Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is barking a behavior?

After many months of trying to find a way to cast Laddie during a water blind without him vocalizing, I have finally come to the conclusion that Laddie does not comprehend barking as an operant (voluntary) behavior.

This is consistent with other vocalizing I have worked on with both Laddie and Lumi before him, in Lumi's case, barking while backing up as a freestyle move.

And perhaps more importantly, I've concluded that trying to train the dog to perform a desired behavior, while suppressing the vocalizing that has come to accompany the behavior, runs the risk of damaging performance of the desired behavior without even suppressing the barking, other than if the behavior itself becomes suppressed.

I'm not talking about vocalizing at the line. I suspect -- I'm not sure, but I suspect -- that that can be suppressed, especially if dealt with early in the dog's career, by taking the dog off the line instantly any time she barks, with 100% consistency.  At least I don't see the dog having some other, desired behavior suppressed by that approach.  I feel it would be safe to try, worst case being that the dog could never figure out why she was being taken off the line sometimes.

But I have repeatedly tried various versions of separating the correct response to a cast, with the vocalizing that accompanied it, only to see Laddie become increasing uncertain whether to move at all when cast.  If vocalizing is less than desirable, "ignoring" a cast is disastrous.  I do not believe a trainer can afford for the dog to have any doubt in his mind whatever whether to take a cast.

So is there any solution to the vocalizing? Perhaps.  Here's an approach I had some success with today.

The general idea is to train the behavior itself, adding some element that removes the dog's inclination to bark. After that version is well trained, slowly, gradually, fade the extra element.

Here's today's example of the concept. I placed a duck (highly desirable retrieval article) at the edge of the shore, letting Laddie see me do so from the start line we would be using up the shore from there. Then I walked halfway back to him and threw an orange bumper well out into the water. Returning to Laddie, I lined him up to pick up the duck.

Then I sent him, and he ran along the shoreline toward the duck. At the halfway point, I stopped him with the whistle and cast him into the water toward the bumper.  That's a cast Laddie will take without vocalizing, because her can see the bumper.  After he was a few feet into the water, I stopped him again and cast him back to the duck.  This again was a cast Laddie could take without vocalizing, since he could see the duck or at least had a clear memory that it was there.

Hooray, Laddie just performed a difficult water-handling maneuver involving two casts that would normally be accompanied by vocalizing, but without a sound.

We repeated this several times, always sending Laddie initially toward the bird, both targets always known and more or less visible. Sometimes I let Laddie  finish the original outrun and bring back the bird. Sometimes I let him complete the cast to the bumper.  And sometimes I cast him twice, first over, then back, much as you might need to do in an advanced on-and-off-the-point blind retrieve.  With the known and visible targets, all of that could be done without vocalizing.

But the bird wasn't that visible from the distance. And neither was the bumper if I threw it out far enough and the current carried it even further.  Increasingly, Laddie was taking his casts on faith that the article must be where he had seen it propelled toward. And also that it must be there because it's been in that same location throughout the season.

I ended the session with one send toward the bird's location even though no bird was planted. At the halfway point, I stopped Laddie and sent him "over" to the bumper, far out in the water and possibly not visible to Laddie from shore.  I had laid the groundwork for the double-cast maneuver with the final target not visible, and no vocalizing. That was enough for today.

But I can imagine that on another day, in the same or another location, I will eventually be able to call for the double-cast maneuver without a bumper in the water, as long (initially) as Laddie thinks a bumper is still out there, he just can't see it because it has drifted too far out to see from shore.

And then, perhaps someday, all that practicing of that maneuver, increasingly with invisible targets, will enable Laddie to execute that maneuver in a trial, where there really isn't a bumper out in the water, and he can't see the blind till he gets to it, all without vocalizing. Not because he learned to suppress the barking per se, but because he learned to perform the maneuver without barking.


Breaking on honor

Nearly a year ago, I pulled Laddie from competition so we could work on his breaking problem.

Since then, we've trained with flyers nearly every weekend, right thru the winter. Yes, we've had some good sessions, with Laddie steady on seemingly difficult setups.

