Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Faking the throw and other games

Yesterday, Laddie and I again went out, with three neighborhood kids as throwers, to work on marking accuracy. Because our focus was on marking accuracy, all of the marks were in the 100-170y range, and all guns stayed out.

With temps below freezing, and patches of snow still on the ground from flurries the previous day, of course we're not working on water. However, I tried to set up at least one challenge for each mark in the two land triples we ran. For example, I had the gunners throw into the stiff crosswind, requiring Laddie to shoulder into the wind to avoid getting on the wrong side of the gunner. And in one mark, the gunner sat in an arcing swale but threw onto high ground. The line to the fall required Laddie to enter that swale but then cut diagonally up the embankment. Other marks required Laddie to traverse a deep depression rather than take an obvious detour around it, to run over a mound rather than around it, and to run past the gunner and cross a dirt road rather than hunting short on the near side.

I also planted one of the bumpers where the gunner would have thrown it, and when I called for the throw with Laddie at the line, I had the gunner just fake a throw. The idea is that I believe that sometimes a dog, including Laddie, does not actually see the bird (or bumper) when it's thrown, and has to guess its likely fall from the position of the gunner, the arm motion, and experience in where the bird is likely to have landed. Having the gunner fake a throw simulates that situation, hopefully preparing the dog for occasions in events where he/she doesn't actually see the throw.

How Laddie does on these setups provides two different kinds of data: Laddie's skill as a retriever, and my skill in creating setups that Laddie can learn from. It's always nice to see Laddie nail every mark, and it's probably good for his confidence. But we also want him to push past his current skill level and become comfortable with greater and greater challenges. The question is, do I have enough skill to set up the kinds challenges that judges will present in an actual event? In a sense, Laddie having difficulty with particular marks validates that Laddie is indeed gaining an opportunity for increasing his skill, and that I am successfully creating challenges that enable him to do so.

Another question is what to do when Laddie is unable to nail a mark. Of course in some cases he's only off by a small bit and no opportunity exists to assist him. By the time you realize that he's a bit off course and react, he's already corrected himself. Then in some cases he's badly off course. At one time I was trying to create a lot of those to work on Laddie's Plan B strategy -- "If I don't remember where the bird is, look for the gunner" -- but these days it rarely occurs. When it does, I immediately call for help from the thrower, since looking to the gunner is the behavior I want Laddie to learn. And finally, cases occur where Laddie seems to have a clear picture of where he's going, but seems to make a conscious decision to take an easier or faster route around an obstacle rather than thru it. In that case, my approach is to blow a sit whistle, and then either handle him thru the obstacle, or call him in and run the mark, or the whole series, again. I think sometimes one of those strategies is preferable, sometimes the other. I'm not sure what the rules are for which.

One setup I do NOT have Laddie practice is obstacles he can't get thru, such as a large shrub on the line to the bird. Judges do sometimes set those kinds of situations up in events, and it might seem to therefore be a good idea to practice it. But detouring around obstacles is the one strategy I don't want Laddie to practice, so I try to avoid setting those kinds of situations up.

By the way, in case I haven't mentioned this before: One of my theories about Laddie's popping is that he doesn't have a clear enough demarcation in his mind between a marked retrieve, where he's on his own, and a blind retrieve, where he's running under control of the handler. In an effort to reduce the probability of his spontaneously looking to me for help, especially when running a mark, I've reduced his practices with blinds to only one or two blind-retrieve sessions per week, sometimes only one blind per week, and never on the same day as when we run marks. The exceptions are occasional group training days and, of course, events. That's why I rarely mention Laddie running blinds any more when I report on training sessions with our assistants.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pin-point marking

For the last few months, I've been training Laddie the way I imagine all-age dogs are trained: a steady diet of big, difficult triples and quads with most or all guns retired.

Of course being able to run such a series nicely will come in handy if and when Laddie ever runs in all-age stakes, and the setups also hopefully provided over-training for Qs. But actually, my primary objective was to build Laddie's confidence on long marks and lower the probability of a pop.

What I did not realize was that, once again, I was getting Laddie out of balance. This time, the issue was marking accuracy. Because it's  relatively unlikely that a dog can run 300+ yards on a laser and arrive at the exact location of the bird, not visible from the distance once down, I guess dogs need to develop a strategy for such marks of running to the area of the fall, then hunting the bird up.

That strategy, however, is not necessary on a relatively short mark. Instead, a good-marking dog can often simply take a straight line to the bird. The challenge becomes a memory test, combined with training the dog not to go around obstacles such as mounds, high cover, and of course water. The dog also needs to learn not to be diverted by off-line influences such as wind, scent and points of land. Of course those factors are important when training on big setups as well, but I think you can focus on them, and communicate more effectively with the dog, when big distances aren't also involved.

In Laddie's last trial, big distances weren't involved on the land and water triples. Laddie made it to the end and earned a green ribbon, but what separated him from the dogs that placed was his marking accuracy, or relative lack thereof. Actually, two of his six marks were perfect, and two more required only an small jag at the end. His two weakest marks were the two flyers, and the first of those was still a good mark: he took an excellent line, broke to the outside presumably distracted by dispersed scent a few yards early, then immediately turned back straight to the bird. He only had one long hunt -- the out of order flyer in the water triple -- but in this field, that was one too many.

In any case, now that our competition is over till next April, one of our areas of concentration will be trying to restore Laddie's knack for pin-point marking. I think this means not so many long, retired marks, and more short marks with well-defined obstacles and the white jackets remaining visible.

Today was a case in point. I had three assistants, and we trained at the huge construction site we've been using a lot this year. We ran two triples with no retired guns and distances in the range 90-170y.

With temps in the low 30s and a strong wind, the first triple's challenges were for Laddie to ignore the cross-wind, diagonal dirt road crossings, and terrain factors. He ran directly to each fall, but I wasn't totally thrilled with the arcing lines he ran.

The second triple was more difficult on it's #1 and #2 throws. The challenge on the second mark was a mound -- more of a mesa actually -- with the bumper not visible after landing 30y behind it. After nailing the go-bird despite a powerful and icy cross-wind, Laddie took an excellent line over the mound and nailed the second mark as well.

The #1 throw was the longest and most difficult of the day. It was thrown from a depression, into stiff wind, over a dirt road, and up into a large patch of high cover on top of the high ground on the other side of the road. Although I didn't retire the gun, this was the last mark Laddie picked up, so memory was still involved.

Laddie took a great line the first 150y, traversing rough terrain but not too difficult. Then came the moment of truth. Would Laddie hold his line, mount a crest of land, and plunge into the cover, or would he arc slightly inside toward the gunner, follow the road for 20y, and then dart into the cover to pick up the bumper, a much easier trip? An instant later, I had my answer: Laddie held his line and for the third time, nailed his mark.

Had Laddie improved between the two series, or was the second series somehow easier for him? I guess I'll never know.

In any case, that was just the kind of marking I was looking for. We'll follow up with another few similar sessions. Then, as our winter training continues, I guess I'll start mixing up shorter series with longer ones, and hopefully not get Laddie out of balance in that particular way again.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Notes and more notes

Hi, Alice and Jody. I think I told you guys that the main reason Laddie was dropped after the third series in our previous trial was because the judges had noted that Laddie aired on several of his returns. By airing, they were referring to male-dog territorial marking, which is indeed one of Laddie's favorite hobbies.

Accordingly, in the weeks since then, I've immediately and unconditionally called Laddie any time he dawdles on any of his returns in practice, and I also came up with a sort of drill. Here it is:

I often throw hey-hey bumpers for Laddie to retrieve for fun, with or without steadiness, and in addition, I often toss a softball for him with the verbal cue "go potty" when I air him. Historically, he has aired when retrieving in any of those scenarios.

But starting after the last trial, I began to make a clear delineation. If I don't say "go potty" or "go play" (more or less synonymous), Laddie is not to dawdle on his returns. But if I do use those cues, he's free to eliminate, roll, sniff, explore, or any other kind of doggie activity he likes.

And here's the clincher: When I let him out of the van, or out of the house -- that is, times when he's especially like to have an urge to eliminate -- the first thing I do is throw a hey-hey bumper for him without a verbal "go potty" cue. In other words, even though he's likely to be feeling a pretty strong urge, he's required to bring the bumper back without delay. Of course, I cheer and immediately throw his softball, calling out "go potty". Thus I'm making a point of having him see the difference between the two scenarios -- cue or no cue -- even in the presence of a strong desire to air, and of course rewarding/reinforcing his correct response.

Results, Part A: Laddie did not air or otherwise dawdle a single time in this weekend's trial. Besides the above training, I also watched him closely on returns and blew a call-in whistle if I saw any hint that a delay was about to transpire.

Results, Part B: I had a nice conversation with the judges after ribbons, mentioning to them among other things that the reason I had used multiple call-in whistles on Laddie's returns was because of the previous judges' complaint about Laddie airing on returns. They seemed genuinely stunned. One of them commented, "I close the book as soon as the dog picks up the bird." They also barely remembered Laddie's vocalizing on the water blind, and said it played no part in their scoring. When I mentioned that the previous judges had also had a problem with Laddie's vocalizing, they suggested I make a note of who those judges were and avoid them in the future.  :0)

By the way, Laddie also didn't pop in the trial, and had quite a long hunt on the flyer in the water triple, so a pop would not have been surprising. I think the approach I've used, which turned out to be a good bit of training on 300y+ marks, with as many as three retired guns per series, might have paid off with respect to popping.

