Monday, September 26, 2011

Two groups in two days

Given the difficulties I've had finding groups to train with, this weekend was a good one. On Saturday, we participated in a club training day, and on Sunday, we trained with a new training buddy, and eventually a third trainer showed up and kindly threw some marks for us.

Because time is short, I won't provide complete detail about these sessions, but here were some of the highlights for Laddie and me.

On Saturday at the club training day, I was given the honor of setting up the series for the advanced dogs. I love that job, and I got some good advice from others in the group that improved the setups further. First we set up a land triple with a blind, providing four different possible blinds that each handler could choose among. Next, we set up a water double, with a choice of two blinds.

As it turned out, every trainer from most to least advanced chose to run all the marks as singles Some trainers did this to focus on marking skill rather than the issues that running a multiple calls upon. I did it mostly because several trainers I respect have suggested running dogs -- not just Laddie, all dogs -- on a large proportion of singles in multiple setups. I ran this setup a little different than the others in the group when I ran Laddie: I had two of the throwers stand out of their holding blinds, with the station's white bird bags placed in front of each holding blind to improve visibility of the stations, and I even asked that those two throwers wave their arms as I heeled Laddie to the start line. At the line, I showed those two gun stations to Laddie, before lining him up on the third station, where the thrower was hidden behind a holding blind and further partially hidden by the curve of the tree line, since all the dogs besides Laddie were preparing for Hunt Tests. I then called for that mark, while asking the other gunners to stay out. Laddie watched the first mark, but quickly turned away to look for another throw. I used hand gestures to call him back to that first throw and sent him.

The goal was to strengthen Laddie's focus on the individual marks that make up multiples, rather than swinging his head while one throw is in progress to search for more throws. Laddie had excellent focus on multiples when he was younger, and still does most of the time, but on a few occasions the last couple of months, he's missed one of the throws on triples, looking for another throw rather than carefully watching the throw in progress. I think the primary remedy to this would be more group training, but my hope is that running some singles may be the best way to take advantage of those opportunities that we do get. Of course, I could have this backwards. It might be that running multiples would be the best way to take advantage of those opportunities.

In any case, on Sunday Laddie and I traveled to a private property near Baltimore to train with a guy I've talked to at club training days in the past. He was kind enough to send me an email invitation to train on Sunday a few days ago. The property has a technical pond, and we ended up limiting ourselves exclusively to water series, both singles and multiples, and a few blinds. Since his dog hasn't competed in Senior tests yet, we modified the setups to accommodate the differing requirements of his dog versus Laddie. As mentioned earlier, a third trainer eventually showed up and threw some marks for us, broadening our options for interesting setups.

For example, to wrap up the session, Laddie ran a triple with a 180y mark on the left, and a hip-pocket double on the right, the longer throw made by a remote launcher. With no stickman at the launcher, that was effectively a retired middle gun, and it was thrown into thick reeds at water's edge, with a difficult line to the mark featuring 60y land entry, an angle entry into the water thru thick reeds making the water invisible as the dog launched, a point on the right most of the way to the mark for the dog to bypass, and several decoys in that part of the pond. Laddie ended up running the middle mark as the final memory-bird, and nearly nailed it, the only off-line segment being when he veered fat around the point, before veering back and driving straight into the reeds. After the triple, Laddie ran a 170y blind that took him over the outer slope of a mound, then across a thin slice of a small cove, then an 80y swim across the pond touching a point midway, and finally to the OB halfway up a steep embankment on the far edge of the pond.

On that particular series, Laddie apparently never saw the first throw on the left, perhaps as a result of head swinging, and as a result needed to be handled to that mark, which he ran after picking up the shorter go-bird. Though not great for building marking confidence, a dog does need the ability to switch from marking mode to handling mode in the middle of a mark, so I think it's good to practice it once in a while. In any case, I felt Laddie did an exceptional job on the short go-bird, which was thrown over a large cluster of reeds and was invisible from the shore, the difficult "retired" middle mark, and the blind.