But today, Laddie broke on honor, one week before our first trial of the year.  Here was the setup:

Land triple plus blind

This was an indent configuration. The first mark was on the right, thrown right to left by Carol's friend Chris at 170y along the tree line.  Chris would later retire into the woods once Laddie was on his way back from the first retrieve. The second mark was on the left, thrown right to left by a Bumper Boy/stickman at 130y, with a duck planted near where the bumper would land so that Laddie could bring back a bird. The third mark was in the center, with Dave throwing and shooting a chukar flyer right to left at 60y.

We also had a blind set up at 240y, on a line to the right of the right gun station. Since that was a hot blind (the bird was planted before the marks were thrown), that's why I had Chris throw right to left, to minimize the chance of Laddie finding the blind while trying to hunt up the retired mark.  I actually would have preferred to throw the retired mark in the opposite direction of the other two marks to see if Laddie would make that adjustment in his memory, but I felt it was still a reasonably challenging triple.

Although the blind was planted, I decided to have Laddie honor Carol's dog on the marks immediately after he ran his triple, and then run him on the blind. I felt he'd be more pumped up, and a little better rested, if we didn't run the blind first, increasing his likelihood of him breaking on honor.

Also, to perhaps increase Laddie's temptation of breaking from the start line when he was the working dog, I had Carol stand with her dog in a "cold honor" a little closer to us than the usual honor, and closer to where the flyer would fall than Laddie's position.

Laddie did fine on his triple. He was steady; he nailed the flyer; he nailed the bumper and then, experience telling him there was a bird nearby, he spotted the duck and left the bumper to pick up the duck; he needed a bit of a hunt on the retired mark (including a visit to Chris in the woods) but never got behind (on the wrong side of) the spot where Chris had thrown from.  I've seen Laddie run better lines to a retired gun, but with all the variations in slope he had to traverse, and the basically featureless backdrop of trees, and running as the #1 dog without the benefit of drag scent, and with no other dogs running the same retired mark to compare it to, I felt it was a reasonable job.

Now it was time to honor. I set Laddie a bit further back than I had Carol and her dog, so that again the other dog would be closer to the flyer's fall. I had intended that Carol have her dog watch the big triple (to build Laddie's excitement) even though the dog would only be picking up the flyer, but I forgot to tell Carol, so she called for the flyer immediately.  Dave, a skilled hunter, aimed his shot in such a way that the bird might glide a bit (to increase excitement and perhaps trigger a break), but it worked even better than he planned, with the bird soaring in a big circle around to Dave's other side and then landing behind a small crest. An out of sight fall, too, increases excitement.  Meanwhile, Carol was waiting for the bird to land to send her dog.

I was standing at Laddie's right flank, facing away from the field with my eyes on Laddie, our standard honor mechanics, so I couldn't see what was going on. I glanced away from Laddie to see why Carol hadn't sent her dog, and at that instant Laddie broke. I yelled "here" repeatedly and chased after him, but he didn't respond and I didn't catch up to him till we were in the area of the fall.  Before he could find the bird, I yelled "sit", he did, and I grabbed him by his shoulders, rolled him onto his back, and held him pinned while reviewing with him the guidelines about how to honor in a somewhat elevated tone of voice. We then heeled to the van and Laddie could see Carol's dog running to pick up the bird. Finally, I heeled Laddie back to an honor position while Dave threw two more singles for Carol's dog. Dave used the chukars again and tried to create as much excitement as possible, and Laddie was steady, which was good, but I doubt he thought the birds were alive. 

Dave and Carol both felt it was a valuable lesson for Laddie, and I grant his heeling was noticeably more attentive after the correction than before it.  However, I'd have been a lot happier to see Laddie fall sleep during the honor, showing a true comprehension that it flat wasn't his bird,  than have to hope that today's correction will matter much next weekend.

To end the session, I fired the Bumper Boy again as a poison bird and then ran Laddie on the blind. He handled well, which may say more about the difficulty of creating challenging factors for Laddie on that field than necessarily predicting success running land blinds in our upcoming trial.

Five more days to train before the trial, less really since I'll rest Laddie at least one of those days. We'll run land blinds and poorman multiples for sure, and get in some water blinds if possible. I see no opportunity for water marks, which means Laddie will be seeing big water marks at the trial, assuming we get that far on call-backs, for the first time in nearly a year. What a terrible disadvantage that puts him at compared to the professionally-trained dogs we'll be competing against, some of whom have been training with real humans throwing event-like water series for them right thru the winter at training facilities in the south.  This is the curse of not having a group to train with.  Well, we'll just have to see how Laddie fares.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Retired guns and honoring

Rixeyville, VA

Sunny, low 40s, light variable wind. 