On the other hand, I think all those long, and retired, and long+retired guns might have hurt Laddie's marking a bit, so I think I'll go back to leaving some guns out more this winter, and running more Q-scale series than we have been.

One last note for now: I mentioned Laddie's hunts (one short, one long) on the flyers in this last trial to Milly in a phone call last night, and she said, "Well of course." She pointed out that the scent on the ground is more dispersed with flyers, and also that the dog is more excited (as Alice noted). When I described Laddie's long, deep hunt on the water series flyer, Milly said he might have been picking up scent back there, possibly from a previous stake on the same grounds, that the other dogs -- all Labs -- weren't as distracted by. She said that sometimes the Golden's superior nose is actually a disadvantage, and this might have been one of those cases.

Oh, well, one more note. As I mentioned to Jody when I spoke to her -- Saturday night, was it? -- I had forgotten that it's possible for a Q to go more than one day. So when one of my assistants asked to go to the trial on Friday, I didn't mention that possibility to him. Well, when we learned Saturday afternoon that the stake was being stopped for the day and I told my assistant we'd have to spend the night, he said flatly, "I can't."  He's a 16yo who's never been more than a few miles from home, and I didn't feel I could safely or fairly put him on a bus. So instead, I drove him the 370 miles back home, then slept a few hours and drove back to the grounds in the wee hours. For the weekend, Laddie and I drove 1500 miles and were in the van for 28 hours, including 700 miles and 14 hours of driving between the second and third series.

Ahem, well, this, too: You know all that work we've putting in on Laddie's water honesty on marks especially the last few months? Well, forget it. Sunday's triple was a marking test, not a cheating test, though it had the added feature of the flyer thrown first, something Laddie and I have never, ever seen before in a triple. Laddie's water honesty never came into play. On the other hand, that out-of-order flyer blew my mind. First I was afraid Laddie wouldn't turn to the #2 and #3 birds, though he had no problem turning with me and got a good look at every throw. And second, I was afraid he'd lie to me when I sent him to the go-bird and swerve over to the flyer, though again it was no problem and he nailed the go-bird. In our conversation later, the judges commented that I need to relax more at the line and learn to trust my dog.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Laddie's sixth JAM

Just a note to record Laddie's sixth Qual JAM, his fifth this year, in his last event of the year, this one the Cape Fear Retriever Club Field Trial Qualifying stake in Rocky Point, North Carolina.

Raw stats: 26 dogs entered, one scratch so 25 ran, 20 were called back after the land triple, 13 were called back after the land blind, work ended for the day and we came back to finish the next day (today), 7 dogs were called back after the water blind, and all of those received ribbons after the water triple. Both marking series featured a flyer, and the stake did not include an honor.

Laddie was one of only two Goldens in the stake, and the only one with callbacks. Five Chessies were also entered, none finished. By the last series, we were running running almost exclusively against Labs who had been trained by and were being run by pros. Of course Laddie was also the only positive-trained dog, and perhaps the only dog in the last series who was the owner/trainer/handler's first field trial retriever using any kind of training. The winner's sire was an NFC. So yeah, we were up against some difficult competition by the end.

Obviously I'm disappointed we didn't get a placement, but I'm glad that after Laddie's injury to his tail a few weeks ago, we were able to get to the end of another trial, and receive another field trial ribbon, before season's end.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Improved marking

RRRC Training Day, Remington, VA

Morning: Gloomy, temps in low 40s. Afternoon: Blue skies, temps in high 40s.

After an eight hour training day, plus four hours of round-trip driving, I'm feeling increasingly comfortable with the return of Laddie's marking skills. 

To recap, during most of Laddie's life, he's often been one of the most skillful marking dogs on the field, in both training sessions and competitions. By skillful marking, I mean the dog's ability to remember where the birds fell and to take a direct route to that location. Other trainers, perhaps while dissatisfied with some other aspects of Laddie's performance such as his poor returns, have often balanced their comments with a complement to Laddie's outstanding marking (and Lumi's, too, when she was still involved with field work).

However, occasionally Laddie's marking seemed to deteriorate for a few weeks or months at a time. He's never been terrible, but he's come back to earth. I'm not certain what those intervals have correlated with -- perhaps long periods of no opportunity to train with human throwers -- but the most recent was after he broke his tail returning from his latest Reserve JAM and couldn't train at all for several weeks, and then not on water marks for several more.

Since I have been unable to solve the problem of not having a field trial training group willing to let Laddie and me train with them, several months ago I began hiring neighborhood high school kids to come out and throw for me. We had a break of several weeks after Laddie's injury, but once we could begin training again, we resumed work with three to four sessions a week. When possible, we go somewhere with water, since I think Laddie's most important weakness is water honesty (the natural tendency of field retrievers to "cheat", or run around, a body of water that's on-line to the fall), but most of the time we're limited by time to training on land. 

I think all this training with the kids, including training on water marks whenever possible, has paid off in Laddie's marking skills rising to his highest level ever.

On a typical training setup, I'll retire all the guns unless I feel keeping a gun visible provides some training benefit, such as acting as a diversion from some other mark, or making it less likely that Laddie will take the best path if seeing the gun risks acting as suction to some detour. At least one of the marks will be over 300y, and sometimes more than one. And of course I try to use factors such as slopes, terrain changes, and obstacles -- including difficult water entries -- to influence Laddie off line, "stacking" the factors if possible so that they all influence in the same direction rather than neutralizing each other.

When we train alone, it's not unusual for Laddie to nail every mark of every triple or quad we run, generally two setups per session. I sometimes come away pleased but wondering whether I just don't have the skill to design triples that sufficiently challenge a retriever at Laddie's level.

However, I do have some additional confirmation. At Laddie's last trial, he was one of only 2-3 dogs who nailed every mark on the land triple. And at yesterday's training day, he was the only dog to nail every mark on both the land-water triple that came first, and the water triple that came second.

In fact, I think he may have been the only dog to run that water triple as a triple, most of the other trainers running it as a double to the outer marks followed by a single to the long mark in the center, whereas my intended design (I was "running" the advanced group) was a xmas-tree configuration. The club's leader had asked me to give the setups a high degree of difficulty, suitable only for dogs training for Master tests, and I'd done my best to oblige, including incorporation of his suggestions for the first setup.

Here's a rundown of the marking challenges from yesterday's work:
  • We were training with a hunt test group, so no one besides myself and one other handler wore white jackets, and all the guns were retired on every mark. I had the gunners stand out to throw when the logistics of the popper gun and winger permitted, but the gunners wore dark clothes and then retired behind their holding blinds after throwing.
  • Because the group wanted to train on longer distances thanks to recent AKC Master rule changes, both of the setups had marks mostly longer than typical Master tests I've seen.
  • The go-bird of the first series was a land mark consisting of a flyer shot over patches of cover at 150y. Virtually every dog, whether they took a good line till they reached the first patch of cover or not, was knocked off line by the cover and needed to hunt, in some cases requiring help from the thrower or handler. Laddie took a direct line thru each patch of cover, ignoring the diagonal entries, and nailed the mark.
  • Shorter (and more difficult) memory bird of the first series was thrown on an angle-in on the far side of a gap in a row of trees. The route to the mark required traversing several patches of cover, then going thru the gap diagonally, and then a short distance to the fall. Virtually every other dog skirted the cover to the left, then followed a path of low cover beside the gap, keeping the dog on the near side of the trees, and even after catching the bird's scent, several of the dogs had difficulty going thru the gap. Laddie took a direct line thru the cover, drove thru the gap on a great line, and again nailed the mark.
  • The longer memory bird of the first series had a 90y land segment, a 45 degree entry into the water, a diagonal 40y swim across the pond, water temp presumably in the high 30s, suction to square the bank for a shorter swim by veering left, an angled landing, and a 20y land segment to the fall in front of a mound. Virtually every dog who ran the mark reasonably well either squared the water entry or veered left during the swim. Laddie took a great entry and continued on a great line the entire swim, though he then hooked the gun station rather than taking a direct line to the bird.
  • The go-bird of the second series was 60y throw into cattails, half land, half water. Most dogs veered left either while on land or once in the water in order to square the bank and shorten the swim. Laddie was one of only 2-3 dogs to take a straight line the entire way, nailing the mark.
  • The relatively easy memory-bird of the second series was 110y, but had only 20y of swimming, across a triangular wedge of water a third of the way out. Virtually every other dog veered right to shorten the swim. Laddie took a direct line to the bird with his trademark big-air water entry, maintained a great line as he swam across the wedge without any attempt to square the far bank, then climbed onto the far shore and ran straight to the bird.
  • The most difficult mark of the day was the long memory-bird of the second series. I believe Laddie was the only dog to see that mark as the first throw of a triple. Because of the difficulty of the mark, and also because the water was so cold, some trainers opted not to run that mark. Of the other dogs, all but Laddie ran the mark as a single. It consisted of a 20y land segment, a 40y water segment, a diagonal crossing of the end of a peninsula with high slopes and high cover, a 60y swim out of sight from the handler, and a throw that had been made from the edge of a stand of flooded timber to water's edge at the far shore (some of the early dogs had that throw fall a yard or two inland rather than into water). The height of the peninsula made it difficult or impossible for the dog to see the last few feet of the throw's trajectory, producing an optical illusion that resulted in several dogs hunting the point halfway to the bird, even though the holding blind was 60y further on the far shore. Most dogs who ran the mark with any success at all veered right after entering the first water segment to square the bank of the peninsula, then hunted the point of the peninsula, typically getting back into the water on the near side, disappeared on the far side of the peninsula, and with or without help from the thrower eventually got the bird. Laddie, the only dog running the mark as the memory-bird from a triple, vocalized as he took a big-air entry into the first water segment, was the only dog to actually lengthen his swim by veering right and around the end of the point, then (according to the thrower reporting on the radio, since the far side of the peninsula was not visible from the start line) took an almost direct line to the bird. When Laddie reached the far shore, he was a bit wide but turned the correct direction and lunged a few feet along the shore line to the bird.
So to summarize, I don't think it's just that Laddie marks well when we train alone with my assistants. Competing against other Q dogs in our last trial, and training with the most advanced dogs at yesterday's training day, Laddie has also showed a degree of marking skill.