I would say that in each of the weekend's sessions, Laddie achieved the sort of 80% success rate we aim for. He ran some great marks and handled well on most of the blinds. But he also had difficulty a small number of times, and those were learning experiences for both of us. If not a perfect weekend of training, which would have featured training with an experienced field trial group, it was nonetheless a pretty good one.


About group training

As I've mentioned before in this journal, the greatest challenge to training a retriever for competition may not be training the dog per se, but rather finding groups to train with.

Based on my experience, training with groups is not optional, it is absolutely requisite to training a retriever for competition. The more advanced the competition, the more critical group training becomes.

One example is that a dog required to honor flyers off-lead in an event cannot be prepared for that skill without practicing in circumstances as similar as possible to event conditions on a continuing basis. Even highly proficient 4Q dogs, even field champion dogs, occasionally break from the line or from honor in trials. If those dogs cannot be made 100% reliable, with all the resources available to professional trainers, imagine how much greater the challenge is for a 2Q trainer, still trying to discover satisfactory 2Q methods, who doesn't even have an opportunity to train with flyers, throwers, other dogs, and the other contextual elements the dog will experience in competition.

Another example of the importance of group training is that group training provides exposure to training setups that a solo trainer, especially an inexperienced one, may not come up with alone. It's not unusual for a beginning trainer, or even an experienced one, to have no idea what problems the dogs will have on a particular setup until dogs are actually run on it. The more experienced the group leaders are, the more useful their setups will be.

And another advantage of group training is that 4Q trainers can often provide invaluable feedback that is as useful to a 2Q trainer as it would be to a 4Q trainer. For example, I didn't realize until just this weekend that on some of my casts, I was moving my non-casting arm as well as my casting one, which one can imagine might be quite confusing to a dog. I wouldn't know I was doing it even now if a friend hadn't pointed it out at a group training event a couple of days ago. Even videos never showed it to me, because the camera's on the dog, not on me.

I don't know whether the problem of finding a group is greater for a 2Q trainer than for a 4Q trainer, but I think that does make it even harder to find groups, which can nonetheless also be extremely difficult for a 4Q trainer. The additional problems the 2Q trainer faces aren't only because the 2Q trainer's methods are unfamiliar to the 4Q trainer, though that is one factor. Many 2Q methods are more experimental than 4Q methods and may even be freshly minted as an experiment the day of the training, experiments probably of no interest to the 4Q trainers and irritating for their unfamiliarity. But in addition, 2Q methods can annoy the group regulars because 2Q methods may be more time-consuming than 4Q methods on training day, wasted time from the regular's perspective. And 2Q dogs may develop their skills over a significantly longer period of time than 4Q dogs, disheartening the regulars who may feel they're watching a good dog's natural talents go to waste.

2Q methods can be irritating in other ways as well. For example, a 2Q trainer is likely to use voice, both for cues and for reinforcement, significantly more than a 4Q trainer, disrupting the auditory ecology of the session.  If I could start over bringing Lumi and Laddie with all of us as beginners to group training again, I would do many things differently.  My dogs would wear check cords until their recall was satisfactory, they would wear a tab until their steadiness was reliable if ever, I would have used less voice, I would not have repeatedly called a dog that wasn't coming, I'd have been more cautious about trying retrieves that were too hard and therefore too time consuming for the other trainers, and probably many other changes.

It's not always easy to know whether a retrieve will be too difficult for your dog.  You need to take into account group-training discount factor, similar to event discount factor, the fact that dogs sometimes don't perform as well in a group environment as they do when training alone.  Besides annoying the other trainers, another reason for not running retrieves that are too hard is that the dog can learn bad habits.  For example, running a non-handling dog on a cheating water mark results in the dog running the bank, and learning that that's a good strategy.  Actually, this also can affect your relationship with the group, because training mistakes can also annoy other handlers.