For today's training with Dave, we were fortunate enough to have another trainer and her dog: my dogs' holistic vet, Carol Lundquist, and her remarkable Bernese Mountain Dog, Dyna. Dyna is so versatile that among titles in other sports, she's earned a herding championship unprecedented for her breed, and once took a placement in a Super Singles event for retrievers.

Although Carol enjoys retriever training with Dave, she and Dyna were primarily there this morning as a favor to me, so that Laddie could work on steadiness honoring.  As an unexpected bonus, Carol brought along a friend named Chris, and he went out in the field to act as a thrower for each of the two triples we ran.  Since we had a human thrower rather than a remote launcher, that meant we could also try Laddie out on some retired guns.  Yay!

I also asked Carol to have Dyna honor Laddie as he was running each series.  Since Laddie was running the series first, this was a cold honor for Dyna.  Though I would think cold honoring probably provided little if any training benefit to Dyna, I think it was beneficial for Laddie.  It added an element of competitiveness for the bird, with the potential for triggering an anticipatory break.  In addition, it introduced the distraction and excitement of a nearby intact female.  Finally, it simulated the picture that Laddie will experience as the working dog in a competition, with the preceding dog now honoring.  The more experience Laddie can have with success in a context similar to competition, the better his chances would seem to be in a real event.

Here are the series we ran today:

SERIES A. Land triple plus blind

The first mark of Series A was in the middle, with Chris throwing a pheasant right to left at 230y.  The second mark was on the right, using a stickman and a remote launcher to throw a bumper left to right on an angle back at 130y.  A duck was planted near where the bumper would fall so that Laddie would spot the bird and retrieve that, leaving the bumper behind.  The third mark was on the left, with Dave throwing and shooting a chukar flyer left to right at 30y.  Once the dog picked up the flyer and headed back to the start line with it, Chris retired into the woods to the right, so that when the dog came to heel and looked out at the field, the long gunner would no longer be visible.

Laddie ran the triple first, with Dyna in a cold honor as mentioned earlier.  Then Laddie honored as Dyna watched all the throws and was released to the flyer.  Once Laddie had successfully honored, I brought him back to the van for a few fun throws of his softball.  Then I brought him back out to run a 180y blind from the same start line.  The line to the blind was under the arc of the throw for the flyer go-bird.  The gunners were no longer in the field, but the bird crate still containing two live chukars was a few feet to the left of the line to the blind.  Since Dyna only runs singles these days, and so far had only retrieved the flyer, I went out and threw a chukar for Dyna at 70y to finish the work on this series.  Both of her marks were dead on, by the way.

Laddie's performance in Series A: Most importantly in terms of today's training objective, he was completely steady both working and honoring.  On the honor, Laddie actually stood up when Dyna was released to pick up her flyer, but he didn't break for the bird.  Instead, he immediately turned away from the field, apparently realizing that picking up the bird was out of the question and so looking forward to playing back at the van as the next best option.

When running the marks, Laddie nailed the go-bird and the bird on the right.  For the long memory bird with the retired gun in the center, he made up his mind at the start line that the fall was further to the left than it really was, and even though I locked his gaze onto the correct line before sending him, once I sent him, he immediately veered to the left.  However, when he reached the tree line and after a short hunt was unable to find the bird, he finally turned and raced over to the real fall, quickly coming up with the bird.

Laddie slipped a whistle on the 180y blind, so I called out "SIT" and went out to pick him up, quietly walking him back to the start line on lead.  I call that procedure a Walk Out.  I've found it effective in making the dog less likely to slip whistles thereafter, at least in the short term, since it deprives the dog of the objective he or she had in slipping the whistle in the first place, getting to the bird.  Back at the start line, I ran Laddie on the blind again.  This time he apparently knew where the bird was and would have lined it, but I had Laddie sit twice, once at 120y and again at 170y, just to confirm the lesson that a correct response is rewarded by a cast to the bird, in contrast to the outcome of a Walk Out that he had experienced a little earlier for slipping the whistle.  A sit when Laddie knows where the bird is is much easier than one where he doesn't -- Laddie is highly motivated by curiosity -- but it's all I had available at that point.