By the way, since this is a rare opportunity for me to make the time to write a post, some other points:
  • When we ran the first series, the guy who acted as my "judge" forgot to release Laddie after the triple had been thrown. Laddie and I kept waiting, as the cripple flyer fluttered around in the field. After a few seconds, Laddie broke, and ignored me when I called "Here". That's Laddie's first break in a long time, but we don't get to see many flyers. I can only hope the incident has predisposed Laddie to breaking, either from the line or from honor, at some future trial.
  • These days, because of one of my theories about why Laddie might have become more likely to pop lately, I rarely run Laddie on any blinds, and virtually never in the same session when we're running marks. However, yesterday's first series had two blinds, both with a small water segment, and the second series had a difficult water blind involving three angled water entries, the last two with easy available cheats around wedges of water. Laddie had little difficulty with the first blind. He couldn't run the second blind as I had intended it be run, but neither could any of the other dogs, and Laddie was one of only two dogs even to get into the water. Laddie was also one of the only dogs to run the final water blind, and the only one not to cheat at least one of the water segments. I think the results say more about my lack of skill in accurately appraising blind difficulty in setting up the second and third blinds, which were both too difficult for these dogs, than really reflecting much about the dogs themselves. I hope the blinds on balance were good training for Laddie, but I can't be sure it's beneficial to run him on such difficult work, especially when the water is so cold. The three difficult water segments were quite short, but the easy cheats were still far more attractive.
  • Laddie well understands that he is not constrained to take a direct route back after picking up a mark, and uniquely among the dogs at our trials as well as training days like yesterday's, invariably sought a route, sometimes quite lengthy, that minimized or eliminating swimming on his returns. As far as I know, this has never hurt Laddie's scoring at a test or trial, and I hope that continues to be the case, because I think it's a helpful counterbalance to the comparative difficulty I've had training Laddie's returns without the use of an ecollar.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Laddie dropped after third series

Tidewater RC Qual, Farmville, VA

On Saturday's land triple, around-the-horn with the long memory bird retired, Laddie had great line mechanics, watched every throw, and nailed every mark.

On the land blind, he needed only one whistle, with a prompt sit and an accurate cast.

On the water blind, he maintained a tight corridor, challenged the line, sat on every whistle, and took high quality casts.

In addition, Laddie did not pop all day.

Based on my admittedly limited experience, I thought we were in a tie for First. Instead, we were not called back to run the final series.

Of course I wondered why, and asked the marshal to check with the judges for me. One of them was kind enough to show me her book for Laddie and explain her reasons.  Though I don't remember her exact wording, I'll try to convey what she said, with my annotations in square brackets:

"It wasn't any one thing. Your dog marked extremely well, one-whistled the land blind, and ran the water blind well. But we just felt you didn't work together as a team. In particular, Laddie visited the gun stations after picking up the two memory marks. He aired on every return [that is, the marking behavior typical of an intact male]. And he was noisy lining up for the land blind [a couple of quiet, excited whines when I said 'dead bird'] and on several of the water casts [his usual mournful vocalizing]. We felt he was doing what he wanted to do, rather than what you were telling him to do."

A one-time National Open judge once told me, "We don't judge the returns." Well, it seems some judges do, since the primary knocks on Laddie's work was about his returns.

Look, I'm not going to say I'm ok. This hurts, make no mistake.  I was rare or unique as owner/trainer/handler of a first field trial dog in the stake, and Laddie -- one of only two Goldens -- was undoubtedly the only positive-trained dog, as he would be in any retriever trial. Yet I feel that Laddie and I put in a good performance against tough competition. I learned from previous mistakes, and Laddie showed off his natural abilities as well as the trained skills he's acquired. Nonetheless, we still have weaknesses, and unfortunately, our weaknesses happened to be the wrong ones for this particular judging team. We're never going to win them all. With other judges, maybe we actually would have been in a tie for First heading into the last series as I thought we were. So maybe this just wasn't our day.

Trial Notes

Series A was the fairly typical Qual combination of a land triple and a land blind by invitation, with call-backs to the next series based on the dog's work in both the triple and the blind. After 26 dogs ran, we had 14 call-backs. Few if any dogs had difficulty with the blind, so I'd say that most if not all of 12 dogs were dropped because of the triple's difficulty, almost half the dogs. The land triple was around-the-horn with the long gun retired and a short flyer as the go-bird. The two memory marks were tight and the flyer gun station was at least 90 degrees to the left, so line mechanics were a significant challenge. Quite a few dogs turned from the first throw to the flyer and never saw the middle throw. Of course, even among those who saw all the throws, some still had long hunts, returned to old falls, switched, or required a handle. Those were the kinds of problems that got dogs dropped.

Since I've seen and had difficulty with that configuration in the past, I knew to run Laddie on the opposite side from the attractive go-bird, even though that meant on the opposite side of the direction of the throw, and I knew to stand near his head as the first two birds were thrown, then step back and turn to let him watch the flyer. He got a great look at all three throws and nailed all the marks, one of the small number of dogs to do so. He then one-whistled the blind, with a prompt sit and accurate cast. He never popped, never dropped a bird on his returns, delivered all the birds to hand, and was in reasonable control while under judgment. I figured we were in a tie for First after the first call-back. I didn't actually see how we couldn't be.

The water blind consisted of 110y land entry whose line passed inches from a tree whose limbs blocked the handler's view of the bird, an angle entry thru reeds into the water, a 130y swim tight to the shoreline with a small point of land at mid point and the shore receding out of sight behind the point, and a 10y climb up the steep embankment of a dam, with the bird planted at the top of the dam (all distances my estimates). Many of the handlers attempted to run their dogs within a couple of yards of the shoreline, and many of them lost the dogs into the reeds that lined the shoreline with that strategy. One pro ran a young dog far wide ("fat") of the shoreline the entire way, and I was sure the dog would be dropped for not challenging the blind, as happened to me once earlier this year when I ran Laddie the same way. It turned out that that dog was not dropped. Laddie and a few others were run fairly clear of the shoreline except at mid-point, when they were intentionally sent to the point and then sent back out wide again, thus demonstrating control and challenging the blind while staying out of trouble most of the way. Laddie never slipped a whistle, never refused a cast -- that is, he always went the direction he was sent -- and never popped. I figured we were still in a tie for first.

However, eight dogs were called back and Laddie was not one of them. I asked the marshal to ask the judges why not (you're not supposed to ask the judges directly), and one of the judges was kind enough to show me her pages on Laddie and explain why he was dropped. I don't have a perfect memory of her wording, but it was something like this: "It wasn't any one thing. We just didn't feel that you worked together as a team. Your dog was doing what he wanted to, rather than what you were telling him to."

Now, you might ask how a dog who watched the dead-bird throws rather than swinging his head to the flyer, and ran two blinds without slipping a whistle or taking a poor cast, could be dropped for "doing what he wanted to." The primary answer is that he "aired" (that is, the typical intact male practice of marking) on many of his returns. Adding to his difficulties with the judges was that he visited the gunners after picking up the birds on the two memory marks. And adding still further was that he was "noisy", meaning that he whined in excitement a little while I lined him up on the land blind, and that he emitted the mournful vocalization he's been giving on water casts since he was quite young.

I don't actually know why Laddie vocalizes on water or when I cue "dead bird". Apparently he has learned at some level that it helps him succeed. However, I'm not going to address vocalizing here. As I understand it, the world of field trainers is divided into two kinds of people: those who have never had a dog that vocalizes and in many cases are sure they know how to fix it, and those who have had a dog who vocalizes, tried everything to fix it, and were never able to.

As for visiting the gunners and peeing during returns, that's our old friend the field recall. Understand, Laddie brought back every bird on the run and with minimal delays. He even brought back the cripple flyer alive, rather than crushing it first to stop it from moving and trying to bite him, as he sometimes does with cripples. But yes, he did detour to show off his bird to the gunners on the two memory marks, and he did stop occasionally to mark the occasional tree or shrub to establish them as "his" territory. If all you cared about was fixing those behaviors using positive methods, I suspect it could be done. However, if you were also trying to train the dog to run field trial marks and blinds, you might find yourself somewhat constrained, since the last thing you want to do is to introduce any conflicts to the dog's otherwise successful natural and trained tendencies.

