning to the fall of the first mark and had to be called in without completing the retrieve.  Laddie ran this mark, which I guess most handlers thought was the most difficult of the three, exceptionally well, carrying the slope without veering offline, entering the high cover without hesitation, and "stepping on the bird," as they say.

The last mark for Laddie to retrieve, the retired gun on the right, was challenging for all the dogs because the picture was of a repeating pattern of evenly spaced trees, with lots of open space behind and to the right of the fall.  With few exceptions, dogs ran too far to the right, and of those, the more successful ones winded the bird as they came even with it and hunted it up.  Laddie was one of the dogs who ran it that way, coming even with the fall about 10y to the right, winding it and hunting it up.  I saw one dog nail that mark, maybe one or two others did when I wasn't watching.

Before ending my description of Series A, I might mention that the configuration of the two marks on the left was a "hip-pocket double".  This means that both marks are thrown in the same direction, and the closer mark, thrown from a wider position, looks as though it's being thrown into the hip pocket of the thrower for the longer mark if viewed in two dimensions.  Of course actually the thrower for the longer mark is much further back than the shorter fall.  This can be a confusing picture for a dog, but Laddie has been practicing it periodically since he was a puppy so it didn't seem to be a problem for him.  I'm not sure that in this series, with this field, it was a problem for any of the dogs.

Summary of the field's and Laddie's performance for Series A: Thirty-two dogs were entered in this stake, 28 ran Series A, and 22 were "called back", that is, still in contention and carried to the next series.  Laddie was one of those 22.  He had been called back in his first Field Trial series.  Yay!

SERIES B. Land blind

Series B was a 160y land blind.  I gather it was fairly typical for a Q land blind, crossing a steep valley and running beside underbrush and other suction to the left.  One feature Laddie and I have never seen before, in an event nor in group or club training, was an obstacle making it impossible for the dog to hold a line straight to the blind, in this case a fallen shrub about 15y in front of the start line.  Another feature, much more common but nonetheless challenging, was a keyhole, in this case formed by a narrow gap in a stand of saplings, an unusually close keyhole at 30y.  The combination of the closely spaced obstacle and keyhole was a bit tricky and a couple of dogs did skirt the keyhole and were eliminated.  I'd say Laddie was about middle of the pack in his performance on this blind.

Summary of the field's and Laddie's performance for Series B: Twenty of the 22 dogs that ran Series B were called back for Series C, including Laddie.

SERIES C. Water blind

Series C was a 120y shoreline water blind, with 50 yards of land and a sharply angled water entry thru high reeds at water's edge, plus an on-and-off point mid-way that the judges had said was non-optional.  I think those features alone made it a fairly challenging blind, though not highly unusual for an advanced stake.  However, today's weather conditions — the icy cold water of early spring, and a strong wind blowing off the water onto the shoreline — raised the difficulty level significantly.  In fact, so many dogs went out-of-control behind a stand of reeds on the back of the point without a single dog qualifying that at one point, as I understand it, the judges considered scrapping the test.

However, eventually several dogs did run this blind satisfactorily, perhaps none better than Laddie.  We had the advantage of running late in the rotation in this series (the running order is rotated in a Field Trial), so by the time I ran Laddie, I had watched the problems other dogs had and had made up my mind that no "back" cast would pass my lips.  Living solely by "over", Laddie didn't have much trouble with it.

Summary of the field's and Laddie's performance for Series C: Ten of the 20 dogs that ran Series C were called back for Series D, including Laddie.

SERIES D. Water double

Series D was another hip-pocket double, a tight double with both marks thrown right to left.  The first mark was on the left, 130y with a short, easy land entry and a long, arduous swim in that icy cold water.  The second mark, the go-bird, was on the right, thrown by a winger into the open water of a cove at 40y.

The go-bird presented little challenge except to steadiness for a few dogs, but the line to that mark perhaps established an undesirable precedent for swimming toward the reed-bordered point of land that formed the back shore of that front cove.

The memory-bird was more challenging.  First, the thrower was barely visible on the back shore, appearing just left of the stand of reeds at the end of the point of land midway across.  Second, as mentioned previously, the water was intensely cold, and a strong wind was blowing across the water, so that both wind and waves pushed the dog hard toward that point.  With such a long swim for water that cold, most dogs ran that mark by starting on a line toward the fall, then veering with the wind and waves to the point, and finally running the bank around a second cove not visible from the start line to finally run past the thrower on the far shore and pick up the bird.  At that point, most handlers attempted to whistle the dog into the water for the return with the bird, but I don't know if a single dog took that cast, most or all of them running the bank again in the opposite direction to get around that back cove.