SERIES B. Land triple plus blind

Lately Dave and I have planned our setups so that one of the flyers would be a short mark and the other would be a long mark, giving Laddie experience with both kinds of flyer distances in each session.  The shorter marks are breaking birds, unlikely to occur at such short distances in a Qualifying stake from my experience, but really testing Laddie's steadiness both working and honoring.  The longer marks are more like what Laddie might see as the flyer's distance in a Qualifying stake, so we want to make sure Laddie is experienced with, and steady with, flyers at those distances as well.  However, I've never seen a flyer thrown as anything but the go-bird in a Qualifying stake, whereas Dave often throws the long flyer as a memory bird in our setups. Today was another example of that.

For Series B, the first mark was again in the center, with Dave throwing and shooting a chukar flyer left to right at 180y.  The second mark was on the left, with Chris throwing a pheasant right to left so that it landed behind a crest and behind a strip of cover at 140y.  Chris would again retire once he was out of the dog's sight when the dog was later sent to the first mark.  The third mark was the stickman and the remote launcher, throwing right to left at 80y, with a pheasant planted near the fall for the dog to pick up instead of the launched bumper.  A hot blind was planted at the previous start line, now between the first two marks at 160y, at the top of a diagonal slope.

Laddie again ran the triple first with Dyna in a cold honor.  Then Laddie honored Dyna, with no suggestion of breaking.  The flyer mark was more difficult to honor than it might have been because Dave had to fire several times and the bird soared a long way, finally landing behind a crest.  That kind of a fall seems to hold great attraction for Laddie, but again, he seemed to understand that it wasn't his bird and made no effort to break for it.

Dyna had a lot of difficulty finding the bird at that distance, especially after the long glide, and eventually Dave and Carol met in the middle of the field to assist Dyna in finding the bird.  That looked to me like a good diversion for Laddie, so I brought him to the start line to run the 160y blind while all that was still going on.  Laddie found the situation more confusing than I expected, and though he held a good line, twice he started to turn as if about to pop.  In each case, I blew a sit whistle before he could pop and cast him back.  After those two casts, he went into his usual after-burner gear and charged up the hill.  His line was a little too far to the right, but he responded well to a whistle and cast to the bird.

I'll end by describing how Laddie ran the Series B triple.  First of all, he made it clear at the start line that he wanted the long flyer first, rather than the shorter go-bird on the left, so I decided not to let this be a conflict.  If it comes up in competition, I'll take the same approach.  Laddie nailed the flyer despite the long distance and general difficulty of finding a chukar in that terrain.  When he brought it back, I sent him to the short go-bird mark on the left, and he took an incorrect line, reaching the correct distance but on the wrong side of the stickman.  Without hesitation he then raced past the stickman to the duck and picked it up.  I suspect that he had never seen that throw, and was relying on the bird being throwing distance from the stickman, though it may have just been a lapse of memory.

Finally, I sent Laddie to the mark on the right, where by now Chris had retired.  Laddie took a perfect line and disappeared over the crest.  He came back several seconds later, so from where Carol and I were standing, it looked like an excellent mark.  But later Chris told me that Laddie had picked the bird up as soon as he reached it, but had carried it a short distance, dropped it, looked around for a few seconds, and finally picked it up again and headed home with it.  All of that happened behind the crest so Carol and I couldn't see it happening.  I'm not thrilled that Laddie dropped the bird, and I question whether a traditionally trained dog would have been capable of it.  On the other hand, I think it's unlikely -- not impossible, but unlikely -- that a mark will fall out of sight in Qualifying stake, which means that in an event, I'd be able to blow a come-in whistle as soon as Laddie had the bird.  That's no guarantee that Laddie still wouldn't have a poor return, since he has a history of them.  But it might not have happened in that particular way.

If Chris trains with us again, I'll suggest to him that he wave when a dog picks up a mark he's thrown, especially if the dog isn't visible from the start line, as a more experienced thrower would probably have done.