I'm not going to try to fix the vocalizing again. I've tried before and started getting no-gos, and I'd obviously rather we get dropped by those occasional judges who won't tolerate vocalizing than ruin Laddie entirely.

I guess I'll try working on improving Laddie's returns even more, though he's already come a long way from his dismal returns when he was younger. My initial thought is to call out "No" the moment he detours from a trotting, direct return, put the bird back where it was, walk him to the start line, and have him attempt the entire retrieve again. That might work. Things I can see going wrong: (1) He has no idea why I'm saying "No" so nothing changes except we both get more exercise and I spend more money paying for my assistants for their time (no field trial group will allow us to train with them, so I have to pay HS kids to throw for us). (2) Laddie enjoys the "correction" and the problem gets worse. (3) Laddie decides that his mistake was some behavior I actually want him to continue, such as picking up the bird and bringing it back, and thus a desirable behavior deteriorates. Of course I'll watch carefully and try to make sure none of those bad things happen, though it's never easy to be sure you're correctly correlating the dog's responses to the training methods you're attempting.

This was a psychologically expensive loss, since I felt we were in excellent shape for a placement, possibly even a win, with just one more series to go. At least one of the judges has known me and my training approach since Laddie was a puppy, and I guess she saw what she expected to see, a dog with excellent marking, line mechanics, and handling skills but nonetheless "doing what he wants."

The bottom line is this. The judges in this stake may believe, as virtually all traditional trainers do, that a positive-trained dog can't succeed in field trials, and they made sure of it in this one. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Last week of 2012 competition

Tomorrow will probably be Laddie's last trial this year. I've been too busy with work to send regular posts, but I thought I'd record how we trained the last week before our last trial of the season.

Saturday and Sunday were off days. That would not have been my choice but none of my assistants were available.

Monday, Laddie and I went with two assistants to Cheltenham to run two water triples, with me throwing the go-bird as a side throw. Every mark except the first side throw tested water honesty, and Laddie was honest on every mark without the need for handling. For the first series, the long mark was retired and the second mark was semi-retired (thrower was mostly hidden once sitting down). Both had difficult lines and Laddie ran them well, but he glanced back at me (a pop) near the end of the long retired mark as he came out of the water after a long swim. For the second triple, our entire field was in shadow (it was after sunset), and the long mark was quite long and complex (four or five water entries), but I kept the gunners out. Laddie nailed all the marks with no popping.

Tuesday I ran Laddie on two land blinds. The first was 130y and featured a mound at 90y, with the line crossing the downslope on one side. I expected that Laddie would veer around it, giving me a handling opportunity, but he held his line so no whistle needed. The second was 310y over complex terrain and required a few whistles, to which Laddie was responsive on  the sits and accurate on the casts. Those were our only blinds of the week. I've been avoiding running blinds and marks on the same day because of my concern that doing so may make popping more likely, as the dog perhaps loses clarity on whether running independently or under control. I would have preferred to train on the weekend and have an off day Monday-Thursday, but at least Tuesday was light training.

Wednesday I was again only able to get two assistants (I usually try for three), but we still ran two land triples with me throwing side throws as the go-bird. Both memory birds were retired on both marks, both triples featured one mark over 300y, and all four memory marks were over difficult, complex terrain, the triples as difficult as I knew how to make them in those locations. Laddie nailed every mark with no popping.

Whereas I viewed Wednesday as a training day, with double-retired guns plus long, complex lines, Thursday was intended as a confidence day. With three assistants, we ran two triples which by size and difficulty level were scaled down to what I've seen as typical in Quals. For the first, a xmas-tree configuration, only the shorter memory bird was retired. For the second, a round-the-horn longest-to-shortest configuration, only the long memory mark was retired. The terrain was somewhat hilly but not too complex. In both series Laddie nailed every mark without popping.
I don't know what surprises await us in the trial on Saturday, and I remain acutely aware of the severe disadvantage we have in not being permitted to train with a field trial group. But I feel Laddie is as prepared as I know how to get him under the circumstances. I'll rest him today, and tomorrow at 330am we'll head out to the trial.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Water work


Nine weeks after Laddie's tail injury, with permission from our holistic vet, I decided to give Laddie a little water work to prepare him for our next competition, a week from today.

With three assistants, and temps in the low 60s, we trained on the big pond at Cheltenham. First, we ran three singles with the guns out as if for a triple, then we ran an actual triple from a separate location at the other end of the pond.

Every retrieve tested Laddie's water honesty, four of them involved relatively long swims, and two of those had the gunner out of sight while Laddie was swimming (a combination of conditions in which he sometimes pops), three had offline points Laddie was to bypass, and one had an online point to be crossed, though I would have accepted Laddie swimming around it.

I felt good about Laddie's work: He took five of the six difficult water entries perfectly the first time sent.  For the sixth, a hundred yard channel swim that he started to run the bank on the first time sent, he looped back as soon as I called him, then took the correct entry and swam the entire distance on the next send. He did not need to be handled all day.

He also did not pop all day, stayed clear of the three points he was supposed to, and ran over the one point he was supposed to.

In a couple of days, we'll return to Cheltenham to work on water honesty at greater distance, in case that comes up in the trial. We'll also run a few more land triples with plenty of retired guns during the next week. In addition, we'll run one or two land blinds one day when we're not running marks. And Friday, Laddie will have the day before the competition off as usual.

Then on Saturday, we'll see how Laddie does after all this time since our last event.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Land triples with two retired guns

Clarksburg Village

Overcast, muggy, temps in low 80s.  Two assistants (Annette and Liza).

Once again, my focus with Laddie was on working toward repairing his tendency to pop.  The plan was to run difficult triples and then, if Laddie popped, immediately call out "No, DOWN," and then call out to have the gunners pick up any bumpers that had not yet been retrieved while I walked out to pick Laddie up.  We'd then go to a new location and start with a new setup.

In an attempt to achieve difficult setups, today I used marks longer than we'd typically see in Quals for the two marks the assistants were throwing, both of the longer guns retired using camouflage umbrellas, and variable terrain that would make it difficult for Laddie to hold a straight line.  Series B, the more difficult of the two, featured marks of 320-170y, both uphill from the start line, and the long mark requiring the dog to traverse several crests, which I've thought might be one of Laddie's triggers for popping.

To make each series a triple, and to give both guns an opportunity to sit down and open an umbrella to hide behind, I threw a bumper to the side after the other two bumpers had been thrown.

My attempt to create setups that would result in Laddie popping was unsuccessful.  Laddie nailed every mark.

I don't really understand what element was missing in order to trigger a pop.  I don't think Laddie was too tired or thirsty, so perhaps those were factors that were missing.  Perhaps also his tail is healing and causing less pain than when he was popping more some weeks ago.

One new theory I have that didn't seem to apply was this: Is it possible that the more I work on Laddie's handling, and the more responsive he gets running blinds, the more likely he is to pop on a mark?  Well, the last couple of days, I took Laddie out to run long blinds rather than marks, and he did well.  Yet I saw no evidence that it increased his probability of popping on today's marks.

I had been thinking a couple of weeks ago that if Laddie had become too likely to pop on difficult marks, it might mean that he could continue to finish Quals but would never be able to receive anything higher than a JAM (or Reserve JAM).  However, after the last few sessions, I'm starting to think that I was being too pessimistic.  Laddie may indeed have an unfortunate propensity for popping, and when he does pop, it will cost us dearly.  But as his recent work shows, he may also be capable of running difficult series without popping, and if that's how he performs in a particular event, at least it won't be popping that holds him back in the scoring.

Given Laddie's performance since I began running him with both long guns retired, I think I'll continue doing that except in setups where a visible gun would actually make it more difficult, in my estimation, to run one of the other marks.  I think we'll also continue to run longer marks than we've typically seen in Qualifying stakes.  This will hopefully work as overtraining — that is, event setups may seem easy by comparison, improving performance and confidence, and perhaps reducing the likelihood of popping — and also will begin to stretch Laddie out for the kind of distances he'll see if we ever run in all-age stakes

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Popping on land retrieves, multiple retired guns

Clarksburg Village

Sunny, temps in low 80s, wind calm.  Near drought conditions resulting in hard, dusty ground and much of the cover dried up.

For the last several weeks, I've been limited to training Laddie on land, since he's not allowed to swim until the broken bone in his tail has healed.  Although Laddie is marking well as he always has, I am concerned that he pops (looks at the handler) on marks too frequently.  Some training days we get no pops, but sometimes we get one or even more pops during the session.

Despite a good number of data points, I am not at all certain what factors lead to Laddie popping.  I believe that it generally happens when some combination of the following are involved:

  • Relatively long marks
  • Retired gunners
  • Reaching the top of a rise
  • Later in the day (that is, possibly thirsty or a bit tired)
  • Broken tail
I mention that last because I think, though I'm not certain, that the popping may be worse now than it was before Laddie broke his tail.

