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.