Laddie's work wasn't perfect today.  But he showed excellent steadiness and ran the marks reasonably well, including nailing one of the retired guns.  Learning that he couldn't succeed by slipping a whistle, even with people and dogs around -- simulating an event context -- was also probably a good lesson.  I felt it was a good session as we prepare for competition later this month, and was pleased for the opportunity to work on such key skills.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Typical practices

Since I don't have time to maintain a daily journal, and it would tend to be pretty repetitious most days any way, I've begun limiting my journal entries here to those when I have the time and also feel I have something at least vaguely interesting to say.

At the same time, the purpose of this blog is to provide a record, for me or any other reader now or in the future, on the training of a competition field retriever without the use of physical aversives.

I don't want large gaps in this journal to make it appear as though we're not training every day.  We train even when I'm having physical problems — for example, we've continued daily training even when I was on crutches — or because of bad weather — for example, we've trained on the fringes of hurricanes and in snow storms. I make exceptions, for example if the ground is icy and poses a risk to Laddie running on it, but those days are rare, and were especially rare this last winter.  Also, my work occasionally becomes simply too demanding for me to take even a little time for Laddie's training.  But again, we almost always have time at least to run a few blinds.

So in this post, I'll just itemize the sorts of typical working sessions we're currently having on those days when I don't write a post:

  • If the weather is in a stretch of temps below 40 degrees, we don't do any water work.  In previous years, we have done a little water training even in freezing weather, which I felt, based on correspondence with Alice Woodyard, was appropriate for Laddie's training challenges at that time.  I've documented such sessions in this blog.  But nowadays, I don't think it's necessary or valuable to work Laddie in water that's likely to be colder than 40 degrees and I don't do it.  If he goes in himself, I might throw a hey-hey bumper or two, but that's it.
  • Typically, I'll set up and run Laddie on a series from one start line, then set up and run another series from a different start line. The series might be on the same field in different orientations, on different nearby fields, or on different fields in different locations.  They all might be included in one continuous session, or we might do several sessions the same day separated by hours.  We might do anywhere from a single series, if time is really short or other constraints prevent more work, to six or more series when that seems appropriate.
  • Typically all of our focus is on a single skill the whole day — land blinds, inline triples, quads — but sometimes a day might have more than one kind of session, or a session that combines multiple training objectives.  Working on a single goal is far more common, however.
  • For some sessions, we concentrate exclusively on blinds, which in cold weather means land blinds.  In a couple of recent sessions, it's been warm enough for water blinds as well.  The blinds are almost invariably in the range of 150y-350y (land), 120y-180y (water).  I try my best to come to the start line not hoping that Laddie will run well, but rather that he'll slip a whistle and require me to use a Walk Out.  I feel this is an important mind-set, but I admit it's not an easy one for me to maintain.  The psychological impulse is to cheer for the dog, and also to save the time and energy that Walk Outs require.
  • For some sessions, we concentrate entirely on marking.  Since I have been unable to find a training group to train with for some time, we don't have gunners to help.  I could use our two Bumper Boys, but I rarely do any more.  One reason is that it's much more time consuming.  But a stronger reason is my belief — purely a theory, I have no proof for it — that poorman marks help a dog, or at least Laddie, develop the skills needed for successfully running marks with retired guns in competition.  After all, a poorman mark is similar to a retired gun: the dog sees a thrower in a white jacket make the throw, but the gunner isn't there while the dog is running the mark.  The similarity is even stronger for a multiple: the dog arrives back at the start line after each retrieve, looks out in the field, and sees no gunners out there to help the dog remember where the falls are.  Thus the dog must find other ways to remember the lines, even though the gunner is visible when the throws are being made.  We don't see a lot of true retired guns running Qualifying stakes, but we do see quasi-retired guns when the visibility to a thrower is poor because of the terrain, and we also see hidden guns all the time on club training days.  I'm pleased with Laddie's skill in all those situations: He really doesn't seem to need a gunner to be visible when he's running a mark, yet he seems to take advantage of the data when it's available.  So you might say I've been reinforced for using lots of poorman marks in our daily training.
  • These days, I generally run Laddie on quadruple marks.  My feeling is that I want him to come back to the start line in competition remembering, and ready to go out for, another bird.  I've never seen a quad in competition, but this would be an example of over-training to try to compensate for the drop-off in skill that invariably occurs, for both the dog and the handler, in the excitement of a competitive event.  If Laddie marked poorly on quads in our practice, I'd drop back to triples, but since he seems to have an excellent memory, I feel that quads are beneficial.  This will especially true if we ever get a real quad in competition.
  • It's not unusual for me to work on a specialty topic in a particular session.  Those would be the days I'd try to write a post, but that's not always possible.  A typical subject for a specialty session would be water blinds featuring on-and-off-a-point, which is something Laddie and I worked on a great deal last fall before the weather turned cold.  My goal was to help him learn to run such blinds without vocalizing.  We'll see how things turn out as competition resumes this year.  I've pretty much given up on that training objective.  If Laddie yelps when taking his casts, and the judge penalizes his scoring because of it, I think that's just something we're going to have to live with.
  • Another occasional specialization subject is in-line triples, in which three marks are all thrown in the same direction, so that all the gunner stations, and all the falls, are in one continuous line, fairly closely spaced.  I've found that Laddie continues to find it somewhat difficult to remember the middle fall, or at least tends to try to pick up the long bird immediately after the go-bird rather than running the marks in the reverse order of the throws, as I require him to do for in-lines.  I think these setups are actually hardest when the first (longest) gunner remains visible, rather than when he's retired.  I won't say more about this at this time, it's just something we work on some times.
  • I'll end by mentioning that on weekends, usually on Sundays, Laddie and I almost invariably drive down to Rixeyville, VA, to train with Dave.  He is usually able to obtain live flyers — ducks if possible, pheasants as a second choice, otherwise chukars or even pigeons — and we set up series in which Dave shoots the flyers for us.  The primary goal of these sessions is to work on Laddie's steadiness, so on a typical day, in at least one series the flyer will be thrown at long distance (at least 150y), more typical of Qualifying stakes, and in at least one series, the flyer will be thrown at close range (as little as 20y), trying to simulate an extreme breaking test.  Earlier this year, I brought along Lumi on these training days and tried various strategies to let Laddie honor Lumi after running the series himself.  However, Lumi's arthritis has made her reluctant to leave the house when it's cold, and without an extra handler, I'm not convinced that the training setups we use — such as letting Laddie sit by himself to honor while I handle Lumi — are really providing meaningful preparation for competition, which never has that picture.  In any case, the three fields Dave and I usually train on have no water, and we usually set up triples by using stickmen and Bumper Boys for two of the gunning stations.  Dave usually also sets up one or more land blinds for each session, typically 150-250y. As a long-time AKC field judge, Dave is skillful at incorporating factors into his setups that elude my analysis until I actually try Laddie out on them.  Dave sometimes lets me know in advance what difficulties he expects Laddie to have so that I can react better when they happen.
I think the notes I've listed above represent a fairly comprehensive summary of our typical daily training at Laddie's current stage of development.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Early spring water work