As an example of why I'm not certain of this observation, I was under the impression in recent months that Laddie's vocalizing in water is something that developed after years of training.  However, I recently happened to watch a video of Laddie as, I'd estimate, a one-year-old, and he vocalizes in water in that video.  For some reason, I just didn't notice it for a long time.

While I think those are probably the factors that in some combination result in popping, I can't necessarily trigger a pop by setting up those factors.

As for solving the problem, I've tried a number of approaches.  For example, for several days, I stayed away from any long marks, and introduced retired guns only to the later series of a day's work.  The results seemed gratifying at first, since we had no pops for a few sessions, but then Laddie did pop on a mark that seemed no harder or otherwise different from the kind of marks we'd been running prior.

Yesterday, I considered that possibly I was going about this the wrong way.  I was trying to minimize the possibility that Laddie would experience whatever frustration or other emotional state was leading to the popping.  But yesterday, it occurred to me that eventually, a day will come when Laddie is going to have that feeling, and if he hasn't learned a new response to it, on that day he'll pop.  If it's in competition, it will cost us dearly.  If it's a response that happens, it turns out, in every all-age stake, then it would mean Laddie would never be able to compete at that level.

Accordingly, I decided that I'd try a different approach, and actually run Laddie on more demanding series.  Then, if he popped, I'd instantly call out, "No, DOWN", getting him to lie down, and then call to all the gunners, "Pick it up," words that Laddie knows mean that he won't be able to complete that work.  We'd then move on to another set up, or, if we were out of time, head for home.

Obviously the theory of this approach is that Laddie would want to avoid that happening and so would become less inclined to pop every time he tried popping and encountered that outcome.

It is not necessarily a safe approach.  All sorts of unintended side effects can be imagined, including causing the popping to increase rather than decrease, or possibly some new undesirable behavior such as no-gos.  However, Laddie has probably gone as far as he can in field trial competition unless his popping issue can be solved, so converting it to a different career-ending issue may not put us in any worse position.

Accordingly, today, using three of my birdkids (Annette, Liza, and William), I ran Laddie on two land triples.  Series A was a triple in xmas-tree configuration with two retired guns.  Series B was a triple in around-the-horn configuration, again with two retired guns.  It occurred to me later that these may be the first triples Laddie has ever run with human throwers in which two of the gunners retired.

In each case, the long gun was over 200y, and most of the retrieves involved hilly terrain with angled depressions and rises likely to throw off Laddie's direction if he squared any of them.

However, the go-birds in each series were short and relatively easy, since I was also using today's setups to work on an issue of line mechanics, described in a new article I've added to my "reference" blog:
Line Mechanics: Blocking the Magnet Gun Station
Today's results were mixed.  The good news is that Laddie nailed all the marks but one, and on that one (the long, center, memory bird in Series A), he had a short hunt.  More good news is that he didn't pop, even though he easily could have looked up from the ridge he was hunting on during that one mark while pointed in my direction.  But then again, the fact that he didn't pop might be considered bad news, since it means I didn't get an opportunity to show him the undesirable outcome that would have resulted if he had popped.

It's possible that I could have triggered a pop by running one more series, since he was beginning to pant  even after getting water in his crate, suggesting that he was tired, a bit dehydrated, or both.  While that might have been "good" from the isolated viewpoint of working on Laddie's popping, it didn't feel like good dog-training overall, and I decided it was time to call it a day.

Tomorrow I'll rest Laddie, and then we'll try some more land work on Saturday, Sunday, or both.  Next Friday he gets another X-ray for his tail, and the following week, Carol (our holistic vet) will give me some guidance on when Laddie might be able to begin swimming again.  Soon, I hope.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Broken tail, land training

On the eight hour drive home from our last field trial, I made a grievous error and let Laddie get his tail caught in the van's sliding door about 3am.  X-rays a few days later showed that a bone in his tail, about halfway down, snapped in half like a pencil.  Luckily, the skin was not broken, which could have led to even more serious problems.  But the ends of the bone at the break are beside each other rather than end-to-end, so the tail will never be like new.  Orthopedic surgery to insert a pin and realign the bone, I'm told, would be risky to Laddie's health, might not be successful, and would probably make no difference in Laddie's quality of life or performance in trials, so I'm just going to wait while the ends of the bone hopefully grow together side by side and heal.

Laddie's on an herbal medication called "Pain Relieve", and he won't be able to swim for weeks.  That's because a retriever unavoidable uses his/her tail both for propulsion and steering in the water, which would interfere with the healing process.  In addition, it could result in pain and the dog developing an unpleasant association with water entries, big water, or other aspects of water retrieves.

However, three weeks after the injury, Laddie's holistic vet (Carol) said that I could try Laddie out on some land retrieves, to keep up both his training and conditioning, assuming I didn't see any problems.  Since then, we've been out about five times, sometimes alone for blinds or poorman multiples, sometimes with one or more of our neighborhood assistants.

I saw no problem on the blinds, but in fact Laddie's popping was worse than it had been previously for the first couple of sessions we tried retrieving.  He didn't pop every retrieve, but he popped too often, and I'm still not certain what was causing it.  Was it being caused by pain in his tail, or by other factors such as confusion, uncertainty, a drop in conditioning, or other kinds of discomfort?

I've tentatively concluded that the combination most likely to produce a pop at this stage in Laddie's development are long distance (over 300y), a retired gun, and heat (over 80 degrees), especially if Laddie has already been working and is now a bit tired or thirsty.  I can't tell whether his broken tail is a factor or not.  One possibility is that it was at first, but he's learned how to avoid carrying it or moving it while working so as to minimize any pain.  As I understand from Carol, that's possible on land retrieves, whereas it's not possible when swimming is involved.

Today's session is an example of where we are now.  With two assistants (Genny and William), we started early, so that we were able to work in temps below 70 degrees.  We ran three series: a land double with both throwers staying out, and two land "triples", with me throwing a short go-bird from the line on the triples to allow one of the throwers to retire.

Series A was a relatively short double, 110-160y, over difficult terrain featuring large, irregularly-shaped depressions, diagonal hillsides, broad areas of high cover, and hidden falls. Laddie absolutely nailed both marks.

Series B was a triple featuring an unusually difficult 340y long mark, a 180y middle mark with the gunner retired, and me throwing a bumper to the side while the shorter gunner retired.  Same sort of challenging terrain as in Series A.  Laddie bounced over to pick up the short throw, then nailed the retired mark, though he spent some time finding and circling Genny, who had thrown the mark, before returning.  After that, Laddie was unable to handle the long mark.  He took a good line for 250y thru difficult terrain, but then veered offline for some reason.  At 300y, he popped.  I froze and he quickly turned back to his outrun, but continued to veer in the wrong direction, so I called for William to help.  That was all he needed to complete the retrieve.  I didn't mind Laddie needing help — in fact I welcome it, because it gives him a chance to practice Plan B (if you can't remember the fall, find the gunner) — but the pop was a major concern.  It has probably already affected his score in some Quals, and will certainly get him dropped from an all-age stake, if we ever get that far.

I had planned to run the last triple with the long gun retired, but in hopes of avoiding another pop, I made this a shorter set-up.  The long gun was 180y, while the middle gun was 150y.  The terrain for the long mark featured a diagonal ditch crossing, and both marks included confusing crests and depressions, and patches of high cover.  Laddie grabbed the side throw I used to allow the long gun to retire, then nailed both of the other marks, including crossing the ditch early rather than allowing it to lead him offline.  As with Series A and the retired mark on Series B, Laddie's performance on Series C was, to my eyes, top-notch Qual-level work.

Laddie's tail will be getting another x-ray on September 7.  Carol has assured me that it will not be healed by then, but the x-ray will tell us how the healing is coming, and may help predict how much longer it will be before Laddie can resume water training.

Meanwhile, Laddie just crushed five of the six marks he ran today, every one over difficult terrain that didn't fool him for a second.  As I mentioned, his pop on the one long mark remains a major concern, but aside from that, I felt it was a good session.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fourth Qual ribbon in a row for Laddie

Laddie competed in another Qual yesterday, and again completed the trial and came home with a ribbon, this time Reserve JAM in a field of 17 entries, six dogs finishing.

I'm guessing anyone who's interested knows what a typical Qualifying stake is like, but just in case that's not the case, here's what Laddie had to survive in this particular Qual:

Series A.  Land triple with flyer as go-bird.

Series B.  Land blind with line running "behind the gun" of the previous stake's flyer station, though all of the equipment had been removed (thank you, judges).  Suction of duck scent a significant factor.

Series C. Water blind.  Line to blind had no landings until far shore, but went past a point on the left, then an island on the right.  The island was surrounded by shallow water, which can be major suction to pull the dog onto the island and around to the back.  That would put the dog out of sight, technically "out of control", and generally results in the dog being dropped (happened to one of the nine dogs who made it to that series).  Note that judges expect handler to "challenge the blind", which I decided in this case to mean that you might get dropped if you played it safe and kept the dog well away from both landings.  Instead, I let Laddie roll toward the point, then stopped him and cast him around it when he got fairly close.  Additional challenge on this blind was that bird was planted at top of dike, so dog had to push thru reeds at water's edge and up hill, without getting diverted to planter's holding blind behind reeds on right side.

