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.
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.