Seneca Creek Park

Though it's still technically winter, we had temps in the low 70s today, so I decided to try Laddie on some longish swims, 120-150y. We trained at a regional park where, fortunately,  I  was able to obtain permission to train Laddie off lead from the park manager a few weeks ago.

I found a stretch of shore with a slight point of land protruding at midpoint and ran Laddie in blinds to 2" orange bumpers in both directions. I was able to handle him on and off the point the second time. 
A bystander began asking questions, and after awhile, I asked her to throw a double for Laddie. Wearing my white handlers jacket, she threw a 3" white bumper as memory-bird on the far shore, and a go-bird as far out into the choppy water as she could throw a 2" white bumper.  I forgot to tell her to say hey-hey, but Laddie saw both throws.

The challenge in the go-bird was that the bumper was invisible from the distance. Laddie had to hold his line in 15-20 mph winds, gusting to 40, blowing into shore, and yet compensate for the current carrying the bumper back toward the thrower. I don't actually understand how he figured out the trajectory, but after the long swim, I saw him swimming back toward me. Had he given up? No, soon I saw the bumper in his mouth. He had apparently swum straight to it and had not needed to hunt in the waves.

The challenge on the memory-bird was the point of land. The strong wind and current pushed Laddie hard toward shore, but as on the blinds and the first mark, he shouldered into them, refusing to give in. He held his line all the way to the far shore, arcing out just a little to stay clear of the point.

I felt good about his work.

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