Another barrier to obtaining a long-term placement in a training group is that the 2Q trainers don't participate in the same kind of give and take of training ideas that the other group members do, forcing the 2Q trainer into a self-imposed social status of perpetual outsider. Perhaps a 2Q trainers with better social skills than mine -- that would be pretty much anyone -- might find ways to solve this problem, and the other problems mentioned, that I haven't found.

I can't provide guaranteed solutions to these difficulties, because after four years of active participation in the sport, I still struggle every day to find anyone to train with, much less a group, to say nothing of an ongoing group placement. But some ideas you might try if you also face this challenge:

  • Many retriever clubs run training days during the training session. The more clubs you join, the more such training days you'll have access to. In some cases, you don't actually need to join the club, but that may be the best way of learning when the training days are scheduled. I have not found this provides enough group training to prepare a dog for competition, but it's a start.
  • You can hire neighborhood kids to throw marks for you. It misses the key advantages of training with experienced trainers, and it may be expensive, but it might be better than nothing, especially for the dog's early training.
  • You may be able to find pros, or others with suitable skills, who run day training sessions. They might be group sessions, a regular part of the pro's activities. Or this may involve setting up something just for yourself, as I have in the past with friends such as Bob, Dave, and Tony, arranging for a skilled trainer to shoot flyers for my dogs to help us work on steadiness training. Again, day training might have some disadvantages, such as significant time and monetary expense, and perhaps the social cost of imposing on a friend, but it's one more possible resource.
  • You could try advertising for training buddies. I haven't tried this yet, but I'm thinking of putting up notices in nearby pet stores.
  • Every time you're around other trainers, you can make it clear you'd like to train with them, and make sure to provide contact information. This is simply networking. You're probably already better at it than I am, I'm just suggesting that you put those skills to use for this particular issue.

It's heartbreaking to me that I can no longer run Laddie in competition. But the fact is that without a group to train with, it's impossible to prepare him for the challenges he faces in events. Trying to compete him under those circumstances just wastes money, time, and credibility for me, my dog, and my methods, as the poor showings rack up. I can only hope that someday, somehow, we'll be able to solve this problem, get Laddie ready, and begin competing again.


Sunday, September 18, 2011


My analysis here may be faulty, but I was thinking about Lumi and Laddie's competition history. At most of the levels we have competed, the story was the same: a series of unsuccessful attempts, ongoing training, and finally success.

Along the way, I'd occasionally receive advice that my 2Q approach would never succeed, and I certainly had bouts of discouragement, even despair. But in the end, my dogs earned one title after another.  Some of the problems that seemed insurmountable at one time are now but faint memories.

I cannot be objective, nor do I have the experience to accurately evaluate Laddie's ability, but to me it appears that he has not yet reached his full potential as a 2Q retriever. I think I owe it to him to continue our efforts together, both training, and competing when I feel we're ready for the next try.


Finding water

Still wanting to give Laddie a little water work this morning, I used a technology strategy to find a suitable pond.

I needed gas, and I knew a  station more or less on the way home to get a good price. secret getting the gas, I went to my Android phone's "map" application, entered "Burtonsville, MD" (our location at the time), adjusted the zoom, and looked for a blue patch representing water, with promising contours. I then placed a marker on the map and clicked a few controls to request navigation directions there. I was there in 5 minutes, a location I'd never have found just driving around.

Finding a legal parking spot in a mostly reserved-parking residential area, I leashed Laddie and we walked less than 100y to a community walking trail that skirted the pond I'd seen on the map.

I tossed an OB into the water at one end, then ran Laddie on a 180y shoreline water blind from the other. It wasn't an ideal setup for my purposes, since it had no points. But it was a good, long swim, with the advantages of conditioning and overtraining, that is, making more likely shorter event swims seem less imposing. And at least it did have one "factor", the diversion of  a flock of ducks, including babies, swimming only a short distance from Laddie's line to the blind.

Now I'll try to remember to use this same on-phone mapping strategy to find other ponds for us to work on, closer to home than the training properties we usually go to.