Series D. Water triple with honor.  Though no gunners retired, the test dogs and 3-4 of the working dogs who got to the fourth series, including Laddie, never saw the middle throw.  They watched the long throw on the right, then for some reason turned to the short left station to watch for that throw.  Gunfire was not enough in those acoustics to draw their attention back to the middle gunner when he threw.  To deal with that situation, you had to run the middle mark, past the island, as a blind, as either the second or third retrieve.  If you were lucky, you wouldn't have to handle, and the dog would swim past the island to the blind.  In Laddie's case, he thought I was sending him to the island and I did have to handle, hence the RJ rather than, perhaps, a placement (none of the placements handled).

As you probably know, distances on field trial retrieves are generally considerably longer than other US retriever competition venues.  The water blind yesterday, for example, was around 210y, with 180y swimming.

Laddie now has ribbons in four successive trials: RJ, JAM, JAM, RJ.  Not bad for a Golden (all the placements in yesterday's Qual went to Labs).  Also not bad for an amateur owner/trainer/handler (three of the placements went to pros).   Even one FT ribbon is precedented, to my knowledge, for a dog trained without physical aversives.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Challenged blind

I think I made a step forward as a handler in today's Qual. The water blind was quite long, I'll say 180y, and the line went past a point on the left, then an island on the right.

Per Alice's recent advice, even though Laddie would be the first dog to run it other than the test dog (#1 would run later and #2 scratched), I thought about what the judges might need you see, and decided they needed to see the dog challenge the point.

So when Laddie took a line toward the point, I let him roll till he got fairly close, then stopped him and cast him around the point. I didn't mess with the island, though. I felt the judges had what they needed and kept Laddie away from the island and its surrounding shallow water, which I knew could draw a dog onto the island and from there to the back of it, putting the dog out of sight, technically "out of control", and dq.

Laddie did pop as he approached the point -- a current flaw in his work -- but otherwise I thought he did a great job on a tough water blind.


Fwd: Another Reserve JAM

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: "Lindsay Ridgeway" <>
Date: Jul 27, 2012 7:11 PM
Subject: Another Reserve JAM
To: "Alice Woodyard" <>, "Jody Baker" <>

Laddie finished another Qual today, and for the first time in a Qual came out in front of one finisher in the judging. Her dog got a JAM, Laddie got Reserve JAM. That's because she handled in two marks on the water triple, I only handled on one. The four numeric placements didn't handle.

More later if I have time. Right now,  another grueling 350-mile, 8-hour nighttime drive ahead of me.

Another Reserve JAM

Laddie finished another Qual today, and for the first time in a Qual came out in front of one finisher in the judging. Her dog got a JAM, Laddie got Reserve JAM. That's because she handled in two marks on the water triple, I only handled on one. The four numeric placements didn't handle.

More later if I have time. Right now,  another grueling 350-mile, 8-hour nighttime drive ahead of me.

Friday, July 20, 2012

RE: Third green ribbon in a row

Woo woo Lindsay, that is VERY good! It is cool for any dog, especially a first time owner-trained one (first time in FT), and of course first 2Q. But even for 4Q it is a good accomplishment. FTs are a hard row to hoe.    As you know!


From: Lindsay Ridgeway []
Sent: Friday, July 20, 2012 2:07 PM
To: Alice Woodyard; Jody Baker
Cc: Test Series
Subject: Third green ribbon in a row


Laddie finished his third Qual in a route, rhoda time the Western New York Retriever Club's O/H Qual.  He again ended up with a JAM.

Obviously we'd like to get something more than a green ribbon someday, but I guess it's pretty cool for a positive-trained dog to get this far.

Details to follow if I have time for a write-up, but besides all the call-backs, Laddie did need to get thru the honor on the water triple (dead birds), so that's good.  Also, he had excellent whistle sits on both the land and water blinds.


Third green ribbon in a row

Laddie finished his third Qual in a route, rhoda time the Western New York Retriever Club's O/H Qual.  He again ended up with a JAM.

Obviously we'd like to get something more than a green ribbon someday, but I guess it's pretty cool for a positive-trained dog to get this far.

Details to follow if I have time for a write-up, but besides all the call-backs, Laddie did need to get thru the honor on the water triple (dead birds), so that's good.  Also, he had excellent whistle sits on both the land and water blinds.


Driving to Batavia

At times this sport can push one's tolerance for hardship. Tonight is one of those times.

Pitch black, needing to reset GPS every few minutes (what if it falls?), rain the whole way obscuring visibility and pushing ETA back, one headlight out, too little sleep all week because of long hours working, will only get four hours tonight because work delayed planned departure, lonely eight hour, 350 mile drive.

So tempting to turn back and scratch from event.

But I press on, fighting to stay awake and keep up speed. Laddie asleep in the back. Will he be ready to give his best? Will I?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Land multiples, land blind with video

Clarksburg Village

Weather conditions: partly sunny, low 80s, NW winds around 15 mph with gusts up to 25 mph.  With little rain in our region over the last few weeks, the field was hard and dusty.

Since I've been running Laddie almost exclusively on water series for the last couple of weeks, and temps were fairly mild today, I thought I'd take him out with two assistants — William and his friend, whose name also happens to be Laddie — for some land work.

First we ran a double.  Then we ran a second double, except that I also threw a little mark from the start line so it was sort of a triple.  I don't know whether field trainers generally call that a double or a triple.  Anyway, it gave one of the guns a chance to retire.

When the two multiples were over, Laddie didn't seem tired, and we still had some time before we had to get home, so I ran him on a big land blind featuring a keyhole at the end.  William took a video of Laddie running the blind.  Then I had Laddie run the last few yards of the blind again so that William could video that as well, showing the keyhole a little better.

A little more detail is provided in the following descriptions, and the video is also included.

SERIES A. Land double

The first mark was on the left, thrown right to left into the wind and into a depression at 270 yards.  The line to that mark included hills and ridges plus two diagonal dirt road crossings.  A dirt road ran to the right of the gunner.  The wind and road were intended as factors to push Laddie behind the gunner.

The second mark was on the right, thrown right to left into the wind at 180 yards.  The intent was that it, too, should fall into a depression, but it was short and landed in plain sight on the ridge above.  Again a dirt road ran to the right of the gunner, with the wind and road again intended to attract Laddie behind the gunner.

Laddie nailed the short mark, of course, since it was visible the whole way.  Running the long mark, Laddie was on a line to run a little behind the gunner, but 50 yards short of the gunner, he suddenly cut left and ran over the road, over the ridge, and straight to the bumper.

SERIES B. Land triple with retired gun

The first mark was on the left, thrown right to left at 320 yards into a depression.  The line to the mark was down a steep hill, across a large field made up of hard dirt, sparse, medium-height cover, and criss-crossing dirt roads, and up a series of terraced rises.

The second mark was nearly 180 degrees to the right, thrown left to right at 80 yards.  The gunner was only partially visible, but gave an excellent throw so that Laddie could see the trajectory.  The bumper then fell out of sight behind the same stand of cover that hid most of the gunner.  The line to the fall was diagonally across a slope covered with sparse, high grass, down to an arcing dirt road, and then back up onto a rough embankment again covered with high grass.

The third "mark" was just me throwing a black bumper even further to the right, no gunshot.  As Laddie was retrieving that bumper as the go-bird, the long gun was retiring behind an umbrella.

Laddie nailed the unusual second mark, doing a nice job of holding the slope rather than squaring it to run to either the top or the bottom.  I couldn't see him pick up the bumper, but the gunner told me Laddie ran straight to it.

For the big, final mark, Laddie took a line too far to the right, I guess somewhat fooled by the similarity of that line to the one that would have taken him straight to the bumper.  However, he veered more to the left as he ran, which took him up behind the gunner within 20 yards.  I considered asking the gunner to help, but Laddie spotted the guy once he was behind him and the umbrella no longer concealed him, and Laddie then immediately changed direction and ran straight to the mark, even though it was in a depression and he couldn't see it until he got close.

I would have preferred if Laddie had stayed further left the entire time, but as I understand it, judges typically don't score a dog as behind (on the wrong side of) a gun if the gun is retired, and at that distance, with the tricky repeating pattern of the terrain, I thought it was a pretty good mark.

Also, the fact that he ran all day, including that big retired mark, without any hint of popping was excellent news.

SERIES C. Land blind

Series C consisted of a 350 yard blind.  The line to the blind was down a steep incline, across meadowland combining hard dirt and sparse, dry cover, over a gravel mound, across additional meadowland, thru a tight keyhole at 330 yards, and to a 2" orange bumper planted in front of an orange lining pole.  The keyhole actually consisted of three wooden construction stakes within a few feet of one another in a triangle.  On the ground within that triangle lay another stake and a large rock, both of which would tend to act as obstacles against entering the triangle.

I usually use lining poles only as diversions these days, but in this case, the challenge was that Laddie might spot the pole  from the near side of the keyhole, and go out of control, making it impossible to handle him thru the keyhole to get to the far side and the blind.  In this situation, I wanted him to spot the lining pole once he got fairly close.

However, from the distance the stakes making up the keyhole, and the lining pole, did not present a particularly salient target, because several other stakes and poles stood elsewhere on the field at various distances in the same general direction, and I don't think the orange lining pole was particularly visible to a dog at distance.

