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.


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