Monday, September 26, 2011

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.


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