As mentioned earlier, William videotaped Laddie's blind.  I then had Laddie run the last few yards of the blind again so that William could videotape it at closer range, showing the keyhole and obstructions that Laddie had to navigate thru.  Both videos follow.

My thoughts on how Laddie did running the blind:
  • I was pleased all his handling, including his nice launch, his reasonably tight whistle sits (I don't require Laddie to actually sit as long as he stops and turns to face me), his accurate casts, and his good carries (rather than taking a cast and then scalloping back in the old direction).
  • I didn't want him running over the high sections of gravel and sand for fear of an injury, and was pleased with his comfort level in running thru that area when cast into it.
  • I thought he carried well when he was out of sight, so that when he reappeared he had not veered off line.
  • Seeing the video with improved detail because of the zooming, I see now that Laddie actually went thru the triangle on an angle back the first time I sent him back at the end.  When it was happening and without the benefit of a zoom lens, I couldn't see what had happened and thought that Laddie might have bypassed the triangle, so I stopped him, brought him back to the near side on the right, and then used small, silent "over" casts to send him first left a bit too far, then right, and finally on a straight back again.  That last time, he seemed to be lined up well but managed to dart around the left of the triangle before I could react.  I have no idea how a judge would score the overall blind, but to me, Laddie showed good control.  I'm glad he accepted a come-in whistle to get him back in front of the triangle, but actually, in competition, I'm not sure that would be a good idea.  The judge might think I was picking him up if I blew a come-in whistle.  I need more understanding of how to correctly handle in that situation.
Here's the video:

Monday, June 11, 2012

Water triple at last

Today, on a sunny day with temps in the 80s, three assistants came with Laddie and me to train at Cheltenham. Here's how it went:

Series A: Water blind

Since Laddie had slipped whistles in Friday's trial on the water blind, I wanted to run him on a blind this morning that had pretty good distance and that he would be likely to need some handling on.

The blind I set up was water all the way, except for the start line on shore and the blind (2"orange bumper) planted on the far shore. The distance was 160y, and it was a channel swim the entire length. However, the shoreline was not straight on either side, so at various locations, the line to the blind approached either shore fairly close. Most challenging was a point at 70y on the left. The line to the blind passed within two yards of that point. To increase the challenge, while the birdgirls were planting the blind as I watched from the start line, I had William, our lone birdboy, place a lining pole with a ribbon attached on that point at 70y, with a 3" white bumper in front of it, lying on the face of the embankment so that it was visible from the start line.  The white bumper was a diversion.  Laddie would not be retrieving it.

My intent was to let Laddie roll as much as possible, with minimum handling, till he got near the point. Then, if he want already on the left, I would handle him over the line toward the point. Then, before he got to the point, I would handle back into open water to the right off the point and send back the rest of the way to the blind. The idea was to make sure we "challenged the line", including crossing it.

As it happened, Laddie veered too far right early on, so when I handled him back toward the left, he crossed the line at that time, taking care of that objective. I then let him swim toward the white bumper without further handling until he was a few yards short of it. I blew the whistle and cast him on a right over, which he readily took.  I felt we had fully at that point met the "challenge the line" requirement.

It was not entirely clear sailing the rest if the way.  First, Laddie acted a bit reluctant to enter the big water I was casting him back and into, and ping ponged laterally a couple of times before finally taking a cast back toward the blind.  Secondly, near the end, I thought he had spotted the bumper since he was swimming straight at it, so I took my eyes off him to chat with the assistants, and when I looked back, he had veered and needed to be handled back on line and to the bumper.

In summary, I felt it was an nice blind for a Qual dog. Laddie never slipped a whistle, never popped, vocalized only a little early on, and mostly took and carried his casts well. Most important, I guess, from a judge's viewpoint, was his successful maneuver near the point.

Series B. Water triple

For Laddie's first big water triple in more than a year:

The first mark was on the left, 210y thrown RTL. The line was down a mound, across variable terrain on land most of the way, then a 10y swim across a channel to the bumper, which was not visible till the dog was almost to the water.  This was not intended as a difficult mark, but rather for building confidence as the final mark of the day.

The second mark was in the middle, thrown LTR on an angle back into the water behind a strip of land at 110y. The line to the mark was the most difficult of the day: down a mound, past a tree, across a small inlet with a easy cheat around the left, over the strip of land, and into the water to pick up the bumper. From the start line, the gunner was visible on one side of the tree, whereas the mark was thrown to the other side if the tree, which I've found to be a confusing concept for Laddie. Adding to the difficulty, it was not a good throw, and disappeared below the embankment while still visible on the gunner's side of the tree.  The dog would have to assume the gunner was strong enough to have thrown the bumper further than was visible.

The third mark, the go-bird, was on the right, thrown RTL up-the-shore at 120y.  This was also a difficult line: down the mound, a long land entry, an angle water entry, and a swim past the gunner to the fall just up on land, with an easy cheat around to the right as well as the risk that dog would enter the water but bail out early and come to shore behind the gunner.

For that go-bird, Laddie took a great line almost to the water, then started to veer right.  I did not feel it would be productive to watch and see if he darted further right, because he's so fast that by the time I would then blow the whistle, he would be clear of the water and I'd have to cast him on a left "over" rather than to the fall. That wasn't the point of this mark.  Also, the gunner would not be able to help, because Laddie might still run the bank: after all, he knew where the fall was. So rather than wait, I immediately blew the whistle and cast Laddie into water. That allowed him to take exactly the right line, with no inclination to bail out early.  OF course, because of the handle it would have scored badly in a trial.

Next Laddie ran the indent middle mark. He ran past the tree on the wrong side, so I knew he would need to be handled, unless he veered right into the inlet rather than taking the cheat.  When I saw that he was unlikely to do that, I again blew the whistle and cast him into the water, again allowing him to run the correct line though of course again requiring a handle.

Laddie then nailed the final mark easily as expected.  I was relieved to see that he did not pop despite having to clear a ridge without being able to see the bumper, a situation that sometimes produces a pop.

Though I rarely run Laddie on the same retrieve even months later, with modifications this seemed like a good setup to run Laddie on again immediately, to cement the lessons. So I moved the stay line off the mound and forward forty yards and brought in Liza, who had thrown the long mark. That left us with the two shorter, more difficult marks as a double. It also took the tree out of the picture in what had been the center mark.  It also changed the angles into the water a little, making the cheats a little less tempting. Also improving things, we had good throws for both marks.

Laddie nailed both of these marks, showing no inclination to run the bank or bail out early on either one.

I thought it was a great finish for the session. We packed up and headed out for the hour drive home.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Another JAM for Laddie

Not great, but it beats being dropped. Sixteen dogs were entered, fourteen ran, seven finished., one of the seven had one handle on a mark. Laddie finished, thus, in Sixth Place, which of course is a JAM, not a placement.


* Laddie nailed the #2 bird on the land series.

* Laddie nailed the #1 bird on the land series, long, difficult,  and effectively retired until the dog got out there.

* Laddie's superb initial line on the land blind took him across a slope and thru a keyhole, one of the only dogs to get that keyhole and the only one to do it without handling.

* Laddie readily accepted casting into two water entries on the water blind, and swam the long shoreline to the end without bailing.

* Laddie honored on the final water double without breaking.

* I never lapsed in maintaining control of Laddie when he was off-lead near other dogs in each series.

Major negatives:

* Laddie slipped at least three whistles on the water blind.

* Laddie cheated around water twice on the long, difficult, "bridge" water mark of the final double.  Only the test dog (best Derby dog in the country) and the eventual First Place took the second of those entries, however, and of the others, Laddie was the only one not fooled by the bridge, running the bank to the correct side rather than the thrower side.

Finishing two trials in a row is nice, but we still haven't run a big water triple in a year.  Hopefully we can fix that before our next trial.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tune up for trial

To summarize our week since our trial last Saturday:

* On Sunday, I took one assistant (William) with me to Cheltenham, and we worked on only one thing: up-the-shore marks, on which Laddie had gotten out of the water early on twice the previous day. Working on both left and right banks, I would have William stand at water's edge along one bank, Laddie and I would stand at the end of the pond, I'd have Laddie at heel on the opposite side of me as the bank, I'd call for the throw, and William would fire a pistol and throw a puppy bumper (2" white) further up along the bank. The bumper would fall on land just a few feet from water's edge, often with reeds between the shoreline and the fall. The challenge was for Laddie to run straight at the fall, taking a sharp angle entry into the water, rather than "cheating" by running the bank. We did around 15 of these. I didn't use handling at all. If Laddie started to run the bank, I called, "No, here". If Laddie took a nice entry, I applauded. He made steady improvement, and a couple of times entered the water wide, exaggerating the lesson. I guess some judges would not like that, but it could work in Laddie's favor if a strong wind were blowing toward shore. In our first Field Trial ever, the winner was a dog who took just such a wide arc, keeping the dog clear of a point that many of the other dogs, including Laddie, were blown onto. Laddie made good progress, but the key question is, what would he do on an up-the-shore at the beginning of a session, with no corrections preceding it that day? We need to get to the stage where Laddie would consistently be successful on the first such mark of the day. We also need to build more distance for both the land entry and the swim, but it was a good start, I thought. And today, we did get one answer to that question (see below).