The owner of the ultimate winner of this stake told me that the dog has a habitual "banana" running pattern which sometimes causes problems, but in this case was beneficial, as the dog safely rounded the point to the left and homed in on the fall without ever going near the thrower.  I didn't see all the dogs run, but I take it that at least two others also swam past that point, though they ended up too far inside and required a little more hunt than the ultimate winner had.

Though it wasn't the best performance of the day on that last mark overall, Laddie's performance on that mark showed courage.  He took a line into the water that gave him a reasonable chance of getting past the point, and then shouldered the wind and waves valiantly, visibly fighting to push left with every stroke.  I heard one of the judges quietly urging him on.  I don't think Laddie ever did give into the cold, but the current was just too strong on this day, and it finally pushed him onto the point.  But listen to this:  Once on land, he didn't run the bank around to the right as the others had once on land, but rather got back into the water to swim across the back cove.  Unfortunately, he was too far to the right, which brought him to shore behind the thrower, but from that landing he ran immediately to the bird and picked it up, ready to complete the retrieve.  I felt it was a brave performance, though not quite good enough for a placement in the final standings.

I'll just mention one last point.  I was perhaps the only handler on Series C or D who did not attempt to whistle my dog into the water on the return.  As far as I know, it in no way hurts your score if the dog runs the bank on the return.  That's not always possible, and I guess many trainers believe that it hurts the dog's understanding of how to perform around water, but for me, it was a way of reinforcing Laddie for a job well done on getting to the bird thru the water in the first place.  "You needed to stay in the water on the way out, Sweetie, but take the faster, warmer, drier route back."  Considering that most dogs insisted on doing that in contradiction to the cues they were receiving anyway, I thought just cueing Laddie to do it from the outset made sense.  I think it could pay off in future performance, removing a disincentive to complete the outrun, then quickly pick up the bird and start back.  Perhaps this is more useful for a 2Q dog than it would be for a traditionally trained dog.

Summary of the field's and Laddie's performance for Series D: All ten of the dogs that ran Series D completed both retrieves, but with enough separation in quality of performance that the judges were able to award placements with little doubt of the outcome once all the dogs had run. The result was placements of First thru Fourth Place, plus a Reserve JAM, plus five JAMs.

The winner of today's Q was a 10-year-old Lab who years ago had become Qualified All-Age, but who had only won a Q that once and so was still eligible to run.  Ten years old!  Very cool.

Laddie was one of the dogs who received a JAM.

A Final Note on Laddie's Performance Today

If you're a retriever, getting past the first series, to say nothing of winning a JAM in your first Q, while not earth-shattering, is pretty cool. In addition, Labradors are historically more successful in Field Trials than other breeds — I've heard that 98% of FC/AFCs are Labs — and Laddie, not yet four years old, was the only Golden receiving a ribbon in this event.

Beyond that, Laddie is not only a retriever but also a 2Q-trained retriever.  That is, he has never been trained with physical aversives such as an ecollar, even for recall.  From that perspective, I believe he was in unchartered territory as soon as he got his first call-back in today's Q.  That was followed by two more call-backs, and finally a JAM.  In other words, Laddie completed every retrieve of his first Field Trial stake without a disqualifying error.  At that point, Laddie was even more steps down a road heretofore unvisited by positive field retrievers.

I believe the general consensus among experienced field trainers would be that a 2Q retriever couldn't do such a thing, so here's to Laddie for showing he could.


Kristen said...

This is SO exciting! Great job to both of you, I can't wait to hear about your next event. Thank you for sharing so much of the work that got you up to this point.

HTTrainer said...

Good job

PK said...

Congratulations and Happy Training'

K said...

Awesome! What a great inspiration you have been to those of us who do not wish to use aversives.

Kenton said...

Congratulations, enjoyed reading it. I've heard of JAM in FT's before, but what does it actually stand for?

Lindsay, with Lumi & Laddie said...

JAM = "Judge's Award of Merit". Awarded at the discretion of the judges, it typically means that the dog completed all the retrieves reasonably well, but was not judged to be one of the top four placements. This would mean that the dog has to make it thru all the call-backs -- in this case, as is fairly common, thru three call-backs -- and then do a reasonable job on the last series.

I've recently heard that sometimes a judge will decide in advance that a dog can do no better than a JAM because of sub-par work on one retrieve in an earlier series, but still deserves to be called back to continue the trial, and have a chance for a JAM, based on otherwise high quality work.

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