Hillside blinds

Mattawoman Drive. 56 degs, overcast, with a light wind that I think was irrelevant to this session.

I currently feel that Laddie and I have two primary issues to overcome in order for him to be successful in Qualifying stakes: 1) Steadiness with flyers, especially honoring but also from the line. 2) Calming of nerves on all blinds, especially water blinds that require him to cross a point.

However, we do have other things to work on as well, of course in addition to maintaining his current skills at or above their current levels.  Two issues that have come up recently, one in a pair of trials, the other at a training day I have not previously written about: 3) Difficult blinds in an event context, twice leading to refused casts he would not have refused if we were training alone. 4) Socialization with other male dogs.

Each of the issues listed above, and all field training in general, has one particular challenge that I have not been able to solve: The need to train with a group. I cannot overstate how serious a handicap it is that we have no one to train with.

However, while I continue to make every effort to resolve that difficulty, my only choices at present are to give up on Laddie's career, or continue our training as best I can alone. Well, I'm not ready to give up yet, though I often think it would be the wisest course.

Today, Laddie and I made the one hour drive to Cheltenham for some water work, only to find a field event scheduled there for today. So I drove us to a nearby industrial area where I knew a small pond to be available, but the water there appeared stagnant and unusable.

However, another feature of this field is a large, rectangular bowl, with steep, grassy embankments more than 100y the length of each slope. The grass is currently somewhat overgrown with weeds, but suitable for field training, in fact perhaps more trial-like than if mowed short.

So Laddie and I hiked around the bowl, and as we walked, I placed an OB at mid-point on the slope at one end, then ran him from the other end, with our start line midway down the slope.

In general, I would prefer not to use my whistle a lot on practice blinds, because I feel it could lead to popping or even the dreaded no-go. However, for this drill, I needed Laddie to run a tight line along the slope, and stopped him every time he tried to veer to the top or bottom of the slope.

It was interesting to watch his progress as we ran each of these hillside blinds. The first one required a lot of corrections, including a couple of resets with a complete call-back and resend. The second, however, was much better, the third better still, and the fourth the best of all with just one correction at 30y. Throughout the session, Laddie was visibly developing a growing comprehension of the idea to maintain his line along the mid-point of the slope and not ascend nor descend as he dashed ahead.

I'd rather have trained on water or with flyers today, or most of all with a training group or even a training buddy, but failing those, this seemed a worthwhile exercise for Laddie's development.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Laddie at Rock Creek, Part 2

It turns out that the first dog finally ran a little after 11am. Laddie, running last at #14, came up a couple of hours later.

I didn't realize it earlier, but the judges had set up a blind on the same field. The dog would run the triple from the mat, then move to another start line 20y to the left, and run the blind.

The blind was 220y diagonally across a muddy road, thru a diagonal keyhole formed by two trees, over a crest past the fall from the second mark (which I thought would be a diversion to the right but it didn't seem to affect any dogs that way), and straight on to a thick, black, leaning, lining pole.

Though Laddie's marks weren't lasers, he did a fine job on all of them. I wasn't sure he had seen the flyer, which several dogs seemed to have missed. But I had spent a lot of time at the line making sure he saw the long gun before calling for the throws, and when he got back to the line after picking up #2, he lined up on the long mark perfectly. After launching, he veered right on a line that would have taken him behind the gun, as many dogs had, but unlike the others who did that, he swerved left and back onto the correct line 2/3 of the way out. Also, unlike the last several dogs who ran before him, he didn't hunt short, in the area where a loose flyer had been running around for a while toward the end of the test. While Laddie needed a short hunt in the flyer, he never got behind the gun.

On the blind, he took a perfect line across the road and thru the keyhole, and I thought we were home free.  But he veered left toward a large bean field on the left of the road, and refused several casts to the right.  The bean field, for some reason, was just too much of a magnet. He ended up going for an OOC romp there, then coming back under control and finishing the blind easily.