* We didn't train on Monday. I wanted to, but I couldn't put together a good team of assistants for what I would have liked to be our hardest day of training for the week, so Monday was our rest day.

* On Tuesday, which I would have preferred as a rest day instead of Monday, I had three assistants available, so we ran two big triples at the future site of Clarksburg Village, my favorite nearby, recently discovered training area. Each triple featured a retired gun, and every mark was planned to present significant challenges. Laddie had three good retrieves, needed help on two, and got way behind the gun on one. That might sound bad, but these were long, difficult marks, and at this stage in Laddie's development, I welcome opportunities for Laddie to use Plan B. Plan B is, if you didn't see the throw, or have forgotten the line to it, or have gotten lost on the way out, then guess where the bird is by spotting the gunner; the bird is nearby. I've trained the assistants to help without me saying anything if Laddie gets behind them (except if retired) -- "behind" meaning on the wrong side -- but on the last and one of the more difficult marks on Tuesday, I got on the radio and said, "Don't help, I want to see what he does." I was pleased to see that Laddie seems to have learned Plan B from earlier training over the last few weeks where we've been working on it by calling for early help from the thrower rather than having Laddie hunt. On that last mark, Laddie spotted the girl, and I guess remembered which side the throw had been on, because once he saw her, he immediately ran past her to the bumper. This was a long, difficult mark with half a dozen factors stacked to push him behind the gunner, so it was not surprising to see the factors do their job. But it was great to see Laddie get himself out of trouble without needing to be helped or handled. And after all, he had nailed the other two marks on that series, including a tough retired gun that I was sure would fool him but didn't.

* On Wednesday (yesterday), we had what I'd call a confidence session, meaning I hoped that Laddie would have 100% success rather than the 80% we'd normally aim for. The session, which again took place at the huge cluster of fields that will someday be Clarksburg Village, consisted of two setups. The first was a triple with a retired gun, and with factors pushing Laddie to the wrong side of every gun, but shorter distances than the previous day. The factors did their job and prevented Laddie from running straight to the bumpers on two of the marks, but he cut back early and didn't get behind ("hook") either of those guns, and he flat nailed the tough retired mark, which for an extra challenge was thrown into a depression. After that, I set up a combination single and blind. For the mark, I had both of the teenage girls stand at their station and throw one bumper into a depression to their right, then sit down facing the fall. At 120 yards, that was a gimme for Laddie and he nailed it, as expected. Next came the blind. The line to the blind, at 140y, was a few degrees to the left of the girls (that is, it passed a few yards behind them), and also involved two diagonal road crossings and getting thru some medium-high cover without cheating around it. Laddie took a great line over both road crossings and into the cover, then veered left, away from the girls. Since I was mindful of the rule I learned a couple of weeks ago -- challenging the line = crossing the line -- I stopped him and cast him on an angle back to the right. While that took him back toward the line and then over it, which was good, it also meant that I was sending him right at the girls. This is a Golden, you understand, and he's crazy about those girls. Anyway, I stopped him and cast him back toward the blind again, and he took the cast. We needed one last safety whistle to prevent him from running too far back, since he had not spotted the bumper at first as he was racing out. I was pleased with all five of the day's retrieves, and felt it was a good way to complete our week's preparation for the trial tomorrow (Friday).

* However, I got a text from William this morning asking whether we were training today, and decided to go out for one last tune-up. We'd keep it short, and like yesterday aim primarily to build confidence. First, we went to the oval pond at nearby Rolling Ridge. I had William throw an up-the-shore mark while Laddie and I watched from a longer land entry than we'd been using last Sunday. The water entry was very sharp, but the shape of the shoreline and placement of the throw was such that Laddie didn't have as tight a shoreline swim to the far shore, once he was in the water, as he had in Sunday's work. I was prepared to call him back and resend him if he tried to run the bank, and to handle him if he did it a second time, but I was pleased to see a great angle water entry right at the fall, which landed on the backside of the far embankment and not visible after the bumper was down. Tremendously happy with that water entry, I clapped for Laddie for some time as he swam the rest of the way across. He then ran up the embankment and out of sight to the far side, and appeared a moment later with the bumper. Laddie has been taught that he is allowed to run the bank on his returns, and he raced to me without re-entering the water so that we could celebrate his fabulous mark. Next, we drove to the nearby group of three fields I call Oaks where we've been training for years, but I set up a blind Laddie's never run before. It was only 130y, but I stacked up several factors (by "stack", I mean that the factors all pushed the dog the same direction, in this case, to the right): (1) We had a stiff left-to-right wind. A dog can always fade with the wind, but especially a wet dog. (2) At 150y, on a line a few degrees to the right of the blind, was a white pole that's always there, and looks like a lining pole. (3) At 90y, a wide trench/depression swept across the field on a diagonal and then arced back toward the pole, later continuing to sweep around in a U-turn. A naive dog entering that near leg of the trench would tend to follow it around toward the right. (4) Inside the arc of the trench was a hillside, with a hedgerow at the top. The line to the blind was diagonally over that slope, and gravity would tend to pull a dog down and to the right. As an added risk but on the left, you could also lose the dog behind that hedgerow. Since a dog sometimes squares a slope by going uphill, that was not such a remote risk, but it was in the opposite direction of the other factors. (5) Once the dog has crossed the slope, he would be back down in the trench. If he were to square the far embankment, he'd be aimed at the white pole again. Or he could follow the trench further left and behind the hill. All in all, I thought it was a pretty good tune-up blind. Well, Laddie took a great initial line thru some rough terrain, including a diagonal ridge crossing early on. As he approached the trench, he began to veer toward the pole. One strategy would have been to let him continue in that direction, then stop him when he was even with the blind and cast him "over" to the left. However, that would have meant not crossing the line, which as I mentioned I've been cautioned about. So I stopped Laddie as soon as he veered right and cast him on an angle back to the left, sending him over the line and up the hill in front of the hedgerow. Next I had to stop him and cast him back toward the line, which I did, but that meant sending him straight toward the white pole. It was not problem, however. After he crossed the line again, I stopped him and cast him back toward the blind. He took a new line away from the pole but not quite at the blind, sat on one last whistle, and took an over to the blind. I don't know whether an all-age judge would have had a problem with the work -- such concerns are far in our future -- but to me it looked like a nice, workman-like Qual blind.

Look, I'm well aware that no one needs to read such detailed descriptions of Laddie's work. I mean, a competition retriever runs zillions of retrieves like the two Laddie ran today, and there are several good ways to run many of them. But given where we happen to be in Laddie's development, I thought it would be worth recording his performance on these particular retrieves as an indication of his current level of progress.

We still haven't trained on a big water triple in more than a year, but aside from that, I think this was a good week of preparation. Tomorrow morning, we'll leave the house at 4:30am, drive three hours to the Swamp Dog Qual, and see how Laddie (running as #3 of 16 entries) does.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Laddie earns Reserve JAM at Ft. Pitt Qual

[Posted to the DogTrek and PositiveGunDogs lists this evening]

Laddie has been running in AKC Retriever Field Trials this spring.  Yesterday, he ran in the Qualifying stake at the Ft. Pitt 2012 Spring Trial and came home with Reserve JAM.

This was not Laddie's best performance.  His water marking has deteriorated sharply as a result of our inability to find a field trial group to train with for the last 12+ months.  Just think, despite our active training schedule, Laddie hasn't run a big water triple in a YEAR, while many dogs competing in these events have run several dozen in that time.   But Laddie survived the cuts from the first three series and brought back all the birds in the last series, so the judges were kind enough to give him the green ribbon.

This was Laddie's second field trial ribbon, after earning a JAM in the Tidewater 2011 Spring O/H Qual, Laddie's first trial ever.  As far as I know, no other dog trained without physical force has ever taken a ribbon in a retriever field trial.  Very gradually, I guess we are learning.

Leaving the house at 4am yesterday, Laddie rode in the van for twelve hours of driving round trip, besides running the trial.  But he was on fire as usual for some water drills this morning, probably not noticing the new ribbon on his bulletin board.

Lindsay, with Lumi & Laddie (Goldens)
Gaithersburg, Maryland

Monday, May 28, 2012

Second Addendum to "Trajectory"

Well, although my first addendum to the recent "Trajectory" post was probably OK insofar as it clarified (I hope) that successful all-age dogs are not allowed to run in Quals, I have since learned of another flaw in my thinking on the trajectory topic.

That flaw is the idea that a dog who is at the level of being able to compete successfully in all-age stakes, but is not yet ineligible to run in Quals, would dominate the less skilled dogs in a Qual, and could reasonably be expected to win.

From what I have since learned, I now think it would be more accurate to say that such a dog would be more likely to win than the less skilled dogs, but that the improved probability falls far short of likelihood, much less assurance.  There's even a good chance that that dog would not make it to the last series, for any number of reasons.

I still don't plan on consciously wishing for other dogs to do badly so Laddie can win, and I still think that Laddie is on a generally rising trajectory. But I see that I need to adjust my thinking to understand that whether Laddie places or not in a field trial is only weakly correlated to his general level of competence, and that many other factors will also affect the outcome.

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