Final stats for our time at the trial: 14 dogs entered, 12 dogs ran, 7 dogs called back to water.

This probably couldn't have been a better situation for Laddie: Only one flyer, and that a long way away, making a break unlikely. No flyer planned for the water, where the honor would be. No dog behind us in the holding blind as we were running. A triple difficult enough that Laddie's typically fine marking probably put him near the top in scoring. And a land blind easier than most we practice on.

Yet we were defeated by a bean field.  Sigh.


Laddie at Rock Creek

Buckeye Field Trial, Qualifying stake. Overcast, 50 degs, wind calm.

Series A. Land triple

The first mark was in the center, a duck flyer thrown RTL at 260y. The second mark was on the left, a duck thrown RTL at 100y. The third mark was on the right, a duck throw LTR at 50y. The terrain was gently rolling, and the go-bird was on the far side of a small water crossing, the triangular corner of a pond on the right. The only cover in the series was at water's edge on the go-bird. No retired guns, no honor in this series.

My understanding from one of the judges is that the water series later in the day will have an honor, but no flyer.

Although start time was scheduled for 8am, as of 9:20am, it was evident it would still be a while before the test would start.

To be continued . . .


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tune up for Saturday

Cheltenham, low 80s, blue skies, wind calm. Just Laddie & me.

A) 140y water blind with point. Handled well, no sign of nerves.

B) Big poorman triple (this all guns"retired"). Solid marking.

C) 180y poorman water mark with point as suction at mid-point. Did not require handling to stay off point despite big water before and after. No popping nor any other sign of nerves. Fairly big hunt, but systematic and confident.

D) Small, easy, well-practiced On/off drill, just for fun.


Laddie's OFA evaluation

A few weeks ago, I had Laddie's OFA X-rays taken for hips and elbows and mailed them in. Today I got the certificates back:

* Elbows: NORMAL

I'm pleased, especially because at 4yo, Laddie was older than dogs sometimes are at the time they get their OFA X-rays. I've heard that it's more common to get the X-rays when the dog is 2yo, because the joints are sometimes in better shape when the dog is younger, resulting in a higher rating.


[Jody Baker provided additional information about this:]

The reason, usually, for getting the x-rays done at a younger age, often times getting a prelim any time after 6 mo or so, is if there is a problem the person won't spend time and money with a dog who "might not, or can't" do the desired sport.  The early ones are sometimes only evaluated by the vet who took the pictures, sometimes by OFA (with no certificate).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Steadiness training

Hay field dotted with hay bales near Warrenton, VA. Blue skies, high 70s, wind calm.

My friend Dave brought four live ducks and another trainer to run Lumi. I brought two dead ducks so Dave could throw flower pot doubles. Dave wore a white jacket. Not a perfect Qual land setup, but as close as we could get. No technical water available.

We ran doubles from two different locations. For the first, Dave was at 100y. For the second he was at 80y. For both, he threw the dead bird first, then shot the flyer, throwing it so it would land out of sight over a crest, increasing suction. For each double, I ran Laddie first, then had him honor Lumi as she ran the same series.

Both dogs wore tabs. Laddie has been wearing a tab whenever practicing for several weeks, hopefully somewhat habitualizing to it. In addition, I held the tab slack for every retrieve. I can't say whether he was aware of it or not. I hope not.

Lumi's handler did a nice job, except for releasing Lumi after the first throw in the second series, so that Dave ended up shooting the flyer while Lumi was picking up the dead bird. Lumi abandoned the dead bird and went after the flyer.

In any case, Laddie was steady all day. On the marks, he moved around between the throws, but made no attempt to break, even though I used a long delay after both birds were down before releasing him. On the honors, he was rock steady.

After the second series, we finished the session with Dave setting up a nice mid-size land blind for Laddie. Dave in his white jacket, the bird crate, and several ducks were positioned a little off the line as a diversion. Laddie ignored them completely.

Except for Lumi's early send on the second series, this was probably about as good a practice session as we could hope for, given available resources. It would appear that Laddie has recovered enough steadiness to get thru a Qual, unless he has become wise to the tab or other contextual elements. I'm hoping we'll have at least one more session with flyers before our next event on Saturday, but if not, I'll just have to hope for the best.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Judged Pee Wee stake, land blinds, On/Off drill

Cheltenham, MD. After days of drenching rain, today was clear and warm.

The day started early so that I could meet with my co-judge to set up the land series for the Pee Wee stakes we were judging together at a WC/WCX event. It was the first time judging a field event for both of us. We set up two land singles, and later two water singles. In each setup, we ran the older puppies first at a longer distance, and then the younger dogs from the same start line but with shorter throws.

Neither of us knew how to record our observations in a way that we'd be able to make comparisons later, but together we evolved a method of drawing diagrams, recording the line that the dog took, making notations of any additional observations (for example, "hesitated before entering water"), and adding a numeric score 0-10 immediately after each retrieve, which we might modify on second thought later, but which somehow seemed to make it easier to remember what we'd seen. We also compared notes after the land, and then again at the end (of course), bringing our scores into sync and then using the totals to assign placements. Of course, we'd rather have just given a blue ribbon to all the puppies.

Of the older dogs, the dog who would have taken First place was a few inches from picking up her last water mark when she suddenly barked and jetted back to shore. We never found out what happened, and she didn't appear to be injured. But I know they have fish and turtles, including dangerous snapping turtles, on the property. The puppy was spooked and wouldn't get back in the water again for a while, but later that morning, some of the trainers worked with the owner, and the puppy seemed to be performing normally again. However, we felt we had to give the dog a zero for that retrieve.

We finished the puppy stakes around noon, and it would be hours before the WC/WCX competition would be complete, so I took Laddie to a part of the property away from the competition for some training. First he ran three land blinds, 100-200-300y. The 100 and 200 included tight keyholes near the end of the outrun, while the 300 included a canal crossing on a diagonal. The field for all the retrieves was swampy with large swaths of high cover. I'd like Laddie to sit faster when I blow the whistle, but aside from that, he was responsive on both sits and casts, and in each case ran the "judge's blind" as I had defined it to myself when I set the blinds up. I didn't want to require extremely narrow corridors for this session, because I feel that too much of that can hurt motivation and/or lead to popping, but he got all the obstacles I'd planned for.

After the land blinds, we ran an On/Off drill, a total of four retrieves, at a new location. I set up an orange lining pole, which Laddie didn't appear able to see till he was fairly close. However, he ran every retrieve correctly, off the point or on the point alternately. They all required at least a little handling in the tight configuration and thick, high cover of the land entry, and I was pleased that Laddie never made a peep, he just took the WSCs as called for and in high spirits. I'm not sure whether it might have been a factor that a couple of trainers were throwing bumpers in the water for 4 or 5 young dogs nearby. I thought it was advantageous as a diversion, and possibly to increase excitement level (the better to simulate event conditions), but I could imagine that it also reduced or overwhelmed whatever internal factors produce the vocalizing. Or perhaps Laddie wouldn't have vocalized even if the others hadn't been there.

After that, we ran a variety of additional water retrieves: a few poorman marks that required shoreline swims, a sight blind requiring Laddie to go over a point 2/3 of the way to the blind, and plenty of happy throws into open water and the overgrown meadow. For this later sight blind, I didn't have my whistle with me, so I needed to use verbal cues ("sit", "over", "back") to get Laddie onto and then off of the point. Again, other (different) dogs were running open water retrieves nearby while Laddie was running his blind, and again Laddie responded to my cues enthusiastically, accurately and silently.

We still had a substantial wait before the awards ceremony and unfortunate picture taking ritual (my request to wait for the pictures until I'd lost 20 pounds was roundly ignored). Nonetheless, having the opportunity to get in a nice training session, where Laddie seemed to perform well, made for a satisfying day.


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